My wife grew up in a suburb of Hartford, Conn., but her mother never got a driver’s license. That meant when birthday party time came around, the group of small children whose parents dropped them off for the festivities was each handed a bus ticket and shepherded to Chuck E. Cheese’s aboard public transportation. Challenging? Maybe, but not impossible.
Fast forward to today. My wife and I live with our young son in a suburb of New York City. We own several old cars but rarely use them because we chose to live in a place with a walkable business district and good public transport options.
Of course, not everyone is so lucky, and there is no simple answer to the question, “Can I live a car-free life if I have children?” It depends on where you live, what your obligations are, and upon the physical condition of your various family members. That said, going carless requires a shift in priorities, as well as more careful scheduling. But it is doable.
There are several notable benefits to not owning – or at the very least, using – a car, the first and most universal of which is cost. As motor vehicles become safer, more efficient, and more technologically advanced, they also become more expensive relative to the amount of money most people make.
Kelley Blue Book analysts put the average price of a new car at $37,007 in October 2018 – 60% of the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent median household income figure of $61,372. Add in the cost of insurance, registration, repairs, property taxes, and fuel, and it’s easy to see how owning a motor vehicle is usually a family’s largest expense after housing.
Also, parking tends to gobble up time as well as money. It costs a fortune and can take forever. Having lived in the city, I’ve watched people who street park their cars incorporate into their schedules hours of sitting around waiting for street sweepers to pass by. There are certainly better ways to spend time, but if you elect to park your car in a lot or garage, the rent can be hundreds of dollars per month in many urban areas. In New York City, a parking space can cost as much as a house somewhere else.
Other benefits are less tangible. There’s the slow-down that comes with having to walk more, which gives people time to see the world on a human scale, at human speed. And there’s the expanded view of the world that comes with escaping the small metal and glass boxes in which so many people confine themselves. There’s the evaporation of the stress that boils the blood of so many motorists as they battle their way through congestion while thousands of other people attempt to drive on the same crumbling roads at the same time. In some ways, not driving is like being released from a jail cell.
Living Without a Car in an Urban Center is Easy
Although many Americans have begun to trickle back to the suburbs after a decade or more of urban build-up, a new urban renaissance has spawned a school of thought on carless living. In cities and old-fashioned small towns with central commercial areas and compact housing development, public transportation and bicycles often play a big role in the car-free family’s life.
But there are a number of things to get used to, even in the urban environment. Trips tend to take longer, and you can’t always pack as much into a day as you could when you could just jump in the car and dart hither and thither. Carlessness requires a change in lifestyle that dials back your pace but also leans more heavily upon Internet-based delivery services.
There are a few tips for urban families to remember. First, it’s a good idea to consolidate errands and appointments. This is wise advice for motorists, too. It doesn’t make much sense to go out for only one thing. For those who are walking, riding a bicycle, or taking public transportation, good planning is a necessity. Bundle your appointments and errands, lumping together schedule items that are located near each other.
If you can, exercise while running errands. Sometimes, you want to go for a run and go to the store, but you don’t have time for both. So, if the grocery store is within running distance, strap on a backpack and run there. It sounds silly, but as long as you don’t overload yourself with stuff, it’s doable. I’ve run to the auto parts store before, carrying an axle shaft as I ran home.
Try to keep the services you know you’ll need closer to home. Pick a dry cleaner, barber, or physician that’s located near where you live. Being able to walk or bike there – or even take a no-transfer bus – is a lot easier than having to drive.
Cargo bikes can be a great way to get around. If bicycling is feasible where you live, you can get a bicycle – pedal- or electric-powered – that will accommodate you, your children, and your groceries. Your children will need to be more than a year old to ride (it’s unsafe to ride with children younger than that), and they’ll have to wear helmets, but you also won’t need to carry around car seats, strollers, and some of the other things required in the car.
If you walk and use a stroller, but you’re worried about where you’ll put the stroller when you arrive at your destination, leave it behind and carry your child in a harness. There are harnesses that allow parents to carry their children with the least amount of gear possible. Carrying more than one child requires more than one person to carry, but children who can walk usually will if it’s what they’re used to.
Suburbs Are More Challenging, but Not Impossible
In the suburbs, life without a car can be a bit more challenging. Where I grew up – in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C. – within a couple of miles of my house there were no stores, restaurants, or any social hub other than the high school and a seasonal neighborhood pool. Cycling downtown to the nearest shops and restaurants was possible, but as I found out in high school, the roads to get there weren’t the safest. Much of America’s suburbs were laid out at a time when automobile travel was thought to be the ultimate answer to human mobility.
It’s certainly what many of us have gotten used to, but it’s not the only way. Even in these vast tracts of cookie-cutter housing, there’s a way to thrive without a car, and all it takes is patience and a little more planning. Suburbanites, in particular, with the greater distances they must often travel, would do well to keep a few things in mind.
First, order the things you need online. In the age of the Internet, services that will deliver food and consumer goods abound. Amazon will deliver everything from furniture to cleaning supplies and has made weekends spent hunting for parking at the shopping mall all but obsolete.
It helps to map out bicycle and walking routes. Obviously, this won’t work for everyone, but in places where the weather is decent at least part of the year, and where you can find roadways that will safely accommodate bicycles, it can be a great way to get around. Many communities around the country are installing bike lanes separated from the road.
People concerned about venturing out in cold weather with little ones should know that if they’re adequately bundled up, it shouldn’t be a problem in most cases. Remember, cars haven’t been around for very much of human history, and until the late 1920s, most of them didn’t even have windows or heat. The idea that people can’t tolerate the elements flies in the face of millennia of human survival.
Familiarize yourself with public transit routes, too. Some places really are transit deserts, but most suburbs have at least some bus service. See what’s available in your area and come up with a plan that incorporates the best mix of transportation options. In other words, a mix of walking, transit, and cycling can be an effective solution to your mobility needs.
Planning Makes Perfect
If you plan ahead and know you’ll only need a car once in a while, budget for taxis, rideshares, and rental cars. You can use some of the money you’ve saved by not owning a car for the times when you really do need a set of wheels. In some places, peer-to-peer and traditional rental services are available, giving the carless the option to have a car only when it’s needed. Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft are more widespread than ever before, making it easier to get around in places where it used to be necessary to own a car.
Again – and I can’t stress this enough – plan ahead. Without the option to just jump in the car and go, spontaneous trips – especially with children – can be difficult. But having a handle on what you need to do and where you and your children need to go will go a long way in making the car-free lifestyle work.
Going without a car certainly isn’t for everyone – particularly those who live in rural areas. But by planning well and, if possible, being choosy about where you live, it can be done.
Keep in mind that where children are concerned, you set the tone when it comes to what’s “normal.” At the very least, these tips should help someone who can’t get rid of their car but who wants to drive less a way to achieve that modest goal.