I’m coming up on my two-year anniversary of being car-free in Minneapolis. But it didn’t happen at the snap of my fingers. Selling my car was the last step in a gradual, deliberate process that involved becoming aware and making decisions based on how I move around the city (and the world), and no small amount of help from public institutions that influence these decisions.
For years before I finally sold my car I was only using it to go (together with another driver in the household) about 6,000 miles a year—mostly grocery runs or camping trips. Compared to the average American, who drives more than 1,000 miles a month, I had already found ways to reduce my car dependence from the typical experience by 50%. Yet I was still paying taxes, depreciation, insurance, and maintenance on the whole car. Getting rid of it entirely would save me hundreds of dollars a month.
The following are some key factors that make living car free possible for me in Minneapolis. For each one, I’ll suggest how much forethought each one required, and highlight where I think each falls on a spectrum from “you can do this entirely on your own” to “depends entirely on facilities and services provided by others”
You’ll see that a lot of these wind up being “shared” responsibilities, that require both individual and public commitments. I also assume that something that requires a change to where one lives or works is a “long-term” planning concern. For a lot of people, many of these fall into that category. In the short run, we live where we live and we work where we work. But there is at least one thing, the first step, that anyone can do starting today.
1. Think About How to Take Fewer Car Trips / Spend Less Time In the Car
Planning Horizon: Short term (Individual); Medium- and Long-Term (Shared)
You don’t get rid of your car and then start thinking about this. It’s the other way around. You start thinking about how to reduce car trips, until, eventually, owning a car is more trouble and expense than it’s worth.
As someone who appreciated the comfort and convenience of having a car available 24/7, the first step to realizing I didn’t need the car at all, was to start thinking about how I might not actually need it as much as I thought I did. “How can I get done what I need to get done without using the car?”
This is a thought that comes easier to people when gas prices are on the rise, but just contemplating it on a regular basis puts you in a position to start recognizing those opportunities, and then finding ways to make them routine. And just because you can afford the gas today doesn’t mean you can’t put that gas money to better use. There’s almost always something better to spend money on than gas or car maintenance and insurance. Every car trip eliminated is a victory for your bank account and the environment.
In the short term, only you can commit to becoming conscious of this question in your life. As you do it, you realize: hey, I could eliminate a car trip if [x] were closer to my house, or [x] were on the way to [y]. Maybe those changes aren’t possible today, but over the medium and long term either you or public infrastructure and planning can find ways to prioritize them and make them possible.
2. Ready Access to High Frequency and Rapid/Express Transit
Planning Horizon: Long-Term, if not already available.
Responsibility: Shared, but Public Component is sine qua non
If you live near transit, use it!
I live and work within a short walk of high frequency and rapid transit options. This was a conscious choice of mine—I prioritized homes and employment served by these public facilities because reducing car dependency and eliminating the misery of driving to commute are important to me.
Over the short run, a well-served transit cornucopia is not in reach of anyone who doesn’t already live and work in such a place—in the Twin Cities there are very few places that are as well served as where I live and work. Over the medium- and long-run individuals might be able to arrange this, with thoughtful, deliberate planning, and some luck. But only if the public does its part.
Public infrastructure planning needs to reduce the “luck” and “careful planning” burdens in this equation as much as possible. In the Twin Cities, we need to do this by providing more frequent, convenient, and faster transit on more routes, connecting more homes with more jobs. And by putting homes and everyday retail and service necessities (and, as a natural consequence, jobs) closer together. (Widespread car dependency makes this harder because cars take up so much space. This is a chicken-and-egg problem; urban public planning needs to commit to ripping off the band-aid by building these things closer together anyway, even if it doesn’t leave space for cars.)
3. Live Near Abundant and Varied Grocery and Restaurant Options
Planning Horizon: Long-Term, if not already available.
Food is a necessity, and if you can’t get food without a car, you’re going to be car dependent. Fortunately, grocery delivery options are increasingly abundant in much of the Twin Cities. These can be slightly more expensive than going and getting groceries yourself, but if you factor in the time and expense you save by eliminating these car trips, they start to look quite comparable.
However, depending on how efficient these services are, they may not reduce the overall number of car trips: you might just be sending someone else out in a car instead of you. This is why it’s critical in urban places to put food close to where people live. I live in the same building as my grocers, but if they were within a half-mile I could still make convenient use of them without a car.
