Driving Yourself Crazy? Sell Your Car

I have structured my life so I can live without a car. That choice may seem impossible, and, at times, it is impractical. Like any counter-cultural behavior, it initially requires effort to adjust.

I can attest, however, that car-free living is a healthful, fiscally responsible and even joyful pursuit in later middle age.

When I travel for work to Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and other big cities, I never rent a car. I stay in the heart of downtown and use mass transit, and my feet. That discipline is doable in the Twin Cities, too, even if you practice it only on certain days.

Discipline? Practice? Some people shrink from those words. Certainly, I make use of my husband’s vehicle — a 9-year-old, manual-transmission pickup — when I want to get to my weekend yoga class or my favorite suburban dog park. It also helps that the two reasons for my old Soccer Mom van have grown and gone.

My purpose is not to suggest that you never drive again at all. Nor do I intend to sermonize or gloat. My hope is to convince you that driving less — and using alternative forms of transportation more often — is a calming, community-minded, Earth-conscious habit that, like mindful eating, becomes easier and more self-sustaining over time.

Five benefits of a car-free lifestyle

Benefit 1: I exercise more. I seldom post in the 10,000 Steps Facebook group I joined because, unlike the other participants, I rarely struggle to achieve that goal. Between walking to and from work, having a job that requires me to move throughout the neighborhood, and riding the bus or train to my appointments — which generally involves some walking — I have my feet on the street an average of 4 miles a day.

Traffic on I-94 westbound in North Minneapolis was backed up for miles after a rollover accident at 1:08 pm killed three people, on Sunday, April 7, 2013. The top lane of traffic exits at the Dowling Avenue exit, while four lanes of freeway traffic proceeds westward in stop and go traffic. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

Traffic on I-94 westbound in North Minneapolis was backed up for miles after a rollover accident at 1:08 pm killed three people, on Sunday, April 7, 2013. The top lane of traffic exits at the Dowling Avenue exit, while four lanes of freeway traffic proceeds westward in stop and go traffic. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

A Metro Transit ad in the still transit-lacking Twin Cities claims that people who commute by bus or train walk 20 percent more than do those who drive to work. More than 76 percent of Americans commute to work in their own cars, a 12-point jump from 1980.

Having access to your own vehicle is more convenient and saves you time. I hear that often from over-stressed workers and working parents. Even if they changed their commuting habits only one day a week, they would recognize how physical exercise can actually help them unwind and relax.

Benefit 2: I save money. My older son, who now owns my red Toyota Prius, pays $1,150 a year in car insurance. I routinely spent $200 a month in gas during the years I commuted from Northfield to St. Paul. My transit card, by contrast, costs about $30 a month, and my employer reimburses me for any work-related rides.

Granted, I am planning to invest in a high-end bicycle for my big birthday in July — a purchase I haven’t made since my college senior was a baby — but I can justify the expense now that I’m no longer servicing a car for my commute.

Benefit 3: I am part of my community. Living in the urban core makes a multimodal lifestyle both easy to navigate and an adventure. I am a 12-minute walk from the Green Line train to the north, a Whole Foods store to the east and the charming Grandview Theater to the south.Grandview Theater

If I drove to these locations, I would lose the opportunity to observe architecture, peruse Little Free Libraries, and smile at barking dogs and blooming trees. I also would miss the chance to greet my neighbors. “In yesteryear’s compact, pedestrian-friendly communities, people walked to church and corner stores, and talked with friends on front porches while kids played in streets and alleys,” writes Katie Alvord in Divorce Your Car! (New Society Publishers, 2000). “Making communities walker-friendly can bring back that lifestyle.”

Each of us has the ability — and the authority — to take back our streets from the growing dominance of cars in our fast-paced culture. The City of Minneapolis has a pedestrian advisory committee. St. Paul Smart Trips, in my town, sponsors “St. Paul Walks.” Go online to sign a pledge that, as a driver, you will always stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, whether marked or unmarked. See it as an opportunity to catch your breath.

Benefit 4: I have time to think and read. As a hyper-scheduled person, I need enforced alone time. I use my bus and train rides to read the news on my iPhone, to catch up on e-mail and, sometimes, just to rest my eyes.

Benefit 5: I mingle with folks outside my middle-class bubble. Charles Zelle, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, spoke at a recent Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce luncheon about concrete and bridges, the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, making the state’s transportation system “work for the next generation” and the inherent class bias that underlies the resistance to mass transit.

We have to deal with “the identity politics of transit,” Zelle said, “the notion that ‘those people’” ride the bus or train, that “we don’t take transit.”

