The 12 Alternatives To Owning A Car That Convinced Me To Sell Mine
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Largely for tax purposes, I began tracking the miles I drive my car rather carefully, noting the mileage at the beginning and end of each month. I was fairly shocked to note that in several months during the year, I had driven only 200 miles. I figure the car costs me about $500 per month to own, so I was paying a lot for driving a little just to keep the option to drive a lot.
That got me wondering, could I live without a car? I don’t live in Manhattan so it had never really occurred to me that I could live without a set of wheels to call my own. Plus, I quite like my car. About once a month I would comment to my wife Gail that I was glad we still have the BMW we bought when I was the CFO of a global food and beverage company and not a woefully under compensated online journalist.
After looking at the numbers, we agreed that we could save a lot of money on paper by selling the car, but we wondered if we could really do it. We decided that before we would sell the car, we’d go a month without driving it. So, as ridiculous as it seems, we decided that on those occasions when we really needed a car to drive, we’d rent one rather than drive our own and pretend we’d rented one.
The experiment was a surprising success. In general, we found we could get places when we wanted without the car, almost always with a more environmentally friendly option.
Now, let’s be clear about something. While we don’t live in Manhattan, we may live in exactly the only spot in Salt Lake City where living without a car is virtually as convenient as owning one. What I’m saying is that most people who read this wouldn’t be able to make the switch so painlessly. We don’t judge you for driving your own car!
The list of tools we use to make this possible follows, along with some commentary and anecdotes about our experiences with each.
Amazon.com. For years, we’ve been buying almost everything we can from Amazon. We never really thought of Amazon as reducing our dependence on cars, but looking back at our month without a car, it clearly has had a big impact on the number of outings we need to make.
Walking. We definitely found ourselves walking more, especially at first. When comparing a public transit option under two miles, we discovered that sometimes it’s just faster to walk. In October, when the weather is ideal for walking, that was easy. In January or July, that will not be the case. That said, as the month progressed, we got better about optimizing other forms of transportation and didn’t experience quite so much additional walking. Note that, because we live right downtown, we can walk to many of the places—including a grocery store—that others would drive to. While we didn’t and still don’t walk miles and miles every day, we’ve been walking to many meetings and for lots of errands for the 12 years we’ve lived downtown.
Light Rail. Within 100 yards of the front door of our building is a Trax stop, our local light rail line. It is magnificent. With lines sprawling all around the valley, including a direct line to the airport from our home, it is a powerful, eco-friendly way to get around. We even live within the “Free Fare Zone” so we pay nothing to ride the train in any direction for up to a mile and we often do (we always have). This month, we used it more regularly as an alternative to our car for longer trips and found it convenient and easy. While the standard rate for a trip is $2.50, anyone can purchase a fare card that provides a discount of 20%, reducing the effective fare to $2.00. The Utah Transit Authority has said the discount will expire, but they’ve said that before and then extended the expiration date. I hope that pattern continues.
Commuter Rail. The Wasatch Front in Utah features a commuter rail system known as FrontRunner. In the spirit of full disclosure, we did not actually use FrontRunner during our month-long experiment, though we have used it in the past. We were planning to use it to visit friends in Ogden (about 50 miles north of Salt Lake City) but they canceled on us, so we didn’t go. The round trip fare from Salt Lake to Ogden is about $10 per person, cheaper than operating a car, even with two people. (The IRS would allow me to deduct about $57 for that round trip.)
Bike Share. Early in the month, I joined Salt Lake’s Green Bike sharing program. I’ve become a big fan after 30 days. There are, I’m not kidding, three rental stands within 250 yards of our building, each in a different direction, so almost anywhere I’m headed there is a bike stand on my way. I just wave my card over the lock, pull the bike from the rack and ride. The bikes have cute and functional baskets into which I can drop my laptop and I’m on my way. I confess, now that I’ve joined and rides up to one hour are free to me, I’ve ridden them often for just a few blocks because it is faster than walking.
Buses. Yes, it is true that you meet the most interesting people on the bus. Within 30 seconds of sitting down next to one friendly fellow, he was explaining his mental illness and its associated treatments. You just don’t get that kind of conviviality when you are alone in your own car. What has surprised me, however, was my discovery that because our public transportation system is designed primarily to bring people from all over the valley to downtown Salt Lake where I live, I can take a bus to get almost anywhere I need to go. With a little planning (thanks largely to the Transit App) my travel time is relaxed and productive. Just try answering email on your laptop while you drive!