Being able to grocery shop without it being an ordeal (drive the car, park the car, endure acres of passive-aggressive cart warfare and supermarket lines, load the car, drive the car, park the car, unload the car) has other benefits: I make more frequent, smaller trips; I get fresher produce and other ingredients in quantities I can use before they spoil, and I never feel too put out when I realize I need to just pick one or two things up to complete a recipe. All unpalatable or unthinkable when I had to haul my butt to the supermarket in a car.
4. Convenient Car, Bike (/Scooter/Whatever) Sharing to Fill Gaps
Planning Horizon: Medium- to Long-Term, if not already available.
Car and bike sharing and rental options have increased dramatically in the past five years in the Twin Cities. I still lament the loss of Car2Go, which filled niches no remaining car sharing service in town does. Nevertheless, there are quite a few services that can fill in for those occasions when you simply can’t avoid making a car trip, which makes it that much easier to become a former car owner.
But to rely on these services, one’s need has to match where the vehicles are available, which is why I list this as a shared responsibility. Individuals who’ve reduced car trips as much as they can and are ready to leave ownership in their past can build them into their transportation repertoire with just a little bit of individual planning (in the near-term, if they’re nearby), or (in the medium- or long-term) can prioritize living close to these services. But public commitment to increase their abundance and flexibility is needed so that more people can rely on these services to fill their transportation need gaps.
Now, I rent a car when I want to take a camping trip that I can’t bike to, and I reserve an Hourcar when I need to go somewhere or transport something in town that transit can’t accommodate. And because I’ve got #1, #2, and #3 already in place, it truly isn’t that often at all. I’ve probably rented a car just a handful of times in the last year, and saved thousands of dollars.
All of these critical factors are shared responsibilities—they require both individual and public commitments. My conclusion is similar to the truth that Amy recognized in this post where she lists many of the benefits of escaping car dependency: doing it here requires, at a minimum, conscious effort. Individuals need to choose to be conscious of these opportunities, to prioritize creating them in our lives, and be willing to devote a little bit of mental energy to them.
As an individual, the key is to start with the short-term, very bite-sized question: “how can I take fewer car trips, or drive fewer miles?” Then, as you run into obstacles, plan to overcome them over the long term by deciding either to change your own circumstances, or to advocate for investment and planning in public forums and in your workplace that will facilitate you and others in your community overcoming them together.
But the public, too, must do more to to provide for and facilitate these choices, reducing and, to the extent possible, eliminating barriers that perpetuate widespread car dependency. As a community, addressing the needs identified in 2, 3, and 4 is how you motivate people to take the first, critical step for themselves.
The benefits are massive. I’ve been in one car and zero car households for decades. Not having the second car as a couple, or the first car as a single (I do have a car I can borrow much but not all of the time) is so liberating. There are so many attractive alternatives.
Mr. Money Mustache is eloquent in his description of the financial drag that car ownership really is. It’s bad for your body, bad for your mind, and bad for your retirement.
There is something deeply liberating about knowing you can get around, survive and thrive, where you live without a car.
Some of the worst stress in my life was worrying about my car:
Is that noise bad (always is)?
Will I make it home without breaking down?
Where can I get it fixed without getting ripped off?
When can I get it fixed?
How will I afford the repair?
Plus managing parking, managing snowstorms, unpredictable traffic, storage, insurance, scratches and dents, resale value,keeping it clean, remembering maintenance, etc. etc. etc.
Once we went down to on car it was like waking up from a bad dream.
This is so great. I really like the respect for gradualism – just fewer car trips is great, and it does escalate. And one car per household is so much easier to do than no cars, it makes the benefits way more attractive.
I love this post, and the thoughtful reflection on your path to carlessness. Having grown up in a very rural area, it took me a long time to even start thinking about #1. Pretty much everything *had* to be a car trip, unless you were literally just going on a walk through the woods. I’ve made a lot of very intentional choices in the years since then, and sold my car about 1.5 years ago. It’s great!
In my household it used to be four cars (my mom’s, my dad’s, my sister’s, and my car). My sister’s car was totaled, but she moved to Boston shortly after and doesn’t use a car except rarely Hour Car. My car needed expensive repairs, and after getting a different vehicle that turned out to be a lemon I decided I didn’t need a car. This was back in 2015 and since then we’ve stuck with two cars. My mom works from home and my dad worked (now retired) from 3 AM to 12 PM, so it was likely at least one car would be available.
