Living without a car, or with one?

I am 32 years old, and have never owned a car.

I got my driver’s license at age 16 and one month (as one could do in Indiana at the time) and occasionally borrowed one of my parents’ cars for getting to work or school. Then I lived on the campus of Ball State University from ages 16.8 or so to 18.5, and walked a lot. Same for college in New Jersey. I moved after graduation to Washington DC which has reasonable public transportation. Getting places was occasionally annoying (and my morning commute involved 1 train and 2 buses – yikes!) but I managed. Then I moved to New York, where cars are just more pain than they are worth. Consequently, it’s really never come up.

We’re contemplating a move to the ‘burbs, where we will no doubt become a 2-car family. But as I’m writing about people making interesting financial choices, I’d love to hear some stories of people who’ve lived (not in New York) with either no car, or one car for the family. How did you make that work? What were the benefits and trade offs? I recently read the book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, which makes a fascinating point that we often drive places not because we need to go there, but because we have big roads and cars. Road demand is highly elastic. This is true even during rush hour, where some areas with road construction have found that when commuters are warned that the morning drive will be terrible, suddenly people come up with other solutions. They shift their hours or work from home.

If your family was down to one car, how would that change your life? How would you adjust?

24 thoughts on “Living without a car, or with one?

  1. As we are two working parents in the suburbs I don’t think we will ever live with one car, but I suppose we could. My husband’s job is .6 miles from home. He could bike to the gym, then to work and count the bike ride as his cardio. Inconvenient, yes, but doable. My job is 1.5 miles away and I bike it on good days. There would have to be a lot more coordinating of our schedules. It would be the days with inclement weather that would be tough, as we live on the border of two counties with non-connecting bus systems.

    I also think that people with 2 cars assume the cars into everything they do. When my first son was born I drove to the mall almost once a week, just to have something to do (it was winter). No car, I would’ve been forced to find more creative, and certainly less costly, ways to spend our time. Currently, my son would be taking Karate around the corner and not 7 miles away if we had 1 car, or he wouldn’t go 3x a week, or at all. Not having an extra car would factor into all my decisions, yet having it, was always an assumption.

    It would be a different life.

  2. We’ve been married for almost 18 years and we have five kids. We lived with one car for the first five years, no car for the next five years, and one car ever since. We could afford a second car but we’d rather put the money elsewhere. Hmm, maybe I’ll write a post about the details.

    1. @Jaime – yes, please share! How did you do groceries with no car? (assuming you’re not in NYC) That was one of my problems in DC, there was a walkable grocery store, but carrying the bags home stunk. And that was just for one person. It’s even worse now (we just have to go often, and often get them delivered, or go to a grocery store in the ‘burbs if we’ve rented a car on the weekend).

  3. I pay $875 for daycare (high-quality) state-certified that is 8 miles from my home office. The daycare near me starts at $1400 and goes up from there..

    So we drive 240 miles a month to daycare. so that’s about 8 gallons of gas in a nissan sedan a bit more in a volkswagen.. 8 galons X 3.30 a gallon (gas is going way up right now) is just $27 a month… so we are paying still like a bit over $900 for affordable (full-time) child care — that is 40 percent ore more more walking distance from our home and is often not full-time… there is a book called the millionaire next door and that is one of the disadvantages of the “good” neighborhood in the burbs near good schools… affordable childcare is often scarce and property taxes are sky high..
    back to your point — in the suburbs — there are some economic reasons to drive.. wal mart is still cheaper than the grocery in in town living — i live in a town not really a suburb and I still drive to wal mart and sam’s club.. i tried but sams club diapers are still 25% less.. so accounting for gas if you are just driving to those places once and a while it is cheaper.. like to go once a week..
    I do believe in supporting small businesses though and woul dlike to buy mor elocal and walk more .. .i just haven’t found that it is always so cost effective

    still I’d LOVE to read that book traffic.. going ot mark it on my list.. I always love your book suggestions

    We have three cars (one is a work van for our small business) both are decent in age — and have more than 100,000 miles so you could argue we’ve gotten our money’s worth. But a part of me really wanted to buy a mini-van. As I re-evaluate though I sometimes think that 15,000 to let’s be honest 20,000 dollars might be put to better use elsewhere … such as I’ve been thinking of converting our garage into a larger home office (I have a home office) but this office would be kind of the business’s home office… and I thought I might even be able to rent a room above it if the work were done right( we live in a college town) and that might be a much more profitable use of our dollar…
    One of the issues is that car seats, which were not required at all 20 years ago make a lot of families feel that once they have 2 kids they can’t really drive places with more than just the two parents and the two kids — like if you want to take a kid’s friend or a grandparent you are out of luck… I think say a libertarian would say that that is one down side of the government telling you you have to have the kid in a big car seat though I believe most research says hey do this for their safety.. I am actually going ot research it to see say how much safer a 40 plus pound child is in a car seat versus in a seat belt etc. and if there are best places in the car…. b/c sticking with that 10-year old sedan does have advantages. This is definitel a cost of a 3-kid family btw….some of our obsession with wal mart and big box retailers is that they are often much cheaper than the grocery stores or other stores near your home that are walkable… some foods are 25 to 50% more at our local store than at wal mart or the driveable away grocery stores…

    1. @Cara- yes, my husband talks about all four kids in his family, and the dog, fitting in the family car back in the day. Clearly that isn’t going to happen now — an adult can barely sit between two car seats in the back seat in a normal car, let alone fitting a booster seat.

