On Not Driving

I am not the only of my kind (in fact, historically, I’m among a majority so large that the percentage of those different from me would utilize a number appropriate for scientific notation). I don’t have a car.

When I was growing up, my family drove everywhere, much like many people growing up in the United States. Biking or walking was for fun, not a mode of transit. One summer my sister and I walked almost every day to get lunch at one of the nearby fast food restaurants. That was the extent of my pedestrian life.

After I got in a major car accident that totaled my car, I didn’t have a car for a while, which didn’t bother me terribly. I was going to college and would live on campus. Later, my boyfriend and I shared a car. This car sharing situation went on for years.

About a year after graduating college, I lived on my own with my own car for the first time. It was short-lived as my car was hit (presumably by a drunk driver leaving a nearby bar), totaled, and the culprit disappeared. Not having full coverage and not making much money, I did not consider buying a new one. I lived in the city of Dallas. Mass transit was plentiful and I lived in walking distance from where I volunteered. I knew it was time. I’d thought about it and wanted to live car free for a while and now I could embrace it.

I caught on to mass transit quickly. I had many adventures, got lost a few times, and collected a number of stories. I walked a respectable amount. I traveled by Greyhound to see my family in Houston. I got good at negotiating the trains and buses.

There was a time when I moved out of the city while still working in the city. I figured out a 1.5-3 hour transit time, switching buses or trains (depending on which I chose) and trying to avoid long layovers. This was before smartphones, so I listened to music or read. I did much more reading of actual books than was usual for me. It also meant waking up outrageously early sometimes. But not only was I in great shape, I was spending significantly less money. It easily justified me getting a gym membership next door to work so that I had a place to shower and workout when I would get in an hour or more before work. In many ways, it was one of the best times in my life.

Another year later, I moved to Harrisburg, PA. I was in for a serious awakening about not having a car. The “mass transit” was awful and useless for my purposes. It did not run early enough for my job when I opened, late enough when I closed, or on Sundays (I worked retail). It also didn’t run far or frequently enough to live in most parts of the city. So, I rented a room a little under 2 miles from work and walked every day. I’ve discovered my happy limit for walking is keeping it under 2.5 miles (ideal is under 1.5), although there were instances when I walked farther. It never really occurred to me to get a bike. I had one my uncle gave me but it was way too big and frankly, I was a little bit of a scaredy cat on the busy street I used.

One thing you become when you aren’t reliant on a car is efficient. I learned what I could carry and how to maximize stacking errands and activities. Despite working two life-sucking jobs that I more-or-less hated, I felt vibrant and healthy. I liked not having a car. I would get rides more frequently than I used to because I couldn’t rely on mass transit, but most of the things I needed to do, I could take care of myself. During this time, I also became a good cook and learned how to make tasty, healthy meals for myself in advance. My one day off each week usually consisted of cooking, cleaning up, whatever errands, and a little relaxing. I’d go out once or twice a week with friends (usually carpooling on those occasions). It was a difficult time, but also a good one. Poverty can be an amazing tutor. Many of the things I learned then, I will always carry with me.

After a stint near Chicago (where there was fantastic mass transit and I had a smartphone, I never once even thought about a car), I moved back to Harrisburg and in with a boyfriend that was not so close to the job I had. It was about 5.5 miles. I thought that he and I would do a car share and I would help him with payments and insurance and so forth (and we did share for about 3 months), but he was not much of a sharing type and told me I needed to get my own car. Nowadays, I would have said no and walked the 11 miles/day or dumped him. At that point, I bought a used Honda Civic to get me to and fro.

I did not love driving. Actually, I hated it. I didn’t mind being on my own and I liked music and audiobooks so that part was fine. But the act of sitting and driving was not. It did come in handy though when I finally fulfilled my dream of working for a nonprofit. I was a Grassroots Organizer for Planned Parenthood and needed to have my own car to travel all over the state to do my job. This was one of the few times I appreciated it. Shortly after starting the job, I sold my car and bought a 2000 Chevy Metro which suited my low income and low carbon footprint lifestyle.

The other part I liked was road trips. One of the last ones I did before going car free again was across the country to Washington state where I moved and fell in love with my life partner.

