Musings On Life Without A Car

We are a family of 6 and we have no car. Never had a car, have no plans on getting a car in the foreseeable future. People often ask me how I manage without a car, especially since all 4 kids of mine are home with me every day. So many people tell me that they can't possibly manage without a car, they absolutely need one, and sometimes even two, so how does my family survive without a car?

I've given this a lot of thought, to be honest, and I think that whether or not someone feels a car is a necessity is a matter of choice and lifestyle and expectations.

Because my husband and I never had a car as adults, we have gotten used to not having a car, and in many ways, we built our life around that fact. There are two ways of looking at it- either that not having a car controls our lives, day in and day out... or that we simply decide that having a car is not a priority for us and structure our lives around that fact.

Because we don't have a car, we chose a community to live in with public transportation, and not just some, but very good and frequent and affordable public transportation ($1 to the city and $1.70 to get a transfer within the city), so that we wouldn't feel stuck without a car. Our town is also only a 20 minute bus ride to the closest part of the nearest city and 45 minutes to the city center. Yes, not having a car did make our housing choices more limited, and more expensive- housing in our community is in high demand because of its location, which caused rental prices to go up exponentially- 9 years ago when we moved here, we paid $300 per month for a 960 square foot apartment with a large yard, and now we're paying double that- $600 for a 484 square foot apartment with no yard. Had we had a car, we potentially could have moved somewhere further out, with cheaper housing, but, to be honest, housing is expensive all over locally, and if we'd had a car and moved someplace an hour outside of the city, I'm not even sure we'd be able to get any cheaper than we have now (just looked up on a local real estate listing, and places with much more of a commute and no decent public transportation don't even cost any less than what we're paying now). Until I was writing up this post, I thought to myself that its a trade off- I pay more in housing to be able to manage without the expense of a car, but now I see that I'm not even paying significantly more (if at all) for my housing in my public transportation accessible location...

But not having a car does affect our lives in other ways, not just about where we choose to live.
We do structure our life around the bus route- when my husband looks for a job, he considers how close it is to public transportation, and fortunately got a job in the part of the city closest to our house, so that his commute would only be 20 minutes if there were no traffic... but with traffic (a daily occurrence, unfortunately) more like 30-45 minutes. If he were offered a better paying job in a further area of the city, it would be more difficult for him to accept it, since the commute would be so much longer, but to be honest, even if he had a car, the same issue would arise, as a car doesn't necessarily significantly shorten the length of a potential commute. (I plugged in the distance of an area in the opposite end of the city from where we live, and the difference in commute would be an hour and 16 minutes by bus and 58 minutes by car- not a significant difference even.)
When it comes to schools for the kids, if we'd consider sending them to schools instead of homeschooling, we'd only pick ones easily accessible by public transportation (which is another reason we homeschool- schools we'd potentially send to are too difficult to get to by bus, but to be honest, they'd be difficult to get to by car as well).
When it comes to trips with the family, again, we pick locations that are accessible by public transportation and don't consider places that are not.

The biggest way not having a car probably affects our lives is that it takes longer to get things done, like when I have errands to run, I can't take the shortest route from one place to the other, but rather, along existing bus routes, which are generally more circuitous in addition to being slower because of all the stops they make along the way. Because of this, I try to get as many errands done in one go as I can manage, making a list of all the places I need to go, and hitting them up all on one trip, so long as they're near-ish enough to each other. I try to walk from one place to another to save money on bus fares, and often when I need to just get one thing, instead of spending 20 minutes in the city (not counting transportation to and from) I spend a good few hours doing various things that need doing, instead of just doing them on a separate trip.
Sometimes, though, having no car doesn't mean I pack everything into one trip; sometimes I need to make more than one trip because of being car-less. I carry everything with me in my stroller and/or in a giant backpack on my back, not in a car, which means that space is more limited, and I can't be transporting as many things as I would be able to had I had a car, so sometimes a second trip is needed when, had I had a car, perhaps one trip would have sufficed.

That reminds me- another way not having a car affects my life is that, to be honest, I've gotten used to looking silly- no way around it, walking around with a giant backpack and a loaded stroller does look silly, but it's the price we pay for not having a car.

My grocery shopping is generally done in the city, in the farmer's market that is easily accessible by public transportation, but I also do shops in a nearby grocery store a short 10 minute bus ride away. I generally bring back all my groceries on the bottom of the bus (perk from living only 200 feet from the bus stop- easy enough to bring things inside), but sometimes I pay ~$6 for a delivery from the grocery store.

