Be my tiebreaker: Do I need a car?
January 31, 2017 1:35 PM   Subscribe

I recently moved from DC to Cambridge, MA. I own a car but it is currently at my parents' house in Virginia because I couldn't decide if I needed/wanted it up here. I've been in Cambridge for a month (loving it) and need to decide soon because I'm tired of paying for a car I'm not actually using. Help!

Reasons to keep the car:

* I like to take my dog hiking. In nice weather we do this 3-4 times per month. In the winter we entertain ourselves inside for the most part.
* I like to know that I have reliable transportation in case my dog ever gets sick or hurt. (He's 12.)
* I'm used to this car and really like it.

Reasons to ditch the car:

* Zipcar is readily available in Cambridge (and basically everywhere I would want to go).
* Pet taxis/ambulances seem to be a thing here, should they ever be necessary.
* Dealing with snow parking is not my jam.
* Having no car motivates me to walk to the grocery store and on other errands, which is good for my health.
* $$$$

Other facts:

* Car is a 2013 Smart with 26k miles on it. I've had it for its whole life! I leased it for 3 years (I know, I know) and bought it last January.
* I owe about $8500 on it.
* I'm scheduled to finish paying it off in a little less than four years. Could definitely pay it down faster than that but, uh, student loans man.

What would you do? In writing this, I realized that I am leaning towards getting rid of the car. But I do really worry about what I would do if my dog ever became acutely ill and unable to walk to the vet. Has anyone used a pet taxi/ambulance before? I'm very anxious, especially about keeping my dog safe, so impartial input is really useful for me.
posted by schroedingersgirl to Work & Money (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I use Lyft a lot around the perimeter of Boston, including in Cambridge, and have found it to be fast and reliable. That's what I would plan to do in case of a pet emergency. It honestly might be faster in an emergency if your car is snowed in/parked far away/etc.
posted by lalex at 1:38 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks! Would love input from anyone who has taken a non-service animal in a Lyft or Uber, since drivers can refuse to transport someone with a pet.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:40 PM on January 31, 2017

You don't need a car in Cambridge. I would ask whatever vet you establish a relationship with what their suggestions are for that kind of emergency situation. Many of their other clients don't have cars, so they'll have seen the situation before.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:43 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I lived in Cambridge for several years after selling my car, which I had had when I lived in Malden. I never seriously regretted it.

My little dog did get ill several times, and at least once I needed a late night ride to Angell Memorial for 24-h care. I was able to cobble together a T ride for that, although you will want to look at the local schedules to see if they have changed since then, about five years ago. At other times, I took a cab there so that she could have surgery. For her regular vet visits, I walked her to Cambridge Veterinary Care, in a carrier if she wasn't well or on foot if it was routine. (As to vet recs, that's a separate inquiry; memail if you like.)

It is very important to let the cab dispatch know you have a dog. One driver left me on the sidewalk at night in Cambridge because dispatch didn't tell him I had a dog (in a little carrier, too!) Luckily only my pride was hurt.

What I didn't have to deal with was parking, snow, insurance costs, re-inspection, or the thousand ills that car is heir to. Even with the dog-related troubles and issues in large-purchase delivery, I think it was well worth it.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:45 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

I lived in Cambridge for three years, and for two of those years I had an elderly cat who needed vet care. If you're physically healthy (as you seem to be) I would get a bike, a zipcar account, a transit pass, and perhaps cultivate a friend with a car. I took my cat to the vet in that area in a taxi at least once, and while that was not fun, it's a lot cheaper than having a car in Cambridge and way better than dealing with the madness that is winter parking there.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:55 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

If Zipcar sites are readily available to you, it's a decent option. Yes you run the risk depending on popularity of those sites of not having a car available to you at your nearest site right that moment, but in my experience another car is available a little further out (in which case you can take a lyft if needed).

Fwiw, we don't have a car and our hospital is 40 minutes away - our plan for when my wife went into labor was Zipcar and it worked fine in our scenario.
posted by Karaage at 1:57 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love my very who does house calls. I consider the house call fee a luxury I can afford in part because I don't have to pay for a car.
posted by spindrifter at 2:09 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have you looked at bluebook? Looks like you're upside-down to the tune of $4K. :(
posted by at at 2:15 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Keeping the car will be expensive. Have you looked at the local regs for parking in Cambridge? I know there are a lot of permit-only areas, but I don't know if there's a cost involved. Parking in Cambridge in general is not for the faint of heart. In your circumstances I might sell it, assuming I could pay off the loan completely by selling it.

However, some other things to consider would include longer trips like to visit your parents. If that is going to happen fairly regularly, make sure the cost of the plane/train tickets x frequency of travel will be less than you'd pay for the car. Also if you have other hobbies that you might develop (skiing in VT, hiking in NH) that would involve travel, make sure you price what a rental (Zipcar or otherwise) would cost.
posted by clone boulevard at 2:32 PM on January 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've lived in Cambridge since 2005. I have a car now, and I've had periods where I didn't own one. I love the freedom it provides. It's not at all necessary for access to Boston, Cambridge, or Somerville, but it's great for getting anywhere else - and the suburbs around here are so incredibly rich that you don't want to miss out on them for any reason.

