What Living Without a Car is Like, and How to Do It Well
Everyone owning a car/truck/SUV is not sustainable, and what cannot be sustained won’t be. Not forever. Electric cars sound nice, but when you follow the energy and the materials used to make them, the environmental benefits are a lot smaller than they initially seem. Electric vehicles are also still too expensive for a lot of people to buy, and vulnerable to instability in the grid. There also seems to be a potential problem with large numbers of electric cars worsening grid instability.
Doing without a car entirely is much better for the environment, and can save you a lot of money on insurance, gas, and repairs, as well as the cost of the car.
(copyright pygmycory, Green Wizards)
But modern North America is built around the assumption that everyone who matters has a car. So what’s the Green Wizard to do? Just how hard or easy is it to live without a car in North America, anyway?
I have lived my entire adult life without a car, in large cities to small towns in BC, Canada, as well as in small towns in Utah, and Washington State. I know living without a car can be done, because I have done it, am currently doing it, and expect I will likely continue to do it for the rest of my life.
That said, how difficult it is it to live without a car? In my experience, the difficulty and the balance of pros and cons depends on where you live, your state of health, and what you do for a living. It can be anywhere from ridiculously easy to impossible depending on those factors.
Where you are:
The smaller the town or city you live in, the worse the bus, the cycling, and the walking infrastructure are likely to be.
Rural areas are the worst by far. There’s often no rural bus system at all. If it exists, it is often so infrequent as to be useless for most purposes. There’s also less likely to be bike lanes or sidewalks that go where you need to in rural areas. Cars are less likely to be aware of cyclists and pedestrians, and less pleasant about sharing the road. This makes walking and biking harder and less safe than in towns and cities. Though this is often countered by lower traffic volume.
Rural distances tend to be long, which may knock out walking entirely as a method of getting to most places you need to go.
Small towns vary a lot. Some towns are compact enough to be completely walkable within half an hour or so. If you can walk from one end of the town to the other, you don’t need a car to get around inside it. If you feel confident riding a bicycle on the roads and paths of your town, the same applies.
I have lived in little towns like this, and I loved being able to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, in a reasonable timeframe without having to spend money on bus tickets, or time waiting for a bus. You need to live in the town, not outside it in the rural hinterland to get this benefit.
If you need to leave your small town on a regular or semi-regular basis, check the long-distance bus service schedule. It could be anywhere from many times per day, to nonexistent. If you will need to travel to a larger center to go shopping or to visit medical specialists more than a couple of times a year, this is important to consider before you get rid of the car.
You may be able to carpool – there’s sometimes websites set up for networking rides to a larger center that you can use. Or you can tap into the informal grapevine. You can often get a ride if you pay part of the gas costs of the trip.
In BC there’s also a program called Wheels for Wellness that exists to get people to their medical appointments, whether in-city or far away. It’s volunteer-run, and the service is by donation. I have used it a couple of times when there was no other way for me to get to a specialist appointment far away from my small town without turning it into a multi-day trip. It worked well. I avoid bothering them if I have another way to get to my appointment.
Plenty of people manage this way in small or remote communities, but it can be a lot less convenient than owning a car if you have to do travel outside town frequently or need to do something on a specific date, like attend a medical appointment. If you work long hours, that will also make it less practical.
Some communities are fly-in only for much of the year. They may be tiny and walkable, but I have never lived in one, and don’t plan to. What happens when kerosene prices skyrocket and formerly high prices for basic supplies turn into astronomical ones? Or the planes go from twice a week to once a month? Or there’s a massive forest fire heading your way in a hurry and the provincial government is already juggling three states of emergency that affect more people?
The bus system in Victoria, BC is quite good, although it is much better in some areas than others. Downtown is excellent. Some of the furthest suburbs do not have access to the bus system without a very long walk or very infrequent service. Or both. Most places are pretty good to good.
Medium towns and small cities generally have some form of transit, but quality and coverage varies dramatically between towns and within the town itself. You may not be able to get to your job if you work weird hours, so find out if the bus system will work for you before you ditch the car.
