What Living Without a Car is Like, and How to Do It Well

  • Posted on: 17 November 2021
  • By: pygmycory

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.

Your Health:

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.

Your Work:

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.

-taxi/uber
-rental car when you really need a car
-electric bicycle
-regular bicycle
-low speed motorcycle
-e-scooter
-kickscooter
-mobility aids
-misc. other small human/electric motor things
-foot

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.

Comments

ClareBroommaker's picture

That's really interesting that the kickscooter is easier on your fibromyalgia than a bike. I wonder why that is so.
I'd like to hear how people with children manage without a car. We've always lived in a walkable area, with our own paid work in-home or nearby. My son and I used bikes a lot, my husband less so.

Several reasons. I kept bashing my legs with the bike pedals, and this left giant bruises due to the medications I was on, and this sometimes set off my fibromyalgia symptoms, as did the saddle. And if I fell off... fibroflare time on top of the excessive bruising. And the bicycle seat hurt. Basically, the pain using the bike caused was enough to stop me getting over the learning curve of getting good at riding it. If I known how to ride a bike well and had been riding regularly when I developed fibromyalgia, it's possible I'd manage to ride a bike.

The learning curve of the kickscooter is lower, so less risk of falling off. No pedals to bash myself with, and no saddle to torment me. It was way better from a pain perspective.

Can't help you much with the child issue, since I don't have any. I have seen a lot of people with a child seat on a bike, or cargo bikes carrying babies or kids, or bikes pulling trailors containing kids. A lot of these are electric, since they're heavier and you're carrying an additional person.

Once the kids get into preschool, there's a lot of little kids zipping around on balance bikes and scooters. And people walking as a family to school or other places.

Strollers and babies are on the bus regularly, though sometimes they can't get on the bus because there's already too many wheelchairs or strollers occupying the handicapped area.

I'd imagine that unless you're getting a taxi for groceries or getting them delivered, you visit the grocery store as a family and get everyone to carry some of it home. When my mom got rid of the car when I was in my late teens, that's what the two of us did. A week's worth of groceries for two people is better carried home together than having one person trying to cope with all of it. If the kids were small, this would be a lot harder to manage.

Although actually, one of my friends brings home groceries in bike panniers for herself, and her parents. A bike can carry more cargo than most people think if it is set up properly.

A friend of mine made a lot of use of bikes growing up. This is their take:

"I rode in a baby seat, mounted over the rear wheel, until I was old
enough to ride my own bike. I've seen children under three on balance
bikes, and though they are sort of slow compared to an adult cyclist,
they are faster than walking. A tagalong cycle or trailer cycle (not the
same as a cycle trailer: a bike attached to the back of another bike) is
a good option for larger kids if you want to ride at full speed. Putting
them in a trailer may be a mistake; it means they aren't cycling, they
tend to get cold and see less, and it's harder to get them in and out.
By seven, kids can generally keep up fine. Small size is not a
disadvantage in cycling, as small competitive cyclists show.

If you want to know about what I did as a kid? From age seven, I was
allowed to travel independently by bike, without adults. I travelled a
lot, especially to libraries and parks, usually with other kids of a
similar age and younger."

They also mentioned that a bike caddy/wheelie suitcase can be attached behind a bike in place of a bike trailer to carry stuff.This is one designed for this use: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brompton_caddie_cabas.jpg

I really can't comment on this myself, as it isn't something I've done or seen anyone else do.

We have lived without a car for nine years now, first in a city of millions with very bad public transportation, now in a city of 500 000 with still not too good transportation. It was hard with a small child, but somehow we managed. Uber (nowadays mostly taxi) for medical appointments and in the big city for transporting the monthly grocery shopping home.

My job (and my wife's university) has always been reachable by bus and at the moment I work from home. Our daughter now goes to school 10min by foot from our home. Several small stores are on the same street as the school, bigger supermarkets are a weekly bus trip. Bus also for trips to the public library, museum, further-off parks etc. It has meant that we are basically restricted to the area of the city and have rarely travelled anywhere to the countryside. From time to time we take the train to visit a larger city.

kma's picture

This is a very nice article! Thank you.

On my to-acquire list has been an adult tricycle bike. I live near a bike path and see them frequently enough with older people on them. I can ride a bike now but it occurs to me that a trike will be far more useful as I age.

I've never tried an adult trike. They do look cool.

My 92 year old mother has a trike she rides in her neighborhood (very few cars) for exercise. Just recently she had my brother put an electric assist kit on it so now she is better able to get up the slight hill back home from the mail box. I have seem some really good cargo trikes and think they would be good grocery getters.

We've been operating with one car for several years -- Bill and I work from home as writers. We still need a car for events as you can't haul books without a car.
We were gifted my parents' old Buick and I'm still undecided if we want to keep it. Except when the Ford died, we had a spare which we needed.

What I always suggest to people who think they can't live without a car and/or think they need another vehicle is to see how little they *need* a car. I'm routinely shocked by how many people don't plan their trips and consolidate errands into batches. There are weeks when the car leaves the driveway once: I do all my errands on Wednesday. I plan ahead, I make lists, and unless it's an emergency, the errand waits until Wednesday. Just doing that makes a difference.

