J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Preparing for No-Car Month (and a Driverless Future?)

Thanks Fiat! You were great (except for the falling-off hubcap and bumpy passenger ride).

Thanks Fiat! You were great (except for the falling-off hubcap and bumpy passenger ride).

In a few months we’re coming to the end of our lease on the Fiat 500 (our family’s only car) and we’re committing to getting around for at least one month without owning or leasing another car. We’re considering using any and all of the alternatives below:

  1. Bicycling, transporting goods in either panniers/saddlebags, or backpacks.
  2. Using Lyft and/or Uber and/or Flywheel.
  3. Using City CarShare and/or Zipcar (both have locations within walking distance of our house).
  4. Increased reliance on local public transit (BART, AC Transit, MUNI, the ferry, etc. — using Clipper cards for universal payment).
  5. Purchasing or renting a small motor vehicle like motorized skateboard (see demo below).
  6. Using a grocery delivery service like GoodEggs or Instacart.
  7. Renting a car for day trips and road trips.

Transportation challenges will include visiting friends in Marin (difficult to get to via public transport) and Santa Cruz, transporting groceries and other bulky/heavy purchases, dropping off/picking up our daughter at play dates and time with her grandparents, getting to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (challenging even with a car) and client visits all over the Bay Area. While in some cases we’ll solve transportation dilemmas by having things delivered, meeting online, etc., in most cases we’re planning to take the challenges head-on: how to do we physically get ourselves and our things from one place to another without owning or renting a car?

Buy Why?

We’re doing the experiment for at least five reasons:

  1. Compare costs: Even with our very inexpensive lease, our total car costs including insurance, gas, service, and tolls easily tops $400 a month. How will this compare to what we will spend on transportation alternatives (above and beyond what we already spend on BART, bicycle maintenance, etc.)?
  2. Compare convenience: We anticipate that there will be inconveniences in regards our chosen transportation alternatives, but how will these compare to the inconveniences of going to the gas station, getting the car serviced, and washing/cleaning the car inside and out?
  3. Compare fitness and stress levels: Sitting in Bay Area traffic is horrible. It’s also not good for the waistline. What effect will getting rid of the family car have on health and stress levels?
  4. Environmental impact: Seeing a recent SALT seminar by Saul Griffith inspired me to do my part in terms of reducing my personal carbon footprint.
  5. Get a preview of the future: I strongly believe that car ownership (and even car leasing) is at the beginning of a permanent, sharp decline. We want to get a preview of the new lifestyle even before the self-driving, fully automated, app-summonable electric vehicles fully replace the personal car ownership model.

The Driverless Future

Google and many major car manufacturers have built and are testing driverless cars. It’s easy to visualize a future where you tap your phone to summon a car, do something productive during your ride, and get dropped off without even thinking about parking. With a large automated fleet and low per-ride prices, personal car ownership will start to look less like a convenience and more like a liability.

City infrastructure will change to reflect a smaller fleet (fewer cars will be needed because the automated cars will serve many customers in a given day), less need for parking (smaller cars that park less often and more compactly when they do park — maybe cramming into a warehouse like sardines during low demand hours), and intelligent robotic driving that is safer for car passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike. Gas stations and parking lots will be replaced by parks, gardens, shops, and housing. This article explores some of the potential changes.

Stay Tuned

We’ll begin the experiment towards the end of the year. I’ll provide a full report on cost, convenience, fitness changes, and other observations and insights.

What do you think about the future of car ownership, and the possibility that electric driverless cars may transform urban infrastructure?

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  1. Pedro

    Have you considered an electric car?

    You can buy an used 2013/2014 Nissan Leaf very cheap.


  2. Scott

    JD, I hope you’re right and I look forward to reading about your experiment. I just look at all the SUVs out there, and I fear many of these people would resist this kind of change. Even folks who think of themselves as progressive.

  3. I found your other experiments/challenges interesting. I even swear by some of them.
    But, in spite of barely using it, getting completely rid of a car, isn’t worth it; at least in my experience. For now.