And as a fellow dog owner, it's great to be able to hop in the car and go without thinking through all the "what if" questions that come with relying on Uber, ZipCar, etc.

(On a related note, if you have any questions as you're getting settled, drop me a line!)
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:52 PM on January 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Cambridge? No way. It is so walkable!
posted by katypickle at 4:33 PM on January 31, 2017

Keeping a car in Cambridge is not expensive at all beyond the money you would pay even if you didn't live in there. Honestly, it's a nice convenience to have. Street parking is amply available and permits are cheap (paying the ticket and tow fees when you forget to move your car for street cleaning is not cheap, though).

That said, I suspect that between your car payments, insurance, and gas, it's more economically efficient to ditch the car, but life without a car in Cambridge is not like life without a car in New York City. Lots of places in the Cambridge/Boston area aren't conveniently available by transit. People I know who didn't have a car there would call in a lot of favors from people who did have a car.

Given that you prioritize transporting your pet and getting out of the city regularly, I would keep the car.
posted by deanc at 5:11 PM on January 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would log the miles you do in the car and the reason for a month, and then revisit this question. In my opinion, you don't need the car, but maybe you want the car, and that's fine. But seeing on paper how you use the car and contrasting that with how much you pay for the car might be really helpful in determining what to do.

In terms of vet emergencies...what's your current Plan B if your car is busted and you have a vet emergency? Would it be reasonable to make that Plan A and sell your car?

If you got rid of your car and then a year later found that you needed the car for work or something, how hard would it be to get a car again?
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:23 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would sell the car if the payments are a burden. Parking is a pain, especially having to move the car on street cleaning days. I got along fine with Zipcar + rentals + T pass + cabs for a few years in the Cambridge area. Not sure where in Cambridge you live, but if you haven't tried taking the bus yet, that will expand your transit options (without the dog). Definitely do some calculations to see which is cheaper -- Zipcar is actually pretty expensive if you're using it for more than a couple of hours. I found that for over 4 hours, a rental is often cheaper.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:22 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have lived in Cambridge (well, technically Somerville, but about 50 feet from the Cambridge/Somerville city line) both with and without a car.

Do you have offstreet parking? Between street sweeping, the rule requiring you to move your car every 48 hours, and snow emergencies, I think it would be a huge pain to have a car that you didn't use regularly if you were planning to park it on the street. If you have a dedicated parking spot (especially a covered garage spot) it might be worthwhile to have a car.

I don't understand the emergency transit thing for your dog (what's wrong with taking the T/carrying your dog to the vet in a carrier/getting a taxi or a zipcar) and a car that you don't use often is not necessarily reliable transportation anyway, especially in the winter. It's not exactly a great option for emergencies if it won't start because the battery's dead because you never drive it, or you need to shovel for an hour before you can pull it out of your parking spot.
posted by phoenixy at 6:43 PM on January 31, 2017

re. pets in Lyfts--I have taken dogs in Lyfts several times, and I always call the driver to tell them that I have a dog with me, because it seems polite, but they have so far always said that it's fine; if they ever said that it's not, I'd just say thanks and try another driver.

(I've lived in Cambridge for ten years and I don't even have my driver's license yet because I haven't needed it. I do use a Lyft or ask for a ride when my cat needs to go to the vet because he hates the subway. I think cars are convenient but unnecessary here.)
posted by cheesegrater at 6:44 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I live in a less walkable area, don't have access to Zipcar or other hourly rentals, need to drive for work sometimes, and even I am getting close to going carless. The infrastructure for not owning a car is getting very, very good. Not perfect, but the convenience is starting to tip towards not owning, which was not the case even a short while ago. Right now the flexibility and ease is keeping me a car owner, but the savings are tipping towards selling it, and I expect the flexibility to keep heading towards no car. If there was a rental place within walking distance, I would almost certainly be car-free by now.

So if you have been managing for a month, I'd be tempted to keep rolling with it and stay car-free. (The question of what to do if you are in fact upside down on the loan is a different issue and probably worth a separate AskMe question, but either way that is money you will have to cover, whether you sell it now or keep paying the loan -- keeping the car does not make that issue go away.)
posted by Dip Flash at 7:52 PM on January 31, 2017

You owe $8500? The blue book value is far less than than you owe. Even if you sell it, you will have to continue to pay off the debt.

Based on that, I'd probably keep the car. If it was cash neutral, I'd sell it because a car is so unnecessary in Cambridge.
posted by 26.2 at 7:53 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I once had to take a lyft with my ( small) dog, in Boston actually. I just requested the ride and then immediately called the driver who accepted to ask if it was okay to have the dog. She said it was fine, actually i think she said it was sweet that I'd asked.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:14 PM on January 31, 2017

Yeah, I would keep the car, since even if you sold it, you'd still be paying for it, but you wouldn't have the car.

