Car-free and Carefree?

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Hauling nearly 50 pounds of kid and car seat is anything but carefree!

First, let me start this post with a few disclaimers.

1) Living without a car in the United States can really only be done in big cities with proper infrastructure (easy biking, amenities within walking distance, and ample public transportation). Are you curious about how your city/town rates for walking? Check out WalkScore, our address scores a 91 out of 100 if you need a reference point.
2) We did not sell our cars to be green. Please don’t take this as a “look at how green we are” proclamation, the environmental factor is important, but it is an after-thought.
3) While car-free living is common among plenty of urban and non-American demographics, it is not a common family lifestyle amongst our peers and neighbors. Philly is still very much a car city. Nearly all of our neighbors have at least one car (one even has a huge Ford F-250). A lot of people in our neighborhood commute to work via public transportation, but still own cars.
4) We don’t bike often, but we have bikes, and we want to start incorporating bikes into our daily transportation options. The first big step would be to find a convenient outside space to store them when not in use. Buried bikes in the basement are obviously not working for us!

I wasn’t really sure how to offer up this information in a logical way, so I decided to interview myself, using questions that sometimes arise when we tell people we don’t have a car. Yes, a mock interview. Kind of weird, but maybe it works.

Q: How long have you lived without a car?
A: We both had cars when we first moved to Philly. I sold mine soon after moving here in 2006, and David gave his car to his brother a year or two after that. So that’s about 4-5 years without a car, I think. My memory is really poor.

Q: What pushed you over the edge to ditch the cars?
A: The biggest push was cost, mainly car insurance costs. Since we already had cars, we didn’t even consider the cost of a new car. We wanted to be legit after we were engaged/married adults, so we looked into updating our address on our existing car insurance. The costs would have quadrupled. I don’t know the exact numbers, but it was shocking. More people + more cars + smaller streets + on-street parking = HIGH RISK for cars in the city. Also, since we don’t have a car, we don’t often worry about gas prices and the surprise costs of auto repairs. Another issue that we heavily considered was parking. On a busy night, you can search for 30 minutes to an hour for a street parking spot somewhat close to your house. That’s not how we want to spend our time. The final straw was knowing that there was decent public transportation and a booming car-share service in Philadelphia. Easy access to Philly Car Share cars definitely sealed the deal for us.

Q: How do you buy groceries?
A: This is probably the most often asked question. When house hunting, we specifically looked for neighborhoods near a decent grocery store. We have a pretty standard Acme within walking distance to our house. We make a weekly menu and shopping list, grab the granny cart, grab some bags, and walk on over to shop. We both work near a Whole Foods, and can pop in for a few things as we need them. We have a Wednesday farmer’s market in the neighborhood if we want to splurge on fresh fruits and veggies. Last but not least, corner stores and bodegas for quick things like milk, eggs, Cheetos, and Mexican Coke. All shopping trips, even the granny cart trips, require you to think about the weight of what you are buying. I use the hand-held shopping basket as a guide when I know I have to carry stuff. If I cannot carry it in the store, I sure as heck don’t want to carry it home. We hardly ever buy in bulk.

Q: How do you get to daycare and work?
A: In short, lots of walking, subway, and buses. We walk to and from daycare since it is close to our house. We are a 5 minute walk to the subway, that is a huge benefit. David takes the subway, and has about a 15 minute walk to the office after the subway. Excluding daycare drop-off, his average commute is about 25 minutes. In the morning, I take the subway, and usually take a bus to my office from City Hall. After work, I usually walk a mile to the subway, and then take the subway home. Excluding daycare pick-up, my average commute is 30-40 minutes. Walking is my only form of exercise, and it’s often quicker than waiting for a bus. On the rare occasions we drive to work, it takes us just as long (or longer) to commute those pesky 3 miles. Why? TRAFFIC!

Q: What about out-of-town road trips?
A: We mostly use Enterprise for longer car rentals. We use Philly Car Share for shorter day trips. A trip to the suburbs to visit Dave’s family requires a regional rail train trip while carrying the car seat, and bumming a ride from his parents. We usually travel by Amtrak to visits friends and family in DC, Baltimore, and New England. Again, it requires renting a car or bumming a ride from someone once we get to our destination. We definitely see our friends and families less often than we’d like, but that just makes us appreciate our visits more when we do see everyone!

Q: How do you get the supplies for all of your house projects you never seem to complete?
A: You snarky little terd! Well, we usually wait until we can accomplish a few things in one area of town, and reserve a car through Philly Car Share. We can reserve a car for 30 minutes, 2 hours, all day, etc. This is slightly stressful in that we have to return the car at a certain time or face high charges, but it prevents us from wandering around Ikea, Lowes, and Target for hours on end, which then prevent us from spending too much money on things we don’t really need. It is absolutely delightful when I do get unrestricted time in Target, I nearly skip through the aisles.

Q: How do you handle a kid without a car?
A: I’m not sure…it’s still a work in progress. We researched infant car seat stroller systems A LOT when we were pregnant with Estelle. We decided on the Orbit. It ain’t cheap. It was touted as being easy to install without a base, which was a big priority for us. That meant we could quickly use it in a car share and taxi. The car seat quickly snapped into the stroller, and the stroller can be unfolded with one hand. We loved the Orbit infant car seat stroller system. LOVED IT. Then we got the Orbit toddler seat. That thing weighs 20,000 pounds. We hardly ever use the stroller part anymore, but it’s there if we need help hauling the car seat. Estelle hates her toddler car seat, all we hear is whining from the back seat. She is not a car gal. She is getting pretty great at keeping up with my fast paced walking. So far, we’ve handled one kid and no car just fine. Does anyone have any car seat recommendations that have worked well without bases?

Q: Do you think you’ll ever own a car again?
A: We often consider it, especially when we see a car we really like or go through a stretch of needing to rent cars often. I think we’ll probably get a car one day, not soon. David did the math last year, and came to the conclusion that we need to rent cars a whole heck of a lot before it makes any financial sense to buy a car. Sometimes I really miss the freedom associated with cars…especially when driving through gorgeous scenery. Then we hit traffic, my blood pressure skyrockets, my language takes a turn for the worst, and I once again appreciate all of our quality time not spent in cars.

Just for fun, what kinds of cars are you dreaming about these days? I really like the Fiat Abarth. Not that Estelle’s enormous car seat would fit, but they are foxy little cars. We recently rented a VW Passat. It had great leg room, but I felt like a tiny granny in a huge Cadillac when it was my turn at the wheel. I drove a Nissan Versa today for some errands, it felt comfortable and not too big. I guess that’s another benefit of renting cars, it’s always something different!

Did I miss something? Do you have more questions or suggestions? Please feel free to ask!

Stephanie

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2 Responses to Car-free and Carefree?

  1. Liz says:

    Thanks for posting, I found this very interesting as I live quite the opposite right now. Chris has a 20 mile commute to work (country/rural road) and although we have a Walmart a few miles away we drive 25 miles to the military grocery store for cheaper prices. We have at neary $500/mo. car payment and spent around $500/mo. on gas alone! Thanks for sharing perspective from your world!

  2. Peter says:

    “David did the math last year”

    …and you CANNOT argue with his math!

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