When I talk to friends with cars, they tell me generally how much they pay for their cars- in addition to thousands of dollars (or more like tens of thousands) on their cars, even second hand cars, every month they pay really large amounts for gasoline, insurance, parking, and other car related fees- people have told me that the minimum most people pay for their car monthly is ~$550 per month- and that is after they already spent so much on their car in the first place. I think about all that I can do with $550 per month and appreciate how much money I save without a car. Time, yes. I do need to spend more time on things because of not having a car, and since time is money for some, they find it worth it to spend the money on the car.
But for me?
If I saved all that time by driving to and from my errands with a car, would I be able to use that time to earn more money?
Not quite.

Another difference between cars and public transportation is that with public transportation I need to pay per person, whereas with cars its the same cost no matter how many people are traveling. Therefore, when I do my shopping in the city, if possible, I try to go only when Mike is home and he can watch the kids, so I only pay ~$3.40 for my trip to the city (there and back) instead of twice that amount if I brought my kids along. Again, this isn't even so significant, but sometimes I need to travel to a further city, and then I need figure out what is cheaper- to pay for a babysitter to watch the kids all the hours that I'm gone, or to pay for their bus fare as well. Usually it is cheaper to pay for their bus fare, but the fact that I have to calculate whether a babysitter would be cheaper than a bus ride is something that someone with a car doesn't need to do- they just take them along.

The thing about having a car?
It's a luxury.
It really is.
However, like electricity or running water or a phone line or so many other things, its a luxury that so many people have become utterly reliant on in their day to day life that they simply do not know how to function without it.
While I manage to live without a car, if you'd take away my phone line, I would not be able to manage, and yet, years ago, everyone lived without a phone line. It's because we become so used to these things, that they become part of the everyday fabric of our existence to the point at which we do not know how to function without one.

That is one of the reasons I do not want a car. I don't want to be reliant on a car the way I am on a phone. I see we manage just fine without one, but those that I know with cars really don't manage without one, really suffer from the lack of one, even though I don't really feel I suffer much, if at all. I see that people start off with one car and then become so reliant on them that they feel the need for a second one, which then just doubles the expenditures. And then people's families grow and the cars that worked for them at first no longer even fits their family, so then they need to buy a larger car, even more expensive. I find buying a car starts a cycle of reliance, because the same way I structure my life around the fact that I don't have a car, people with a car structure their life around their car, so that when their car no longer is available for whatever reason, they really are stuck, since in many ways their cars are the fabric that holds their life together. In my opinion, that's an awfully scary thing, to be so reliant on something so expensive- because what if you no longer can afford that car, even if you can right now?

I will admit, there are times that my life is affected negatively because I don't have a car.
Sometimes there are events that are in places that are far from home, and since we would have to take a bus there and back, and buses stop running by a certain time of night, our family can't get to those places as easily as those with a car, and sometimes there are places simply not accessible by public transportation whatsoever.
For me, it doesn't bother me so much if I can't get to places because there isn't public transportation there- its a choice we make by not having a car- we sometimes have to miss out on things- and that is ok with us. But when people expect us to be in certain places that aren't easily accessible by public transportation and get upset if we don't show up (like familial obligations), that's when it gets tricky.
So for times like that, I do think about a car. But not to buy one, merely to rent one.
The problem is that neither I nor my husband have a drivers license... The plan had been for my husband to get one this summer, but we had so many expenses related to buying our house that that didn't happen, but that is in the works.

So no, I don't want to be a car owner, and I can't even picture a time in the future when I'd even like to own a car, but I would like the ability to rent one, from time to time.

Do you have a car? Do you feel it is a necessity for you? Do you feel that much of your lifestyle is dependent around having a car, to the extent that you would not manage at all without one?
Do you not have a car? How do you manage without one?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. We have a car, but we don't use it like other people do (more frugal use) fill up on gas every 3-4 weeks (though I'd have to check with dh to be sure) and it's a small car that gets good gas mileage... I only take it to work once a week (the day where there is better parking and fewer buses because other people are mostly off), the rest of the time I take the bus. When I go in for appointments in the city or to the market, I bus... we walk a lot near our home (to the doctor/to the mall, children walk to school, daycare)-- My husband uses the car mainly for local trips-- grocery shopping,taking kid to his afterschool activities...
    at one point, he spoke of getting rid of the car but I think it would be too much of a downgrade lifestyle wise... it makes vacations much nicer!
    my in laws do not have a car and no licenses...we find it frustrating at times, we can never go on nice vacations with them - and it's a big hardship if they want us to drive them home from our home since we then have to drive both ways... it's a serious handicap in this day and age not to even be able to drive..