Our home is a half hour walk to the grocery store, and 20 minute walk up a steep hill along a busy road to the nearest transit that runs all day. Even with the near future transitways built it won’t improve the service to our area (unless local routes are improved). I do try to bike to transit and the grocery store, but only so much food can fit in one grocery bag, and if the weather is bad then biking isn’t the best. As I start looking at places to live I’ll definitely be considering where the transit is, how do I get to it, is the service reliable and convenient, and is it unlikely service will be cut. I’ll also consider what the surrounding area is like in terms of grocery stores, restaurants, shops, and recreational areas.
If you don’t happen to have a grocery store in your living room, you can maybe find one on your transit commute – for me, Fresh Thyme is on the train ride, and Seward Co-op is on the way for many others.
Show up to your neighborhood meetings and ask why there’s not a grocery store in your neighborhood if there isn’t one.
Medium to long term commitments, but we need more groceries available in our neighborhoods!
Chris I enjoyed the article a lot, I liked that you wrote about the short and long term planning required for the “no car life” to become a reality. One thing you reference, which is really the crux of the matter to many people, is that this is ” …something that requires a change to where one lives or works”. One, critique I have of the proponents of the “no car life” is that generally speaking they are so quick to assume that finding a new job/home is something that is so simple for people or families to do I respect the fact that you readily acknowledge even your transition was a gradual, deliberate process.
Thanks. I think it’s a mistake to underestimate these structural realities that keep people dependent on car ownership. For years I kept my car mostly to get groceries, and I had to move before I finally met that need without the need for a car.
In fact, if we did a map that overlaid ‘1/2 mile to high-frequency, rapid transit’ with ‘1/2 mile to groceries’, the Twin Cities “car-free area” sweet spots would be quite small and few. We need to put these pieces in place so more people find that they live in places where this is an attainable goal, instead of making people seek them out with deliberate purpose over a period of years.
I’d like to see that map!
If it made economic sense to have a network of neighborhood grocery stores that weren’t hyper-expensive you’d see them. There’s already plenty of places where a local grocery store would be allowed by zoning but isn’t economical. So do people propose an “affordable-accessible neighborhood grocery store subsidy” or something?
We’re seeing a bunch of new groceries – including the coming micro Cub at 46th and Hiawatha. And smaller neighborhood groceries like Bergran’s SuperValu and the two Oxendale’s are not “hyper-expensive.”
Also, once you factor in fuel and depreciation, even “fancy” grocery stores that are a lot closer get much more price competitive, even without valuing your travel time much and even totally ignoring the negative externalities of driving farther: https://streets.mn/2015/09/30/shop-closer-to-home/
Obviously, it depends on what’s close to you, or if anything is, but it’s far from clear that driving far for “lower” prices even makes financial sense in terms of direct costs.
The economics of massive supermarkets have worked in large part because they can draw a lot of car-dependent customers. Because we’re letting them/not sufficiently discouraging silently subsidize parking. These things all work together.
Legalize and pursue more density throughout the city, and the economics and feasibility of complete neighborhoods, including more closely spaced, smaller grocers improves. In the mean time, providing stuff like streamlined permitting and location guidance for the types of businesses you want to encourage are a form of subsidy that cost very little and can provide net benefits to the city.
You don’t necessarily have to give people sacks of money to create a meaningful and effective incentive structure.
Good point Monte. A lot of people drive out of their way to go to low priced big-box grocery stores to save money on the goods they’re buying. I wonder how many of them realize the real costs of doing that though? The direct costs of driving their car like gas, oil, tire wear, etc. The less direct costs of car maintenance. The even less direct but quite expensive costs of wear and tear on roads that increases tax burdens. The negatives of increased congestion and the time wasted with it.
Layered on top of this is then lack of support for local grocery stores which makes it difficult for them to stay in business. Suddenly the local store that we’d go to occasionally for a cup of sugar is no longer there so we have to drive much farther to Costco for our cup of sugar making it one very expensive cup of sugar?
People in Europe are much more attuned to these costs. Big box grocery stores like Tesco and Carrefour did OK for a brief period but then people realized the real costs and went back to smaller local stores if they were still in business or protested for them to come back if they’d disappeared. Tesco and others are closing their big box stores and going back to higher numbers of smaller formats that are closer to where people live. The prices on goods may be a bit more but the overall costs are less.
No mention of kids in the article, which is probably my number one factor for making a van extremely convenient. My kids can ride bikes, and the cargobike is very useful, but winter biking with kids is a much bigger hurdle than solo winter commuting.
Also, we’re east StP people and the in-laws are SW Mpls people. There’s a degree to which us becoming car-free might require others to use their car even more.
