How to Start Living Without a Car—First Steps
So you've decided to live a car-free lifestyle––from depending on a car for everything to living as much as possible without one!
You've hopefully already read or talked to others about what it might be like. Maybe you've watched a few videos. You've gone through a systematic decision-making process, comparing the pros and cons, to make sure such a lifestyle makes sense for you. Maybe you've tried it before and it hasn't worked, but you want to try again.
What steps do you take to make it happen?
Based on my ten years of living without a car, here are the first steps that make the most sense to take. Going through this process will help you get to know yourself better:
- If you haven't already, list your activities during a typical month.
- List the possible transportation options in your area.
- Match transportation options to activities.
- Gather any information you'll need (like bus schedules or apps).
- Check for or purchase equipment you'll need.
If you're not quite sure about going without a car yet, you can test it out for a month, then decide what to do with your car—either keep it for rare occasions, let someone else use or rent it, or store it somewhere. If you keep it, you'll still have to pay for upkeep, but it won't be as costly.
Working this out may take time, but it's a practical approach to a new adventure that will get you organized and on your way quickly. Here are details and examples.
1. List Your Monthly Activities
Where do you go? When and how often? List the repetitive trips. As an example, here is my list:
- Across town every day to work
- Traders Joe's, Whole Foods, or Target once a week to shop for food
- Armen Market up at the corner (15 minute walk) once or twice a week
- Same corner to the laundromat once a week
- Across town to church every Sunday
- Downtown to choir practice every Wednesday night
- Coffee shops and restaurants—those are everywhere
- Downtown for movies once a month
What I'm most concerned with is keeping my daily lifestyle—or how to modify it, if I can't get to one of the locations above. I go other places too, but those trips are more sporadic. I could rent a car or carpool with others, if a bus doesn't go there.
For example, there are three Trader Joe's around here. The lady who lives in the house in front of me goes to the one east of here. I could ride with her if I needed to. One TJ store is downtown, within walking distance of Target, easily accessible by bus. The other is a little further downtown and close by Whole Foods—also easily accessible by bus.
If I want to go to the City of Los Angeles, I take the bus to the Metro Gold Line a few miles down the street. Same thing if I want to go to the LA Airport (LAX), but those are occasional, non-repetitive trips that I can work out when the time comes.
For the main activities listed above, how will I get to them?
2. List Your Transportation Options
To start out with, you'll need to know what transportation options are available in your area. Here are the choices most readily available in the Pasadena area where I live:
- Public bus
- Metro train
- Renting a car
- Taxi, Lyft, Uber
Once you know your options, do a quick evaluation. Let's see:
- All of the above are possible for me, except Zipcar. There's an outlet at CalTech, but not close enough for easy access.
- Taxis I'll take only in an emergency. Uber you can't reserve except through a smart phone app, which I don't have. Neither do I want to buy a smart phone, so that's out.
- I don't have a lock for my bicycle, nor do I have equipment for it, so I will set that up later, if I need to.
The rest are good options. Now which will I use to get to each location?
3. Match Activities with Mode of Transportation
This next step will be different for you, of course. I'm just showing my life as an example. Hopefully, you're doing this exercise along with me, so feel free to use a semblance of the chart below.
Here's how I could get to each activity:
- Work––The 264 bus that stops right at the corner goes across town and about a 1/4 mile from my workplace. I can walk the rest of the way.
- Food shopping––I'll walk to Armen Market at the corner. It only takes 15 minutes. Kitty corner from that is a coffee shop/bakery, so I can pick up a latte and walk to the 686 bus stop across the street. That will take me downtown to my other shopping locations.
- Laundry––Same corner, easy to walk to. I'll carry my laundry in a duffel bag, and my soap and reading material in my light backpack.
- Church––The 264 bus goes right by my church.
- Choir practice––The 686 goes to downtown Pasadena, past the place where we practice. If I go early I can eat dinner across the street, then get a ride back with a choir member when practice is over at 9:00 p.m.
