A Practical Guide to a Car-Free (or Car-Lite) Lifestyle.

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Three years ago I began a new chapter in my life and embraced a simpler approach to living.  Part of that change included living car-free.  I have reaped the benefits ever since.

After I moved from my big suburban home to my much more practical downtown apartment, I began looking for other ways to simplify my life.  The lease on my car was about to expire and I decided to experiment with a car-free life.  I had lived with the use of a vehicle for most of my adulthood, so the thought of living car-free was scary, but I committed and gave it a try.

My plan was simple.  Since I had moved downtown to where I worked and played, most of my needs were within walking distance.  I would plan to walk everywhere.  When walking wasn’t convenient, I’d take my bike.  If biking wasn’t an option, I’d take public transit.  If I absolutely needed a car, I’d borrow or rent.  And if I needed a car regularly, I’d consider joining a car-sharing co-op.  That gave me five alternatives to owning a car, and if it didn’t work out I could still buy a car at any time.  But I didn’t.  The benefits of car-free living have far outweighed any inconveniences.

What is true cost of owning a vehicle?

Financial cost.
In 2010, TIME reported that the average U.S. household spends over $8600 annually on their automobiles.  That includes the cost of financing, fuel, oil, maintenance, and repairs, but doesn’t factor the cost of things such as insurance, parking and depreciation.  That means that for many Americans, 20% or more of their take home income goes straight to car payments of one kind or another.  Owning a car is expensive.

Environmental cost.
In addition to the financial cost, there is a much greater environmental cost.  Remember the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year?  Where do you think that oil was headed?  Your car.

Jason Henderson, a Geography Professor at San Francisco State University warned us that, “Today there is an ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that stems from the insatiable demand for oil and for using that oil for driving. Almost half of the oil used in the US is used for personal driving, and upwards of 68 percent of the oil we use is for all transportation.”

The BP oil spill was an ecological disaster, but so too is the oil that goes into your vehicle week after week.  Your car spews carbon emissions and puts smog into our air.  Gas and oil is spilled on to the roadways and washes into our water systems.  The energy and resources used to make and maintain your car pollutes the environment, and when your car is old and run down (usually because of planned obsolescence as explained by The Story of Stuff), we throw it into scrap yards and landfills, which further pollute the environment.

Health cost.
And have you ever considered the toll your car takes on your health?  Car owners sit for long periods of time in positions that create back and hip problems rather than walking and getting exercise.  They experience life through the rolled-up windows of their vehicle and isolate themselves from the community around them.  They breathe stale air from air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter, rather than enjoying the fresh outdoors.  And when it’s rush hour, you can see the stress building in a driver’s body as they impatiently wait to crawl forward in their vehicle.

There’s no doubt about it.  Our car culture is slowly making us poor, destroying our environment and harming our health.

But isn’t car-free or car-lite living difficult?

Not necessarily, but there are times that living car-free or car-lite can be challenging.  That said, it can also be very rewarding and beneficial.  Some benefits of living car-free or car-lite include:

  1. Saving money
  2. Saving the environment
  3. Better health
  4. Less stress
  5. More time to enjoy the outdoors
  6. More connection with your community

Here is a practical guide to help you embrace a car-free (or car-lite) lifestyle:

1. Live closer to your work. By doing so you’ll shorten your commute, eliminate or reduce your need for a car, and have more time to spend with your family and friends.  Yes, living closer to work may result in more costly housing, but don’t forget that you’ll save a considerable amount of money on car expenses every year.

2. Embrace public transit.  Notice I didn’t say that you should simply take the bus.  Most people don’t like to take the bus, and I get that.  That’s because they just sit and ride.  But what if you had more time every day to read, meditate, listen to your favorite music, or achieve more with your limited time?  You can do all that if you spend your time on a bus or subway wisely.  Still not ready to travel alongside strangers every day?  Arrange a carpool and become an environmental champion for your office.

3. Play closer to home. Planning a date night with your partner?  Do you really need to travel across town to the new cinema or can you have just as good of a time closer to home?  We often overlook the great opportunities in our local communities in favor of the biggest and brightest across town.  Play closer to home and not only will you save money and the environment, you’ll also discover more about the people and places in your community.

4. Get moving. Walk, ride your bike or rollerblade.  There are many ways you can get around without the need for a vehicle.  You’ll avoid the hassles of parking, you’ll save money and you’ll become healthier in the process.

5. Support others who are living car-free. If you must drive, treat pedestrians and cyclists with respect.  Give them room to safely use the roads and encourage their lifestyle.  After all, their car-free choices benefit you.

6. Buy used. If you must own a vehicle, consider purchasing used.  By doing so you save the environmental impact of manufacturing a new vehicle while also saving money. Did you know that in the first year of ownership, a new car can lose up to 20 percent of its value, and by the fifth year, your car will depreciate by over 65 percent?  Read more…

7. Borrow or rent. Just because you choose to live car-free doesn’t mean you can never use one.  Borrow or rent a vehicle for those odd occasions when it’s absolutely necessary.  Friends and family are usually happy to help out from time to time and the money you spend on a small thank-you gift or renting will be substantially less than owning your own vehicle.

8. Share your vehicle. Car co-ops are becoming more and more popular.  They offer an excellent and convenient alternative to owning a vehicle.  Join one of these co-ops and you’ll have access to a number of vehicles for a fraction of the cost of owning.  Vrtucar is an example of one such co-op in my hometown, but there are many others in cities around the world.

9. Avoid non-essential driving. Do you really need to pick up that item now, or can it wait until you’re going for groceries later in the week?  Try to run multiple errands when you’re out in your car and avoid non-essential driving.

10. Encourage government funding of public transit. As long as driving remains more convenient that riding public transit, people will continue to favor their cars.  Encourage your government to support public transit.  Insist that they make it a priority.

Car-free or car-lite living is challenging at times, but the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience.  Just remember that successfully living car-free or car-lite requires a change in your approach to living, not simply getting rid of your car.  Begin by implementing some of the ideas presented in the guide above and you’ll realize just how easy it is to live car-lite, or maybe even car-free.

My wife and I now live with a used car that she owned prior to us meeting.  We’re no longer car-free, but even with a newborn son we prefer living car-lite and use our vehicle as little as possible.

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2 Comments

  1. Nice post, Jason!

    Due to poor infrastructure and bad transport services in the region where I live I can’t think of getting car-free at the moment but I am seriously planning to buy a bicycle :)

    I have created a unique feed collector for motivational/minimalistic blogs. To see that page, click on my name.

    • Thanks, Nishant.

      It can be very difficult for some people to go car-free. Unfortunately much of our world was built at a time that oil was cheap, plentiful and wasn’t known to harm us or the environment. Because of that, people didn’t think twice about living far apart and creating and infrastructure that required vehicles to get around. There are still alternatives though. Good to hear you’re getting a bike. And as I say in the post, even respecting those who make car-free choices is a good step. I find it sad to see so many drivers become angry and impatient when cyclists are on the road.

      Wow, your feed collector is great. I love the wealth of information all in one spot. And I’m honored that you have included Stop & Breathe. Thank you!

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