Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Life Without a Car; Good for Health and Wealth

Updated March 2016 to reflect rise of ride sharing services.

From BSA exhibit, Rights of Way 
We both owned cars in the city (Ashley more recently until 2005) and in spite of rarely using them had endless stories of being unable to find resident parking, frequently broken side view mirrors and numerous tickets. Living downtown there are many alternative transportation options, including a slew of MBTA services (i.e., commuter rail, T, buses), taxis, ride sharing services (e.g., Uber), car sharing services (e.g., Zipcar) walking and even proximity to the airport, boats and trains/buses out of state.

Photographed at Rights of Way Exhibit
With the rise of Zipcar we found car ownership no longer made sense. Even when we need a car for a longer period of time and Zipcar seems too costly we have found solutions. For example, with the exception of summers, Enterprise Car Rental locations in the suburbs offer a $9.99/day special on the weekends. We often rent a car in Somerville on a Friday or Saturday and return it in Boston on Monday so that we can run our errands and easily travel to social engagements outside the city.

Oddly, in spite of Boston being touted as a walking and biking city,[1] our family seems to be a rarity among our peers. We know few other families with children in Boston who do not have a car. It seems those who can afford a car generally own one, needed or not. That said according to 2011 American Community Survey Census data 37% of the 250,000 households in Boston are carless.[2]

For us, not owning a car is one of the biggest perks of city life. However, whether or not you own a car in the city, there are many transportation benefits to living in the city. The following is a list of pros - and to be fair - cons of alternative transportation.

  1. Best Commute Ever: Tim walks to work in less than 20 minutes. Ashley walked to work in 30 minutes for almost 4 years, and later took a bus that she walked to when she moved to a job in Newton Corner. Both of our commutes are/were short, pleasant and efficient. We use/d the time to make phone calls and mentally prepare for the work day and decompress after work. However, the best part of all of this is the time we are able to spend together as a family because of the short commute. Tim can work an 11 hr day – gone from 7a.m.-6:30p.m. with commute time and still enjoy dinner and bedtime with our children.
  1. ~$12,000 Cost Savings Annually: Last April 2013, AAA released a report on the costs of car ownership. The average sedan owner spends $9000/year or $750/month to own a car (including car payments, insurance, maintenance, fees, gasoline, etc).[3] This is the cost of owning one car and does not include paying for parking. We went through our December 2013 charges to determine how much we spent on transportation. We spent $480 – in large part due to $200 on taxis which is very abnormal for us and due to Ashley's feeling sick at the end of her pregnancy.[4] In a typical month we spend $300 or less (~$3600 annually). If we lived in the suburbs and owned one car we would spend $750/month per the AAA report. In reality we would own 2 cars though. We are saving likely $12,000 or more annually on transportation costs!
  1. Bonus Exercise: We walk everywhere. Our daughter walks everywhere. Every day we walk to work, daycare, activities, shopping, etc. Our suburban counterparts spend anywhere from 1-2 hrs daily sitting in a car or train to work, activities and errands. We walk where we go.
  1. Children Love Trains and Buses: Our daughter is thrilled to take the train or bus when we are going somewhere to far to walk or are in a hurry. It is great fun to her. Furthermore, unlike being in the car where the driver needs to pay attention to the road, we are able to interact with her while we travel.
  1. No Car = No Car Hassles: We never need to take the car for an oil change or find ourselves filling windshield washer fluid. Inspection stickers – not our problem. We do not have a mechanic. Time is money and we don’t waste time on car maintenance and problems.
  1. Positive Externalities: We are doing something good for the city; less fossil fuel consumption, less traffic and one or two less heaps for the junkyard. 
  1. Bad Weather Blues: It used to be that finding a taxi during inclement weather would take extra time with the stated wait often falling anywhere between 20-45 minutes and you would need to wait outside to be sure someone else did not take your taxi. Since the advent of ride sharing services like Uber, this is less of an issue. However, car sharing services do price differently during surge or peak use times.
  1. Installing/Uninstalling Car Seats: This is a temporary inconvenience until the kids are older, but not a small one. Every time we get into a Zipcar, Enterprise Rental or family member’s car,[5] we must properly install the car seats. We try to stack all car related errands and trips to minimize car seat installation. Of note, I am not sure how I would do this without the Orbit Baby Tavel System[6] which fits both our toddler and infant car seats on one stroller.
  1. Parking Hassles: As we do not own a car we neither have a parking space nor are able to have a resident parking sticker. When we do rent a car it can be a hassle to find metered parking during peak times. For visiting friends and family who are used to just parking for free right in their own driveway, paying for and looking for parking when they visit us is a hassle.
  1. Perception of Less Flexibility and Higher Costs: Family and friends often offer us rides to help us out and save us money. It is kind and appreciated but a bit unfair to them given that we certainly spend less on transportation costs than they do. Not owning a car makes us question if going somewhere is a necessary transportation expense, but we can always get where we want to go at little aggregate cost to us.
Bottom Line: Not owning a car does little to hinder our independence and flexibility. If anything it just makes us more conscientious about our transportation use and expenditures. Most importantly, our car free existence has enormous payoffs for our health, wealth and family time.

I am happy to answer questions directly or via comments, and would also love to hear from others in Boston or other cities about how they manage without a car or benefit from being less reliant on their car.
More Resources for a Car-Free or Less Car Dependent Existence:
We don’t use these services but know people in the area who do and recommend them. 
  • Hubway is like Zipcar for bikes and is great if you are not transporting children. 
  • EnterpriseCar Share is a Zipcar alternative. Locations are relatively few. We took advantage of a promotional rate of $5/hr rentals for the first year until Ashley's driver's license expired and Enterprise froze our account. There was no easy online way for to update the information with Enterprise so we just stopped using the service.

[1] The Boston Foundation, Indicators Project - Transportation.
[2] Table DP-04 Selected Housing Characteristics 2012 American Community Survey Data 1 Yr Estimates, Boston. Accessed on 1/7/2013 at American Fact Finder.
[3] See news articles from AAA release 4/2013 including postings on CNN Money and the WSJ.
[4] Our Total Family December 2013 Transportation Costs were as follows: car rentals including Zipcar and Enterprise $95; gas to fill Enterprise and family member gas tanks $130; parking including quarters for meters and garages $35; taxis $200; TPass loading $20. Note in a typical month we spend $0-50 on taxis. Ashley took taxis to/from numerous appointments and our daughter’s activities as she was feeling unwell the entire last month of pregnancy.
[5] There is a loophole in the law that car seats are not required in taxis, provided you are comfortable with this.
[6] We stumbled upon this stroller/car seat/travel system when looking for a rain cover that was toxin free. We were very unhappy to read about all the toxins in plastic rain covers that envelope babies in their car seats and strollers. More on this wonderful brand in a later post on chemical free baby gear for urban families.


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