We, of course, is the professional middle class, people who see their own car as their birthright. As a Caucasian, I am often a minority on mass transit — except for the Blue Line when it is heading from the suburbs to a Twins game or the express commuter line between Uptown in Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.Green Line

I have seen homeless people on the Green Line lugging everything they own. I have sat amid boisterous Somali-American boys who disrupted my reading. I have quietly changed seats when a mentally ill person began to spout obscenities. I have never felt threatened or afraid.

This is the world. This helps me recognize my privilege and inspires me to work toward a greater understanding of why mass transit is essential, for all of us.

This post originally appeared on themiddlestages.com

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging (themiddlestages.com) and recently was named executive director of Friends of the Parks & Trails (of St. Paul & Ramsey County).

18 thoughts on “Driving Yourself Crazy? Sell Your Car

  1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    Thank you, Amy! We’re a single car family and rarely use it.

    I just wanted to comment on benefit 3 quickly. THIS! SO MUCH THIS! For example, last night a friend walked over to our house w/ his baby. We enjoyed the beautiful weather for a bit and then my wife and I walked him back to his place. We went shopping and on the stroll home we saw another friend biking by so we said hi and caught up. Then a few blocks later we saw another friend out for a stroll who just had a child. We hadn’t seen her or the baby yet, so it was an awesome treat to see them and hear about how things are going.

    This would’ve never happened if we drove to the store.

  2. Serafina ScheelSerafina

    Thanks so much for the list, Amy. You laid out several excellent benefits of reducing our dependence on cars.

    For me, 1 and 3 have really been the keys–moving more and getting to know people in my community. Two years ago, we got rid of our second car (a sweet red convertible that was suffering from the lack of a garage), and we’ve tried to make it a point to drive a lot less. It was surprisingly easy, even with a teenager and an elementary school kid.

    Last year in Münster, we went without a car for seven months, and then here in Minnesota for two months after our ancient Audi refused to move when we returned. It was easier in a compact German city with lots of neighborhood shops and bakeries, but even bike commuting 8 miles round trip to summer camp with my son along the river turned into a pleasure rather than a chore.

  3. Justin Doescher

    One car household here as well, I try to only use it when necessary and I HATE driving in the city now. Much rather bike/walk/use transit. Once I even walked home from work on a warm day (~5 miles) and it was a really interesting way to see the city.

  4. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    I haven’t sold my car, but I don’t drive it much, because, like you, I’ve structured things so that I can bike, walk and take transit for nearly all of my trips.

    And I’m seriously considering buying a cargo bike so I cant bike for even more of them (and take a small passenger with me).

    1. Rosa

      how small is your passenger? We got the cargo bike when mine was 4 or so – he was getting really unhappy in the Burley already. But I found the best thing about the transition was being able to go places with him on his own bike, then haul child AND bike if he got tired or fell down or I got tired of waiting for him.

  5. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    My wife and I have always been a single car household and I frankly enjoy getting around without it. Or rather, I’m always kind of disappointed when I have to resort to driving. I especially enjoy not having to park in places with paid parking like downtown, Uptown, the U of M and the airport. As for the other benefits, I couldn’t agree more. I worked for 33 years before retiring, and not having that second car contributed well over $100,000 to the retirement fund.

  6. Al Ebbert

    I live on the southern edge of WBL, at 694 and WB Ave. One of the best financial decisions I ever made was giving up my jalopy 8 years ago to become ‘jalopy lite.’ I’ve bicycle commuted year round since 2005 and the jalopy just sat there like a leech sucking up insurance money, license fees, occasional gasoline fill-‘er-up, wear and tear sitting there(drive it or it breaks – trust me), and taking up driveway real estate.

    The money saved is tremendous! In my case, next to a mortgage owning a jalopy is money suck, but you know what? Not having two jalopies meant I could afford to pay down my mortgage which I will be free and clear of by the time I’m 45. I look around at the Jones’ and I can’t imagine a mortgage plus the care and feeding of two jalopies. Jalopies eat a LOT of $$$$(bought new? add another $), especially in a harsh climate like MN.

    I’m not saying jalopy-free or jalopy-lite is for everyone. It takes the crazy-brave to do something like this in a second ring suburb, but I’ve made it work over the years – certainly not as easy as in an urban area. WBL is OK to get around by bicycle, but it’s still very focused on jalopying. I can’t speak to transit because I don’t use it. I just bicycle everywhere.