- Coffee shops and restaurants––Walking, bicycling, or riding the 686.
- Movies––I can take the 686 to movies, plays, restaurants, and shopping for non-food items on Pasadena's main and neighboring streets.
If your city offers public transit, and you have a smart phone or laptop, go to their website to see if they offer a trip planner. That's the best way to find out which bus routes are close to you. I've included a link to the one for Los Angeles in the public transportation section below, so you can see what I'm talking about.
Transportation Method Chart
Bank & food shopping
4. Gather Information
If you've noted buses you can take, give over a day to exploring their routes. When you get on the bus, pick up a brochure/schedule (from the rack near the front of the bus) that lists the route and stop times. That will help a lot with future planning.
If you have a smart phone, check to see if there's an app you can download that shows where the buses are at any given time. That helps a lot if you got to your bus stop on time and the bus is late, or if you spontaneously decide to go somewhere else while you're out.
You'll notice I listed two different buses I could take: the 264 and 686. Those are my main buses and I have schedules for each of them that I carry around with me. I also have schedules for the other routes I've taken, but don't use much. Those I keep at home.
Next is to see what physical objects you have, or will need to buy, that will make transportation easier. You'll very likely be walking to some locations, at least, so we'll start with that.
5a. Equipment for Walking Around
You might think that walking is something everyone does, so of course you'll have what you need for walking. However, it's a good idea to check anyway.
Here are some of the things I've accumulated that make my walks comfortable and easy:
- Comfortable walking shoes—essential, especially if I'm going to be walking for a few miles, which I've done.
- Something to accommodate the weather—like an umbrella, shade hat, or sunglasses.
- Something in which to carry stuff––like a book bag, giant purse, or even a light backpack. I have three:
1. A small, leather knapsack—with an inside big enough for a couple of books, plus two outside pockets
2. A light, leather backpack the size of a woman's giant purse
3. A big, insulated picnic backpack for food shopping
- A duffel bag to carry clothes to the laundromat. (I carry soap and a laptop in my light backpack.)
5b. Equipment for Everyday Bicycling
For bicycling you'll need a number of things, not the least of which is a bicycle in good condition. You can get different kinds of bicycles for different riding conditions. For trucking around town, you'll want a normal bike with regular tires and some of kind of rack or basket to carry stuff. Make sure you have a tire pump attached.
There are also cool bikes made to be folded up on a train. Buses in Los Angeles have racks in front where you place the bike, so you don't need foldable bikes to ride the bus. And there are new, electric bikes being designed specifically for carrying groceries and kids on the back (see video).
Here are some other necessary items:
- Sturdy bike lock
- Helmet (required by law in many areas)
- Water bottle
- Handle baskets, bike rack, or other carrier (like a backpack)
- Shoes or boots with treads to grip the pedals
- Straight-leg pants or elastic to clasp loose legs tight, so they don't get caught in the spokes
Electric Cargo Bikes
5c. Equipment for Public Transit
Depending on where you live, public transit may or may not be your most used option. It depends a lot on how efficient and widespread the system is.
In Pasadena I ride public transit all over the place––mostly buses, but also trains when I travel to Los Angeles downtown or to Simi Valley to visit my sister. It's not easy at times. I have to watch my timing carefully, since they don't coordinate very well in my outlying area.
In addition to walking equipment, here is what I advise for public transportation:
- A website link to the public transit trip planner
- Bus schedules for the lines I ride most often
- Smart phone to track the location of the next bus coming
- Knapsack or backpack with a foldable bag for extra shopping
- Shopping list, if I'm shopping
- Interesting book, laptop, or camera
What I like most about carrying a knapsack, instead of a shoulder purse, is that it sits comfortably on my back, instead of slipping off my shoulder all the time. For guys, of course, the knapsack substitutes for a purse.
