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The benefits of life without a car in the big city

Updated on March 7, 2009

A common belief is that you need a motor vehicle to survive, and in most rural areas, smaller cities and growing cities with very limited transit, this is correct.

However, many major cities have comprehensive transit systems that run daily with frequent routes, and if you live close enough to the city center, you don't need a car to survive. I haven't owned a car since I moved to Seattle, WA, and rarely has not owning a car negatively impacted my life. In fact, in several ways, commuting on foot and by bus has made my life easier than it would be if I owned a car. Sure, by living in the city, I pay more for rent and receive fewer living amenities than if I lived in the suburbs or in a smaller city.

The tradeoff comes in several forms.

1) Reduced costs

When you own a car, even if you're not making expensive finance payments (which themselves eat several hundred dollars a month), you face a variety of residual costs.

Cars need gas. The average car needs a full tank of gas every week. Even before the cost of gas made its astronomical rise, this cost at least $20-30 a week, but now it's more like $40-50 a week. That's $200+ a month. And this assumes a vehicle with reasonable gas mileage and a reasonably short commute: owning a truck or an SUV or driving 20-30 miles to work will use gas even more quickly, leading to more expensive trips to the pump.

Cars need maintenance. Your oil needs to be changed every 3000 miles. If you haven't the means to do it yourself, this will cost at least $20-30, not including tune-ups and the occasional expensive repair when parts age and break down. Other costs like car washes and tire rotations also come into play. If you or anyone you're close with is a fine mechanic, or you live at a house or anywhere that allows you the space to do your own maintenance, then great, but most have to pay someone for these efforts.

Every vehicle needs to be registered. The initial process can cost at least $100-200, if not more, while annual renewals can run from $40 and up. Some states charge more than others for tab renewal, and some even add hundreds of dollars in Motor Vehicle Excise Taxes to fund state programs.

All vehicles need to be insured. Some fortunate few reach the age of 25 with a spotless driving record and older, cheaper vehicles and pay about $40-50 a month. But most people are either younger, have blemishes on their driving record or drive an expensive or risky vehicle, which can drive your monthly premiums into the $100 range and in some cases as high as $200+.

(As a driver, you also need to be licensed, and procuring a license often runs in the $20-40 range, though this also serves as your identification and most should possess a driver's license.)

And all of this assumes you are a safe and law abiding driver that will not get in any accidents or receive any expense tickets from law enforcement. A single infraction can cost you hundreds of dollars, adding onto your costs.

Add in the cost of gas, the cost the registration, the cost of maintenance and the cost of insurance, and even discounting finance payments, all of those add up tio a significant drain on your income, all in the name of convenience. Not owning a car eliminates all of them, and, if you need to take the bus, your monthly costs are reduced to the cost of a bus pass.

"But Steven," you say, "having a car allows me the convenience to go where I want, when I want! I don't get that as a transit rider or a pedestrian!" But is your 'convenience' really a convenience?

2) The 'convenience' of a car could actually waste your time and cause stress.

Most big cities have heavy traffic, even at night and on the weekends. As convenient as it can be to go from door to door, in the interim you will have to navigate this heavy traffic, fast and dangerous at best if you're not careful, but often grinding to a bumper-to-bumper halt and leaving you sitting in a queue of cars for considerable periods of time, or moving at a slow pace. Many a time have I walked to the next neighborhood during rush hour and walked past a line of cars stuck in place.

Either way, this can make even a routine drive a very stressful experience. Plus, sitting in place wastes gas via your idling engine, so even though you're not going anywhere, you're using up expensive gas, on top of the gas you burn over a given distance!

"But Steven," you say, "You advocate taking the bus, but wouldn't the buses get stuck in this traffic as well?" Well, keep in mind that for short travel, like to the next neighborhood or somewhere less than a mile away, I probably wouldn't take the bus at all. I would probably walk. But most major cities either have dedicated High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, i.e carpool lanes, which the buses are allowed to use and do use to bypass high-traffic situations, or cities have rail transit that is separated from street traffic and thus doesn't get caught in it. Even ground-level light rail only encounters traffic at intersections where traffic signals can give them the right of way. I've even been on buses that have gotten caught in traffic, and thanks to a combination of the HOV lanes and the flow of traffic along given routes, the worst delay I've seen outside of adverse weather is no more than a few minutes.

