Living long-term in a car city...without a car
November 13, 2019 9:02 AM   Subscribe

I've never owned a car in my whole life. And for the first time in my life I'm living in a "car city" with the idea of living there long term. Will I get frustrated? Have you been in a similar situation? What were some workarounds you discovered? Should I reconsider living here even though I like it?

I am very much against driving a car, and in particular owning one. I do have a driver's license, just prefer not to drive and carry the costs that come with owning a car. In a perfect world, where I had a big income and a family, of course I'd get a car. But I can't really afford one now anyways.

And aside from a year in Los Angeles, I've always lived in cities where going car-free was not only possible but enjoyable. I even was able to walk to work in LA, so that worked out. I spent the past 2 years living in Minneapolis, while not a NYC or another urban East coast city, was a city of only 57 square miles with light rail and a great bus system.

Now I'm in Kansas City, a city of 319 square miles...eek! The thing is though, I moved here by choice and really like it here. But this is the first time I've really moved to a city that's not really designed for a car-free lifestyle...with the idea of staying there long term.

All is not lost as I'm able to walk to work, and do everything I need without a car. I live in KC's "urban core" which consists of a few different opposed to just a Downtown area. My address has a Walk Score of 87 if that means anything.

I'm just wondering if any of you in similar environments had a list of frustrating things you encountered, or tips and tricks to manage living car free in a spread out city. I could just as easily move to a more compact city, but I'd prefer not to. I suppose my biggest issues would come up when needing to go somewhere that's not in the urban core...such as to a social gathering, restaurant, etc.

I have plenty of room in my budget for Uber/Lyft, and ZipCar exists here. I've never been a biker but that's something I could look into taking up. There are certainly far worse cities to be in without a car, but I was kind of thinking about my long-term comfort level here. It's not too late to leave here for somewhere more urban, but I don't feel an urgent need to do that. Thanks!
posted by signondiego to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One problem is that although it's often cheaper not to own a car, when you don't, you see the (marginal) cost of every trip, and that can backfire. Someone invites you to their house, and it would be $50 in Uber or Zipcar fees. It's (too) easy to say no. If that might be a problem for you, you can mentally account for the $700 or so a month you're saving. That pays for a lot of $50 trips. Second, consider buying a monthly Zipcar membership or even Uber gift cards for yourself.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:12 AM on November 13, 2019 [19 favorites]

All is not lost as I'm able to walk to work, and do everything I need without a car.

Then you're fine? You don't mention Zip Car but I'd add that option to your repertoire. You can always actually rent a car for weekends away or whatever, too.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:13 AM on November 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I live in a huge car city - the square mileage is pretty much the same as yours! and I don't drive and never have drove and don't have a driver's license. Which has always been fine because it has to be!

I only live places where I know I can happily walk to pretty much everything I need, and I try to be more organized with getting things delivered that are too heavy for me to carry. (we don't have 1 day amazon delivery in canada mostly, so I have to keep an eye on my cat litter ;).)

That said, I have almost always dated someone who does drive so I usually get a few convenient trips out of them, but it's not so many that I couldn't do them in an uber or cab.

I ride my bike a lot now because it's faster than walking and less gross than transit! I was never a biker until I decided I wanted to make my commute into my daily exercise, just for optimization of my time, and now I LOVE biking. I actually bought my bike from the store without giving it a test ride because I was not confident I knew how to ride a bike. Now I bike everywhere all the time and it's the best. you should get a bike!

I honestly don't find not having a car that frustrating, but maybe just because I've never really had a car. People know they will have to pick me up or something if they wanna meet in the burbs.
posted by euphoria066 at 9:25 AM on November 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

This REALLY depends on where you live and what the public transport is, so I don't feel like I could answer that for Kansas City. It sounds like you are doing the best you can by living as close to the core as you do. I used ZipCar before I got a car (Uber/Lyft weren't around then) so that worked, though there is the occasional issue with someone say, disabling the car or being late or whatever that might come up, or if you end up running late yourself timingwise.

It sounds like you are doing okay though if you can afford to pay for car rides one way or another?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:34 AM on November 13, 2019

Best answer: I live in Ottawa without a car, and while I can get to work and home again that way, it is frustrating as hell to get a lot of places in Ottawa on transit. Like, there are stores that only exist in those giant suburban plazas that even if you can get to them on a bus, you then have to walk really far from the bus stop to the store, because the parking lots are ginormous.

