Carless in the City

As a teenager, I envied my friends who had their own cars. It didn’t matter if their vehicles were brand new and shiny or old and dull with age. The freedom and independence that came with car ownership was something that seemed so (for lack of a better word) cool. And not only did a car transport you where you wanted to go, but it could also act as a vessel for your stuff. In my teenage mind, getting to keep your CDs, receipts, hairbands, and bags in a vehicle you had the keys to was the height of awesome. Granted, I could keep some of these things in my mom’s car. But it wasn’t the same as having a car that was all your own.

It turned out I would be envying car ownership for a long time as those particular dreams weren’t fulfilled until 2012 when Nick and I got our shimmery red-copper Fiat 500 Pop. Suddenly we were car owners (well, the bank owned it, but we got to drive it), and the road was ours. We had been using Zipcar, a car sharing service, up to that point. But now we had our own vehicle to take us wherever we wanted to go, whenever we wanted to go, with no rush to return it before our rented hours were up. We named it Quasar (because space is awesome). And yes, we could keep things in it, like reusable grocery bags and CDs.

About three years later, after our poor Fiat was rear-ended while we sat at a red light, we traded in the repaired Quasar for a less flashy and more family-oriented used Jetta Wagon TDI (unofficially named and rarely referred to as Nebula). We weren’t as enthusiastic about the VW as we were our first car, but the Fiat had also started to make a series of unexplainable noises, and it seemed like time to move on to a more reliable car that gave our child in the backseat some distance from the cars driving behind us.

Within a few months, the Volkswagen emissions scandal broke. We learned there would be a court settlement for diesel engine owners, and began the lengthy process of signing up and waiting (for nearly two years). This morning we said goodbye to our VW. I admit, it was sad; we will miss our car. And although the buyback had been looming for ages, when we booked our final appointment a couple weeks ago, all the hypotheticals about how easy and great it would be to go car-free would suddenly become our reality.

So here we are, carless for the first time in five years, boldly deciding to give car-free living a chance for at least a trial period. It may sound inconceivable to go without such a convenience. But we live in a city in a location with a walk score of 89. Public transportation is a solid option for most places we want to go, and I recently rejoined Zipcar for all those outings where a car is simply a necessity (read: anywhere much out of the city and/or large grocery or bulk-buying hauls). Not to mention, we’re suddenly free from car payments, insurance, and maintenance.

There are so many great positives to going carless, yet I still find myself feeling conflicted about this new voyage. To have a car, or not to have a car, that is the question. Despite the surge of consumeristic adrenaline that comes when browsing the various makes and models available, I know we do not need a car right now.

And yet, car ownership feels safe while being carless can seem a bit scary. There’s freedom in having a car in working order available to you at any time. But if you’re reliant on public transportation or a car share, there are limitations. We’ve had to think through what we’d do in an emergency, as well as what we’ll do if public transportation options are extremely delayed. Services like Lyft help fill the gap, but add an almost 4-year-old into the equation, and suddenly hopping in a car when you don’t have a carseat with you becomes impossible. And then there’s all the stuff that no longer gets to ride in your car when you’re running errands: our grocery bags or totes, kid backpack, water, and (sometimes! often!) coffee now have to be transported either in our hands and on our shoulders or with the help of a stroller.

The success of our carless lifestyle will depend greatly on how it works to use Zipcar. We have to allow time for proper installation of Theo’s carseat. We will have to see if the pressure to return our Zipcar within the allotted time becomes tiresome or stressful in unpredictable Seattle traffic (as it did in Boston). And we’ll soon discover if it will be difficult to reserve cars when we need them if the demand for car share in this area too great.

For now, we’ll concentrate on the positives. One major bonus is that we’ll be reducing our environmental impact, especially important after over two+ years driving a car that was cheating on emissions. And we have extra incentive to take trips on foot or via transit instead of being tempted to use a car.

Obviously life changes. If we suddenly need a car for multiple trips a week, that might lead to a new car purchase. Or if it becomes frustrating or messy to get around with a child in a stroller during rainy or cold periods, perhaps we’ll be singing a different tune.

In the meantime, farewell Nebula. You were a safe and reliable car with fantastic zoom, and you fulfilled my desire to one day own a piece of German automotive engineering. I hope you get fixed to be more environmentally friendly and legal – and that your next owners, wherever they may be, treat you well.

Update: We did venture back into the world of car ownership about six months after this was written. I love thinking through what we need and don’t need, and I believe there’s value in living outside the norms. Unfortunately, getting our then 4-year-old to and from preschool up a hill with a not-always-reliable bus route proved to be the final straw. Perhaps another post on car ownership is due in the future!

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