All this said, going car free is something I’d like to be able to do, but we’re not there yet.
Eric, how have you found biking with kids in winter more difficult? Increased concern about safety? Bikeways not keep adequately cleared? Other?
Car free is great for those who can do it but for many of us reduction is the key. Even among friends in The Netherlands I don’t know of many who are car free. I think I actually know more people in NYC who are car free than people in The Netherlands.
A goal for my wife and I is to get down to only one car. We will be moving in to a new house next summer that will hopefully allow that as much of our local transportation for groceries, pharmacy, wine, cafés, UPS store and such will be doable by bicycle throughout the year thanks to good protected bikeways along all county roads.
Winter biking with kids is HARD. We are an extremely car-light household (less than 300 miles a month in the summer and less than 500 miles a month in the winter, less a trip up north every summer). It was almost easier when they were babies. We had a bak fiets with a canopy and Christmas lights. The bak fiets had a studded front tire and we were go to go for a ton of trips.
Our long-tail cargo bike has studded tires, but it is more difficult to use than the bak fiets, especially since the kids aren’t as warm. They aren’t biking so we have to really bundle them up.
Now, our eldest (10 yrs) rides on his own and the 7 yo bikes on her own in nice months, but on the Yuba in the winter. Kids have a hard time navigating the snow/ice ruts in city streets, Sometimes they just can’t. It is hard to teach them how to handle a bike through that. There are already a million little things I have to teach them about anticipating car drivers’ moves, but to also do it when they are concentrating on staying up is super difficult. Before age 12 kids don’t have a lot in terms of abstract thought. They are good at understanding rules (stop at stop signs, signal turns, etc), but NOT GOOD at anticipating when someone will not follow the rules (run a stop sign, not use a blinker). Winter just ups the safety ante because stopping times are slower and they are concentrating on bike handling, not traffic.
Also, kids just aren’t as visible. They are small. Car drivers are not expecting a 6 yo biking to school in January. It’s dark early.
Kids winter bike gear is also hard to come by. It is hard to bike in snow pants. Thin hats that fit under helmets. Stuff like that. It exists, but it is expensive and often can’t transition throughout the day (bike comfortable clothes are not necessarily the best for recess).
Also, it takes FOREVER to get kids bundled up in the winter regardless of transportation mode. I mean 20-30 minutes to get two kids from clothing to outdoor wear every morning. No matter how organized we try to be someone is missing a glove, can’t find their hat, has to pee once everything is on. Lord. Add the extra time biking takes and we have to get up 30-45 minutes early to manage it.
We do take the bus a lot in the winter and walk quite a bit, but biking with kids is a challenge. I’m sure a lot of these problems have solutions, but I just don’t have the energy to figure them out.
That’s legit. Anyone with dependents is going to have to do the “how can I take fewer trips” analysis with a whole other person, and their needs and destinations, in mind.
In general, in the cities, the public needs to go a lot farther to pick up its end of the closer/accessible by transit end of the bargain. It’s a critical piece that is the difference between parents feeling like they need that car, and feeling like they can get by without it.
Parents all over the world do it, we need to expand the areas in the twin cities with the conditions that allow it.
I think it would depend much on the ages of the children. We aren’t car-free, but are a family of 4, two working adults, sharing 1 car @ approx 6k miles/yr. The vast majority (90%?) of our weekday winter transport with children is by bike. We took them in the car when they were small infants (barrier being not having a bike setup that works with car seat + potential for slipping on icy roads). Since then it has worked out well on the bike; we switch to the bike trailer when it gets below freezing and the kids can bundle up very well in there. But it is getting harder as our eldest is growing too big for a trailer and I wouldn’t be comfortable with him biking on his own on icy roads. So yes, for us limitations would be primarily insufficient separated infrastructure and also sometimes just the temperature.
I think it really depends on someone’s priorities, their current position (family, life, work, housing), and if they would be able to take alternative methods to get around.
Although I feel that it’s best to push for less use of cars (other than for fun if it’s a hobby), I don’t think that asking everyone to start moving to give up a car is going to be realistic or that forcing it on us, especially here our country and state, is going to work.
I’m indifferent on zoning or building regulations. I have a house and won’t be looking to move soon, and if traffic or parking sucks in an area I generally avoid going there. I’m generally indifferent to bike paths where they make sense and are utilized.
A few more thoughts that went on way too long in a draft comment, so I’ll try to be short.
