J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Eight Months Without a Car, Cost and Convenience

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The eight-year-old’s bike.

Back in February when Kia and I turned in our leased Fiat 500 and decided to do a “one-month experiment” of living without a car, I suspected that the experiment might last longer than one month. But eight months? No way. I was sure we’d have another car by now. But it turns out there are a few advantages to not having an expensive hunk of metal to care for, including:

  • On average, it’s cheaper (about $150/month less).
  • It’s great to not worry about your car (will it break down or get stolen/scratched/dented/broken into/ticketed).
  • We save time on car maintenance and paperwork.
  • All three of us are fitter, stronger, and leaner (details below).
  • I feel more physically and socially connected to my neighborhood.
  • Our carbon footprint is reduced (though still high — we sometimes fly on airplanes).
  • I get to use my phone like a magic wand to summon friendly drivers to my house who arrive within minutes and take me wherever I want for a reasonable price and I don’t need cash not even to tip (thank you Lyft).
  • Local grandparents have been great sports about having to drive a bit more (thank you!)
  • Given our situation (we both work from home, our kid goes to school three blocks away, our neighborhood has a Walk Score of 91/100, local car-sharing options), we’re pretty much the ideal family to NOT own a car.
Our neighborhood Walk Score

Our neighborhood Walk Score

Costs

Back in February I calculated our average cost of car ownership at $440/month, as follows:

$220/month for Fiat 500 lease, including fees and taxes
$75/month for State Farm insurance, including loyalty and good driver discounts
$80/month for gas, bridge tolls, and parking
$50/month average cost of repairs and maintenance
$15/month amortized DMV registration

If we were to lease a new car now (probably an eGolf), total costs would probably bump up to $490/month.

A few readers have commented that it’s much cheaper to buy a used car and maintain it. Granted. But that only works if you can maintain your own car. Eventually your car will wear out and you’ll be paying hundreds of dollars each month in repair bills (not even counting time lost dealing with getting your car to/from mechanic, and the stress of it all). I’ve been there and have no interest in going back, but for DIY types it can be a great low-cost approach.

Here’s the 8-month breakdown of car-replacement transportation costs, including CityCarShare, Lyft, Uber, taxis, car rentals (including gas and insurance), amortized bike upgrades, additional public transportation, and reimbursing family and friends for ride shares:

February $225
March $290
April $289
May $278
June $197
July $504
August $453
September $178

That comes to $302 per month on average. So compared to what we were spending, we’ve been saving $140/month. Compared to what we probably would spend if we leased a new car, we’re saving $190/month.

Convenience/Inconvenience

Groceries: Kia has been doing most of the shopping on her Xtracycle cargo bike. Sometimes I pick up a steak at Marin Sun Farms butcher or a bag of groceries at Trader Joe’s. So I’ve lucked out in this category (I’ve been picking up slack in the minor home repair department to even out the workload).

School: Literally a three block walk, so not an issue.

Summer camp: We did the local community arts camp this summer, two blocks from our house.

After-school activities: Our daughter’s piano lessons are fairly close to our house, but her mixed martial arts class is in El Cerrito. That’s something she does with Kia’s dad — we’d probably choose a class closer to home if that wasn’t the case.

Visiting friends: Bike, BART, or CityCarShare. Visiting friends in Marin on the peninsula is a big part of our transportation budget (but totally worth it — friendships are important, and we decided at the very beginning of this experiment that we wouldn’t decline any social invitations due to transportation challenges).

Health & Fitness

At first I had a fantasy that I would get super ripped from all the walking and biking while still eating all the ice-cream and beer I wanted. Well, no. But after easing off on the treat foods, I do think the extra biking and walking is having a positive health impact. My waist is down to 28.5″ — a number I haven’t seen in a few years. Weight is 155, exactly where I want it. Endurance levels definitely improved; I can now play three games of racquetball in a row without getting winded. Kia is even fitter than I am, though that probably has more to do with her becoming a Dailey Method instructor lately. Though hauling groceries can’t be bad for leg strength.

Bay Area Traffic

You know, I don’t miss it. Have yet to get caught in a traffic jam during a Lyft ride.

Parking Tickets

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Random Thoughts

Kia’s dad went out of town for a week and lent us his car. We didn’t end up using it. It was harder to get our bikes and recycling bins up and down the driveway.

Our previous lease was inexpensive, but we drove so little (13 miles a day on average), that the per mile cost was really high (about $1.13 per mile).

It all seems really obvious now, in hindsight, that not owning or leasing a car would be cheaper and make us happier, healthier, and fitter. But the thought of giving up our car felt a little radical and extreme at the time (we’d both had a car our entire adult lives).

Gibson’s Law — the future is already here but not evenly distributed — applies. When cheap self-driving cars become ubiquitous, 90% of urban/suburban families will go this route. We just made the jump a little earlier than most people in our demographic (middle-aged white suburban parents, if we’re gonna call it like it is). Usually I’m not an early adopter, but in this case it’s working out well.

So, what about you? What’s your plan for getting carbon neutral or negative? I’ll leave you with this semi-fictitious clip.

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8 Comments

  1. Esther Witte

    Good for you and love reading your posts. I drive once a week for exercise for the car and keep a baggy over it when parked. I am fortunate to have reasonable non-street parking. I take public transit in Los Angeles.

  2. B P

    Would love this lifestyle, but in rural Iowa it’s close to impossible to live this way. Would love to someday live in an area where this is possible.

  3. johndoe1225

  4. O

    Love it! I live in a suburb of Chicago and have lived here without a car for 17 years. Altogether I have lived car free for over 30 years. I walk, take train, subway, or bus. But I walk and walk and walk. Buy groceries with a cart. See gardens and trees and birds and sometimes people… those who are not in cars. But basically I am free to observe and see smell touch and feel a thousand new and beautiful sensations every day……

  5. ANNE HAWLEY

    After several years of carfree living, I would not turn back (unless circumstances forced me to move to a place where car-free living is impossible). I even let my driver’s license lapse–that’s how much I don’t need access to a car.

    The Walk-Transit-Bike score of my neighborhood is 81-50-78 and I was within four miles of my job (which I bike-commuted to for several years before retiring). Yes, living in this type of neighborhood is increasingly a privilege (I bought in when there was more gunfire and fewer groceries). Yes, I am fairly able bodied for my age (60). Yes, my needs are modest. No, the lifestyle choice isn’t available to everyone.

    But I feel strongly that if it IS available to people, they’d do well to give it a try.

    It’s rewarding, healthful, fun, liberating, and considerably cheaper. One downside–have you noticed this, JD?–driving becomes scarier. I have a harder and harder time even riding in cars driven by others and I’m much more keenly aware of the hazards of car traffic to me when I’m on foot or on two wheels.

    • I’m still driving pretty regularly with City CarShare, but my daughter did recently insist I wear a helmet for longboarding (even for the non-motorized variety). Fair play, considering we insist she does the same for Razor scootering and bike.

      That said, driving is statistically one of the most dangerous things humans do, can’t wait for the robots to take over on that front.

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