Getting rid of your car is easiest and makes the most sense if you live in a city. Cities usually have some form of bus service, and the bigger the city, usually, the better the bus service. In Vancouver, having a car is expensive and not all that convenient compared to the very capable bus system. Time waiting for the bus vs. time to find parking... unless you specifically need the vehicle to do your job, having a car in Vancouver is an expensive luxury.
This excludes distant suburbs and exurbs, though. The bus service there is not nearly so good, and the distances to anywhere you need to go can be very long. You need to check what the bus system is like in your neighborhood, as well as in your city.
If you are a fitness fanatic who already enjoys riding a bike long-distances, congratulations! You are an ideal candidate for going car-free.
Fortunately, this is not a requirement. I have fibromyalgia, plus some tendonitis and eye problems. I can’t use a bicycle without more pain than it is worth. But I can still take a bus the vast majority of the time, walk a couple of km on most days, and use a kickscooter on good days. I get by. So do many disabled people, and elderly people with mobility issues. Where I live, disability pensions are low enough to preclude owning a car unless you have other income or subsidies, so disabled people living independently are very likely to be doing without a car.
This means that when able-bodied people insist that they can’t do without a car, I tend to take it with a large grain of salt, unless they genuinely cannot get to work or do their job/business without a car. Because they’ve demanded it of others less physically able the entire time the automobile has existed.
Some people are prone to medical emergencies that require immediate transport to a hospital, but not an amulance. If you’re a couple in a small town and one or both of you have this issue, check the availability of the taxi in the wee hours of the morning. If the town taxi is just a couple of people who often don’t work past midnight, and you don’t have friendly neighbors you can call at 2am to take you to the hospital, you probably want to keep the car even if you don’t use it much. If you’re single and have this kind of problem, you probably aren’t going to be safe to drive during your medical emergency, so you’re going to need a different solution anyway.
If the problem is just lack of physical fitness, using active transportation is likely to fix this. Start slow and gentle, work up to more ambitious walking or biking, and don’t get rid of your vehicle until you are reasonably sure you can manage to get around without it.
Some people need to own and use a vehicle for their work. If you’re a landscaping contractor who needs to take large tools and stuff with them, a farmer hauling livestock or produce to market and soil amendments home, an Uber driver, or a field biologist working in the back of beyond, you need a vehicle. Or maybe there really is no way you can get to work without a vehicle. For example, if you can’t ride a bicycle for medical reasons, it’s too far to walk, the local bus system stops at 6pm and your job starts at 10pm. Or if you’d be walking through a bad part of town at 2am as a young woman.
In these cases and others like them, you’re stuck with a vehicle unless you switch jobs or your work provides a vehicle for you to use. Not everyone can live without a vehicle right now. Fortunately, there’s things you can do that aren’t all or nothing.
(copyright pygmycory, Green Wizards)
Before you get rid of the vehicle:
Getting rid of your car is a big deal, and a big step. But there are things you can do to test your ability to do it without it without going cold turkey. You can also stop at some of the part-way stages if they work for you and going completely carless doesn’t. Less car travel will still save you money and lower your impact on the planet, and this is still very much worth doing. Not least because you are quite likely to be forced by finances or other life circumstances to live without a car at some point, so it’s a really good idea to get some practice at moving around in other ways while you still have the car for backup.
Choose one thing to get to without a car, and get there regularly by another method. This will teach you how to get to that place by that method, and give you practice at using that chosen method to get around. Then do the same thing with somewhere else. Then another. Try a different non-car method if the one you initially chose doesn’t work for you. Maybe you tried walking to work, then realized you work standing up all day, and adding an hour of walking daily on top of that is simply too tiring. So you try the bus instead, and maybe that works for you.
Using the vehicle less will cut down on your gas use, and wear and tear on your vehicle. It also means that when gas prices spike, or you lose your job and can’t afford a vehicle, you’ll be much better prepared to do without it – and if you save the money you didn’t spend on gas, you’ll be better prepared financially for hard times as well.