  4. We actually went down to being a one-car family during all of this most recent snow (my non-4 wheel drive minivan was trapped by snow mounds in the garage). I was really surprised that it was not as difficult a transition as I thought it would be. It definitely helps that my husband and I both work from home we could easily coordinate car trips and errand running.

  5. We had 1 car until very recently. My husband used our car to commute to work, which is about 15 miles away from our house. I walked 1.5 miles each way to work. I would drop my daughter off at day care on the way to work and pick her up on the way back. I generally loved having just 1 car. We saved money; I got a small workout in each day; and I got to spend a little time with my daughter outside. Yes, it was rough on bad weather days, but it made me feel more connected with the outdoors. Otherwise I’m just stuffed in my office all day.

    Our problem was that my husband works 80 hour weeks (I know Laura- technically he probably doesn’t work that much, but he’s physically away from home that much!). Often that means he had the car on the weekends. It was tough managing to grocery shop with an infant and no car, although I did make it work for 2 solid years. I could have been a member of a car share, but it was expensive and we didn’t use it enough to make the membership worth the expense.

    Now that we have baby 2 on the way, it’s just gotten to the point where we had to have a second car. We’ve had instances where my daughter needed to be rushed to the doctor and I had a heck of a time getting the car logistics worked out. Add in another kid, doctor’s appointments, the grocery shopping factor, and the preciousness of my time, and it’s a bit too much for me not to have a car at my disposal.

    I really think having only 1 car curbed our spending and made our life simpler. I never went shopping on a whim because the shops were too far away to walk, and not worth a bus ride without a specific thing in mind. If I needed something, I’d just order it online. That meant I only bought things I knew we needed, instead of seeing something neat at a store that wasn’t really necessary.

    Now that we have 2 cars, I still only use the second car for certain things. Not having a car at my disposal has made me see how it’s a luxury and not a necessity most of the time. I still walk to work and get in my exercise, and save on parking and gas. Of course, we are lucky that we live in a walkable city, but even if I was to move, I’d try and find a way to limit car use as much as possible. It’s just a way of life for me now.

  6. Laura, my husband and I have one car and have no plans to get a second. We’re at an advantage because we both work from home, but we like having just one vehicle because it encourages us be more strategic about planning outings–whether to the grocery store or to see friends–which saves time and money. I also have no desire to pay double for gas and car insurance, nor to add a car payment to our bills (our current car is paid off).

  7. We were a one car couple for over a year when my husband first moved to the US. We live in San Diego, which is not noted for its public transit, but we lived near the bus route that went to where he worked, and I also worked nearby, so we could carpool when necessary. We eventually got a second car so that he could drive- it was too expensive to add him (with his lack of US driving record) to my car, and it actually worked out cheaper to buy an old used car and have him insured primarily on that. However, as long as he had the job near the bus route, he kept taking the bus in and carpooling home with me. Every once and awhile I’d bus in to work, too, but I worked farther from the bus stop, so doing that added a 30 minute walk to my commute, which was hard since I worked with a lot of people on the east coast who had a hard time waiting for me to get into the office to schedule meetings!

    Now we are again working very close to each other, and could theoretically car pool. But we shift our schedules to make it possible for us to have home-cooked family dinners (I go into work earlier than he does, and he does day care drop off. I also leave work earlier, and do day care pickup and all of the weekday cooking). We’re thinking we may start carpooling occasionally, though- we just need to work out the logistics. This is only my second week on the new job.

    I think it would be very challenging to go back to being a one car family, though, because it would mean that we’d both have to leave work early if a kid got sick at day care, or just had a doctor’s appointment. There just isn’t any reasonable way to get home from work on public transit. If we wanted to drop a car, I think we’d need to move to a neighborhood much closer to work- which is much more expensive. We’d probably have to move into an apartment or maybe a townhouse. That would be OK, but overall, for us, the benefits of having two cars outweigh the financial impact.

  8. I went 5 years without a car in LA, of all places. I would still be doing so, but I bought a 26 year old Mercedes diesel when I got pregnant. My son is now 11 months old, and my husband and I together only put about 5000 miles on the diesel in the past year (he has his own car but it’s a completely depreciated luxury car, so I’d rather not drive it and he’d rather not put more mileage on it).

