I’m shocked by what we discovered in our 30-day car-free experiment… but even that wasn’t enough to affect the outcome. Here’s our final decision.
Our 30-day car-free experiment
When we lived in Texas, we never even considered going car-free. Everything is far (distances are bigger in Texas), the public transit in Austin sucks (at least outside of downtown), and we visited Dallas often, which is a 4-hour drive.
But after living in Portland for 8 months, we became curious about selling our car. Many of our friends had two cars when they moved to Portland and sold one of them. Several of our friends went entirely car-free after moving to Portland. We talked about it with our friends, and all but one were extremely happy with the choice to go car-free. We interviewed Tammy Strobel about her choice to go car-free in Portland, asked her all our questions, and shared all our concerns.
This is a great example of the ripple effect: how being yourself and choosing your own path can ripple out to change the world. A handful of our friends each made a personal, individual choice to sell their car, then they went about living their lives. We talked to a small handful of these people, which sparked our curiosity, which led to discussion, which led to research, which led to this experiment, which led to… well, I won’t spoil the ending for you.
We were drawn to going car-free because:
- We could save money
- Less driving is better for the environment
- More walking is better for me and Kyeli
We also looked into ways of driving places without owning a car, like Car2go and Zipcar.
Cost: $.41/min, $15/hr, $85/day, $.45 per mile after 150 miles per trip.
Fairly convenient and fairly environmentally friendly. Perfect for short trips and one-way trips.
Cost: $6/mo, $10/hr, $88/day, $.54 per mile after 180 miles per trip (I added 20% to the advertised cost because the website says “as low as.”)
Less convenient because you can only find them in special Zipcar parking spots and you have to return them to where you got them. There are only a couple of Zipcar spots in easy walking distance of our house, and one of them always has a blue pickup truck in it that I don’t really want to drive. But it might be good for medium-distance trips like driving out to the coast.
Our “fake Car2go”
The usefulness of these services depends on your lifestyle, and our lifestyle is pretty atypical, so we decided to simulate car-free living for 30 days before actually selling our car. We wanted a better idea of what we were getting into. We pretended that our car was a Car2go. We took all our stuff out, and started parking it 5 blocks away from home so we could experience the inconvenience of having to walk a ways to get to a car.
During our 30-day car-free experiment, we paid attention to how much we drove our “fake Car2go”. We said we’d set a timer to track how many minutes and hours we used, but we forgot to time it a couple of times. We drive 2-3 times per week: once to the grocery store, and 1-2 times to somewhere else. We went to the coast once and visited Salem twice.
We walked a lot! It’s been wonderful. We’ve seen all sorts of beautiful things in Portland. Once we passed a labyrinth that was open to the public!
As part of our experiment, we invested in better cold/rainy weather clothing. We knew that we would doom this experiment before it even began if we planned to be wet and cold while walking.
I used to be terrified of buses. Before this experiment, the last time I rode a bus was fifteen years ago, when I was in college in Pittsburgh, and I took the 54C to get to a doctor’s appointment. I couldn’t tell where my stop was, I got lost… it was super stressful and everyone was gruff. I wasn’t looking forward to experiencing that again.
After getting used to bussing in Portland, I actually like it now. It takes a while to get used to figuring out where to go, but practice plus a smartphone with a GPS makes it much easier. And now that I’m used to it, I find it much less stressful than driving. I don’t need to worry about crashing, or hitting pedestrians who jump out in front of me. I don’t need to make any quick lane changes. (I’m a nervous driver, so “quick” to me means “less than half a mile.” (And if you’re wondering why the nervous driver is the primary driver, it’s because Kyeli’s arthritis makes it painful for her to drive.)) And last but not least, when I’m bussing with Kyeli, we get to have more interesting conversations, because I’m not very good at conversing while I’m driving.
During our 30-day trial, Kyeli took the bus about 3 times per week and I took the bus about 2 times per week. Kyeli’s going to go up to 4 times per week now that her gym membership has begun. It’s $5/each for a day pass, so that works out to 6 day passes per week which is $30/week or $130/mo. Not quite worth Kyeli actually getting a monthly pass, which is 30 day passes for the price of 20.
Total cost of public transit: $130/mo
I don’t hate downtown anymore!
I’ve always hated downtowns. Every city I’ve ever lived in, I’ve avoided downtown like the plague. When I lived in Austin, my friends would all come to visit for SXSWi, and they’d ask me about different venues. I had to tell them I had no idea, because I only went downtown once a year – for SXSWi.
But what I’ve learned is that I don’t hate downtown, I hate driving downtown. Bussing downtown and then walking around is great! There are a lot of cool places and they’re not hard to get to. The buses run frequently and are super convenient. I feel like a whole new quadrant of Portland has been opened to me!
A weekly grocery run takes about 90 minutes.
That would cost about $27/week in a Car2Go.
It would cost only about $20/week in a Zipcar, which works out to $87/mo.
Total cost of grocery shopping: $87/mo
Monthly Trip to the Coast
Once a month, we make a trip out to the Oregon Coast. When Kyeli and I were deciding where to live, she wanted to live on the coast and I wanted to live in Portland. Our agreement was that she can be happy in Portland as long as she gets to visit the coast at least once a month.
It’s about a 2-hour drive to the coast, 100 miles there and 100 miles back, depending on which route we take. So if we took a car2go (which we probably couldn’t even do in winter weather) it would be the $85/day rate plus 50 extra miles, so $107.50.