FWIW, it's at the discretion of the Uber driver whether they will take your doggo or not. Always message them to check.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:14 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you need it. public transit in that area is severely limiting, infrequent and prone to delays and breakdowns.
posted by Miko at 8:26 PM on January 31, 2017

I'd say a car in Cambridge can often be more of a pain than not, especially if you do not need it to commute to work. In the winter, it will involve lots of shoveling, and the rest of the year you're still stuck with moving it for street sweeping, paying inevitable tickets (most people I knew with cars basically just budgeted for a certain amount for tickets because it was sort of unavoidable to sometimes mess things up), etc. Plus, when you do drive places, parking is insane.

The key to enjoying car-free life, for me anyway, was to budget out how much I'd be paying for a car and then not feel guilty about paying money for a combination of transit/Lyft/Zipcar/etc. The big difference of having a car vs. not to me was that if you own a car, each trip you take feels "free" in a sense, even if you are paying for gas. In contrast, with Lyft/Zipcar, it can feel like you're nickel and dime-ing every outing, which makes those weekend hiking trips less fun. If you can reframe it in your head as "Ok, I'd be paying $X in car payment + $Y in insurance + $Z in gas, plus however much for parking, tickets, repairs, etc. so with that as a budget I'm good to do 3 weekend trips + 10 times of catching a Lyft (or whatever makes sense) and then not worry about it each time you do one of those trips.

For taking your dog to the vet -- I never had a problem with using car shares for this purpose, sometimes getting a Zipcar and sometimes doing Lyft. If you're calling a Lyft, it's good advice above to call ahead just to check (although being 100% honest, I usually did not do that and never had a problem with it). If there are Zipcars near you, you can also just go get one and drive yourself.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:48 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

If your biggest concern is your dog, is there a vet within walking distance of your house? Problem solved. Get rid of the car.
posted by Toddles at 10:02 PM on January 31, 2017

You're kind of stuck with the car unless you can afford to take a chunky lump-sum loss on what you owe, so you might as well deal with the inconveniences associated with owning it and paying down the cost over time, ideally on an accelerated schedule so you can get back something at the end. As 26.2 says, if it were a wash or even a near-wash, I'd sell and put hypothecated future car payments into a Lyft/Zipcar fund. But it isn't.
posted by holgate at 11:10 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a former frequent Zipcar user, I have to say I hated Zipcar and am so glad to have my own car now. Zipcars always had some problem or another: dirty, damaged, smelled bad, almost out of gas, and my favorite, the perennial low tire pressure. Such a hassle.
posted by actionstations at 12:18 AM on February 1, 2017

I agree that if you are upside-down on your car loan, you might as well keep it.

If that is not accurate, I'd get rid of it - AFTER you do a month or so of weekends going out of town using zipcar. It's definitely possible to use zipcar (and car2go if Cambridge has it) for weekend trips but it's a bit of planning you may find no big deal or annoying and frustrating after a while. I have a friend who is an avid hiker but really didn't want a car. She rented or did zipcar almost every weekend for years and it was fine, though she has a high tolerance for inconvenience and did eventually buy one.

I will say I lived in Cambridge/Somerville for two years without a car and never once wished for one. Every once in a while I borrowed my mom's car for the weekend, but if I hadn't been able to do that, it just would have been zipcar. For comparison, I pretty much always wished I had a car while living car-free in DC and Seattle. Cambridge is one of the best places to live in the country without a car!

As for the dog - I had a dog in DC without a car for two years. He's younger but has epilepsy, so that was a bit nerve-wracking. Once I made friends in the neighborhood, I asked them if I could use them as backups for rides to the vet and they all agreed (only had to call on one friend once).

Enjoy Cambridge, it's the best!
posted by lunasol at 5:10 AM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Some great input here; thank you! I am still undecided but some of you have given me really useful food for thought.

I don't understand the emergency transit thing for your dog (what's wrong with taking the T/carrying your dog to the vet in a carrier/getting a taxi or a zipcar)

Thanks for the chuckle. My dog (link in the OP) is a 71lb labrador. The idea of schlepping him to the vet in a carrier is pretty hysterical.

The T is 3/4 mile away, so not really an option if he is ever so sick or hurt that he can't walk (far). And while I'm definitely heartened to hear that people have had positive experiences taking their dogs in Lyfts/Ubers/taxis, it sounds like most of these people have small(ish) dogs. Some people are afraid of big black dogs like mine so I assume the success rate is likely to be a little lower for us.

posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:55 AM on February 1, 2017

There are usually special pet taxi services in cities. If you give your/a vet a call, they can normally give you the number of one they recommend. Here's a listing on Yelp for Cambridge (for some reason it mixes in dog walking services, it seems, but there are pet taxi companies in the list).
posted by urbanlenny at 7:42 AM on February 1, 2017

Zipcars always had some problem or another:

Yeah, and my experience with ZipCar in Greater Boston was that there are simply never enough cars. I found if you didn't reserve well in advance you would end up SOL - no good for emergencies/last-minute needs.

People do get by without a car, obviously. But if you are coming from the DC area, I think you are going to experience the public transit as a sad comedown, frustratingly inadequate; and you will also not find the issues with having a car an especial hassle, comparitively.
posted by Miko at 8:23 PM on February 1, 2017

Try living without using the car for awhile and see how you do at it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:34 PM on February 1, 2017

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