Most of us with cars can easily reduce usage by 10 percent or more.
Why do you drive your kids to school if they can ride the bus?
Why do you drive your kids to the school-bus stop at the end of the block? (My girlfriend did this.)
Why do you go to the library on Tuesday, the grocery store on Wednesday, and the drug store on Thursday?
Why do you insist on shopping at the fancy Food Temple on the other side of the river, 30 miles away (a neighbor).
Why did you purchase a car from a dealer on the other side of the river, knowing that his special deal routine maintenance involved always driving to the other side of the river? (the same neighbor.)

And most of all, which is largely why we bought our house where we did: Why did you purchase a house with an hour-long commute?

Central Pennsylvania offered many options for living. When we relocated here, we took a map and pinpointed Bill's job. Then, we drew a 30 mile circle with his job as the center. That is, the radius was 15 miles. That's the circle we house-hunted in. We did not go outside the magic circle. Just doing that, along with choosing to live in-town, near services I could walk to, made a huge difference.

Other thoughts: look at the services that are available within a one-mile radius. Dentist office? Bank? Drug store? Shopping? Restaurants? Library? Post office? etc., etc. Are you wedded to that bank you have to drive to?

You don't have to give up your car -- an all or nothing proposition -- but as Pygmycory says you can use it less.

The less you use your car, the less it costs in terms of insurance, maintenance, depreciation, and general wear and tear. You also save time, another valuable commodity.

Exactly.

We have lived without a car for nine years now, first in a city of millions with very bad public transportation, now in a city of 500 000 with still not too good transportation. It was hard with a small child, but somehow we managed. Uber (nowadays mostly taxi) for medical appointments and in the big city for transporting the monthly grocery shopping home.

My job (and my wife's university) has always been reachable by bus and at the moment I work from home. Our daughter now goes to school 10min by foot from our home. Several small stores are on the same street as the school, bigger supermarkets are a weekly bus trip. Bus also for trips to the public library, museum, further-off parks etc. It has meant that we are basically restricted to the area of the city and have rarely travelled anywhere to the countryside. From time to time we take the train to visit a larger city.

Good to hear from someone doing this with a kid.

I find I don't leave my city much, either. I go visit relatives in a different city every once and a while via long-distance bus, or to visit medical specialists that aren't available locally.

David Trammel's picture

When I lived in Los Angeles I was without a car half the decade I was there. I could not keep a car running, lol. Luckily the bus system is amazing, ran 24/7/365.

Here's an option though, if you need a car. Go to UHaul, the storage and moving company. They typically have pickup trucks for rent. Occasionally I'd go to a party, club or meet friends, and didn't want to take the bus. At the time I could get a pickup for the night for $20 plus mileage. Its still that cheap now.

That was pre-Uber though, so I don't know what a ride costs with them.

If you have a driver's license, and need a pickup truck, that sounds like a good option. It would also be good for people who have a small car, and just occasionally need something bigger for hauling stuff. Or people who'd like to have a fuel efficient small car instead of a truck, but really need that pickup 3 or 4 times a year.

The problem isn't just too many cars, it's also that so many people pick pickups and SUVs they only need a couple of times a year, if that.

I was ostensibly car free for seven years. I lived in Sheffield, England, and travelled by public transport over much of England for my job. However, I had a partner who lived in Scotland and visited me most weekends. When I visited him I did so by train but, whilst he did this occasionally, he preferred to drive. I benefitted from his driving to see me so I can't really say I was totally car-free.

Since he retired we have bought a house in Derbyshire and his car came with him.

Since Covid I have been happy for him to transport me around. I am finally coming out of my Covid-funk and I'm looking at going back to using public transport, although this has deteriorated somewhat over the last two years. We live in a small town so I can walk to the shops, swimming pool etc. I have looked up how to get to the three/four places I want to go to that I have been going to by car. It is possible to get to these places but it takes a long time. Rather than being a couple of hours out of the day it will be a whole day expedition (and cost more). I've thought about it and decided that now I am also retired, what does it matter if I spend the entire day going somewhere? I can take my knitting and my wheelie bag and probably enjoy myself more. It is a question of reassessing priorities for me.

My partner's car is small and quite old but very economical. When we need to transport a lot of people, as occasionally happens, we rent a bigger car. I don't expect to be car-free again any time soon but I am determined to minimise our car impact.

I am afraid that my car/truck will be one of the last things to go in my Green Wizard journey. We use both constantly in our garden and house renovation endeavors. Though "retired" from regular work, I still work for cash and that still requires I drive here and there to earn it. Also I need the truck to transport all of my setup for the various craft fairs I attend to sell my wares.

However, I do make an effort to not drive any more then I need to and to chain my errands.

If everyone planned their trips and jobbed their errands, you'd see a huge difference in the number of cars on the road.
Just ten percent fewer cars makes traffic flow considerably smoother.
Ten percent!
Yet based on what I see, too many people can't be bothered to job errands. They just dash off to the store every day, to the point of coming home from work and then driving back out when they could have stopped on the way home.

I do my best to job all my errands into one day a week. It's more efficient, saving me time and gas.

Then there is shopping local instead of driving ten miles to the fancier supermarket. Drive ten extra miles to the fancy supermarket instead of the one in town and you've driven a *lot* more than you needed to.