Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Things to consider before going car-free
Last year, I decided to sell my car and begin a shiny, new, car-free lifestyle. It's mostly been a good decision. But along the way I've learned a few things, and there are certain factors to consider before sending your clunker to the scrap heap.
1. How will I get to work?
I work from home, so this is a no-brainer. But can you bike or walk to work? How far is it from your apartment to public transit? How long will it take and how many connections?
Public transit is generally less tiring than driving, but if it will change your commute from ten minutes to an hour, you'll likely grow to resent it quickly. On the other hand, you'll get more reading done and, in large cities, it can be much faster.
2. How will I get groceries?
Again, I live in a Chinatown, so there are lots of small grocers and fruit stands. But big grocery runs for bulky items like toilet paper or heavy stuff like laundry detergent were easier with a car. There are options. One is to do more frequent, smaller shops. Another is to walk to the grocery store and take a taxi back. Many grocery stores will also deliver the items you purchase for a modest fee. Or, for about $9, you can do all your shopping online and have it delivered by a company like Grocery Gateway in Toronto. Online shopping is different, so accept that the first couple times will be slow and probably aggravating. I've used Grocery Gateway a few times and the service has been consistently good.
3. What about getting out of town or to meetings?
I either take transit or a taxi to the airport when flying. But camping trips, visiting rural relatives and many other activities do require a car. Carefully consider how many of these trips you make. You may discover you're better off just not using your car for in-town things, but keeping it for out-of-town trips.
If the balance works in favour of ditching your wheels, do some comparison shopping for your occasional car needs. Car-sharing cooperatives like AutoShare and Zip Car offer some great advantages, such as fuel and insurance included in the price and hourly rental windows. However, their daily mileage is limited and extra miles are expensive, making many rental agencies a better bet for multi-day trips. Why go with a Zip Car instead of rentals? Rental car agencies run out of stock on weekends and on weekends they typically have a two- or three-day minimum. Expensive if you just want to nip out to see Granny.
4. Do I have occasional access to a car for my hobbies?
Bad as they are for the environment, cars do come in handy. Do you have hobbies such as woodworking that might necessitate picking up the occasional load of lumber? If so, do you have friends who might want to go shopping with you and who will use their car or truck? My parents are out of town right now, so I'm using their car for a few errands that have stacked up, such as returning empties.
5. Will your family support your decision?
Make your kids and any spouses you might have part of your decision. It affects them. It means more walking and biking, which is healthy and can be fun, but it isn't always. See the next point.
6. Is it summer?
When cities ban smoking from pubs, they usually do it in summer. The idea is that the weather is nice, so smokers won't mind stepping outside for a puff. By the time winter rolls around, most of them have gotten used to the idea. If they plunged in and introduced legislation in the middle of winter, a lot more smokers would get cranky.
Same thing goes for shedding the car. I first tried in January, and found myself resistant to 8 km a day of walking to and from my son's school. By April, it was much easier to make the change. By the time of the first snow, we won't even think of cars anymore.
7. Do I like biking or walking?
You'll do a lot more walking, so make sure that's something you want. Also consider buying a decent bicycle with a good helmet and a really good lock. Bikes are not only an efficient way to get around, but after work it can be fun to hit a river valley or waterfront trail and feel the wind in your hair.
8. Will I save money?
You might not. Add up what you spend on car/lease payments, insurance, parking (at home, work and travelling) and gas. Then figure out what you'll need to spend if you go car-free. Will you need a transit pass for commuting or just occasional fares (budget for more than you think you'll need...there are rainy days and unexpected trips all the time)? What will bike maintenance and better shoes cost? How many taxi rides will you need to get to meetings? How many days a month will you rent a car for out-of-town trips or bulky errands?
That last question is a big one. I'm not sure that I'm saving much money by not owning a car. But I had a used car and didn't have to pay for parking. Money wasn't my main motivation, though. I wanted to cut fossil fuel consumtion and live a healthier lifestyle. That's definitely happened.
You'll note that many of my questions have to do with continuing to use cars. I see them as useful tools. My car-free lifestyle means not owning one of the machines, it doesn't mean a complete abstinence. What I don't want is for a car to be my default mode of transit. I want to walk, bike or take public transit instead. By not owning a car, it's harder for me to just hop behind the wheel. And that's the change I really wanted.
So far, I'm happier and healthier. And those walks to school give my son and I lots of time to chat. Car-free is good for me.