Lyft. While I could combine this discussion with the following paragraph on Uber and perhaps even with the paragraph on taxis that follows, I will address each separately as they have distinct personalities. Lyft and Uber are ride sharing programs where ordinary folk will give you a ride in their own cars when you need one. The drivers can clock in and out whenever they like. Lyft sports the most affordable rates, but the app includes a tipping function that would lead most people to conclude that tipping is expected. One great thing about Lyft and Uber is that because the passenger rates the driver on every trip, we always find the cars clean and are generally offered water and snacks, even for short rides. The cars are generally newer, but always in better condition than taxis. I confess that I haven’t sorted out all of the liability and insurance issues, yet, and that may influence future decisions. In Salt Lake, Lyft arrived earlier than Uber by about 90 days; both launched here just this year. Their presence is certainly an influence on our decision.
Uber. Uber rates are a bit higher than Lyft, but the app includes no tipping function and the website makes clear that tipping is not expected. I hate tipping. (Don’t get me wrong, I tip, but I hate it. Tipping is not customary in China and not tipping was my favorite thing about China.) Uber cars must meet stricter standards than Lyft cars, so one driver we met who had tried to become an Uber driver, was forced to drive for Lyft. Both services have prime time or surge pricing programs. For instance, on Saturday night there are more people who want a ride and in order to encourage more people to drive then, the apps calculate demand against available drivers and bump up the rates. Uber, according to one of our drivers, will bump rates up as much as five fold on a busy night. Lyft, in contrast, will only triple the rates.
Taxis. During the month, I took a taxi only once. It was, I believe, the only time I was in a less environmentally friendly mode of transportation than the one I had parked in the garage. The driver was friendly, the fare was fair (about the same as the Lyft fare for the same trip later than day). The driver allowed me to pay with a credit card, but of course, that was managed in the old fashioned swipe, sign and print a receipt mode rather than the remarkable efficiency of the Lyft and Uber apps. As much as I dislike this old school piece of the puzzle, it is important. At 6:30 AM on Sunday mornings when I am heading to my first church meeting of the day, there are no Lyft and Uber drivers out and about. They were out driving and getting paid surge pricing until 4:00 AM and are all fast asleep at 6:30. Old school taxis are still out and about looking for fares.
Car Sharing. Distinct from ride sharing, car sharing companies have cars scattered about that are available for rent by the hour (or fraction thereof). Like the bikes, the cars can be accessed quickly (or reserved well in advance) and used as long as you need them. The rate for the Enterprise Car Share car nearest us (next to the fabulously convenient Trax station and nearest bike sharing stand) is about $13 per hour with tax and modest insurance. Upgrading the liability insurance is less than $2 per hour more. For longer trips that don’t involve spending much time at a destination, this is a better deal than ride sharing. Of course, it can’t compete with public transportation, but sometimes we needed to go someplace the bus didn’t. The car share program, however, was the biggest problem we faced all month. The car nearest our home is a hybrid that doesn’t get driven enough so the battery was dead the first three times we tried to take it. On our most recent attempt, it worked as advertised, with a bit of planning, just as convenient as owning a car. The Enterprise Car Share folks extended us a $50 credit for our trouble and have begun checking in with us to be sure we’re happy with the program. We are.
Avis. Living downtown as we do, we are fortunate to have an Avis Car Rental place accessible without even going outside. So, on the occasions that our schedule calls for multiple errands or for long distance trips we can grab a rental car for the day (or longer). Anytime we’d use a car for more than four hours or so, it will be cheaper to use Avis than Enterprise Car Share. The frustration I find is in the paperwork. The 15 minute process for renting a car that somehow seems tolerable on vacation, when compared with the near instantaneous access to the car share car, makes the rental process seem woefully outmoded.
Kindness. Another thing that makes selling the car possible, is the kindness of our friends and family. We’ve tried to avoid putting other people out, after all, we can easily afford a car, we’re just choosing not to have one. That said, we did get rides from friends on at least five different occasions. Of those five trips, only one involved a friend taking us somewhere (home) that our friend wasn’t otherwise headed. That kindness to us, at least in four of the five cases, was also a kindness to the environment.
Even in our current location, we couldn’t have made this decision so easily even one year ago. The Trax line to the airport wasn’t running, Lyft and Uber weren’t operating here and the Green Bike program was running only in a limited pilot last year. Salt Lake City is completely redesigning traffic patterns right now on some streets to make bike lanes safer. Things have suddenly gelled to make it easy for us to sell the car. The social entrepreneurs who are bringing us the sharing economy are quickly changing the world.
Will the same confluence of factors make it easy or possible for you to sell one or more of your cars in the near future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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