If you’re a family, do you really need two vehicles? Unless both of you must get to work in two different places at the same time by car, you might be able to step down to one vehicle. This would cut your transportation costs dramatically, and might be a great in-between step if you aren’t ready to live car-free.
My mom and her boyfriend spent years as a one-car family. When I was growing up, my stepmom took the bus to work, while Dad had both his home-based business, and consulting work that was a two hour drive away. They could probably have managed with only one car, and this would have saved them quite a bit of money over the two cars they did have.
Don’t sell the car, but do consider delicensing (or registering it non-operational) it if you can in your city. This will save you a lot of money over running a vehicle. My mom and their partner spent a while using the car during the winter and delicencing it and taking it off the road for the summer. Then the car died, and they didn’t bother to replace it. They’ve been car-free for years now.
If you live without a car, you’ll likely find yourself using some of the following transport modalities.
-rental car when you really need a car
-low speed motorcycle
-misc. other small human/electric motor things
Some people may find a canoe, kayak, sailboat, ferry, rowboat, skiis, snowshoes, or ice skates useful, but this is less common and very case-specific.
Learn to be flexible:
All of the above list of transport options have pluses and minuses. You’re likely to find yourself using different options for different things. I currently use walking to go to the doctor, grocery, hardware, pet, and music stores. I prefer to use my kickscooter for bank, collecting leaves for the garden, library, thrift store, Walmart and bead/rock and gem stores, unless the weather is icy or rainy. Vet trips require a taxi, but that is very rare. I take bus trips to places too far to kickscoot easily, like the best garden center in town.
Bicycles are the most popular non-walking active transport option in most places. There’s a significant amount of infrastructure being built for them in many cities right now. If you tried biking years ago and couldn’t make it work for lack of infrastructure, you might consider giving it another go. The winds are changing and more and more cities are opening the roads to non-car travel.
When I had a job, it usually required a bus trip to get there, though there have been a few I walked to, and I hitched a ride with fellow interns when I was doing field biology.
Because all of the options above cost less than maintaining a car (unless you use taxi, rideshare, or rental car all the time), it is easy to mix and match. The small other human/electric powered category is very eclectic. It includes tricycles, etricycles, skateboards, eskateboards, Segways, rollerblades, unicycles, pogostick (yes, I’ve seen this) and things that I have seen people use but can’t identify.
A lot of these aren’t road legal, or legal for sidewalks, but people use them anyway and they generally slide beneath the radar so long as they aren’t being obnoxious or pulling dangerous stunts. A police officer having a bad day might ticket you, though, and a lot depends on how acceptable the thing you’re using is locally. Some are more practical than others, and I think some are more for fun than for practical transportation. There’s no way using a pogostick is less tiring than walking. Still, why not try one, if you want to?
I think the most practical methods for most people are bicycles, ebicycles, bus, and walking, with taxi, rideshare or renting a car as backup for those rare times when nothing but a car will get you where you need to go. I would encourage anyone who is physically capable of it to learn to ride a bicycle.
A bicycle increases your speed and range dramatically over walking, and a regular bike requires no electricity or gas to function, letting you laugh at high gas prices, lineups at gas stations, people circling for blocks looking for parking, and people waiting for the bus. There’s also significant bike infrastructure in a lot of places these days, and it’s increasing.
My kickscooter happened because I wanted to ride a bike but found bikes played very badly with my fibromyalgia. The kickscooter is slower and doesn’t carry loads as well as a bicycle, but the learning curve is less steep and I can ride it without pain while getting where I want go faster than by walking, so it wins for me.
(copyright pygmycory, Green Wizards)
Experimentation is the order of the day. Try different things and see which of them work for you. And don’t forget to have fun while you’re at it! I love my kickscooter.
I hope this gives anyone wanting to reduce their car use, or get rid of their car, some useful suggestions. Good luck! Your success benefits all of us.