Advice for the Would-Be Car-Free

The other night I was talking with a friend who wants to give up his family’s car but is having trouble convincing his wife that they can do without it. I assured him that it really is possible, given his circumstances — they live in New York, close to several subway lines, and just a couple of blocks from a garage that is well-stocked with Zipcars. 

51109148_06f9d5a6fc.jpgIt doesn’t have to be just for a day. Photo by via Flickr.

Car-free living isn’t an option for everyone in this country, but it’s always surprising to me how many people hold onto their cars in my neighborhood — where owning a vehicle is truly an expensive inconvenience (because of parking regulations and high insurance rates) and there are so many other ways to get around.

In the hopes of giving my friend some more fuel for his argument, and maybe tipping the balance for a few other people as well, today we’re featuring a post from Streetsblog Network member Car Free with Kids, a blog out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a pretty self-explanatory name. Today they’ve got a post about the importance of backup plans for those considering "taking the car-free plunge." Biking, walking, transit, car-share systems — they each have their place. The blog’s writers also offer some reassuring perspective:

When we were first car free, I remember frequently feeling like I was
backed into a corner. Suddenly there was something I couldn’t do
without a car! But once you’ve settled into your life, and have ready
access to two or three methods of doing your most frequent tasks, you
can save the effort of figuring and planning for the big stuff, like
cooking up a fabulous car-free camping trip, or adventures by train out
of town. And that kind of planning is actually fun.

More from around the network: DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner writes up a report on the increasing integration of biking with transit. Hard Drive has a report on a wildly successful program to get high school kids onto transit in Portland, Oregon. And Bike Denver is urging you to join in asking Congress to expand the Safe Routes to School program.

  • Dave Wiley

    My wife and I are having the same debate right now. My car is long gone and her car is used so infrequently we had to buy a battery charger so we can start it after a couple of months of disuse. Still it is a bit of a security blanket, and going completely car free is a huge step in a not very dense city. In our case we’d donate it to e-Go Carshare and open up the Longmont branch. I’d feel really good about that, but it’s her car. I’m can encourage, nagging, it has been firmly indicated, is right out.

  • The key to “car free with kids” in the city is to be patient and make it fun; here are some personal tips for what it is worth:

    1) Do the research necessary to find fun bike-accessible events and destinations that kids will enjoy.

    2) Learn how to bicycle with kids in the city safely.

    3) Let kids know that your willingness to allow them to bike on the road is a measure of your confidence in their maturity, but that they need to reciprocate by deferring unquestioningly to all your safety-related instructions. Never channel your “road rage” at a motorist toward the kids.

    4) Try to get other families involved.

    5) Compose and sing fun biking songs or play interlocutory trivia games (for kids not too old to be distracted by such things while riding) during the trip–as families in cars used to do before cars and kids came equipped with DVD players and DS’s.

    6) Let the kids have at least occasional veto power over whether to bike; just make sure to offer biking as the default option whenever possible. Don’t insist on biking in the rain or bitter cold (or, even fair weather, at least for routine trips); accede to kids’ ill-timed proposals to bike in the rain or bitter cold with good cheer; and accept that there will be aborted trips that must be completed by carrying the bikes onto the subway, a (cargo-accessible) taxi, or even by locking the bikes up in a remote spot to be picked up by the adult the next day.

    7) Make one-way trips possible by learning how to ferry a second empty bike while riding your own.

    8) Use the money saved by biking and not driving or using transit to buy a guilt-free treat.

    9) Make stops at the site of traffic collisions or fouled/polluted areas and explain to kids that one of the reasons for biking is that it is important for everyone to avoid contributing to these problems.

  • s

    9) Make stops at the site of traffic collisions or fouled/polluted areas and explain to kids that one of the reasons for biking is that it is important for everyone to avoid contributing to these problems.

    Can’t cycling and walking just be its own reward? Couldn’t a driver just as easily point out to an injured biker on the side of the road and say to his kids, “See, that’s why we’re in a car.” Is this a livable streets version of the “Scared Straight” program?