  7. Julia

    Thanks for sharing this! Totally agree with the many benefits you list of walking and taking transit—it’s really strange to me how few people (who can) choose to be carfree given how much superior the quality of life is, even within a car-centric city.

    I’ve always been carfree by choice and I definitely feel far far far less social pressure to drive. I was lucky to have the internal strength to resist that pressure, as well as adults in my family modeling successful car-free by choice (complete, as in no driver’s license) lifestyles, including a cousin who was a VP of a Fortune 500.

    For those who are less comfortable being “counter cultural” (heck, for those of us who are as well), having role models in our lives is vital to being able to make that change. The benefits of no car were blindingly obvious to me as a teen, but being able to ask people who’d never driven if they ever wished they could, if it had been a barrier professionally, etc.? That helped me in continuing to choose to be carfree despite threats/”warnings” and pressure.

    Great post and thank you!

  8. Al DavisonAl Davison

    You are definitely right that a car-free living can save you money. My father takes the Camry that I used to take to work, while I have been taking the bus into work most days. It benefits the both of us since I save money by avoiding paying for gas or parking, while he is able to take a more fuel-efficient vehicle to his job in Eagan. We are a lower middle income household so saving money wherever possible is vital.

    Plus it does it get you out of your bubble. My bus goes through the North End of Saint Paul, and I constantly hear people talking about their jobs. Some have 2-3. Compared to a commenting section on a media website, the conversations on the bus greatly contrast with the false conceptions that some people have about transit about how it’s a cheap/free taxi for jobless criminals. It’s a good reminder on why transit is vital to low to middle-income people since transportation costs have a large impact on people’s incomes. Drivers need to realize that transit users pay taxes too (same with pedestrians and cyclists).

    I plan to live car-free (or at least car-lite) when I move out since I really don’t miss driving. I might have to move closer to or in the city to do so though comfortably.

  9. Jackie Williams

    Im from California and I used to love driving. I would go for drives to relax. Since I moved here I cant stand it. I bike everywhere and If I have to use a car my husband drives me. The traffic here and the style of driving is very dangerous and eradic. I also cannot comprehend how people can afford the car payments on these new cars! Its a mortgage. For me biking is the best way to get around.

  10. Steve Gjerdingen

    This post was hard for me to read. I used to be car-free at one point, but am not anymore, and I miss it. For a 7 month period of my life I never turned the key in the ignition of my car except to drive it around the block and make sure it stayed healthy once a week. With a 3 mile commute to my job, biking to work was easy and I soon enjoyed biking everywhere else, despite living out in the burbs. On the weekend, I’d bike to see friends even if they lived 10 miles away. I reaped all the benefits: financial, learning every nook and cranny in the Twin Cities, exercise, endorphin boost, daylight, and community.

    Unfortunately, in many ways I simply replaced my driving habits with biking habits, mile for mile. I didn’t care of a trip was 10-20 miles, and did it even if my body was sore. After awhile, I messed up my knee and felt like I had to back off. It has never been the same since. Unfortunately, I’ve also acquired an ankle injury since then too from too many repetitive sports.

    What I’ve learned is that car-free living takes intentional action in more ways than just taking your car and replacing it with a motor-less wheeled vehicle. In my opinion, it requires changing where you go, what you do, and sometimes saying ‘no’ when your body says ‘rest’. The thing about the car is that it never says no. If you’re tired, if you’re weary, if it’s running, the car just does it’s thing.

    At this point I work in suburbia but live in the city because I’ve found there not to be as much stuff to do in suburbia on the weekend. I also can’t stand the idea of supporting a suburb by living there when it’s continually making decisions that are sabotaging it’s success at becoming a livable city. Do they deserve my property taxes or my landlord’s property taxes? No! Ironically, my current living situation is great for driving as it enables reverse commuting. Thankfully, it’s still possible to reverse commute to suburbia via transit and or biking as well due to the location, and I did that a few times last fall. Successfully making the car-free commute though means adding at least an extra half hour into my morning and afternoon/eve commute. Expensive groceries and higher city rent (vs. suburban rent) has forced me to travel further for grocery shopping and I often drive to Aldi. Ironically, I used to walk to the grocery store almost exclusively, back when I lived in the suburbs (which apparently don’t work well for car-free living?). Not only that but I did a lot more walking at night when I lived in the suburbs because I felt safer. For weekend adventures, if my body is cooperating, I sometimes will walk or bike to something nearby now that I’m so close to many things, but often I’ll still drive because my friends live out in the burbs.