  2. Way to go Penny! There is nothing wrong with not having a car, especially if you live in the city. We live in the country, so going to church, etc. would take an hour or two both ways if we didn't have a car. That being said, we only use ONE car for the two of us, while most everyone else has one car per adult. But honestly I am at home most of the time, no kids, so we really don't need the cost of two cars.

    When we get in a pinch and both of us need to go different ways, one of us uses the motorcycle or I use a bicycle for short runs (local garage sale, doing the neighbor's chores, etc.). The other thing we have done several times is rent a car. Our family "car" is actually a big gas-guzzling truck, so for long trips renting can actually be cheaper.

    You are right that people become dependent on cars. It's neat that your family knows how to be mobile without one.

  3. So as you know, we don't have a car. I almost feel like I don't have much of a right to have an opinion on it, because I personally can't drive (depth perception issues). We did fine living in the city for awhile, but now that my husband has a 45-60-minute bus ride commute to work each way, he's seriously considering a car, and I'd love to know your opinion, given the following factors:

    He doesn't have a license at all. It sounds like he could have gotten a local license fairly easily by converting his original one, but then his original license expired so we think he'd have to start from scratch and pay a bunch of money for lessons? His boss (who I'm going to talk about in the next section but basically really wants him to get a car) swears it's a simple procedure. Wondering what you know about it.

    One reason we moved is so that he wouldn't be at the beck and call of work all the time, staying behind to clean up after everyone and be left to bike home at 4 in the morning. But being tied to the bus schedule, coming in dazed and exhausted from motion sickness (poor guy) and then needing to leave by midnight, means that he's not anywhere near as available as he used to be (which I think is a good thing).

    Because he's not as available anymore, his boss seriously wants to give him a car. Which is all well and good, but I know that cars aren't "just" the expense of buying them. He's handy and could probably do a lot of maintenance and repair himself, but I don't know about gas and insurance and all that, whether it's actually worth it. Any idea how to work those calculations?

  4. Penny, I lived in the city before we had children and had no car and didn't need one. We took the bus or train or bikes everywhere. Now we moved to a different city, but don't live in the actual city and life without a car would be impossible. There is almost no public transport. Everyone here has one or two cars and uses them everyday. Sometimes I feel like a taxi driver! My brother who has developmental disabilities and can't drives takes Uber everywhere he goes, and it works out to about the same cost as owning a car. It is expensive but well wort the cost of him not being isolated and being independent. I wonder if it is possible for you to share or borrow a friend or neighbors car for a share of the cost based on mileage and wear and tear of the car. Just a thought.

  5. It's called convenience. Whether it's having running water, electricity, phone, appliances, cars, etc., they make our lives easier.....except when they break down....haha

  6. We do have two cars, two parents, two kids and two jobs.

    We could probably survive with one - my husband and I work near each other - but the drop off and pick up schedules for our kids and school make that difficult. Not impossible, just difficult.

  7. We have one car, family of 4. Hubby bikes to work year-round (Canada= snow, rain, sun, we get it all), I drive the kids to school/daycare then drive to work. I love having a car, I totally rely on it and I would be totally lost without. I had my 1st car at 19 and never been without since (I'm 35). I hate taking the bus (it smells bad, everyone is crowded, it's ackward, etc. yes, I know I sound like a total snob and it's ok, I am a snob when it comes to transportation I guess), I hate having to wait and plan accordingly to a transportation schedule to go somewhere. I love the freedom that a car gives me. But it IS a luxury, and it IS expensive. My car is 11 years old, paid for, but there's still maintenance, gas, insurance. Not cheap. But worth every penny to us. And when this one dies, we will buy a brand new one and hopefully also keep it for at least 10-15 years.

  8. A car can be a luxury.. or a nessecity, depending on where you live.

    In my area, the nearest store is the small gas station just a few hundred feet away. Then, there is a store, 2.2 miles away. It's a store where you only buy certain items, however. The major shopping store is 7 miles away.

