Friday, September 21, 2012

An experiment in doing without

This week I decided to give up my car. For the next year, I'm going to do without it and see where it leads.

For years I've idly wondered aloud to my husband if we could go from a two-car family to a one-car one. He thought no, and he was probably right. We were living in a town with a deplorable sidewalk situation and a nonexistent biking culture. Getting to the library or the grocery store on a bike was often harrowing.

One of the attractions of our new town is its bike-friendly culture. Still, when we moved here in 2011 I needed the car to drive my son to his school back in our old town. When he got out of school in June and we enrolled him in the local public school, I found I didn't need my car that much. I had a bike trail to use for grocery shopping and town amenities and two farmstands open year-round within a mile of our home.

A couple weeks ago we found out our beloved Subaru Outback was in worse shape than we thought, $1800 in repairs we needed right away, then $2,000 more in the spring to fix an ongoing emissions problem. The debate became Do we sink major bucks into a 12-year-old car or go out and buy a new (used) car?

That's a lot of money to sink into an old car, even if it is otherwise in great shape. As for car shopping, I'd rather get a root canal than go car shopping. I'm not exaggerating. I hate almost everything about the experience -- the slick salespeople trying to sell me more than I want, the amount of research that we have to put into it (my husband won't buy a box of toothpicks without doing extensive research on the benefits/drawbacks of flat-end versus round) and the weeks of rigmarole and drama of car-buying in general. If you get a used car, you inherit the past owner's headaches. When my husband had to buy a car last year, he spent weeks looking for a specific model, got it all checked out by his mechanic, and bought it; within two months, he had to sink a couple thousand into it for something that was missed during his mechanic's inspection. Don't get me wrong: I love looking at cars and get all ooo-and-ahhh- at a car show. But buying one? Seriously, rev up that dentist's drill.

So I've decided to go without a car until September 30, 2013. The plan is on October 1st I'm going to reduce my insurance on the car to the bare minimum and store it in the garage. With this type of insurance coverage, I can't drive the car but I don't have to drop the registration. If I decide in a couple months I just can't live without a car, I can put the regular coverage back on, and get it fixed or sell it/buy a new car. I was just too unsure of dropping the insurance and registration, and right now I'm not ready to sell it. If things work out really well with my plan, maybe I will drop the insurance/registration, but baby steps right now.

It's not like I'm going to be completely car-less. I'll bike or walk during the week, and if I need a car, I can take my husband's on the weekends. Or if there's a day where I absolutely need a car, I can drive him to the commuter station. If I need to pick up Oliver from school during the week, I can call a cab. If I need to get into the city, it's no big deal: we've got MBTA buses that run twice an hour into Cambridge. For longer trips, like visits to my parents in CT, I can always rent a car.

Even though I'm a bit nervous about this, I'm also excited. Since I dislike spending money on fuel costs and believe Americans waste way too many resources with their oversized cars and SUVs and thoughtless driving patterns, it feels like I'm putting my money where my mouth is. Whenever I've been to Europe, I've looked with envy at the city squares filled with parked bikes and wished I lived in a community like that, where people bike instead of drive. Why wait for that trend to come to U.S. when I can go for it now? I like the idea of putting physical effort into obtaining a thoughtful list of goods I need rather than passively driving to a mall and filling up my trunk with "stuff." As I age, the more I need physical activity -- not just to keep in shape, but to get my head clear -- and I need it most in the winter. A bit of Internet research shows that winter biking isn't all that uncommon, especially around here. On especially wicked cold days, I'll stay home, just as I do when I have a car. ;-) Lastly, we'll save a considerable amount of money as a result of this experiment. If I can go without a car for a year, maybe I'll decide I don't really  need one. But if the experiment feels like it has to end, I'll have saved enough money to pay cash for the car I really want -- a Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, or some other tiny car with a great safety rating and good gas mileage.

Any advice to share? I'm all ears! (Speaking of which, I'm researching lightweight balaclavas I can wear under my helmet to keep my ears from freezing off.)




  1. Good for you! We've been down to one car for the past 2 years. It was an accident (literally), since my husband totaled the other car. It can be difficult since we have a family of 5, but I can say that I put more thought into my routes so there's not a lot of wasted back-and-forth.

  2. I sold my minivan in the summer and then just couldn't be bothered to go out and buy another (used) car. The rest of the family were having kittens but I actually hardly ever drive my car. I was out in it today for the first time in over a week. I then realised that the panic was because I have two driving teenagers who saw their social lives severely curtailed. I held out for a while but the truth is, sometimes when you need that second car, you REALLY need it.

  3. We are on track to do the same thing. My 2007 Subaru was in need of some expensive work in the near future and I just wasn't sure it was worth putting the money into it. Plus I had never felt comfortable driving it for some odd reason. My husband's 1999 Toyota Corolla is still running, but with 280,000 km on it can't keep going for much longer. We traded the Subaru for a new Hyundai Tucson in July and made the decision that when his Corolla dies we won't try to revive it. If one of us is traveling out of town for an extended trip the other will rent a car to drive for that time period, and it will still work out to being way cheaper than the cost of maintaining to cars.

    Good luck with your new plan! One of the things I am most jealous of when I am in Britain and Europe is their extensive railway/transit system. I think if we had that here it would make it much easier to be a one car family.


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