The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

The Car Conundrum

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I’ve never owned a car in my life. For the first time though, I have actually started to consider it as an option. Part of me is so committed to the car-free movement that I can’t imagine letting go of my stance, but part of me wonders about the practicality of car ownership in certain regards.

I didn’t have a car as a teenager (my parents were kind enough to let me use theirs if I needed it) or during my college years so I have been holding off on this moment for a long time, not wanting to make that big purchase or shift my lifestyle in such a drastic manner. Previously I convinced myself I didn’t want the headache of constantly hunting for a parking spot, and I didn’t want to have to think about the price of gas or allocating part of my paycheck toward car insurance. But now I’m mulling over some other factors in my mind. So, let me walk you through the line of reasoning that began to point me in the direction of car ownership. Then I’ll reveal whether I ultimately decided to go for it or not.

First, I’ll lay the scene: I live in an apartment close to several bus lines in downtown Milwaukee, a mid-size city with adequate, but not great, public transit. I take the bus to work every day. I also take the bus to various activities around town, but a lot of what I do to get places is walk. I walk to my volunteer shift at the homeless shelter nearby. I walk to the grocery store every week. I walk to the commercial strip a few blocks away for food and drinks. I walk because I enjoy it. I also walk because the exercise is beneficial, because I get to experience the city in a personal way and because walking is free.

I like this lifestyle, and so far, my schedule can afford the extra time it takes me to get places in this manner. However, there are a few factors that have been weighing on me and making me rethink my decision to own a car.

Here are the factors that are making me reconsider:

  1. Winter is fast approaching and suddenly my pleasant strolls through downtown Milwaukee look more like bundling in five layers and hunching my body against the freezing wind while I dodge ice patches. Standing at an uncovered, unheated bus stop for several minutes each day looks equally unappealing. The idea of being able to cruise toward my destination in a warm pod sounds pretty darn nice right now.
  2. As a young woman, I have had various well-intentioned people tell me it is unsafe to be out walking or waiting for the bus by myself after dark. These people want me to get a car. I think I would feel safer traveling by car instead of walking.
  3. My back hurts from carrying bags of groceries. On the one hand, having a grocery store within walking distance is an incredible blessing. On the other hand, walking home from the grocery store with bags full of food is one of my least favorite activities. I have to plan my purchases based on what weighs the least and stagger my heavier purchases in multiple trips. It’s a pain.
  4. A car might not actually be that much more expensive than my current modes of transportation. I get by on a mix of bus trips, walks and Lyft rides. My unlimited bus pass costs $64 a month and my Lyft rides (which amount to maybe 2 or 3 a week when I don’t feel like taking the bus or don’t have the time to do so for whatever reason) add up to around $80-100 a month. Surely the price of gas, insurance and even a car loan or lease would be around that, right? Especially if I split those costs with my boyfriend, who is also carless.

Modes of transport venn diagram

Well, I weighed all these significant factors. I even went back to that Venn diagram I concocted a few months back that details the advantages and disadvantages of biking, walking, driving and taking public transit. But in the end, I still came down solidly on the side of my current lifestyle, and I decided not to purchase a car at this point. Let me address each of the above issues and tell you why it still wasn’t enough to convince me to buy a car:

  1. To account for the cold factor, I had to think about my morning routine in the winter. Right now, a few minutes before I’m getting ready to leave for work, I’ll start checking the Milwaukee County Transit System “Real Time” website, and when I see that my bus is arriving in 6 or 7 minutes, I head out to the stop, wait a minute or two for my bus, then hop on it. Total time out in the cold: 6 or 7 minutes, and 5 of that is at a brisk walking pace. If I had a car, my routine would look more like this: Trudge out to my car, turn it on, start scraping snow and ice off it, start defrosting the windows, jump inside and begin driving to work. Unless I had a really top-notch heating system, I suspect it would take a solid 10 minutes or so for the car to heat up in the cold months of a Midwestern winter. Thus, my total time in the cold is around 10-15 minutes, depending on how far I had to walk to reach my car. So the verdict is: on a normal day, a car is actually the less warm option. Of course, in circumstances where I am taking the bus somewhere different and have to, say, wait for a transfer, or walk several extra blocks to a particular location because it is farther off the bus route, then the car is a warmer option. But on average, I’m not better off in a car than in a bus when it comes to weather.
  2. Now, to the question of safety. Once in a car, I am certainly safer than I would be walking outside alone. However, if I owned a car, I would still have to walk outside to and from that car multiple times a day because my apartment doesn’t have a parking lot. In my dense neighborhood, it’s not uncommon for residents to have to park several blocks away from their apartments. So, under my current circumstances, a car would not completely eliminate my time outside alone. Furthermore, in a way it creates even more of a risk for me. Currently, someone might see me as a small female, and therefore a great target for a robbery. However, if I had a car, that someone would see not only my physical features, but also my automobile asset, making me an even more desirable target. On the other end of my trips, I might be able to park closer to my destination and keep myself a little safer, but I’m still going to have to park in my neighborhood and walk home at some point. The bottom line is, I’m street smart and I do the best I can. If someone wants to rob me, then my having a car is unlikely to stop them, and may actually make them more interested in targeting me so they could get my car too.
  3. Addressing the third factor of carrying heavy groceries is not so easy. Carrying groceries is down right pain, and it would definitely go away if I had a car (for the most part). That being said, if this was such a bother to me, I could shell out $25 for one of those collapsible shopping carts and save myself thousands on a car. Case closed.
  4. Here’s the clincher: Price. Supposing I did get a car, and even supposing that I shared all related costs (loan payments, insurance and gas) with my significant other, I ultimately conclude that it’s still more expensive to make that investment. First, car loans are a rip-off. Second, having a car would not completely eliminate my need to purchase bus tickets or Lyft rides. No doubt, I would be taking the bus sometimes if my boyfriend needed the car, or taking a Lyft if I was planning on drinking that night. So, sure I might only spend a third or a quarter the amount of money on those that I currently spend, but the cost would still remain. Finally, and this is one of the most important hidden costs to consider, I have to factor in parking tickets. Milwaukee is notorious for its vicious parking cops. They will ticket you anywhere at any time for any infringement possible. So, even though parking is technically free near my apartment and by my office, I’d undoubtedly be swallowing the cost of a few parking tickets, or at least plugging parking meters, if I owned a car.