The most important thing is to cultivate a budget for and a certain willingness to pay other people to have cars on your behalf -- Uber, taxis, Zipcars, etc. You can rely on friends to a limited extent, but you don't want to impose on them every time you need to go out of the central core of the city.

I get a lot of mileage out of using different transportation options for the same trip. Like, I'll walk to the grocery store, but then call an Uber to bring me and my groceries home. Or I'll take transit to an event because earlier in the day, there is a bus that goes there, but then take a taxi home after because late night transit is much worse.

Also, if you are going to use whatever limited public transit exists, get in the habit of scoping out not only where you're going, but where the nearest starbucks is. With poor transit, often you have to choose to be very early or slightly late, and being very early is a lot easier if you know there's somewhere you can wait in the meantime.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:35 AM on November 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: O hai fellow never-car-owner! FYI, Lyft has been testing / slowly rolling out a service that's more subscription-ish (and Uber may have similiar one in the works). They offered it to me last month – I think the version offered to me was a single payment of $15 in exchange for $4 off any Lyft rides in that month (up to some cap), which could quickly pay for itself if you take shorter rides.
posted by kalapierson at 9:40 AM on November 13, 2019

I live in a pretty spread-out city, and have lived here without a car. I have a car now. I have always been a cyclist, and still get around by bike to the extent it is practical. I also just enjoy walking a lot. My town does have a bus system. For some routes it's a perfectly reasonable way to get around, but for some trips, it is literally slower than walking. I've taken the bus to/from work a few times, and at its fastest, it takes 2x as long as riding my bike.

Apart from the added expense of having a car, here are some of the big differences to consider:

- Time. If you've got a car, you can go to the grocery once/week and stock up. That's harder to do on foot or by bike. Even if the travel time to the store is about the same, you'll be making more trips. In a city center, there are a lot of trips where the travel time is basically a wash, and some specific cases where a bike may have a slight advantage, but in general you're also going to be spending more time just getting around.
- Access. I don't know about KC, but where I live, almost all the big-box stores are at the edge of town. And although I am capable of getting to them by bike, those trips are not for the fainthearted cyclist, and getting anything home from them would involve some serious schlepping. Similarly, a lot of the movie theaters I might want to go to are at the edge of town, so when I've had no car, I've basically depended on friends to go with me and pick me up.
- Money. I don't know how much the savings of shopping at Costco offset the expense of owning a car, but that would be part of any comprehensive analysis.

I've got a lot of opinions about bike commuting that I could get into separately, but in brief I'd say this: learn how to ride in traffic, don't cheap out on the bike and bike gear, and don't cheap out on bike maintenance.
posted by adamrice at 9:41 AM on November 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

I lived long-term (5 years) without a car in a city with "good" public transportation (Seattle) and for awhile after moving to Grand Rapids, MI, which I think would be somewhat similar to Kansas City. Personally I wouldn't do it again, but it sounds like you might be better prepared for it than I was — during the time I didn't have a car in GR, I don't think Lyft/Uber even existed there yet.

I think big factors depend on your physical fitness, how much free time you have (because everything is going to take longer than if you had a car), how safe the areas you'll be walking/using public transit in, and how often you'll be traveling late/on holidays/during peak hours that might lead to something like Lyft/taxis being extremely expensive or unavailable. Also, the weather — are you okay with being out in the elements more often?

I found that it was a LOT cheaper to rent a car for a weekend through Enterprise (whose tagline is "We'll pick you up", which is a nice bonus ) than it was to use my ZipCar. I personally hated having to manage how long I'd have the ZipCar and much preferred a weekend with a car to get all the big stuff done without stress.

My decision to get a car hinged on my personal safety: I got a lot of street harassment on public transportation and decided I didn't want to put up with that anymore. This was compounded by a friend getting attacked as she walked the few blocks from the bus stop to my house, I just decided I was tired of being on high alert all the time. Having a car now means a lot to me for that reason as a visibly queer and feminine, not physically fit person, even though I drive fairly rarely (I work from home). I have a cheap car and my insurance is cheap because I have no tickets and it works out to cheaper than when I had a bus pass and Zipcar.