Drew doesn’t have a driver’s license. He has a ton of anxiety about being in the car and is one of the most stressful people to have in the passenger’s seat. The stress was reasonable, as car crashes are the top killer of people under 35 and in the top 10 for all people in the United States, but not good for the driver. Since I no longer worked for Planned Parenthood, part of me had wanted to go car free again but, considering how little I was paying for mine and the low toll it took on the environment, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to it. Not unless we moved to a major city with good mass transit.

But, when our lives stabilized, even though we didn’t move to a major city (currently Mt Vernon, WA), I finally took the plunge. We’d been putting a lot of money in for repairs and I’d learned to bike and had come to really enjoy it. Biking doubled my comfortable travel radius.

Here are things some facts in relation to not having a car:

  • Excluding repairs or road trips, I save appx. $1350/year. That is with a Chevy Metro at 45mpg, some low insurance rates, and the fact that I’m already a minimalist and very efficient driver. The very sensible Civic I’d previously owned would have probably added a grand. I have no idea what it would have cost to have a not-so-sensible car. Stack on top ≥$1k for repairs or car payments. Let’s say I spend $600 on trains, buses, or carpools/shares or uber for a year (which is about right for travel to nearby cities, etc- excludes major travel which I would categorize differently anyway; though I’ll track it this year and if I turn out to be wrong, will follow up). I’m still saving >$1.7k a year. Let me reiterate, that is for a <60hp, 3-cyl car.
  • For going long-distance, it takes more planning and a bigger investment of time. Optimization is important.
  • I do not have to worry about exercise; I don’t even have to think about it. I walk and bike regularly, sometimes carrying weight (usually under 35lbs though). I’ll still add in other physical activity because it’s fun, but it is not necessary for general fitness. I have had a pretty healthy diet for a long time, but when I’m driving regularly, I still have to watch the calories. Without one, not so much.
  • I have a heightened awareness of my health. When something hurts or is abnormal, it’s easier to discern and be aware of when regularly active. I do not have to wait until I’m sick to deal with anything that is going awry. I suspect it contributes to the fact that I haven’t gotten sick since.
  • I get outside more. Biking and walking are outdoor activities. Nature is a known therapy in this bustling, crazy modern world of ours (I don’t even know how to cite this: a quick search on NIH or Google Scholar returns an outrageous number of studies on this).
  • I appreciate nature more. For better or worse, I experience weather in all it’s abundant glory. I know when to actually be afraid of nature and those times are extremely rare. I always see what flowers are in bloom. I rarely miss a beautiful day.
  • I see more. Physically. Sunlight, people- it illuminates a lot more information. Not to mention that I’m going slower; therefore, I’m able to really look at the things around me.
  • It gives me additional opportunity to hang out with the love of my life. When there’s an errand to run together, it’s means a lovely to walk or bike ride with my favorite person. Way better than an anxiety-ridden fewer minutes in a car.
  • It reduces opportunity to go longer distances and gives fewer living locations because I need to be close to my food sources. Choosing where to live according to grocery stores, work, etc. has yet to be a problem. Sometimes I do wish I was able to go some places to where it’s just not feasible to travel without a tremendous amount of planning and time. It’s the one true negative for me; but, it’s is far outweighed by the positives. Fortunately, it’s an infrequent issue. There are plenty of things to do near home, friends to travel with, and rentals/uber if it’s really that important (but usually isn’t).

Here’s a fun quote from a book I like about the lack of time actually saved by cars:

“It seems to be a tragicomic fact that every time-saving invention is immediately canceled out by an increase in activity or a change of behavior. When the automobile was made affordable to the masses, people moved further away from work and further away from stores. While transportation speed increased, transportation distance increased proportionally, keeping transportation time constant.

Not only do I not regret getting rid of the car, I actively like it. I like the way I spend my days, my level of fitness, and seeing more of the world.

I’d even recommend that others try it.


Photo taken in Copenhagen by me.

3 thoughts on “On Not Driving

  1. One of the reasons I’d like to live in Europe. Amazing public transportation and just a few hours takes you to a completely different landscape!

    Well written.


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