 
Finally, there’s the intangible deterrent to car ownership: stress. I like to be able to roll up to my destination and walk right in without having to factor in the unknown of hunting for a parking spot, much less paying for one. I don’t want to have to worry about whether my car door will be frozen shut on a -5 degree day, or whether it will start at all. I certainly don’t want the added stress of factoring in all these additional costs each month. In the end, this was a straightforward decision for me.

One important note: You’ll recognize that there are a few key elements that make my car-free lifestyle doable. One is the Real Time bus website. If your city doesn’t have this, you’re far more inconvenienced when it comes to taking the bus, and you could spend countless extra minutes at a stop if the bus is running late or you’re unfamiliar with the schedule. Another significant element is the availability of Lyft (or Uber, if that’s your thing). For those unfamiliar, Lyft and Uber are phone apps that allow you to request a ride from any number of certified, background-checked and highly-rated drivers in your area at pretty much any time, for a price that is often lower than cab fare. Lyft is pretty big in Milwaukee, which means that if I ever miss a bus, or feel unsafe taking a bus, or don’t have the option of a bus because it doesn’t go where I need to go, Lyft is there for me. If that was not the case, and I had to rely on rides from friends or cab rides or the bus alone, I’d be much more unwilling to undertake this car-free lifestyle. Finally, probably the single biggest factor that makes living without a car possible is my location. My apartment is close to four different bus lines, including one that takes me directly to my office in about 20 minutes. I have grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and even hardware stores within walking distance of my house, so I never have to hop on a half-hour bus trip just to get toilet paper.

Geography is often the number one argument I hear from people defending their need to own a car. In one sense, I buy it. If your job is in a factory 10 miles south of town, surrounded by cornfields, and then you work another job right after your shift in a bar 20 miles north of that, the bus is probably not going to cut it. If you live in a suburban development that’s 25 miles from the downtown where you work and 3 miles from anything besides other houses, you’re going to feel like you need a car. My response to that is 1) jobs and living arrangements are somewhat based on choice, and 2) I know people who manage all that and still use public transit. And they don’t only exist in New York City.

I put this train of thought out there in the hopes that you’ll think through your own reasons for owning a car, besides just force of habit. Really walk through the pros and cons and the key arguments before you fritter away your time and money in an automobile.

Have you ever made the jump from owning a car to not owning a car, or vice versa? What influenced your decision?

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5 thoughts on “The Car Conundrum

  1. i’ve never owned a car (can’t afford it), but i’ve always wanted one! the bus in houston (which is how i get to work) is fine at getting me places, but it’s certainly a stress i wouldn’t want to deal with if i could afford otherwise. i’ve been harrassed at the bus stop, catcalled walking to the bus stop, normal being a woman stuff that could be avoided if i had a car. plus, where i live isn’t really a choice (can’t afford otherwise) so i have to keep bus travel in mind when applying to jobs. (am i willing to spend three hours on a bus every day for a job that would potentially pay me enough to save for a car?) i’ve also found that not having a job has limited the jobs i can apply to because lots of them will require you to either have a car or have a license and car insurance (mostly nonprofits that want you to do deliveries occasionally, or government agencies that require some travel).

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    • I definitely agree with your comments. Not having a car truly does limit job options, I experienced that in Milwaukee for sure. I wish our bus/train systems were good enough to allow for this to not be an issue.

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  2. I love your approach. When I was your age in the 1980’s I was living in a completely car dependent suburb and bought a car thinking it would give me freedom of mobility. And it did. But that freedom was immediately negated by the financial chains that came with the cost of owning the car. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere because the car ate all my discretionary income. And to be honest, the only place to drive to in the area was the mall. I moved to a new walkable town that happened to have a train station and some not-too-bad bus service and suddenly I was flying to Europe and Asia with my car money. That was real freedom of mobility.

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    • Great to hear. I appreciate your perspective. It really is a huge drain on finances to own a car, and I think people who have one don’t often stop to think about what their life would be like if they were able to save that money or spend it on other things.

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  3. My father also made a really good point to me about another cost to factor in with car ownership: repairs. That would definitely be an even greater financial drain, especially when the need for repairs comes unexpectedly.

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