Our family has been car-free for over 15 years. I just celebrated my 50th birthday and in all of those years, I have never had a driver’s license or owned a car. My partner Joe and I raised our kids without a vehicle. While they were young, they were not always thrilled with biking, walking, and using transit. As young adults, they are both deeply grateful for the experiences and knowledge gained by being car-free and have both opted to remain car-free as adults (well, at least for now).
Before I get into the benefits I feel I need to acknowledge a few things. First, no matter how many years you go without owning a vehicle or with minimal use of a vehicle, we all partake in a car culture. That tube of toothpaste arrived at the store somehow and we all benefit, by choice or not, from the fossil fuel-based transportation system in one form or another. Second, there are both individuals who are car-free not by choice who face transportation barriers as it relates to access to work, housing, education, food, and healthcare. And there are those who are mobility impaired who depend on cars as their main source of transportation, for whom biking and walking are not options. We are fortunate enough to live in an area that is highly walkable, bikeable, and with easy access to mass transit. We are able-bodied enough to be able to get to grocery stores and the like.
I will also share some ideas for how to go car-free: some of the gear and practices we have found most helpful.
Why Go Car-Free? (… or at least Car-Lite?)
We have gained a wonderful quality of life. Often when describing our lifestyle the conversation will revolve around what we DON’T have – a car – instead of what we DO have: the simplicity of our small footprint, being able to walk, bus, or bike to the places we need to go, whether that be work, school, or the store. We meet and see neighbors and have a daily connection to the world and community around us. We experience all of the seasons in their full splendor, from seeing the crocus budding in the spring and the chartreuse mist of new buds, to the beautiful ice falls and snow drifts in winter, and the many glories of fall and summer riding in the midwest. As a family we have great conversations walking, busing, and biking together. As our children have grown, our walks and our bus rides together have proven to be a thread that keeps open communication alive and well. And now in their adulthood, this has been a thread of connection.
We have gained health – riding and walking every day has kept us all in reasonably good shape, physically and mentally. For me, biking to and from my office in North Loop is a way to clear my mind before and after work. The need to plan ahead can be a creative endevour. For our family, this can be as simple as planning our routes for that day, to the game of Tetris that is loading up our groceries in panniers or a bike trailer, to the complexity of moving a whole household by bicycle (which we have done twice). We have embraced this as a creative challenge and find great joy in it.
We have gained a unique lens when traveling. We have taken trips all over the country, budgeting for subway and transit passes and taking the train or ferry between cities, as well as for taxis if we needed them. We have explored entire cities by foot and subway. While we have to be planful, with a little forethought, we can easily hop on our bikes for a bike tour or a bikepacking trip, or take the bus (whether in town or for travel). With the base of fitness we gain riding every day, we were able to hop on our bikes with no training for a 500-mile bike tour through Minnesota and Wisconsin this summer, followed by a bus trip to Duluth and several days hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail.
We have gained a built-in ‘no’ to commitments. We already tend to overcommit ourselves, and not having a car allows us to be much more critical about what we should and should not commit to. I have always said that I would get a license and a car if either of my children were interested in an activity that they could only do with the use of a car. So far, this has not been an issue. As children, they participated in theatre, dance, choir, music, Aikido, hockey, and soccer, were involved in community groups, and had a broad circle of friends. I believe they have also learned how to manage their own commitments, including consideration as to the value of their time. This time and commitment management skill, like the creativity part, is often overlooked as a benefit.
We have gained the ease of mind knowing both of our now adult children are savvy in urban areas. Both of our children, now adults, are at ease with transit and navigating the city. They are smart pedestrians and know their way around better than their peers (according to them). Our oldest now lives in Chicago for college and comments often about how important it has been to know how to navigate mass transit in a big city. They also said that many of their friends would not know how to take the train or bus, and are happy that they do as it gives them additional autonomy and freedom.
When I’ve written about being car-free before, our kids were still young. Now as young adults, that can share their own perspectives. Below, our son Oliver (now 19) shares his thoughts on being car-free as a child and what that means in his life now and in the future:
“Being car-free as a child overall has been to my great benefit. I was able to be much more comfortable with biking, public transit, and walking to where I needed to go. I didn’t know many people when I was young who even understood what public transit was, let alone used it. As I got older and independence was more of a pursuit, I knew more people who would ride the buses, and especially the train once it was put in. But still through high school and now, I know many people who are only comfortable traveling in a car. I often make plans with friends and only after they get here do I learn they spent a great deal on an Uber. Although amid the pandemic there was a new context to it, and I have often used ride services when I could have taken public transit or biked. I think the perspective that a car is the only real way to get around often hinders a lot of people’s ability to achieve more independence, freedom, and familiarity with the city they live in.
