Navigating Cities with Public Transportations

Intercity bus, from Cleveland to NYC
I live somewhere with amazing public transportation. We have very cheap buses very frequently to the nearby city, and both seven minutes away and fifteen minutes away I can transfer to a variety of other buses that can get me pretty much to any part of my region that is on the bus route. I've written about how my family manages without a car. I've had people tell me that I am lucky, that I should count my blessings, that most areas aren't doable with public transportation, especially with a family. And that just from my experience, I can't actually extrapolate on how it is to live elsewhere without a car.

So on my recent trip to the US, New York and Cleveland, and then to London, I wanted to share my experience with public transportation, and also my thoughts on how it would be if I lived there and needed to navigate the area without a car. Would it be doable?

I want to add a caveat and say that I am literally just talking about these three cities (plus a few more). I am aware that there are places with absolutely no public transportation, and that what I say can't apply to all places. But I still wanted to share my experience and thoughts.

Waiting for the bus in NYC
It Takes Time

In many cases, living without a car is doable, but that doesn't mean it is easy. There is something so much more convenient about just being able to leave the house whenever you want to, hop in a car, run quickly to another place and then right back. Living without a car simply takes a lot more time. Time waiting for the buses. Time for the longer routes with all the stops, especially when it is less direct. Time walking to and from buses. When someone is very short on time, public transportation times can really eat into your day and your ability to get things done, whether work or child care or something else.

A passing bus in London
It Isn't Easy

Yes, it is more challenging to take your groceries in carts, and carry it on and off buses. Yes, it's annoying that you have to wake up sleeping kids and transfer them from one bus to another, and wait outside, sometimes in bad weather, for the other bus to arrive. Yes, it is frustrating to need to get onto a bus with your stroller and kids and find room for the stroller. Yes, its tiring to walk to and from bus stops if you don't live near the bus.

On the NYC subway
But It Is Doable... It Just Takes Planning

Certain people tell me that its not possible for them to live without a car. They live in an area that's far from a bus stop. Their kids go to schools in different parts of the city, and they work in another area. They simply wouldn't be able to manage their life without a car.
And they're right.

When you don't have a car, in order to make it work, you structure your life in a way that it is possible without a car. You choose to live in an area that's close to a bus route (and yes, distance from the nearest bus stop was one of the most important things I looked for when looking for a house). You work in an area that's along the bus route. Your kids go to schools that are walkable, along the bus route, or has busing there. By structuring your life in a way that is doable without a car, you can end up living in a neighborhood like mine that has lots of people with no cars, and lots of lower income people, and therefore you also have less pressure to keep up with the Joneses, and also have lower cost services and products because they know the people in the area can't afford to pay more.

Buses outside a London "Tube" station
Yes, You'll Be Giving Things Up

In order to live without a car, you will have to give up things. You'll have to make compromises. Maybe you end up taking a job that is less ideal, pays less or is in a field you don't enjoy. Maybe you'll live in a neighborhood that you don't like as much. Maybe it means your kids won't be able to do extra curricular activities because you won't be able to drive them from place to place to get there in time. Maybe it means that you won't be able to go on certain trips that aren't accessible by public transportation. It means that you'll have to structure your day to be on time to catch the bus and have to come back before the last bus for the evening. It means that you are more limited in where you can grocery shop and clothes shop and how well you can bargain shop in general, because whatever you buy you need to bring back with you by bus, unless there is delivery.

At an NYC subway station
It Isn't For Everyone

Not everyone wants to have to do this. Not everyone can do this. And if you live in a place where there is the possibility to get a license cheaply, and gas doesn't cost a fortune, and can buy a beater car, you may not want to live without a car, and that is totally fine.

I'll put in, not everyone should do it. For some people, it is a much better deal to buy a cheap car that you can afford than to structure their life to be able to manage without a car. But for those that want to know how it is possible to live without a car, this is how this mother of 4 has been living without a car for the last 13 years.

Oh, the Stairs!!!