    Not so far. But there are no buses. And all of it is along major roads with no side walks. Only ditches.

    My husband and I have a new car. we pay about 200 or 300 a month for it. We expect it to last the next 8 years. We bought for good gas milage, so gas isn't too much of a concern for us.

    My husbands' job relies on his ability to move around as needed from location to location. We couldn't do that with a bus system.

    We go shopping once a week.

    For us where we are, being as far aout of town as we are saves us about 500$ a month on rent... and we have far more room to live in, and room for my own garden, and plenty of room for my niece to run around in.

    all in all, for me, having the car is the lesser of the two evils. :)

  9. I live in a city with good public transport, but I drive bike everywhere - it is cheaper, healthier, and faster. I have a friend who lives in city center and also drives bike everywhere, but sometimes really needs a car to do some errands, move furniture, go visit family in the country.. so he had the idea to buy a car that would belong to/be shared by few couples/individuals: that way, they could share the costs, and when someone needs a car, which isn't very often, only couple times per month, it would be available. I think that is really good idea for his situation.

  10. I think there are some health benefits to not owning a car. I live about a mile ( maybe 2) from 2 major grocery stores and my family usually takes the car. I think that walking there would give us a little exercise and probably cut down on large purchases that we don't need. A few years ago I was working very hard a loosing weight and I would walk with a back pack. Definitely something I could do at least 1 x a week... not sure if my family could because they are very spoiled having a car.

  11. Here in Denver, Colorado we have a a few car share companies that are a good option if you want to use a car but don't need one full time. We also have b-cycle stations that rent bicycles - the first 1/2 hour is free . They also have passes that make it a fairly cheap option. On top of that we have bus and light rail. I think people in America identify owning a car as becoming an adult and freedom. I realize how much money I have spent on cars in the past 20 years and realize I could have purchased a home for the same amount of money.

  12. In California, everything is extremely spaced out (people live in suburbs and commute to the cities for work/school) so you have to drive. It is feasible to take the bus but it would take much longer and be much more complicated since each bus has a limit as to how far it can go. For the people who can't afford a car but still have enough for luxurious transportation, Uber is another option. To be honest, I'm sure most people can still make it to the grocery store and whatnot without a car (closest one being a mile away isn't too bad) but I think because CA has a culture where cars are the default form of transportation, unlike say NY or Tokyo where everyone uses subways, our public transportation system is pretty underdeveloped which further discourages people from using them. My SO used to ride the train to get home from University during breaks. By car, it is about a 4 hour drive. By train, it is maybe 5-6 hours but he said the train broke down so often, it'd take up to 8-10 hours for him to get home!

  13. We recently decided to sell our minivan and go car free. We are a family of 5, our kids are 15, 6 & 4. We selected the house we're renting based on how far it was to various things that we need like a grocery store, hospital, downtown, two summer farmer's markets, public library and a park. Grocery store is a 5 minute walk, the rest take between 5 and 15 minutes. Our town/city or whatever you want to call it only has 25,000 people so it's not super huge. There is a university here though so there is a small bus system that is set up that we could use if we decided to move to a different rental. We plan to keep our driver's licenses current so that if we should desire to rent a car for travel we have that option.

  14. I think a lot depends on where you live. We live in a small rural town in the country. There isn't really public transportation and it's too far to walk, plus I wouldn't walk on the country roads at all. Narrow, curvy, no sides to them. For us, a car is a necessity

  15. We have one car between two adults. We drive 2-3 times a week typically. My partner works from home, and I commute by bus or can walk; it's only 3 miles. We purposely chose to live in a walkable neighborhood with good public transit.

    Where I find the car most useful is in doing large shopping trips, especially to stores that are not right near bus routes. Costco, for instance, is 2 huge parking lots and 1 busy street (with no convenient pedestrian crossing) from a bus stop, and we typically "stock up" there, buying more than our family can carry. However, when I had no car for my first 7 years of adult life, I simply limited my shopping to what I could carry from where I was buying it, and jumped on occasional opportunities to get a ride to a "stock up" place. When we bought our microwave, my partner and I brought it home via two buses and carried it across downtown--not easy!

    I have a friend who sold his car because he was tired of people asking him for rides and then taking too long about their errands or otherwise being annoying! He joined a car-sharing service that he can use when he needs to buy something heavy or to visit his relatives in a small town.

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