From ‘Car-Heavy’ to ‘Car-Lite’: An (Involuntary) Experiment

Do you really need a three-row, midsize crossover to get groceries?

Studies have shown that the average car sits motionless about 95 percent of the time. I’d wager my average car sits stationary even more than that.

I’m something of an urbanist paradox. I’m a card-carrying urbanist, but somehow I’m also regularly seen with my nose in the latest car magazine, attending a car show and occasionally even joining a car-culture podcast to discuss infrastructure. Yes, I’m somehow both an urbanist and a car enthusiast. We exist! Some will naturally scoff at this apparent contradiction. Even worse: Wait till they learn that my two-driver family has three drivable and (mostly) reliable cars. Well, at least normally we do. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

It’s no longer really a debate that the proliferation of car-first infrastructure and culture has been detrimental to our urban fabric, especially in the United States. But the machines themselves, and the cutting-edge technology of electric vehicles (EVs) have kept my attention for decades. Backroad (rural/destination/scenic) driving, racing and urban car shows are some of my favorite pastimes.

Admit it, cars can be fun if used for the right job!

Destination-less and rural joyrides in cars can be great. Basically, just picture what you see in car commercials. Open roads. Sunsets. Smiles. Commuting? Not so much. If you’re curious to learn more about the small club of car-loving, commute-abhorring folk, this article really resonated with me, including this line: “One can be a car enthusiast while still advocating for — not to mention frequently using — public transit.”

You see, for much of August of this year, my wife, two kids and I have been faced with a planetary alignment of unusual, and almost laughable, car issues. (I’m now unfortunately a bit of a lemon law expert, but that’s a story for another day.) As it is we’re now left with one car out of three (!) for the entire family. That’s some misfortune, sure. It’s also “forced” me to try my hand at what it’s like for a working couple with two kids to get by with just one car, or “car-lite” as some would call it.

It’s also reminded me that cars, with few exceptions, are often a time and money drain. You can also ask me about hail damage!

That Is Your Family Car?

Amusingly perhaps, the lone working car remaining in my fleet is more than 10 years old, has more than 100,000 miles on it and is a four-seat convertible. It’s also got an involving and distracted-driver-resistant manual transmission.

Dayton’s Bluff is awesome.

For the majority of Americans — and as far as I can tell, even St. Paulites — it’s not the quirky convertible but the staid family crossover SUV that is the default commuter vehicle. Here’s where I concede my family owns one of those, too.

Studies have shown that crashes involving pedestrians are likelier to be fatal when the person is struck by an SUV or pickup truck, which is now much more likely to be the vehicle that the typical purchaser takes home. I’m a huge EV promoter, but even then there are drawbacks and ultimately traffic is traffic no matter the fuel type.

Did you know that many pickup trucks are eligible for Section 179 business tax deductions for $25,000 because they weigh more than 6,000 pounds gross? The MSRPs (manufacturers’ suggested retail price) are also many times what I paid for my “flashy” convertible.

For this month, my family’s trips by car are distilled to our basic trips only. The gaps, out of necessity, are filled by walking, biking, riding the bus and working from home.

So how is this involuntary experiment going? To my surprise, it’s been only a slight inconvenience. The first day or two, it took some getting used to the idea of coordinating schedules, chaining car trips and timing activities for the kids due to the extra seat time in the car. Humans are remarkably adaptable. Maybe we’ve gotten too comfortable having the always-ready, but usually-sitting, “you get a car!” multi-car households.

Here are some of my brief observations:

Pros:

Togetherness, ironically. Carpooling led to more face time with my wife. Young families probably don’t realize how little personal time is allocated to parents.

Spontaneity. We enjoyed more spontaneous trips/events (since we’re in the same place at the same time, already in a different part of town, etc.).

Simplicity in car storage. No need to park two cars.

Fuel savings, but that is debatable and depends on each family’s situation and locations.

Cons:

Time. Time is the biggest detriment in our situation when living car-lite. For example, if I drop my wife off downtown then head to work, that adds extra time that I have to add to my daily commute, even though she has to spend roughly the same amount of time she normally does. I might also delay going to work in order not to rush her out the door. That’s time I have to make up later. In other news, it helps to live close to work.

Convenience. This is probably one of the top reasons families have more than one car. Living and working in the same metro, it’s really just commutes that occur at the same times of day. On the weekends, we’d typically all go somewhere as a family or divide and conquer. Yes, we have to align our morning schedules a bit, but to my surprise that hasn’t been a major factor. That little feeling of chauffeur/chivalry doesn’t hurt either.

Logistics. Coordinating pick-up. At the end of the work day, if your shift ends, you want/need to get out of there. As my wife and I don’t work set hours, we can flex a bit of timing. With that said, if timing doesn’t line up just right, she can end up stuck downtown for an extra hour or more, especially if the kids start making demands.

Car-light tips:

If you have a destination within a mile from work (or errands), don’t even think about it, just walk.

Mix in transit and ride-hailing where it makes sense, even if you don’t normally use it for your commute. An occasional bus transfer can be lived with, even if you wouldn’t want to deal with that inconvenience daily.

Naturally, ride a bike even if occasionally or only on nice days if you’re able. Keeping a bike in your office might be a good idea.

If you have coworkers with similar schedules, consider asking about a carpool. You’ll either become fast friends or you will not be carpooling again anytime soon.

Conclusion:

My family’s situation and proclivities mean we are unlikely to cut down to one motor vehicle in the near future. That said, we’ve now experienced first-hand that we could do so. That makes me think that most families could make a few adjustments to their habits and end up saving money, enjoying more time together and maybe even give up commuting by car at all.

Let the car do what it does best, stretch its legs and put the “joy” back in joyride.

Scott Berger

About Scott Berger

A suburb-raised, but city-awakened, multi-modal enthusiast proudly based in St. Paul. Year-round cyclist, rider of Bromptons and E-Bikes. Scott is secretly also a car enthusiast and purist who has somehow lived car-free through the Minnesota winter and in rural France. Union Park District Council Board Member and Co-Chair of the Transportation Committee.

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