Lastly, as someone with a handful of friends who don't have cars: I hate to say it, I know I'm going to sound like an asshole, but I honestly find it a huge hassle to hang out with those friends, even though I was that friend for so long. Being constrained by whether the bus goes where we want to go at the time we want to go, having to drive them home or pick them up, or making sure they can coordinate their Lyft can be...a pain in the ass. The older I get the less patience I have for one more difficulty in getting together with friends. You might encounter people like me who feel frustrated by your carless existence, though I'm not saying that's a reason for you to get a car.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:31 AM on November 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

I live car-free in a very small city with minimal public transit within the city and to the surrounding towns. My job and apartment choices are always based on availability of reliable transit (a bus line that has been reduced in the past few years is never a good sole transit option) and on the nearness of groceries (I want walking options). Here are some things that help:
- monthly budget for zipcar/uber/lyft trips
- ask friends and family for rides especially when they're already going there--but try to stay up on my social currency with them by reciprocating with favors/treats/fun things that don't involve them toting me around
- fancy wheeled cart for groceries and farmer's market and larger/heavier purchases (I have a rolser and love it and use it at least weekly)
- attend planning board meetings/public transit meetings to make the voice of the public transit users heard
- similarly, make sure my local and state government are aware of my wants and needs in public transit
- look into delivery services or businesses that will deliver to you. The area I'm in has a bicycle pick up company for trash/recycling/compost. They also do a bulk-buying co-op and have moving services.
posted by carrioncomfort at 10:39 AM on November 13, 2019

This is totally doable. I think the main thing that helped me was planning ahead more about purchases other than grocery shopping, so that I can order online in advance instead of spending too long trying to go to Target or a place like that. The other challenge is convincing friends to visit you if they live somewhere inconveniently located (or just spend the money on Lyft, or decide to hang out mostly with friends in your own neighborhood). It's nice to be able to take trips out of town on the weekend, so a Zipcar or similar membership could be useful.
posted by pinochiette at 11:27 AM on November 13, 2019

I should note that these are things I found to be true even in very walkable/transit-friendly places (eg Brooklyn), but I think they're true anywhere. As long as you're in an area where you can get to work, a grocery store, and some entertainment without difficulty, the rest is manageable, I think.
posted by pinochiette at 11:29 AM on November 13, 2019

It sounds like I'm in a similar situation. The biggest frustration I experience is that sometimes I just don't feeeeeeeeeel like walking the 10 minutes to the grocery store and carrying the stuff 10 minutes back, but I also don't feel like paying 8 bucks each way for a Lyft (basically the minimum distance fee plus tip). It never frustrates me enough to reconsider my car situation though, no. I just plan ahead a little bit more I guess.

It is a good idea to get a bike or a bike share account. I have a bike but I also like doing bike share because it opens up your options: if you feel like walking there but not back home, you can potentially bus OR bike OR Lyft. Obviously not every option is available in every situation but having some choice feels to me like more freedom than being chained to my car for everything.
posted by CheeseLouise at 11:30 AM on November 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

The key question is how often you'll leave your immediate area. I lived in Columbus, Ohio without a car for a few months while I worked in a different part of town than where I lived, and it was pretty difficult. The bus was unreliable, and it would have been a pretty long bike ride. I was pretty miserable. Later, though, I had a job where I drove for work and tracked my mileage, and one month (December, so cold out)when I compared my odometer to my work mileage reports, I found that I only drove about 100 non-work or commute miles, and that included an 80-mile round trip to visit my mom. I lived in a neighborhood that was pretty self-contained at the time, and while it wasn't the world's most walkable neighborhood, it was good enough that I could walk or bike almost everywhere. If your situation is closer to the latter, you can probably do it. Closer to the former, no. The x factor is social life, and the question there is how old you are, whether you're at the age where social events happen in people's homes, or if your friends still "go out". If they go out, they'll likely be going out near you and it won't be a problem.

Also note that since you have an overriding reason for this, it might be easier to deal with. My carless period was just due to poverty - my car died and I didn't have money to buy another; if I could have, I would have, so it was just a reminder of how lousy my overall situation was. When you get frustrated, though, you can remind yourself why you're doing it, and hopefully that can sustain you.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:34 AM on November 13, 2019

It sounds like you're already set-up for car-free success. You can get to work easily and live in a more dense core of a sprawly city. Without a car's expense, you can use ride shares or short term rentals for anything that requires or is easier with a car.

Things like a good grocery cart and a kick scooter can make it easier to get around and do your everyday errands. A bike is great, too, though biking in a place where there are mostly cars and not many bikers can be dangerous because drivers won't see you and aren't accustomed to sharing the road. Being doored or hit is no fun.
posted by quince at 11:34 AM on November 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Lastly, as someone with a handful of friends who don't have cars: I hate to say it, I know I'm going to sound like an asshole, but I honestly find it a huge hassle to hang out with those friends, even though I was that friend for so long.