    My car-free era was occasionally an inconvenience for my social life because my friends had by this time bought houses waaaay out, but I used zip car and rented cars cheap for the weekend once a month or so.

    I bussed and rode my bike to work 5 miles to work. Now, I’m a bit closer, and bus/walk to work. Inspired by reading 168 Hours, I recently started jogging home. It takes 10 minutes less than the bus, and is the only way I can fit a workout into the week. I feel a little dorky running with a daypack on, but it’s worth it!

    We are renters and contemplating moving to a condo even closer to my work, hoping to keep the car-light lifestyle as long as possible, which is darn near counter cultural out here.

  9. I too grew up in Indiana, and got my license at 16 yrs, 1 month, 1 day, as the law was at that time. There were no public transit options at all, which leaves me still a bit in love with public transit wherever I find it. I now live in the suburbs near San Francisco – there are buses but faster options like the train are struggling financially and may close.
    A few years ago my husband and I went down to one car for a couple of years. I was first finishing my masters’ degree and then working at home, so it worked OK. Part of the time I’d take him to work and pick him up (a 20 minute drive or so) and days I didn’t need the car he just took it. Where we live there are basics within walking distance (grocery, etc.) but anything else requires some transit planning. We tried belonging to one of the car sharing services, but the locations were too far from us – if we lived in San Francisco proper, that would definitely be a serious option to consider.
    I have to say I prefer having my own car, because it lets me be more independent and I don’t feel stuck at home (I still work at home). I try to be economical and combine errands, and I still do a lot of errands by walking or by taking the bus when I can. It would be manageable to have only one car, but well less than ideal; the transit infrastructure most places in the US isn’t deep enough to deal with emergencies and unexpected events, not to mention shopping and kids. And as other commentors have said, living closer to transit often means giving up space and paying more in rent/mortgage.

  10. I would love to have only one car, but I live in Charleston SC, and we don’t have sidewalks or public transportation, so we have to have 2 cars, since our work schedules and school schedules vary so much, so we can’t really carpool.

    I did live without a car when I lived in Seattle. I used public transportation, or I caught a ride with friends. I didn’t mind it, I just didn’t necessarily like taking the bus at night, and the grocery thing was annoying.

    My ex-husband and I only had one car when we lived in Bloomington. Again, public transportation was my best friend. We also had our work and school so close together that we could carpool, although when I finally got my own car I was happy for the independence.

  11. We are a two working-parent family with one car. We have one preschooler who goes to daycare three days per week. One day per week he stays at home with grandma, and one day I’m at home with him (I work four days per week). My husband’s office is close enough to mine that we can carpool. Our offices are easy to reach by public transit if we need to do so–though commuting by bus doesn’t really work with the daycare pick-up and drop-off.
    We live in a fairly big city (Minneapolis) that’s really more suburban than urban.
    For the first few years we were married (before we had a child) we had no car. I can’t imagine being car-free in this city with children though I know many who do.
    I don’t like driving which is one reason I’m not clamoring to get a second car.

  12. We’re a one car household. My husband’s office is less than three miles from our house, and I’m a stay at home mom. When I need the car during the day, he can easily bike to work or I can drop him off if the weather is inclement.

  13. My S.O. was in a 3 child single car family growing up, his mom can’t drive due to some kind of medical condition (craziness?) but she was a stay at home and his dad owned his own business (which was more or less running itself) so his dad did all the kid-ferrying, and drove his mom to the store and such as needed. They lived in not just a suburb but a super far flung suburb where people move because they can’t afford homes as nice as what they want in the regular suburbs.

    We had 1 car for a while and it was fine but it mostly worked because his work was on the way to mine, and he was working 9 hour days vs my 8 hour days so schedule wise it was perfect.

    I mean, given that during the work day your car more or less sits and does nothing for 8+ hours, as long as one of you has a flexible schedule you should be able to make it work.

  14. I would love to go down to one car, simply because we have to park both cars in our garage at night per association rules and my husband uses the garage as an office. It gets annoying having to shuffle everything around and doesn’t make it easy to spread out big projects. We both work from home but I don’t see the downsizing happening anytime soon because:
    -Both of our cars are paid off (and have been for a very long time) Mine is on it’s last legs, but his gets horrible gas mileage and is a pain for car seats
    -There are just enough times when its really handy to have 2 cars. Namely Sunday afternoons when he organizes meals for homeless families in motels and I take the kids somewhere
    -While we can walk to Costco and Target and Whole Foods, we rarely do. I carried groceries in New York. I do not want to do it here.
    -The preschool we love is also 20 minutes away. Our daughter won’t be there next year, but when the baby hits 2, we’ll probably send him.
    If the street in front of our neighborhood had a lower speed limit, I’d get a street legal golf cart in a flash. Since that’s not an option, we’ll be dealing with the garage issue until we move (which will hopefully be never…).