    In summary, I do wish my living was more car-free again. It would be easier if I had the body that could take that kind of work day in and day out. I probably also would do better at it if I was a morning person, as that would at least allow me to bus to work. With bussing, I’d probably have to do audio books or music instead of reading since I find the bumpiness of a bus to be super distracting while I’m trying to hold a book.

    1. Rosa

      the bus is so great. Especially in winter, if it shows up on time. There’s just nothing better than getting out of the cold onto a nice warm, lit up bus and not having to be the one driving on the slick roads.

  11. Lou Miranda

    Excellent post, Amy.

    I started wondering about our car-centric life after visiting Dublin, Paris, Rome, & Venice, and seeing how easy it was to get around by foot, by bike, or by mass transit. We never rented a car in any of those places.

    We live in a first-ring suburb, so it’s a little bit harder to live car-free or car-light. But it does make me think about the choices I’ve made. Why do people commute 15+ miles each way for work? Is it really that important to go to a specific barber that’s 5 miles away, rather than just walking to the one a few blocks away from home? Why don’t I bike to the grocery or co-op which are both only a mile or less away?

    Over the past year or so I’ve been slowly changing habits, and I’m getting healthier and feeling better, not to mention helping save the planet. But it takes time to build new habits, so we’ll see how it goes.

  12. GlowBoy

    Great post. I’m in a single-car family too, and mostly drive only to take the kids places. We actually had two cars in Portland, and downsized to a single car when we moved to Minneapolis. We’ve saved a lot of money, that’s for sure.

    And I do appreciate #5, mingling with people who aren’t white and professional-class. This was actually a bit of a culture shock coming from Portland, where many people like me ride buses, and even in the suburbs many white professionals at least ride light rail. I think there’s much more of a perception here in Minnesota that transit is “for poor people,” (i.e., you should drive a car if you can possibly afford it) and I think it’s good to challenge that belief system.

    Actually, I think for families the biggest challenge to low-car and no-car lifestyles is getting kids to school. Minnesota’s extensive school choice system has shredded the concept of most kids going to the neighborhood school, often within walking or biking distance.

    I’m not saying school choice is all bad. There are some amazing magnet schools. Some of the other school options are essential for special needs kids. And I think many of us parents are outraged by class sizes of 35 pupils in every single South Minneapolis grade school (although I’m overall impressed with the quality of our local public grade schools, the district doesn’t seem to care about class sizes, and I’m sorely tempted to send our kids to a different district).

    I know that transportation to “choice” schools is often provided by the district, but it often means getting the kids on the bus at insanely early times in the morning (maybe great if you have the kind of kids that are bouncing off the walls at 530 am, but that is definitely NOT my kids!) Realistically, it means a lot more parents are driving their kids to school than when I was a kid and everybody went to their neighborhood school. And many parents are driving two or more different-aged kids to different schools in different parts of town. We could probably make our one-car lifestyle even if we sent one of our kids across town, but we ended up sending our older kid to one school and the little one to a grade school somewhere else, I’m sure we’d have to cave and buy a second car.

    I know this is going off topic, but I just don’t think school choice has “forced schools to compete” at all. If think that, if anything, it’s achieved the opposite. People who aren’t happy with their neighborhood school just go somewhere else, rather than staying at that school, getting active in PTA and demanding change. Some countries insist that ALL their schools provide a decent education – including for those with special needs – and sending your child elsewhere than the neighborhood school is almost unheard of. I don’t know if we can ever get there, but the current system carries huge transportation costs.

    1. Rosa

      it does have big transportation costs, even just from the buses – but the driving kids to school thing seems to be both a general shift toward more adult supervision of kids (when I was a kid, we walked to school with no grownups almost all the time, cutting through empty lots and detouring through half-built sewers) and driven largely by the perception (which feels true to me) that it’s not safe for kids to cross the street. The closest school to us is on the other side of Bloomington Ave and it’s plain not safe for kids to cross. My kid could totally bike to school – his school is right by the Greenway – but the places the Greenway crosses streets I have seen cars nose through crowds of kids (especially by the MTS middle school) instead of stopping and waiting, much less stopping safely for individual kids to cross.

  13. Karl

    Excellent post! Thank you for sharing the benefits of not owning a car. I myself don’t own one and can attest to all of these benefits.

  14. Linda Feltes

    Amy, thanks for this. I live a similar commuting lifestyle with the same benefits. Green is healthy is green I always say.

    This seems like a great story to share with legislatures as they consider funding levels for Transit. I hope you will share it with them if you haven’t already!

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