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.