This weekend, as we mentioned in Morning Fizz yesterday, I'll be moderating a panel at the Climate Neutral Seattle Unconference about the challenges and opportunities involved with living car-free in Seattle. Which seemed like a perfect opportunity to answer a question I'm asked fairly frequently (usually by relatives in more car-dependent cities like Houston, but fairly regularly by folks who live here): Why would you live car-free in Seattle?
For me, the decision to get rid of my car came slowly, with a series of incremental changes that eventually made it clear I was better off without a car than with one. The first sign came when I kept getting tickets—not because I was driving poorly, but because I wasn't driving enough—city law requires you to move your car every 72 hours, ostensibly to prevent people from ditching junkers on the street. I could have made a point of moving my car every three days (at this point, I was driving, at most, once a week), but parking in my neighborhood was a nightmare, and frankly, after a while I just started to kind of forget I owned a car.
What finally convinced me to take the plunge, though, wasn't the cost of owning a car, but the fact that I saw so many other people, with lifestyles far more complicated than mine, who had chosen to live car-free. Look, for example, at the Sightline' Institute's Alan Durning, who has three kids and managed to go carless, a decision he documented in detail on Sightline's blog. Hell, my boyfriend at the time, whose commute was much longer than my 10-minute walk, had stopped driving himself after his ancient Volvo finally bit the dust. So what the hell was my excuse? Another major factor was the fact that I presented myself, very publicly, as an environmentalist, and what kind of environmentalist drives a car (albeit a 15-year-old Honda) in a region where cars produce more than half of greenhouse gases?
So, since mid-2003, mine has been one of those Seattle households without a car. I commute to work by light rail, bike, or bus; run errands on transit; and walk everywhere else. When it literally isn't possible to get where I'm going by transit (if you know of a way to get to Mount Vernon by transit, with bikes, on a Sunday, let me know, because I spent half the morning trying to figure that one out), I use a Zipcar—usually, that happens about five times a year.
After nearly seven years living car-free, I've had a good long while to think about the challenges and benefits of going carless. Since the challenges are obvious—juggling plans with friends and significant others (I don't have kids, and I totally understand why people who do decide they need a car), waiting for buses in the rain, stinky/loud/obnoxious people, the need to plan around the schedule—I'd like to focus on the benefits. Here are mine:
• Riding the bus or train gives me time to do stuff I couldn't do in a car—going through my RSS feed in the morning, reading the newspaper, checking out my Twitter feed. Even though it would take me less time to drive (at least, on mornings when Rainier Ave. isn't a parking lot), I gain that time back while other folks are sitting in traffic, their eyes (hopefully) focused on the road.
• I may have to deal with annoyances drivers don't (hi, drunk guy who kept asking me where I lived last night), but I never have to deal with road rage—my own or other drivers'. I'm frequently astonished by how angry (and irrational) driving seems to make people around me. They speed through yellow lights only to sit in crosswalks, blocking pedestrian traffic; switch lanes furiously in an effort to somehow get around the traffic all around them; and accelerate wildly in stop-and-go traffic when it's clear going fast isn't an option. Did I do those things back when I drove all the time? It's hard to remember, and I like to think I was one of the rare calm car commuters out there, but it's possible. Driving all the time makes you crazy.
• I get to experience things about the city that drivers rarely or never see—from the conversations between strangers on the bus, to the murals along the SoDo busway, to the daffodils along my peaceful bike path to downtown through Mount Baker. I'm not trying to glamorize taking transit or riding a bike to work—the bus is often loud, smelly, and overcrowded with obnoxious people, and biking in the rain and cold isn't a picnic. But I still wager it's better than sitting in traffic, isolated in a car, staring at other people's brake lights and breathing their smog.
• Finally, man, do I save a lot of money. I'm no financial analyst, and I don't balance my checkbook, but here's a rough comparison: $72 a month for an ORCA card plus a few bike tuneups a year plus a handful of daylong Zipcar trips (gas, insurance, and maintenance included) plus the occasional taxi plus maybe one rented car for an annual trip to Houston equals maybe $1,500 a year.
In contrast, monthly car insurance plus renting a parking space (or paying for it as part of my rent) plus license fees plus inspection fees plus gas plus parking plus maintenance plus the inevitable parking tickets STILL riding the bus sometimes and slightly-less-frequent bike tuneups equals—well, I don't know exactly, but I'm guessing at least four or five times more. A more precise car-vs.-carfree expense calculator can be found here, if you're curious. All I know is that owning a car felt like financial servitude; living car-free, in contrast, feels like liberation.