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The Benefits of Life Without a Car in the Big City

Updated on May 21, 2018

Do you need your vehicle?

A common American belief is that you need a motor vehicle to survive. In most rural areas, smaller cities and growing cities with very limited transit, this is mostly correct. Places you need to travel to are several miles from home, too far to practically walk or bike between. And transit systems in these locales, if a system even exists, typically falls short of being practical.

However, many major cities have comprehensive transit systems that run every day with frequent service along needed routes. If you live close enough to a city center, you don't need a car to survive: Available transit systems are robust and frequent enough to practically transport you where you need to travel in a timely, affordable fashion.

I did not own a car during most of the 10 years I lived in Seattle, Washington. In my 3+ years residing in Chicago I have used my car maybe once a week, and if not for various obligations related to my vehicle I would choose not to own one at all.

Rarely has not owning a car negatively impacted my life. In fact, commuting on foot and by transit has in several ways made my life better than it would be having to get around by car. Though I may pay more for rent and live with fewer amenities than I would living in the suburbs or a smaller town, the tradeoff from my view remains worth it.

Overall, your costs are lower.

When you own a car, even if you're not making expensive vehicle-finance payments (typically several hundred dollars a month), you incur a variety of residual costs.

  • Vehicles need gas. After about 200-300 miles of driving, your car's tank must be refilled. This can cost for the owner of a typical economy passenger vehicle at least $25-30 per tank, and in times of higher gas prices more like $40-50 per tank. Depending on how much driving you must do, this can add up to several hundred dollars per month. Plus, the bigger your vehicle (some people have valid reasons to drive a truck, van or SUV), the more gas it uses per mile, the bigger its tank, and the more it costs per individual fill-up.
  • Vehicles require regular maintenance. Your oil and fluids require service every few months. If you haven't the means to do it yourself, this will cost anywhere from $30 to $200, depending on the scope of service required at any given time. This never minds the occasional expensive repair as parts age and break down, or whenever your car gets into an accident (even when insurance will cover the cost, you typically must pay the shop a sizable deductible). Other incidental costs like car washes or auto details also come up on occasion.
  • Every vehicle must be registered with your home state. The initial process can cost at least $100-200, if not more, and the registration must be annually renewed at similar cost. Some states charge more than others for tab renewal, and some even add hundreds of dollars in Motor Vehicle Excise Taxes to fund regional and state programs. And in many big cities, you have to pay a separate city licensing fee to be allowed to drive and park your car in the city.
  • All vehicles must be insured. Some fortunate few reach the age of 25 with a spotless driving record, drive older and more inexpensive vehicles, and only owe about $40-50 a month. But most people are either younger, have accidents/tickets on their driving record, or drive an expensive or risky vehicle. This can push your monthly premiums into the $100-150 range and in some cases as high as $200+.

(As a driver, you also need to be licensed. Procuring a license often costs $30-60 annually. However, this also serves as your primary local identification and most ought to possess a driver's license whether or not they intend to drive regularly.)

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, while any single accident can cost you hundreds of dollars in repair costs (never minding if you are injured and require expensive medical treatment), adding onto your costs.

Add up the cost of gas, the cost the registration, the cost of maintenance, the cost of insurance, the cost (when applicable) of finance payments. All of those add up to a significant drain on your income, all in the name of the convenience of owning a car.

Not owning a car eliminates all of those costs. If you need to take the bus or train, your monthly costs are reduced to the cost of a transit pass or single fares. Now and then you may need to incidentally pay for a taxi or rideshare. But the net cost of that lifestyle is still far below that of owning a vehicle.

"But Steven," you say as you read this, "... 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!" To this I respond: Is your 'convenience' really a convenience?

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

Most big cities have extended periods of heavy traffic, even at night and on the weekends. As convenient as it appears to drive door to door, you still need to navigate this heavy traffic along the way. This experience can be fast and dangerous at best if you're not careful. More often you'll grind to a bumper-to-bumper crawl or halt in a queue of cars for considerable periods of time. Many a time have I walked between neighborhoods during rush hour, right past a line of cars stuck in place. Sometimes I've clearly outwalked individual vehicles stuck in that traffic!

Along with making a routine commute a very stressful experience, sitting in this traffic wastes gas via your idling engine. So even though you're not going anywhere, you're burning expensive gas to sit and wait, on top of the gas you burn driving that whole distance!

"But Steven," you say, "You advocate taking the bus, but wouldn't the buses get stuck in this traffic as well?" Fair point. But keep in mind that for short travel, such as to the next neighborhood or anywhere less than a mile away, I probably wouldn't take the bus at all. I would probably walk: It takes about 20 minutes to walk a mile, and given even a short wait for a bus it'd save time to just walk.

That said, most major cities have dedicated High Occupancy Vehicle lanes or separated Busways, which allows buses to bypass high-traffic situations. Rail transit is separated from street traffic and thus doesn't get delayed within it. Even ground-level light-rail only encounters traffic at intersections where traffic signals are programmed to identify trains and give them the signaled right of way.

I've commuted 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 aside from adverse weather lasted no more than a few minutes. Civil Engineers commissioned to keep their transit systems moving are well aware of the delay concerns, and in most cases have taken substantial measures to address them.

But let's put that aside for the moment. Walking and using transit instead of driving saves you one of the biggest big-city time-killers:

You don't have to park!

In most towns and cities, parking is as easy as driving to one of many parking spaces and parking. But most big cities have a very limited amount of available parking due to the limited real estate 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 imagine having to figure out where you can park your car, and how much it is going to cost.

Finding parking in any metropolitan Downtown can take several minutes at least. If you elect to park in a public lot, you will often pay $15-20 and up for usage of the space... assuming spaces are even available. Apartment and condominum complexes, if they have available parking at all, charge residents $50-100 a month or more for a designated parking space. If you park on the street near home, whether or not you need to purchase a permit to park in your neighborhood, it can take substantial time to cruise the neighborhood searching for an open space.

And all this discounts the biggest risk of parking in a public area: Criminals can more easily break into your car undetected, and either steal your belongings or your car!

If you walk or take transit, if you don't own a vehicle, 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 combined over a full day. On foot, that hour is all yours.

What if there are times when you need a car?

Sometimes you do need access to 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.

For in-city needs, the rise of app-based rideshare services has made hiring a car and driver to transport you easier than ever. Most will allow you to transport loads of items such as groceries or boxes with you as well. Why spend the money to own a car if you can just hire one for a few bucks whenever you incidentally need it?

How about if you need to travel farther than a few miles? Or need a car for an extended period, rather than just for a single trip or errand?

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.

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.

If you need to move heavy furniture or move to a new home, you can rent a moving truck or hire movers, and truth be told most would need to do this whether or not they own a car. Few people 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 and other widespread health problems. Many 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 and a little more effort. But if you walk to get around more often, you may be surprised at how much your health improves, which in turn improves a lot of other facets of your life and health in ways admittedly beyond the scope of this article.

There are certainly exceptions to all of this.

Some people, even granted all this information, still do need a car.

  • Some are disabled and/or elderly, and for them 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.
  • Some are locked into unavoidable obligations that require they continue to own and use their vehicle.

This is understood, and ownership of a car by these parties is understood.

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

Overall, 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 growing more congested. Gas prices and other vehicular costs are only going to rise. The notion of an easier, money-saving life if you live in the suburbs is largely myth. Most only spend several more hours a day and several hundred more dollars a month facing 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 or buy a home in-city, and are willing to give up your vehicle, you could save a bunch of money in many other facets of your life. And, in turn, you can improve your quality of life.


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