Even in cities that were very convenient for public transportation, stairs were a big issue! I only was traveling with suitcases and I'm quite strong, but it was a pain to carry my things up and down the stairs to the subways and trains. Many of the places had elevators, but it meant traveling far out of your way, and even more places didn't have elevators, and required going to another stop for elevators. In my area, city buses are usually folding electric wheelchairs accessible but intercity buses are not at all.

If someone is mobility impaired, public transportation in most places I went is nearly impossible. And taking kids in strollers, while it may be possible, is difficult (and a woman fell down the stairs in an NYC subway, I think with a stroller, and died). Carrying wagons of groceries would depend on your body type and what you're carrying, whether or not it would be doable or impossible.

On the aptly named London tube. The cars have a rounded top, unlike other places I've been to.
It's Definitely City Dependent

Some places are so much more doable with public transportation than others. London, for example, is absolutely amazing in terms of public transportation. There are buses everywhere, but I never even took one because the tube was so much more convenient. I never was waiting for more than 5 minutes for a train, and often I was just waiting for a minute or two when I needed to transfer.

On the NYC subway
NYC was a little less convenient than London, especially in places further away from the lines, but you can take buses to the trains and then its doable. I did find that in London there were more lines that went directly to where you needed, or you could transfer without going out of the way, but in New York, sometimes you had to travel an extra 30 minutes out of the way by train to be able to transfer to a train to get you to where you needed to go.

On Cleveland's RTA buses
And both of those were certainly more convenient than Cleveland. Cleveland has buses that go by grids, and there are large swathes of residential areas that had no busing, and you'd need to walk 10 to 15 minutes to the nearest bus stop. I did it when I was in Cleveland, and it was doable to get to everywhere that I needed to go, but annoying. If I were to live in Cleveland and I had no car, I'd try to find a house as close to the bus lines as possible. The other thing about Cleveland is that the buses were way too infrequent. Most of them in the suburbs ran only once every hour, which made things really inconvenient and really time consuming to travel, especially if you missed one bus. But if you time things correctly, you can do it.

In my travels to rural communities in Poland and Greece, I saw how public transportation can be even more difficult, with buses serving them only a few times a day, so this would be a real pain to do, but still might be possible, if you time things right.

What Would I Do?

Having gotten a taste of public transportation in these three cities, what would I do if I lived there?

If I lived in New York City... I probably would go without a car. Traffic is so extremely horrible that I'm not sure how much better my life would be with a car. If I did have a car, I can't imagine using it on a day to day basis. I'd probably use it for big grocery shops, but not for day to day work.

If I lived in London, I'd probably be even less likely to get a car than if I lived in NYC. It is so extremely convenient to get around by public transportation there that I could only see getting a car if it was really, really cheap, or if specific life circumstances required it.

If I lived in Cleveland, I definitely would not try living without a car. The Cleveland public transportation system, especially out in the suburbs, needs a lot of improvement. But if I didn't have a car, I'd try my best to figure out how to make it work. It just would be hard, and travel time would eat a lot into my day.

But living where I do, I really feel no pull to get a car. A license with the ability to rent a car as needed, yes. But I definitely don't feel a need or even a desire for a car right now.

Basically, after my travels, using public transportation in quite a few cities, and public transportation near home, I see why people say they could never live without a car. But I do think, though, that public transportation is more doable than most car owners realize, it just takes compromise. Often a lot of compromise.

Do you have a car? Do you spend a lot of money on your car per month? How much, in dollars, would you say your monthly expenditures on a car are? Do you live without a car? How do you manage? What is public transportation like where you live?

Penniless Parenting

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


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  1. We've never had a car and raised five children in a suburb with minimal, but doable livable public transport. A few times we hired someone to take us to events, and that cost a lot less than owning a car. We're fitter because we don't have a car. We have traveled less than we would have, but to have owned a car, really two cars, we'd need a lot more income.
    Thank Gd we live in a community that has the custom of giving rides. That has helped. And now we're senior citizens and enjoy 50% discount on all public transportation.

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