A friend of mine REALLY, REALLY, REALLY complains about those people. Since I used to be those people, I don't complain, but yeah, friend fatigue may be a factor.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:13 PM on November 13, 2019

Could an ELF be for you?
posted by oceano at 12:37 PM on November 13, 2019

Hi there, I lived in Philadelphia for 20 years without a car. Then did buy an 15 year old car from a family member. Before owning a car, I would rent a car for the weekend (Fri-Mon) and save all of my suburban errands & visits for the weekends I rented. It cost about $100 for the weekend and it was very convenient because I didn't have to worry about maintenance or parking in the city. Other than the hassle of going to the desk and getting the car out of a city garage, it was convenient. After I did get my own car, it basically sat in the parking spot for most of the week because I didn't drive to work. It was very nice to have the option to drive if I wanted to go grocery shopping or Target or the like. After having a car for now 7 years, I have to say that it was a learning curve to remember to provide maintenance but I was able to look up checklists online which helped. Parking was very easy when I first got the car and now it is slightly more difficult. I still walk as much as I can or Uber sometimes if I want to go in-town. All in all, I like it and use it as an option.
posted by ColdIcedT at 12:57 PM on November 13, 2019

A friend of mine REALLY, REALLY, REALLY complains about those people.

Friends come and go and guess what: If your friends live in far flung suburbs or all around the city you won't see them much anyways even if you had a car, so please don't consider this to be among the most important advice. Just cultivate new friends close to where you are.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:01 PM on November 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Seems more common than I thought. I guess I'm just not used to living in such a spread out city. All good little tips and tricks but especially helpful is mentally accounting for the savings not having a car will bring me, and accounting for those $50 trips that may seem expensive at first but not so much when you remember you're already saving by not having a car. And having somewhere like a Starbucks to go to in case public transit would get you there way early, or taking transit there and Uber on the way back!

Sounds like it is really about using your resources in the way that'll be most efficient. Thanks!
posted by signondiego at 1:29 PM on November 13, 2019

I live in an aggressively-car car city, and, unless you happen to live and work within reasonable distance of the very inadequate bus line, you are in for a very tough go of it. Even areas with sidewalks tend to not have things like food markets anywhere near. No bodegas, either. And, if you’re located in one of the city’s suburbs, you are completely SOL without a car.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:54 PM on November 13, 2019

I think you're a great candidate for a bike. The issue with car-centric places isn't the car-centricness per se (I live in Philadelphia, which has pretty good transit and is really walkable, and yet there are large parts of the city that are very unattractive/unappealing/difficult/dangerous to access without a car), it's that everything assumes you have your own on-demand transportation.
posted by Automocar at 1:59 PM on November 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend an e-bike or a scooter. Both are motorized which dramatically increase speed you can move at and therefore your range, and neither are anywhere near as expensive as a car to purchase or maintain.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:16 PM on November 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'd also recommend an e-bike. Check out the CyclingKC weekly Group Rides to ride in a group of people who already know the local routes and roads. Chances are you'll have "Oh, I could use this to get to work!" moments when the ride ducks down some less-well-known street for a bit.

Also I'm not sure where they sit on the "Vehicular Cycling educational dogma" vs "Dutch-style safe infrastructure" axis of cycling advocacy, but chances are they'd be a good group to start working to make your new city's streets safer and more pleasant for people travelling without a car!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 8:04 AM on November 14, 2019

(Also I find it really odd seeing people use the word "biker" for "person who rides a bicycle". To me a "biker" is a greaser in full leathers on a motorcycle.)
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 8:06 AM on November 14, 2019

Definitely get a good city bike with shopping panniers. Consult and enable the Bicycling option in the side panel to see the bike lanes and bike-friendly streets. Here's a link to a list of bicycle advocacy groups in the area. Ask in the cycling community if there are any co-op bike shops where you can bring in your bike to work on it and use their tools.
posted by conrad53 at 9:49 AM on November 15, 2019

I've spent a lot of time in Philly. I've always used Uber getting around. There are a lot of ways to save money with Uber. I use Uber promo codes and earn credit to pay for the rides. You can also estimate the cost on the uber website. In my experience, though I have found them a better option than cabs. I've never used Lyft in Philly so I don't know if it exists there.

The bikes are a good shoot out which I will have to try next time! Thanks for sharing the groups in the area.
posted by nomdicstephen at 2:42 AM on December 9, 2019

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