    Being car-free is great. In fact, I love it. But being sanctimony-free is also a nice quality.

  • Glenn

    Nice tips BO!

    One way to justify going car-free is to point out all the hidden fixed costs of owning a car – gas per trip is just the tip of the iceberg. If you don’t need a car everyday or everyweek, it’s really hard to justify owning. Loan payments, insurance, parking, registration/emissions fees, tickets, etc all add up to a lot of dough.

    That said, it’s an emotional topic for a lot of people. The easiest thing to do is let a car gracefully decline until it finally dies and not buy a new one.

  • BicyclesOnly’s list is about cycling with kids, not being car-free. We’ve been car-free for years, but have never ridden bikes with the kids.

    For me it was pretty much a no-brainer, and I think it was because I grew up seeing my dad living just fine in the city without a car for forty years.

    Other than business, travel or bulk shopping, the only reason I can think of why any New Yorker would want to have a car is as a status symbol, their mark of entry into the middle class. I just don’t know why they can’t look at all the obviously middle-class people on the bus and subway and realize that you can be car-free and people will still recognize you as middle-class.

  • s,

    Parents inevitably teach their kids values, whether explicitly or not, through their actions. One of the great things about our system is that parents have nearly complete authority to teach their kids whatever substantive values they wish. Motorist parents can teach their kids that the streets are dangerous places, don’t enter them except in a motor vehicle, by words, deeds or both. I have seen many parents, motorists and otherwise, very overtly teach kids their kids that lesson, over and over.

    I have different values, and I’m teaching those values to my kids. Teaching is more effective (and poses less of a risk of didacticism or sanctimony) when the kid is shown something concrete that illustrates the point rather than just being handed a statement in the abstract. If we come upon a traffic or environmental situation that illustrates my values, you bet I’m going to seize that “teachable moment”–in my view, that’s my job as a parent. One thing I never tell my kids is that we are categorically better than motorists because we use bikes. No sanctimony here.

  • Regarding costs read:

    “A Real Auto Bailout: Escape Your Car, Brett Arends”, WSJ December 22, 2008

    . . . American Automobile Association figured its members paid about $7,800 a year on average to own and maintain their cars . . .

    $7,800 pays for a lot of car rentals, taxis, and limousine services.

    Cycling can be much more convenient and enjoyable in many if not most instances in many urban areas especially when it has become a habit just like driving cars although, it can become so easy getting around by bike that many people may get too lazy to walk since they can expend up to four times less energy or go up to four times faster for a given distance, or up to four times further in a given time.

  • zgori

    The single best way to encourage people to give up car ownership in NYC would be to make car sharing and car rental reasonably affordable and convenient. Spending hundreds of dollars to drive a beat-up hyundai every time you want to want to go away for a three or four day weekend makes car ownership sound appealing even if the math says it’s still, overall, a worse deal.

    Instead, we have rental agencies trying to out-gouge each other and politicians who slap extra fees and taxes on car rentals while keeping bridges toll-free. Zipcar is convenient, but not always reliable, and weekend prices are insane.

    As long as cars are a fact of life outside of the city, we need reasonable ways to access them.

  • Excellent point Gecko, and the nationwide average cost of owning a car of $7,800 a year hides the cost typical of owning a car in a city like NY, where insurance and parking cost more, and the risk of getting at least a few tickets each year is pretty high (unless you are an (un)civil servant!).

  • I convinced my sister to go car free in LA by doing the math for her. Shes be spending $20 a day just to have the privilege of having a parked car – gas is extra, as is parking at the destination. A zipcar is much, much cheaper. (This matches up with the $7,800 given above)

    Do the math and then find out where the money can go. X to pay off debt, y for savings and z for a family trip to disney, or a cruise. Suddenly, having a car doesnt make sense when there are alternatives.

  • My husband and I signed up for car sharing too. We chose Connect ( because it was about $2 cheaper/hour than Zipcar, had cars in better condition, and a lot of tech features like GPS, bluetooth etc. Definitely worth it for short trips out to NJ every now and then 🙂


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