  15. With the exception of about 2 months in 2006 – during which we bought and then subsequently sold for a modest profit my sister-in-law’s old car – my husband and I have been a 1-car family for the entire 7.5 years of our marriage. And we don’t live in a pedestrian-friendly city like NYC or Boston or even San Francisco. Rather, we live in car-saturated Dallas, where sidewalks – if they even exist – are frequently broken, obstructed by overgrown vegetation or a haphazardly parked vehicle, and/or about a foot wide. In fact, we live in the suburbs.

    Friends ask us all the time how we do it, and quite frankly, we don’t really think about it too much. But we have made certain choices that make this possible, even preferable:

    1. We always make it a point to live within walking distance of the train line so that my husband can take the train to his hospital job. Dallas trains aren’t nearly as extensive as those in NYC or DC, but if you plan carefully, you can make it work very well.

    2. We always try and plan our trips/errands to maximize efficiency. Dallas is so spread out that we could spend an entire day just running 2-3 errands, so we try and bunch them up as much as possible to save time and gas.

    3. We each married someone we really enjoy spending time with, so running errands together can often be as enjoyable as “date night.” Plus, it can count as “us time!”

    4. We maintain the car religiously, taking it in to our trusted local mechanic at the first sign of trouble. Since it’s our only car, we take no chances with its care and maintenance needs.

    5. When necessary, we rent a car. We’ve only ever had to do that a couple of times a year on average, often for long-distance trips for which we don’t want to tax our own car. I’d rather spend an occasional $200 or so to rent a car than make monthly car payments of at least that much for years on end.

    6. I own my own business and frequently spend time in the car driving to meetings and events. As such, I am the primary user during the week, which works out fine since my husband’s hospital job keeps him at the workplace 40 hours a week.

    7. We plan our calendar and activities well so that if one person needs the car in the evening or weekends, the other person simply doesn’t plan anything so that s/he can stay home. Since we’ve been doing this for years, it’s practically 2nd nature to us and doesn’t bother us at all. Some may chafe at what they perceive to be the lack of freedom in such an arrangement, but to be honest, our weeks are often so hectic and packed with activities that we both relish the time to just have the apartment to ourselves and veg out.

  16. My aunt and uncle have lived for years with 1 car and 2 kids, but they live in an inner suburb of Boston a short walk from a bus route that goes to the subway into Boston. One of them has always worked somewhere they could get to by public transportation while the other spouse for the last several years has worked in suburbs which require a car commute. This has limited their options somewhat during job searches, but they’ve worked it out.

    We live in an outer Boston suburb with few sidewalks and no public transport, so if we had one car I suppose I would have to drive my husband to the commuter rail stop and pick him up at the end of the day, or he would have to find someone to carpool with and pay their gas since he couldn’t take a turn in the carpool. I am currently a stay-at-home mom/part-time student/trying to start a part-time business at home so I need the car during the day to take the kids to activities and to get to my classes and so on. Driving my husband to the commuter rail would be about a 30-minute round-trip, so an hour a day or 5 hours out of my week. That would be unacceptable to me. But I suppose if we had one car when we were buying houses we would have kept renting closer to Boston near public transport until we could afford a house near public transportation. That would probably have delayed our house-buying by 4-5 years because of the price differential.

    Interesting question!

  17. Great Topic!

    You’re looking at this from a Family point of view, and yet I think this also merits great consideration for the elderly. Driving a car is a right of passage in this country and MANY seniors refuse to give up their “right” and their “freedom”. We have some unsafe drivers on the road.

    I drive about 5,000 miles per year and avoid driving at night. I live in the ‘burbs, though only 1/4 mile from basic stores. Happy to report I have oodles of free time and save lots of money by avoiding unnecessary errands. I’m sorta training myself for my future since my eyesight will prevent driving in a few years. I actually googled Walking Cities and was pleased to notice that this is a topic of some interest.

    Could we be a more SOCIAL Society if we didn’t spend so much time in our cars?

  18. My wife in I live in a small town where public transportation isn’t an option and have one car. I work 22 miles from home. She works part time about 1/4 mile from our apartment and 1 day a week about 45 miles from home at a restaurant. That day I get dropped off at work, which is on the way, and she continues the rest of the way. She comes back to get me when she is done. When we first got married she was working every day at the far away location. It was nice that we got to drive together, but I got tired of 90 miles being put on the car every day. Even though she makes more money at the restaurant, she likes her other job much better and since there is no commuting cost to walk 1/4 mile, we both like it.

    Occasionally we find a situation when it would be nice to have two cars, but we have yet to justify the cost to do so when other arrangements can typically be made.

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