Also, walking and busing saves you one of the biggest big-city time-killers:

3) You don't have to park!

In smaller cities, parking is as easy as going to the nearest parking space and parking. But most big cities keep a very limited amount of parking due to the limited space that comes with the density of a big city. Driving even a few miles, let alone as far as 20-30 miles, is already tedious and stressful, but now you have to figure out where you're going to park your car, and how much it is going to cost.

Finding parking in any Downtown can take several minutes at least, and if you elect to park in a public lot, you will often have to pay $10, $15, $20 and up for usage of the space... assuming spaces are even available. Even in the outer neighborhoods of Seattle, parking is at a premium and apartment complexes charge residents $40-60 a month for a designated parking space. If you park on the street near home, it can be a time-consuming pain to troll the neighborhood looking for an open space. And all this discounts the risk of parking in a public area: criminals can more easily break into your car undetected, and either steal your belongings or steal your car!

If you walk or take the bus, you have no responsibility to park anything. Once you reach your destination, you can walk in the door immediately. Parking a car can take several minutes, even add up to about an hour's time over a full day, but on foot, that hour is all your's.

What if there are times when you need a car?

Sometimes you encounter situations where you need a vehicle. You have to take a large grocery shopping trip and you simply cannot carry everything by hand to your home. You want to travel outside the city. You have several important errands to run, all of which are all across town and would take hours to run on foot and by bus. I admit these situations arise.

Many cities have a car sharing program. Zipcar provides vehicles in several major cities for an inexpensive hourly rate. You simply sign up for membership for an annual fee, reserve a nearby car when you need it, walk up with your key-card and use it, then bring it back when you're done. They pay for gas and insurance, and your only cost is the rental fee.

For longer trips, you can take the time-tested approach of renting a car from a rental agency. This can be costly as daily rates start at $30 and up, insurance is extra, gas is your responsibility and many agencies often place an expensive deposit on your credit card to ensure you'll pay them. But for an occasional use over a day or a week, this still outweighs the costs of owning a car full-time, and the convenience has its uses, such as long trips.

If you need to move heavy furniture or move to a new home, you'll probably need to rent a moving truck or hire movers anyway, whether or not you own a car. Few citizens own a truck or similar vehicle big enough to efficiently haul furniture and belongings, or know someone who does.

Don't forget the health aspects

Walking is exercise, and exercise is good for you. A lot of Americans don't get enough exercise and this has played a large part in the country's obesity epidemic. Many of these Americans, whether or not they eat poorly, simply drive everywhere they need to go and don't move around unless absolutely necessary.

Walking may take a little longer, but your body will thank you, and as your activity increases, you may be surprised at how much your health improves, which in turn improves a lot of other facets of your life in ways you may never have thought of.


Some people, even granted all this, still do need a car. Some are disabled and elderly, and commuting on foot simply isn't feasible. Some large families simply cannot expect to safely and punctually get the kids to school on foot and by bus. Some have other health issues that somehow prevent them from living in the city or traveling on foot. This is understood, and ownership of a car by these parties is understood.

But there are a lot of healthy, able-bodied big city residents who can easily make the switch. It's simply a matter of whether they wish to do so.

On aggregate, taking the bus is easier, faster, cheaper and healthier

You may think living out in the suburbs is cheaper and more comfortable, but ultimately, the stress and the cost of driving into work, and driving around the city, negates any perceived cost or time savings. Traffic in cities across America is only getting more crowded, and gas prices and other costs are only going to rise. The notion of an easier, money-saving life if you live in the suburbs is a myth. You will only spend several more hours a day and several hundred more dollars a month wity delays just to get from point A to point B.

If you're willing to spend a couple hundred extra dollars a month to rent a place or to buy a home in-city, you could save a bunch of money in many other facets of your life, as well as improve your quality of life.


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    • profile image

      Nilufar 5 years ago

      Yes right. We can live without cars. Cars destroy our nature, our health. We should save our environment for our generation.

    • thooghun profile image

      James D. Preston 10 years ago from Rome, Italy

      A thumbs up from me. I've been screaming, "yes, yes, but I NEED a car for years" although I've always agreed with the logic behind what yuo're saying,

      Happily I think I'm starting to turn to the idea ;)