It’s amazing that we’re driving out industry along the river, and cheering, while at the same time asking that more people bike or bus to work. Part of having the privilege to do that is having a job that’s close by or close enough. So proponents should be asking the city to open up the areas north of the north loop to larger industry and more manufacturing jobs that offer entry level positions, rather than develop it for more river roads and trails and parks. Historic industrial parts of NE as well could be opened to new warehouse or factories, and the historic areas in South along the midtown greenway. For what it’s worth, SimCity2000 needed different zoned areas to be within a given distance of another for development, and I know its’ a game, but we’re asking some to drive further and then asking them again to limit their driving, it doesn’t make sense.
I can’t comment on families or those with limited income. I’m terrible with empathy, and have a hard time placing myself in others shoes. However, I did need help from family keeping up my old car during the recession years, and I can imagine families make some tough choices when it comes to vehicles and getting to their jobs, and getting around after work.
The rest of my comments are assuming you’re not paying for parking at work. If you pay for parking, and/or commute to or around the downtowns, it makes more sense to grab mass transit.
It’s also, for some of us, not really that much cheaper to take a bus to work, especially if we can’t get a subsidized pass through work. Our paid off Jetta for example (it’s only worth $3k to $5k to replace anyway) is as expensive as a bus/train for me to get to work, with gas and insurance. A payment on a $5k car wouldn’t be too bad over a few years, at least no prohibitive if a person can get a loan. On our $20k used truck, the gas insurance is about the same and the payment on top of that is to be able to have the privilege to own a truck. Same goes for my 911, I didn’t buy it because it’s cheaper (would have got a electric car if that were the case), but I wanted one and could make it work and do make it work.
There is also the time saved that plays a factor. My normal river road commute is about 35 min each way, taking a bus would triple that and it wouldn’t be as pretty. My partners 5 mile commute out from North to a inner ring suburb would go from 10 min to over an hour. I’m sorry, but I’m not political enough in that way to spend about as much money on a bus pass and give up an extra 8-12 hours a week. Granted both of us are in a position where we can afford our vehicles, and can then afford to save those hours for other things.
The cost to maintain a vehicle is a pain, but it’s also the cost of doing business when it comes to having a car. Knock on wood we’ve had good luck with all 3 of our vehicles lately, and nothing too major is on the horizon. All in all I’m sure we pay around $2k a year for upkeep, although our late Jeep XJ was a lot of it, but in general they have been affordable and we’re in a position to be able to afford it. On the other hand some of my bike friends are spending upwards of a grand for a new bike, and that adds up if it’s done every few years, along with the cost of brakes and tires.
Then finally there is the risk associated with riding a bike, and to a lesser extent taking a bus. Like with a scooter or motorcycle bikers are out in the open, and when they are hit they usually are on the losing end of the deal. Some people don’t have great insurance coverage, and the costs of being hit would far outweigh the savings gained by biking. With buses, especially where I’m at in North, robberies at stops or fights at stops or on buses aren’t unheard of. Although some have no issues with this, others, especially those of us like myself who were robbed at gunpoint in the past, may not want to put ourselves into a potentially bad situation if we can avoid it.
So in closing, I don’t feel its’ a one size fits all type of deal, and that the push should be for less driving than to trade in a car for a bike or bus.
In my opinion.
I actually think allowing for less car dependency is a moral obligation on people who can afford cars, because so many people can’t for either physical or financial reasons.
Specifically the safety questions, whether that’s public safety stuff – I think your crime experience pushing you off the bus is pretty common, especially if you factor in sexual exposure/harassment/threat as crime – or the fear of getting hit by a car, which is real, if an argument for driving is that it feels safer, then those of us who drive really have to commit to things like driving slower, maybe having to wait to turn, waiting longer to have more walk/bike time in traffic signals, etc. It’s not fair to have our safety be at the expense of other people’s.
Really depends on the city. I live in PR and although biking has become a more popular trend as of late, the roads aren’t really made for it. The made a few laws about giving bikers space, but it’s just a mess.
When buying a home last year (first time, very exciting!) we wanted to ensure that we would love in an area where we would be able to get by without a car. Public Transit options were the main factor, but also we wanted to ensure we stayed close enough to my job on St Paul’s East Side to bike there. We settled on Frogtown, and the Green Line is our best friend now.
When we bought our house, being able to get to work without a car was paramount for me (my wife unfortunately worked in a car-dependent suburb) as was having options for groceries, wine and eating that didn’t require a car. Now we live in North Richfield and I almost never drive.
We’re far from car free, but we try. And once you start trying, you can try some more.