“I could never do that” is most people’s automatic response when hearing about an alternative of some kind, whether that’s getting rid of their TV, waking up at 5 AM (same), or not eating dairy products. Nobody is asking; generally people are just talking about something that they do, not campaigning for other people to do it. Living without a car is definitely, definitely on that list. For those who are curious, it’s not really all that complicated. Resolve how you’re going to get to work, and that’s almost all of your trips. Shopping and errands take different strategies than the work commute. This can be an interesting game in its own right.
The first secret behind car-free errands is to realize that many errands are really just excuses for something to do. Going straight home every night can feel boring and restrictive. Errands can be set up to include fun stops, like picking up some ice cream. In fact, I think the majority of the time we’re looking for reasons to swing by the drive-thru. Guess what? They don’t let you through the drive-thru unless you are, in fact, driving thru. Gotta go inside. If the treats and fun side trips are a hidden motive behind errands, those can be rewards for using an alternative mode of transport, whether that’s a bike, unicycle, donkey cart, or the city bus.
The second secret behind car-free shopping is that so much of it can be either eliminated or delegated. For instance, I refuse to buy any garments that are dry-clean only, so we never have to go to a dry cleaner. We order a lot of things online and have them delivered. Judging by how many different delivery services come through our apartment complex, more and more people are doing this, and it seems pretty efficient. It’s also possible to special-order various products, from groceries to books, that a conveniently located store doesn’t currently have in stock. Occasionally, we’ve been known to have groceries delivered. This feels like a true luxury, and it’s definitely cheaper than the carrying costs we were paying when we still owned a car.
The idea here is that we’re only making side trips when it’s fun, when we want to. We refuse to be daily freeway commuters, and we also refuse to spend our precious free time on evenings and weekends circling around looking for parking. When we go out, it’s an excursion.
Another very important strategy behind car-free shopping and errands is to consolidate them. We have various hubs where we group errands together, and most of these trips can be delayed until we have enough of them to make a real outing of it. Examples:
Movie theater/favorite casual restaurant
Movie theater/mall/chain bookstore
Independent bookstore/nicer restaurant/specialty dessert place
Grocery store/pharmacy/haircuts/UPS Store
Bike shop/bookstore/REI/nicer restaurant/indie movie theater
For many errands, there are multiple options. We may be going to one place because we’ve always gone there, because it was close to our old apartment or our old job, or because it’s close to our hidden destination of frozen yogurt or whatever. We can often find an equivalent, or a different location of the very same chain, that’s closer to another stop we need to make. Finding these places is a big part of the fun. Often we run across hidden gems, expanding our sense of possibility and enjoyment of where we live.
Another aspect of car-free shopping and errands is to choose what type of car-free option to use. My husband and I go places on foot, by bike, on the bus, and using ride-share services. We choose which way to travel based on what we’re trying to do and what time of day it is. For example, we rode our bikes together to get breakfast on Saturday at the cafe near my gym. On Sunday, we took the bus to the movie theater, walked to a restaurant to get dinner afterward, and caught a Lyft for the trip home. The local bus is cheaper, but it only runs once an hour at that time of night. We’ll eventually ride our bikes for more of our trips, as we get fitter, because our increasing physical strength will start to redefine what we consider to be “biking distance.”
A bicycle is the most efficient way to get around for anything within a 7-mile radius. I confirmed this for myself when I first bought my bike twenty years ago. Not only could I beat the bus home, but I sometimes made it home before my evening bus would have made it to the stop by my work. Almost all errands involve items that can easily be carried in a backpack or panniers (which are special bags designed to hang off a rack on the back of your bike). An easy pace on a bike is about double a fast walking speed; I can speed-walk to my gym in a sweaty 35 minutes, or bike it in 15-20, including the time messing with my lock and helmet. There are only a few occasions when a bike is less efficient: When picking up very bulky or unwieldy items, like a garden rake; when combining a trip with bus travel, if the rack on the front of the bus already has two bikes on it; and, for us, if we’re trying to bring our dog somewhere. The existence of affordable delivery services and ride-sharing make these anomalies something of a moot point.
If you want to cut back on how much you drive, because driving is really a very annoying chore when you think about it, you can do it gradually. Test out one errand or one trip through an alternative method. If that didn’t work out so well, try the same errand a different way, or try something else. Then start keeping track in your mind of every time someone cut you off, honked at you, or stole your parking spot. Remind yourself every time you have to clean out your car, buy new tires, or send in your quarterly insurance payment that these are just part of the price you pay for car ownership. Or you can look at some of my vacation photos and see where else that money could be going!
See you at the beach. There’s plenty of room for you to lock your bike at the rack right next to mine.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.