The next thing to explore is carpooling, which is a whole different situation.
How to Arrange for Carpooling
Carpooling, at its basic, is the same as calling up friends to ask for a ride. So the first thing you'll need to have is a friend––hopefully someone living close to you. A Starbucks card or gas card is a big help too, if you're willing to reciprocate (a good idea). If you're going a long distance, then a smart phone with a large screen helps you provide the driver with directions, if they don't already have GPS in their vehicle.
For transportation to work, you'll need to ask coworkers if any of them live near you, or live further out than you do. You can cover gas and coffee, if they're willing to give you a ride. Parking too, if there's a cost. You'll need to coordinate your working hours and maybe modify them, so your arrival and departure times are similar.
If you can't find anyone to carpool with and are willing to ride with strangers, you can register online on a carpool app. Here is the link to LA Metro's Rideshare.
How to Rent a Car
I use a local rental car agency for short trips and reserve my car ahead of time online. For longer trips I like Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which allows for unlimited miles. I've provided a link to Enterprise, so you can see what an online rental car process looks like. This is only for reserving a vehicle. To pick it up, you'll need to physically go down to the agency.
Here's what you'll need:
- Current driver's license
- Credit (not debit) card that is not maxed out
- Proof of vehicle insurance, unless you want to buy theirs
- Money for gas
At the counter they'll ask to see the first three items, then get your ok to reserve money upfront on your credit card––usually a $200 deposit. Then they'll take you outside to an available car, walk around it noting any dents and scrapes, check the level of gas, and have you sign their form. Then you can take it home.
Before you come back, you'll need to fill up the gas tank to the level it was before.
Then drive to the rental agency, check in at the counter, and tell them where you parked the car. They'll walk outside to make sure it's ok and see how many miles you used. Then they'll confirm how much money you owe, and arrange for a refund of the rest from your deposit (on your credit card).
Conducting a Test Run
Now that you have an idea for how you'll get to your various activities during the month, and an idea for how these different transportation options work, and what you'll need in the way of equipment, then you can test it out.
Get your family together, if you have one, and let them know what you've found out. Show them what you've figured out would work best, at least for you. Get their input. Ask for a commitment from everyone to try it out for a month.
If anyone is balking, try testing with the alternative/s most familiar to you (and them) first. Everyone can commit to walking everywhere within 1/2 mile, for example. After two weeks, add another mode of transportation, and so on.
During the testing period, keep notes on how it works and how much money you spend. At end of the period you can all sit down and evaluate what happened, and look to see what could be improved. If it worked out fairly well, then it's time to figure out what to do with your car.
Which of these alternatives are you most familiar with already?
What to Do With Your Car
What to do with your car will depend on family plans for the next year or so. Some people get rid of their car right away––either selling it or giving it away to an outside family member or friend. Some have an untimely accident—or timely, depending on how you look at it—that totals the car, then decide to use the insurance money for something other than a replacement vehicle (what happened to me). Some decide to store the car for awhile, in case they need it later. If storage is your choice, be sure to watch the video below.
To encourage you further, let's look briefly at how you and your family will be helping the world by driving less or not at all. You'll be:
- Reducing the carbon, monoxide, and other toxins in the air from your exhaust.
- Clearing the roadways, so they're not so crowded.
- Removing your road rage from the public rage level.
- Encouraging city road construction that is more public/bicycle friendly.
- Spreading goodwill to the public, if you chat with people on public transit.
- Brightening the day of your fellow carpoolers.
Most people think of the environment and their own pocketbook when they decide to live car free but, as you can see, there's a lot more benefit than just that.
Hopefully this is enough information to get you started. Good luck, and feel free to share your experiences below.
Roads get wider and busier and less friendly to pedestrians. And all of the development is based around cars, like big sprawling shopping malls. Everything seems to be designed for the benefit of the automobile and not the benefit of the human being.— Bill Bryson, Travel Writer