lessons from a car-free life

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

Post written by Leo Babauta.

This past summer, my family (my wife, me, six kids) finally gave up our car. It was a liberating and scary experience.

We’ve been dependent on our automobile for so many years that giving it up was unthinkable. If you own a car, it’s probably unthinkable to you too.

We drove everywhere: to and from school and work, to music lessons and recitals, to soccer practice and all-day-long games at the soccer field, to family events (which were numerous), to grocery stores and malls and restaurants and movie theaters and bookstores and beauty salons (not for me, I’m bald … er, shaven), to pay bills and run errands, to go to the beach and the parks. To do anything.

How could we get rid of our car?

Going car-lite

For the last few years, we’ve been weaning ourselves slowly from the car (actually a van in our case). We went car-lite, gradually, and if you’re considering these issues this is what I’d recommend for most families.

First, we sold our second vehicle and learned to make it work with one. At one point my wife quit her job and began homeschooling our kids, which was great because they had their mom home all the time — something most kids don’t get. Later I was able to quit my day job and worked from home, reducing our car trips by a lot. Then we moved closer to town, so we could walk and bike more — everything was within walking distance, including the grocery store, beauty salon, post office, beach, movie theater, restaurants, coffee shops and more. Only family and soccer were further away. We used the car very little.

Finally, we moved to San Francisco, and its great public transit was a big factor. We were giving up our car! Note: While many other cities/towns are not as transit-friendly, tons of people have gone car-free in them — walking and cycling and car-sharing are all great options.

Our car-free life

We sold our van (yay!) and didn’t buy a vehicle here in San Francisco. A few times we’ve rented or borrowed a car, and boy, it really reminds me how lucky we are to be without one. It’s such a hassle to drive, to find parking, to get a parking ticket (which I’ve done), to retrieve your car when its towed (yes, that happened, and yes it was dumb of me), to try to find places when you’re driving, pay tolls and pay for parking, to get stuck in rush hour … and so on.

We ride buses and trains and walk. We’re getting bikes soon, but we decided to do one step at a time. We walk a lot! We purposely picked a home that was a block away from the train stop and has bus lines that are within feet of our front door. We can get anywhere in this city easily.

I often walk aimlessly, just to explore the city. I take Eva and the kids on walks to show them new places that we would never have seen with a car. It’s the best way to discover the joys of a new place — cars isolate you and speed you by the best bits.

Buses often have very weird people in it, who yell things or smell or dress funny. I love that. It’s something my kids have never been exposed to, and now they’re getting an up-close education. They’re never in danger, but now they see so much more of the world than they ever did while isolated in a car. They come shoulder-to-shoulder with humanity in crowded buses, they talk to their neighbors, they smile at people and make others smile.

We are healthier than ever. Walking is amazing. It costs nothing, and yet you get fresh air, see people, see nature, see stores and restaurants and houses and plants you never would have in a car. You get in great shape. My little four-year-old can walk for miles, and sing while doing it. She runs up hills. Granted, sometimes I carry her on my shoulders when she gets tired, but that’s good exercise for me. We’re also safer than ever — buses are the safest way to travel on American roads.

We spend so much less on transportation. Cars are extremely expensive — not only for the car payments themselves, but for fuel, oil changes, insurance, registration fees, parking costs, tickets, inevitable repairs, the cost of the space to park the car overnight (garages aren’t free space), cleaning the car, and health costs (they’re unhealthy). When you have so many expenses, you have to work more to pay for those expenses. Cutting them out means I work less, and that’s a wonderful thing for me and my family.

I have to give immense credit to my wife, Eva, for being so great during our car-free experiment. Lots of spouses would complain — Eva has embraced and enjoyed the journey. My kids, too, have been great — instead of complaining, they’ve had fun with me, playing games, singing, exploring, racing. It’s been a great journey as a family, and I’m glad we’ve embarked upon it.

Limitations are actually strengths

People think of giving up their cars, and they immediately think of the reasons they can’t — the limitations. But I’ve come to realize these are actually strengths. Consider.

1. Takes longer. Yes, it sometimes take longer to get places — maybe 20 minutes instead of 10-15, or 45 minutes instead of 25-30. But that’s OK, because cars (while faster) are also more stressful. Driving in traffic is stressful. So we go places slower, which is less stressful, more fun. I like a slower life.

2. The weather. Sometimes the weather isn’t great — but truthfully, I enjoy getting soaked in the rain. My little ones don’t mind either — they love stomping in mud puddles. We are so used to being in our metal-and-glass boxes that we forget how wonderful the rain is. And when the weather is good, cars isolate you from that. You don’t get to feel the sun on your shoulders, the wind in your face, the fresh smell of licorice when you pass a certain plant, see the squirrels dart past or the ducks mock you with their quack.

3. Convenience. Sure, buses can be inconvenient — sometimes they’re late and you wait and you’re late. But think about the inconveniences of cars we often forget: parking, getting stuck in traffic, getting cut off from other people, paying tolls, paying for parking, parking tickets, speeding tickets, cars breaking down in the highway, car repairs, oil changes, stopping for gas, car insurance, washing the car, the dangers of car accidents (car crashes are the leading killer of American children), the unhealthiness of it for your kids, making a wrong turn and trying to get back on your route, the expense of a car and having to work more just to pay for it, the cost of health care because cars are unhealthier for you and your family and having to work more just to pay for that, just to name a few.

When you look at it like that, considering all the inconveniences of the various forms of transportation, cars don’t necessarily come out ahead in convenience.

4. Groceries. We walk to the grocery store — it’s one block away. We can’t carry as much as we can with the car, so we make more frequent trips. That’s not a weakness, it’s a strength. That means we walk more. Actually, going to the store is uphill, so I sprint uphill. It’s a lot of fun and great exercise.

5. Doing stuff that’s not close. It’s easier to get in the car and go to places, while walking or riding transit takes time and sometimes planning. So yes, you’re a bit more limited. I don’t see that as bad, once you accept this — it means you do less, which is simpler and less stressful. It means you only go places that are far if they’re important. It means you explore ways to have fun near your home. Cars encourage us to take more trips, which pollute more, cause us to be busier, use up more time and money and natural resources. Slowing down and taking fewer trips is better for us, our health, our environment.

‘Life is too short for traffic.’ ~Dan Bellack

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