If we took a Zipcar, the hourly rate might be cheaper than the daily rate. If our total trip took us 7 hours, that would be $70 instead of $88/day. And Zipcar gives you a few more free miles, so the extra 20 miles would cost $11, for a total of $81. Even with the $6/mo fee, that’s still cheaper than car2go.
If we rented a standard rental car, we could get picked up by Enterprise and get a $37/day rental. Plus $13 for gas makes $50. It would be way less convenient, though, because we’d have to go to a rental place and stand in line. Also, that doesn’t account for insurance. Car2go and Zipcar both include insurance in their rates, but rental car companies don’t. I do know that the insurance you buy at the rental place is a scam, though, so we’d need to get our own insurance. We want to have a minimal auto insurance policy even if we just use Car2go and Zipcar, because their insurance doesn’t cover personal injury protection (PIP). It looks like we could get the coverage we need for about $25/mo. If we only rent one car a month, that’s pretty inefficient, but still cheaper than Zipcar.
Total cost of road-tripping to the coast: $75/mo
Driving to Salem to visit our friend Jen, and staying there for several hours, would probably cost close to a road trip to the coast. There wouldn’t be an extra mileage fee, but the daily rate would probably be cheaper than the hourly rate, depending on how long we stayed. So $85 for a Car2go or $70 for a 7-hour Zipcar trip. There’s also a train from Portland to Salem, and it costs $20 round trip. So that would be $20 if just one of us went and $40 for both of us. I think we’ll take the train and ask Jen to pick us up.
I’ll budget for one Salem trip per month for both of us, and one for just Kyeli.
Total cost of visiting Salem: $60/mo
I see you drivin’ ’round town…
That accounts for most of our driving, but part of the benefit of doing a 30-day trial is to notice the exceptions and the special cases. Once we went clothes shopping, and a couple of times we went to visit friends when we didn’t feel like bussing or walking.
Our clothes shopping trip was the only one that would have been expensive, because we went to Tigard which is a bit out of the way, and outside of Car2Go’s allowable parking area. So we would have needed a zipcar for that, which would have been about $30.
The other trips were less than 10 minutes of driving apiece, and some of them were one-way. I’ll estimate about 3 one-way trips a month and 3 round trips a month. 10 minutes each way makes 90 minutes total, which adds up to $40.
Total cost of incidental driving: $70/mo
Our final decision
We’re going to sell our car. We checked in with our hearts, and we fist-bumped.
Oh wait, I guess it would be smart to add up all these numbers before making a final decision, right?
- Total cost of public transit: $130/mo
- Total cost of grocery shopping: $87/mo
- Total cost of road-tripping to the coast: $75/mo
- Total cost of visiting Salem: $60/mo
- Total cost of incidental driving: $70/mo
Total cost of transportation: $422/mo
Dang! Our total cost of car ownership is $397 plus maintenance, and that includes the full car payment. When owning a car, a good chunk of the car payment goes toward equity, so we get some of it back in the future when we sell the car. But car-free, none of it goes into equity.
I really expected to save money. In fact, that was the main reason I was interested in going car-free. I’m shocked at how much it will cost us to get around… but now that I’ve tried it out for 30 days, I want to do it even if we don’t save money. I enjoy all the walking. Kyeli can’t drive much anyway due to her arthritis, so the two choices are really “car-free” vs. “own a car and pay for some public transportation.”
Being car-free will encourage us to drive less.
Most of the costs of car ownership are fixed monthly costs: car payment and insurance. If you drive less, you use less gas, but all the other costs stay the same.
Getting around when you don’t own a car is a totally variable cost. If you stay home, you don’t pay. And…
If you get creative, you save money.
What if we bought a wagon and walked to the grocery store, then pulled the wagon back home? We’d need a tarp to avoid getting our groceries wet, but that’s doable. Or what if we had our non-perishable groceries shipped to us? That kind of undermines the environmental benefit, but I really want to find a way to avoid spending $87/mo on transporting our groceries the whopping one mile from the store to our house.
What if we could find a friend who also enjoys road-tripping to the coast, and go together? If they own a car, we could ride in their car and chip in for gas money. If they don’t, we could share the cost of the rental.
Heck, what if we could find a friend who lives within walking distance and come up with a car-sharing agreement? We could occasionally borrow their car and reimburse them in some way. That could save us butt-tons of money. We could ask our neighbors, too, or look into a peer-to-peer car-sharing service.
But how does it feel?
The car-free lifestyle feels… better. It feels more adventurous. It encourages me to walk more, which is fun, interesting, and good for me. It encourages me to be more connected to my body and to the world around me.
And as for the cost, I’ve replaced one fixed cost with a bunch of variable costs. Even if it doesn’t save any money at first, we can get creative with ways to cut down on the variable costs.
I could have estimated the costs without doing the 30-day trial, but I couldn’t have estimated how it feels. I didn’t realize how stressed I felt when driving, especially downtown, and I didn’t realize what a relief it is to let go of that.
Simulating a big change before committing to it
Talking with friends, then being curious enough to commit to parking the car 5 blocks away from home for 30 days. That’s all it took to open me up to this change.
Is there a big change you’re curious about and/or afraid of? Is there a way you could simulate that change without making any final decisions?