We're car-free now. Everything got so coincidentally hectic around that time that I haven't written about it in any depth. It just gets dropped in casually, like, "Yeah, we're middle-aged suburbanites and by the way, WE HAVE NO CAR." I'm trying and failing to think of anything else that makes a good analogy for this. Maybe the fact that neither of us drink coffee? Cars are so central to our culture that the idea is unimaginable to many people. When it becomes imaginable and practical for people like my husband and me, listen up, because the world is changing fast.
I didn't learn to drive until I was 29. I couldn't have afforded a car in my teens or twenties any more than I could have afforded a horse. It made no sense to me to work just to pay for my car so I could get to work to pay for my car. I lived in a city where I could take the bus to work, and that's what I did. I think I also walked at least three miles a day, and sometimes more like seven to ten. A few years later, I bought a commuter bicycle. People would sometimes ask me what kind of car I drove. When I replied, "I don't have a car," they would invariably laugh and say, "Ha, that's a good one! No, seriously." The conversation would go downhill from there, as in California in the Nineties, saying you didn't have a car was tantamount to saying you were in a weird cult. Probably weirder.
I can't socialize with you. You don't have a car. I mean, how are we supposed to do anything together? How will we get there? How do I categorize your personality and demographics and socioeconomic pigeonhole if I don't know what brand of vehicle you are?
That was then. Now, it's not such a big deal, partly because apparently a lot of Millennials don't own cars either.
What led us to get rid of our car was a casual interest that intersected with a coincidence. My husband's old truck finally died sometime after 200,000 miles. He took it to the shop and found that it was going to be a continual money pit. Time to let it go. We had a long discussion about how trucks can represent masculinity and potential, and how much our lifestyle had changed since he bought it. We talked about what we would do if we needed a truck for something, like buying bags of potting soil for the garden. Then we bought a Volkswagen Jetta TDI, a little sedan. Then there was a major international scandal, and VW instituted a buyback program.
We had that car for a little over two years. Between March 2016 and March 2017, we drove it 2000 miles. That included two road trips.
We drove so little that the car insurance company disputed our estimate and made us send photos of the odometer.
What happened was that we decided to build our lifestyle around not having a commute. Commuting is the least pleasant activity in most people's day. We figured we'd rather live in a tiny house or a sketchy neighborhood than have him on the freeway up to two hours a day. Every time there was a collision and he sat broiling in traffic, it brought home the idea even more. Driving is for people who actually like being in a car, and neither of us do.
We decided to move. We spent a few months looking in the neighborhood within walking distance of my husband's work. I work at home, so it doesn't really matter to me. We started finding places, and finding that they had been rented out before we managed to call. We developed our criteria and a sense of what we both wanted in a house. I got an email alert about a new listing while the phone happened to be in my hand, forwarded it to him, and he called within five minutes. We were the first of 83 people that day. Apparently a lot of people are willing to live in a tiny house so they don't have to commute! I happened to be out of town, so he took pictures of all the rooms and texted them to me, and I agreed, technically sight-unseen.
My husband started walking to and from work most days. He might drive if it rained, but sometimes he walked anyway, and wore a hat. One morning he found a wad of $84 on the ground. I did most of the grocery shopping on the way home from my various walking errands. I think of myself as my own car. If I want to go to the library, or the post office, or a club meeting, or the movie theater, I walk there, and I plan my route to swing by the store on the way home. We lived in a small, walkable community, and we walked.
After three years at that job, my husband got an offer on his dream job, working in the space industry. We decided to move again. We left our 728-square-foot house and moved into a 680-square-foot apartment. Coincidentally, the car buyback appointment with VW happened the week before our move. We were so busy moving that we barely noticed.
The best thing about being car-free was during the move. We both rode in the moving van. I was really stressed about the idea of driving the car and trying to follow the van, because I hate having to organize a caravan. It turned out it also would have been really hard for us to park next to each other at the Airbnb or during the moving process. Maybe I'm weird, but to me it was a relief.
Actually, I'm forgetting myself. The best thing about being car-free was when we got the buyback check! Now we have no car payment, no car insurance payment, and we're not spending money on gas or oil changes or car washes or parking or bridge tolls. I knew to expect this, because I got rid of my first car when I finally realized it was costing me a quarter of my (unimpressive) income. We used the buyback money for our IRAs. Future Us will appreciate this long after that car would have been a rusted-out clunker.
As a practical matter, there are three things we do with a personal vehicle, besides using it for storage. 1. Commuting to work, 2. Errands, and 3. Recreation. These can have separate solutions.
My husband decided to try riding the bus to work. His work reimburses him for his bus pass, so instead of a car payment, his commute is now free. He bought a folding scooter to use between bus stops. This has turned into a major source of fun, as he's been tying Spike's leash to it and having the dog pull him around. It's like they're puppies again.
Errands are no big deal, because our apartment complex is 4/10 of a mile from a shopping center. It has: a Whole Foods, a pharmacy, a dry cleaner, a UPS store, a pet supply, a barber, and the all-important taco shop. Across the street is the public library and the post office. Last weekend, we took the bus together to buy a large and awkward item from Office Depot. It turned into an outing where we both got some stuff resolved at the Apple Store and then went out to dinner. Most stuff, we order online and have delivered, as we've been doing for several years.
Recreation is sort of the point of the whole thing. We moved to avoid having a commute so we could free up time to be together at home. More time to take naps with the dog. More time for gardening. More time to sit around reading. More time to cook awesome stuff. We plan our vacations around not using a car, because most of the places we like to visit don't even allow cars. Historic districts, wilderness, archaeological sites, urban areas that are more advanced than most places in the US. The Las Vegas Strip, which I find exemplary for many reasons. Now we've moved again, and we live at the beach. Not just at the beach, but directly on the waterfront. We can hear sea lions when we walk the dog. We can kinda see a little bit of ocean from our balcony!
Going car-free is an urban choice. It really doesn't work for people in rural areas. Whether someone prefers one or the other is purely personal. It's a full-on lifestyle design decision. Both of us have lived in rural areas, near forests, near agriculture, in the suburbs, and in the city, although my husband hasn't lived downtown in quite as large an urban metropolis as I have. We've tried it all, and we're coming to find that trying it all is part of the fun. Owning a car nails down your finances in a similar way to a mortgage. Paradoxically, not owning a vehicle or house frees up so much cash flow that it's liberating, even though most people would regard not having a car as a net loss of freedom.
We're lucky in many ways. In other ways, we've made conscious choices, plans, and decisions to live one way instead of another. We're willing to pay higher rents per square foot in order to live in certain overpriced neighborhoods, and the tradeoff is that we get a living space that is half or one-third the size of what most Americans have. (Maybe less). We plan to have more experiences and less stuff. That's why we can now walk on the beach together during the time that other couples our age would be at the mall or watching cable TV. Less stuff, less screen time, and less time in a car translates to more time doing more fun things. What used to be fairly routine for most people, like living close to nature and having long conversations, has become special occasion date-night activities. We're enjoying flipping that and having special occasions every day.
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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.