For two years back in the ’90s, I lived the life of a starving student with three housemates in a row house in the heart of Washington, D.C. None of us owned a car. My university was five blocks away, and we were within walking distance of some of the greatest restaurants and bars in town. I never had to deal with Beltway traffic. Our house had a detached garage that we rented to a med student who drove in from Virginia, which reduced our monthly rent by a good amount. It’s a time upon which I look back fondly.
There were drawbacks, of course. Our house was somehow uphill from anywhere you wanted to go. Trips to the market required diligent planning; no heavy items were among the spoils brought back to our house. No juice was bought, but we did splurge on Kool-Aid powders. Soda was an indulgence only to be had at restaurants.
Trips to big-box stores in the ‘burbs, like Ikea for cheap furnishings, had to be well coordinated. I coughed up cab fare to lug back a TV (remember, these were the days before flat screens) from Circuit City after months of living without one. And on frigid winter nights after evening study sessions, we had to beg our car-owning friends for rides in exchange for hot wings at The Tombs.
Today, I’m a suburbanite with two kids, our family owns two cars, and because my husband and I are both automotive journalists we sometimes have four vehicles clogging up our garage and driveway. It’s unimaginable to not have a car with my lifestyle and occupation, but I do miss the freedom of the days when I was young and car-free.
It seems like car ownership is a right granted to all Americans, but there are plenty of people who choose to go without having a car. Here are some lifestyles that don’t require a vehicle for one’s existence to be complete and happy.
The Budget-conscious Lifestyle
A car is most likely the second biggest purchase you’ll make in your life, next to a house. The cost of a car goes beyond the payments. You have to account for fuel, maintenance, insurance, registration, parking, tolls, and more. And when there’s a breakdown, traffic ticket, punctured tire, or a collision, get ready to whip out that checkbook.
Consider that against the cost of a Metro card, and even with the occasional Lyft or taxi bill you’re likely coming out ahead by getting rid of your wheels. Instead of paying for a car, you can put that extra cash toward savings or a vacation, either of which goes a long way toward life satisfaction.
A word of warning, though: According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), relying entirely on ride-hail apps as your source of transportation can be more expensive than car ownership.
The City Dweller Lifestyle
Cars can be a hindrance to truly enjoying your city. If you live in a major town along the I-95 corridor, it’s a pretty good bet that your neighborhood was built as a population center before the days of the automobile. As such, shops and restaurants are likely to be centrally located in a compact area that offers a robust public transit system.
Crowded cities also mean crowded streets that make parking a hassle. And having to move your car around for street cleaning days, along with all the damage your bumpers endure from less proficient parallel parkers trying to squeeze in ahead of you? Insanity.
I once read that in Manhattan, beyond the cost of an apartment, some buildings offer a parking spot for an additional $1,800. While you might not be a starving student, owning a car still might be a luxury you can’t afford. That makes a car-free lifestyle all the more appealing.
The Eco-conscious Lifestyle
According to the EPA, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. And while there are vehicles that belch out zero or partial-zero emissions, most cars still require the use of fossil fuels, as we are years away from having a truly robust alternative-energy transportation infrastructure.
If you’re concerned about the health of Mother Earth, knowing that your car is likely contributing to melting polar ice, changing climate patterns, and threats to plant and animal life is a genuine drag. Liberating yourself from dependence on fossil fuels to greatest extent possible can lift your spirits and even give you a smug sense of satisfaction that you’re no longer a part of the problem, but a part of the solution.
After all, nothing beats not owning a vehicle when it comes to environmental stewardship and greenhouse gases.
The Health-conscious Lifestyle
I read somewhere that every person should be walking an average of 10,000 steps a day. I scoffed and then drove to In-N-Out for a Double Double and a vanilla milkshake.
The closest outlet for such yumminess is just a couple of miles away from my house. Without a car, I would have met that lofty goal just walking to the restaurant and back and felt a lot less guilty. Or I could’ve ridden my bike for a similarly effective workout.
But there’s a mountain grade between me and burger heaven, so car.
The Senior Living Lifestyle
Frankly, I would prefer to be riding in a car with a senior citizen driving than be a passenger with a teenager behind the wheel. Seniors have more experience and wisdom to keep from doing dumb things and taking stupid chances, and teens have the highest crash death rates per miles driven, according to the AAA.
But seniors do come second in this sad statistic. There’s no doubt that as you age, you might have to contend with declining eyesight and reflexes, combined with increased reaction times to collision threats. Seniors also sometimes deal with reduced flexibility that makes important tasks, like turning your head, more difficult.
If you’re a member of the senior citizen community and have a family to help out, friends with whom to carpool, or you live in a city offering senior resources such as rideshare vans, it might be a relief to eliminate the responsibility of driving from your life.
The Young and the Restless Lifestyle
Some people like being the designated driver and wearing the mantle of the conscientious. You’re the one that your friends call upon to get rides. And since you would never think about drinking and driving, you’re the sensible member of your crew that sips Shirley Temples while your pals are quaffing pints.
If that doesn’t describe you, by getting rid of your car nobody can ask you to drive to happy hour, and you won’t be tempted to “hold your liquor” and subsequently ruin your life, and those of other people. Plus, by getting rid of all that extra automotive expense, you can double-down on your party lifestyle because you’ll have extra cash for enjoying bottomless mimosas at brunch with abandon. Just call a ride-hail and split the fare.
In all seriousness, no, I’m not suggesting that you should ditch your car so that you can buy booze. But we all know someone who probably shouldn’t have a car because they’re out all night, every night, don’t we?
Only a Nobody Walks in L.A.? That’s So ’80s
For many, a car represents freedom, giving you the ability to go where you want, when you want, and with whom you want.
But for others, car ownership is a burden. Beyond the costs of owning and maintaining a vehicle, driving itself is a huge responsibility, and some people either don’t enjoy it or are truly terrible at it.
And who likes driving in rush-hour traffic? At least if you’re the passenger in a car or a bus, you can spend your time doing other things instead of muttering under your breath about the idiot in front of you.
Another thing to consider is that shopping habits have changed. Remember my Circuit City excursion in the ’90s? Now, if I want a TV, all I have to do is make a few taps on my phone and a UPS truck shows up at my door. Same goes for groceries, or pretty much anything I might need or want.
If you live in an area where a car is not a necessity, and it’s easy to call for a cab or Lyft, you might benefit mentally and physically by freeing yourself from the encumbrance of driving. Try it, if only for a few years.
And if I can convince my hubby that he really doesn’t need a 15-year-old Miata collecting dust in the garage, maybe our household will downsize to just one car, too.