    I have a 12yo Polo VW with only 70’000 Km. I Live in central Italy.
    I pay 450 euros (thanks to an internet best price search engine) on insurance per year, 120 on tax car per year, 80 every two years on the mandatory car exam, plus little repairs here and there.
    The latter have probably been less than 400 euro per year on average the last 5 years. I might have been lucky on that, but after all I use it very little and the climate here isn’t harsh at all, so…

    Since I used it so little, I often thought of not having one at all.
    But, first and foremost, owning a car makes me able to go to places like Ikea, Home Depot, Decathlon and such (and especially carry the stuff in my car), or simply do a bigger grocery purchase.
    Secondarily take someone to fetch a train/airplane, and thing like that.
    The above things, are well worth 85 euros a month to me.

    I wonder if what you were currently spending, 400 dollars a month, could be easily lowered by a bunch. Especially if one is willing to drive small cars like a Fiat500 (or even a bit bigger).

    In the future, I’ll revaluate the various options.

    • Interesting that you bring up the big box stores — this was a big part of Saul Griffith’s talk. He showed a map of all the trips from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and other Bay Area cities all converging in Emeryville where the big stores like IKEA and Best Buy have locations. Car ownership and big box retail go together.

      In regards to cost, my $400+/month breakdown went as follows:
      1) $217 monthly lease of Fiat 500 (including taxes and fees)
      2) about $50 in gas
      3) about $85 in car insurance
      4) about $50 in parking and bridge tolls
      5) about $50 in monthly maintenance, averaged
      6) about $30 in amortized start/end lease fees

      • Claudio

        Well, true, I didn’t count gas and road tolls.
        Even though, using the car just a little, it doesn’t amount to so much, the gas is still something like 30-40 euros a month (road tolls are generally negligeable).

        But those two don’t bother me since they are expenses that come within the effective usage of the car, the other ones are mostly liabilities I have to “endure” for simply owning one (no matter how much time out of a year the car stays in the garage). So I, arguably, put them in different a group than insurance or car tax.

  4. J.D., I have been living (mostly) without a car for the past 9 months. My family and I lived in Singapore for 2 years without a car. (It was easy in Singapore because of the small size of the city, ubiquitous taxis and ample public transport.) However, when we moved back to Houston, TX, we decided to buy only 1 car. (The thought of two payments was painful…) As a result, my wife mostly uses the car.
    I work from home and use my bicycle and feet for almost all my transportation needs. If my day is booked or I need to travel far, I rent an inexpensive car from Hertz.
    I found that all the logistical stuff (rent a car vs. ride vs. walk) was straight-forward for a time, but started to become a burden recently. It took me a while to understand what changed. And it was me. I found I felt trapped and that I had to do all this work just to go for coffee. Especially with the heat. (And soon the rainy season.)
    For instance, I live 1.3 miles from the nearest WholeFoods (which we prefer to shop at). (You’ll find you begin to know exactly how far things are.) My wife can run to the store and pick something and be back in 15-20 minutes. However, for me the same trip is 30-40 minutes. I have to change clothes into suitable biking clothes, make sure my bike is in working order (those darn tires loose a lot of air), and then pedal. I do take a slightly longer route than the car, as I avoid heavily traveled roads for safety.
    If you forget an onion for dinner, you’re locked into a 40 minute trip to eat.
    None of this is to say you shouldn’t do this, I think you absolutely should. I think you should commit to doing it for 6 months, as you’ll really see the ups and downs of the arrangement. For one month, you’ll get over all the logistics and only have a couple of times where the inconvenience is frustrating.

    • I hear you. Long-term I think it’s likely we’ll go back to leasing a car, at least until driverless, rent-by-the-trip cars become a reality in the Bay Area.

      What I’m curious about is how the real inconvenience measures up against the anticipated/imagined inconvenience. You’ve given it a real go in Houston. I’ll report back on the Oakland experiment!

  5. Kristina

    I’m carless in the Bay Area! And a millennial! My 2005 Ford Focus was squished in a non-injury accident last January, so I have been living in the East Bay for just over a year now without a car. It is absolutely doable. There are some things that are inconvenient, but I think it’s worth it for so many reasons. Also my students (Kindergartners) think I’m super cool riding my bike to school every day. I’ve found that life got easier after a few months, because I changed my expectations to fit the reality. I no longer try to get myself to places far away from BART just because that’s the restaurant I used to go to for example. Now the restaurants I love are near BART, because those are the choices. People ask me if it’s inconvenient to go grocery shopping, and it’s not. There’s a local shop right around the corner. Their selection is limited, but again my expectations have shifted to meet that. I have developed a repertoire of meals using the ingredients available to me. I’m looking forward to reading about your experience and comparing.

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