Going Car Free

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We are finally doing it—we are selling our only car. To some this may seem like a radical thing to do. My mother tells us that it is “un-American” to not own a car. Some may wonder if we have succumbed to some radical Portland counter culture. I assure you that this is a well thought out and reasonable choice. Here are a few of the factors that have lead us to make this decision: we have lots of other transportation options, owning a car is an inconvenience to our lifestyle, we can use the money on things we value more, and it’s a healthier alternative.

Many Transportation Options

Getting to Know Public Transportation         

We were introduced to using public transportation in Portland by necessity. At the time, I was going to graduate school at Portland State University and working up on Marquam Hill at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). Parking is scarce in both locations. In fact, there was a waiting list to get parking at OHSU. I was on that list for about 4 years and I never made it to the top. OHSU did offer highly subsidized Tri-Met passes, which was a wonderful employee perk. That is how this small town girl was introduced public transportation. I very quickly began to prefer it over driving. At the time we lived in Beaverton and it was a long commute in heavy traffic. Taking public transportation offered the opportunity to recaptured time that would otherwise be squandered in traffic and looking for parking. This came in handy while I was working and cramming for comprehensive exams for my PhD. I also enjoyed the sense of community that formed among those of us who regularly commuted on this route. Later we moved downtown because it made for a very easy commute to OHSU allowing us to bank even more of that precious commodity–time. When I was offered a better paying job I had to think very hard about losing that Tri-Met pass because by then it had become so valuable to me. After crunching the numbers, I realized that it did make financial sense to take the new position. In addition, I would practically have door-to-door service on the MAX, Portland’s light rail, another reason to love our downtown location.

Falling in Love with Bicycling

Ironically, parenthood and the work-life juggle was what first motivated me to take up biking. While some might think biking would be terribly inconvenient for a working mother of two, it was the solution to a puzzle I was trying to solve. As a child-free adult, I loved working out. It was a nice way to decompress from the day, and it felt great to be strong and healthy. With each child it became increasingly more challenging to find the time and energy to get to the gym. I study health and work-life integration, and yet it felt like I was floundering at it personally. I knew I would feel better physically and mentally if I could find a way to fit some exercise back into my routine, but how? The workplace wellness programs I was reading about as part of my research suggested that busy employees find a way to fit fitness into their lifestyle (e.g., walk, run, or bike to work, have walking meetings or lunch breaks). Portland has an amazing biking infrastructure. I saw bikes everywhere, but I didn’t identify with them, I thought of them as a spandex wearing, bike racing, exotic sub-culture. Nothing, and no one, could ever convince me to put on one of those spandex bike jerseys! Besides, how could I get my two kids to and from childcare, and would it be safe? Then a good friend of mine started talking about purchasing a cargo bike. I had my reservations. Then one day she showed up with her kids on the bike, it only took seeing how happy they looked to realize that this could be a solution to the puzzle.

Cargo bikes are not cheap but they are a good value, both financially and personally. It took a little work to convince my husband of the economics. Some simple calculations indicated that I could gain back the cost of a used cargo bike if I were to commute on it every day for a year. I committed to my husband that I would do this, and so the challenge was born. It was hard at first. I had really gotten out of shape. My children at 3 and 5, who have always rocked the growth charts, were not light cargo. However, in retrospect it seems inevitable that I would fall in love with family biking. My commute to pick them up was often quicker than riding the MAX or getting stuck in downtown traffic. Biking got easier with time, and it was exhilarating and empowering to think, “I got myself and my children here under my own power.” Pedaling my precious cargo up the hilly Portland terrain is a labor of love and service that bonded me to them even more deeply. In addition, commuting together in close proximity offered us the opportunity for great conversations and physical connectedness. After 2+ years I am fully converted to bicycle commuting and look for any excuse to get on my bike. No lifestyle change has brought me greater joy.

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Taxis and Car Shares

For those trips in the metro area when public transportation and biking are inconvenient there are lots of other good options. There is always that old stand-by the taxi. However, car shares are often less expensive and more convenient. Zipcar and Car2Go have many cars located near where we live and work. In a matter of minutes we can go on-line and reserve a Zipcar close to us. We simply use our card to unlock the door, gas and insurance are included in the cost of the ride, and we always have a guaranteed parking spot. Car2Go is bit different, you pay by the minute and the car can be parked anywhere in the “home area.” It’s good for short trips, when you might be out of the car for a long period of time and don’t want to pay for it to be sitting in a parking lot somewhere. Then there are peer-to-peer car shares, like Getaround and Relayrides, that allow us to rent a car directly from another car owner wanting to earn a little income from their unused car. We are confident these options will help fill any transportation gaps that public transportation and biking cannot fill.

Planes, Trains, and Rental Cars

Distant friends and family have no fear—we have heard your concerns. We assure you that we value spending time with you too. We will not let the lack of a car keep us away from you. Several of you are accessible by train. Given our youngest’s deep interest in trains we have had a lot of exposure to Amtrak and it has become our favorite way to travel as a family. The seats are roomy compared to an airplane and the children are free to roam and explore. In some cases we can even bring our bikes aboard and we are excited about the possibility of exploring your cities by bike. There are always rental cars and airplanes to visit those of you not accessible by train.