As I reach adulthood, my perspective on car-free life has shifted slightly. As somebody who struggles with anxiety and agoraphobia and uses a service animal, and the realities of living in a post-Covid world, and seeing the rise of adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles, having a car enters a different frame. Though my experience with public transit remains an overall positive one, the anxieties of the limited flexibility that comes with public transit and ride services come more into the light. Although getting a license, and getting a car, have never been on my horizon, my partner and I are discussing what we would need for transportation if we no longer lived in a big city. I believe the need for a vehicle is dependent on where you are, and what situation you find yourself in. If you are somebody who is able-bodied in a large city, having a car is more of a convenience. If you are somebody in a big city, but with a physical disability, somebody who needs to work far away to support their livelihood, or the parent or partner of somebody with frequent medical emergencies, a car becomes something you consider. There are a lot of factors that come into play when thinking about being car-free or not. Having a car is an individual choice based on the situation you find yourself in. Overall, yes there are far too many cars, but the issue has many variables and elements that make it a more complicated issue than having fewer cars. The accessibility of different environments has come a long way, but it is certainly not the same situation for somebody living in a rural area with a disability, and somebody who is able-bodied and living in an urban center. “
The cost of a vehicle adds up to thousands of dollars per year, including the cost of the vehicle itself, loans, maintenance, gas, insurance, parking, etc. While we have made investments in bicycles and gear, and spend a few hundred dollars a year on things such as Metro passes and the occasional taxi, overall we save a lot of money not owning a vehicle.
One might think that the money we save would be top of the list, which is a significant benefit, but for us, it isn’t the most beneficial thing about not owning a car. That said, depending on where you look, the average cost of owning a car in the United States ranges from $5000 to over $10,000 per year when you add up the cost of loans, insurance, gas, and maintenance.
The collective cost to us all and to this planet can not easily be measured. There is a significant environmental impact of owning a vehicle. Personal vehicles account for ⅕ of the total US greenhouse gas emissions (ucusa.org). With the systemic impacts of climate change emerging on a daily and catastrophic basis, we each have to take responsibility for our carbon footprint, our environmental impact, and the care and compassion we give to everyone and everything we share this planet with. Especially now.
Questions We Are Often Asked:
How should I get started? If you have a car now, try parking it for a week and planning out how you will do everything during your week without a car. Does this mean biking, walking, using mass transit? What will your routes be? Try driving to a park and ride and training transport the rest of your commute. Try biking to the bus to train. Try taking transit one direction, and a ride share another direction. There are so many options.
How do you get groceries and other supplies? Having more than a backpack to haul groceries is very helpful. Panniers that go on the front or back of a bicycle, or a bike trailer that attaches to the back of the bicycle, can be really handy. The latter can be expensive, but you can very often find used trailers on Craigslist. We have also joined CSA farms with local pick-up and we will use Instacart and the like on occasion.
What if it is raining or snowing? Layers are essential. You can also find good wool layers second-hand, and that plus a raincoat or windbreaker are enough for most of the cooler days in spring and fall. In the winter, there are biking-specific gear that can really help keep you comfortable (balaclava, lobster gloves, etc.). And for walking, having a comfortable pair of walking shoes (or sandals – my favorites are Bedrocks) in the warmer months, and a good pair of boots for the cooler months (and getting some ice grips to add to your boots for the icier days). In the winter, studded tires and really good lights are important to remain safe.
Do you ever use a car? Yup! We still benefit from cars. Depending on our needs, we will still use ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft, and also often use delivery services like Instacart. There are many more options like this now making it even easier to remain car-free.
How do you plan ahead? For areas where we are less familiar, we often use route planning apps like Kamoot to help plan out where we need to go, including the safest and flattest routes.
Do you have kids? Yes. We have been car-free since they were toddlers and they are now young adults and have opted to be car-free as well (at least for now).
Do you have pets? Yes. We have two dogs and three cats, and a flock of chickens. We have a great vet walking distance from our home. When we take longer trips, we get a pet sitter (which would be the same if we had a car).
What do you do for work? I work in Human Resources and have worked in both for-profit and non-profit sectors (currently for-profit tech start-up in North Loop). Joe, who has been a career bike mechanic, now works for the St. Paul Public Schools teaching bike repair, and also works for a bakery in Saint Paul which delivers all bread by bicycle.
Top picture: Our bikes loaded up for a bike-packing trip.