The Inconvenience of Car Ownership

Our downtown condo does not include a parking space. Parking in downtown Portland costs over $160 a month and that is a luxury we choose not to splurge on. We have always managed some sort of work around. For several years Jim had a job outside of downtown, this meant that we only had to pay for an hour or two of parking in the evenings. When that job ended we would park the car at my work which was located on the MAX line and I would drive it home only when we needed it. After we started commuting by bike, we found that we used the car less and less. It got to the point that we only used the car to get to church in Beaverton on Sundays. The bike commute to church is a little more grueling than most family member are willing to take on. So instead, every Saturday night my husband would take the MAX out to my work and retrieve the car. Then Sunday evening we would have to find a time to take it back out there. We were carpooling with another downtown family so the inconvenience seemed somewhat justified. However, at some point it became clear this really was the only weekly use we had for our car. In that light, the hassle just didn’t seem worth it. We decided that getting to church by bus would be more practical.

The Expense of Car Ownership

Car ownership costs are the second largest expense for most households according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. We started to think about what we were spending on to this car (the one we hardly used) and realized this was money that could be put to better use, paying off school loans, our children’s education, retirement, or vacations. We didn’t have car payments, and we were consuming very little gas, so we were already realizing a lot of savings in comparison to the average household. Still, our insurance was about $1,800 a year and then there were car repairs and maintenance. After looking up the Bluebook value we realized that over the 7 years we owned the car, it lost $13,000 in value.  That is over $1,800 per year.  Using car share options, we do not have to absorb the total cost of depreciation ourselves.

In addition there were the parking tickets. Even being extra vigilant, and my husband is about as vigilant as they come, parking tickets are a way of life when you live downtown. And it’s not just the expense, parking tickets are psychologically traumatizing. Every time we would get a ticket I would feel sick thinking about where could have spent that money. When I see a parking monitor, even if our car is nowhere in sight, I go into fight or flight mode, “did I forget to pay for parking, is my meter expired, is the parking ticket on the right side of the car…” Its like urban warfare out there…okay maybe an exaggeration, but you get my point. While contemplating selling the car my husband and I began to fantasize about a time when there would be no more parking tickets, or threats of parking tickets, and we were practically giddy.

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Identifying with a Healthier Lifestyle

As we transitioned from a dual car family, to a family with lighter and lighter car use we recognized a lot benefits for our physical and mental health. All of that time that we used to spend behind the wheel of a car is now an opportunity for physical activity. We walk or bike most places. Biking offers many mental health benefits too. It is a great way to unwind and transition from one role to another. There is an experience of living in the moment that you just don’t experience in a car, being out in the elements, taking in the season changes, slowing down, and taking notice of the scenery and people. In addition, there is the sense of accomplishment when you make it to the top of a big, steep hill. Best of all is the sheer joy of racing downhill. I can’t help but smile when I’m on my bike, it makes me happy.

Our children are participating in these active modes of transportation too. Our daughter has been riding her own bike since last spring. We have a Follow Me Tandem, which allows us to easily couple and uncouple her bike to ours depending on her energy level and the safety of the area we are biking in. Our son just recently learned how to ride his own bike too. When we initially talked to them about our plans to sell the car my son had a few reservations; he is still young and prioritizes his comfort above any other consideration. After listening to his concerns my daughter said to him, “well, we are a biking family, that’s just what we are.” My son nodded his head, “yup, we’re a biking family.” At that moment, I knew it was going to be okay. We are a biking family, and this is just what we do.

Saying Good Bye to the Big Red Car

While it makes sense to sell our car at this time, it is not an easy decision to make, we have grown attached to our “Big Red Car.” This was our first new car purchase. We bought this car as we entered into parenthood. We imagined that it would be a good way to chauffer our children around. We picked this small Toyota RAV4 because we wanted a car that would be a good compromise between fuel efficiency and person carrying capacity. It was the smallest SUV with three rows of seating. We imagined carpooling with our kids and their friends to church activities and sporting events. For seven years this car has served us well. It was the car that we took our babies home from the hospital in. As an aside, both of our babies screamed bloody murder anytime they rode in it, perhaps it was during these painful moments we first began to hatch our escape plan. It has taken us on long trips to see distant relatives. It has allowed us to form valued friendships as we carpooled to church and other social events with other downtown families. As our kids grew into toddlers one of their favorite songs was the Wiggles, “Toot, Toot, Chugga, Chugga, Big Red Car.” We would blast it whenever it came on and sing at the top of our lungs, it was kind of our car’s anthem. As we said good bye to the Big Red Car this Sunday we cruised around downtown blasting the Wiggles one last time.

Will we miss it–sure we will. Is it the American way to grown up being shuttled round in a big car–it was for me. Do I regret exposing my children to another alternative—not a bit. I can’t imagine that they will not have just as many happy memories of our car free adventures together. There will be plenty of time for them to ride in a car later if that is what they choose to do. For now, we are excited to try something different, it feels a little lighter, one less expense, one less possession to have to care for. I hope you will wish us luck as we head off on this new chapter.

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6 thoughts on “Going Car Free

  1. Yay! Congrats!! So glad to see another family take this step! We have been car-free for almost two years now. We sold our car back in NJ and lived car-free there for a year, but it was not fun or safe. We had the opportunity to make a change, so we moved to Portland, OR this past summer to make living car-free that much easier and safer. You may already know or be part of this group, but there is a great community of family cargo bike riders here in Portland. Here is a link to the facebook group if you would like to connect with some other car-free, car-lite, cargo biking families https://www.facebook.com/groups/PDX.CargoBiking/

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  2. Yay! We did this too, almost 2yrs now and its fantastic – we love cycling and had a cargo bike too. Admittedly though, we do get free use of cars sometimes – like now while housesitting, but I always regret it!
    Good on you guys.

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  3. Welcome to car-free!! It’s an adventure, exciting and scary at the same time. We recently sold our “big red car” (a Honda Odyssey). I’m often the only car-free person in my daily social circles, so I love to hear about other families making it work.

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