7 Hidden Advantages to Getting Rid of Your Car

by Carrie Kirby on 5 February 2013 3 comments
Photo: JOHN LLOYD

When my family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from Chicago, we didn't bring our car. We figured we would get around to buying a new one by the end of the summer. But now, eight months have slipped past, and although we haven't pledged to remain car-free forever, we have been enjoying some of the unexpected benefits of non-car-ownership so much that we haven't felt any rush to buy one.

The big benefit we were expecting to enjoy was, of course, saving money.

How much money you save depends on how you look at it. If you are going car-free rather than buying a new Escalade on credit, you're saving a ton. But if you are going car-free rather than paying cash for a reliable older car, your savings are more modest. One Wise Bread writer estimated he saved $2,800 a year by giving up one of his household's cars. I estimated that my family is saving about $500 a month by going without a car.

But what are the less obvious benefits?

1. Less Stress

When I was a broke student without a pot to cook ramen in, I was amazed by middle class adults who complained that the possessions they gained only added to the stress in their lives. But when we let go of our beloved old Subaru, I realized that there was something to the "more stuff, more problems" lament. (See also: Stuff Will Never Make You Organized)

To a busy mom, a car is almost like another needy kid. I needed to remember whether it was parked on the street where it would get a ticket overnight. I needed to remember whether it was due for an oil change and, wait, was I supposed to go by the sticker from the oil change place or check the manual? I needed to keep the kids' bikes from encroaching on the car's space in the garage, and I needed to worry whether that tapping sound after I turned it off meant that it was about to need an expensive repair.

Then there's the stress of driving itself — getting cut off by obnoxious drivers, getting stuck in traffic, worrying about hitting someone while backing up, etc.

The great thing about biking and walking is that even though it takes longer than driving, the amount of time it takes is almost always predictable because traffic isn't an issue. And when I turn on the radio to hear that Bay Area highways are all backed up, but know that my husband will be on time for dinner because he's riding his bike from the ferry or train? That feeling is the opposite of stress.

2. More Exercise

Just because you own a car, no one's forcing you to drive everywhere instead of walking or biking. But the truth is, if I owned a car, I would drive on a lot of the errands I currently do on my bike. I would procrastinate leaving the house until it's too late to bike, or I would drive because it looks like rain or because the kids don't want to ride in the bike trailer, and I don't have the energy to argue with them.

Not having the option to drive forces you to organize your life in a way that you have time to get everywhere without driving. For me that has meant more exercise and better weight management results than I got from belonging to a gym.

3. More Pleasant Travel

I underestimated how much I would enjoy traveling by bike or foot compared to driving. On the occasions I drive now, I'm surprised by how annoying it is to wait behind a line of cars to turn when I could have simply walked my bike across the crosswalk with the walk sign. Every day I take in gorgeous scenery and enjoy the feeling of the wind on my face. Of course, it helps that I'm living in a mild part of the country — I can't claim I'd enjoy riding my bike in January if I were still in Chicago!

As a mom, I love taking a trip in which at least one of my kids is on her own bike and not strapped cheek-to-cheek with her siblings squabbling. The two little ones still squabble in the bike trailer together, but if I ride fast enough, the wind in my ears can drown them out. Almost.

4. Drive a Different Car Every Time

When we want to drive to take a weekend family outing, we rent a vehicle at the nearby airport. Using Hotwire and Priceline, this has been unexpectedly affordable — usually about $30 a day including fees — and we have enjoyed trying out different models of cars instead of always driving the same one.

5. Never Have to Clean the Car

With three little kids riding in the back, my car was usually a pigsty inside. With all the chores in the house, going out to the garage to vacuum it out was not high on my priority list. And washing it with the hose was fun about once a year — after that it was yet another chore.

Now when we drive we get to drop off the dirty car at the rental return and let them deal with it. We were told — once — that the rental company may charge an extra fee if you return it really dirty inside, but so far that hasn't happened, not even with the minivan we kept for a month and drove across the country.

6. Feel Better About Your Carbon Footprint

I can't claim that we stopped being car owners out of a selfless concern for the environment. It was more out of desire to save money and just not feeling like car shopping. But that feeling of standing at the gas pump feeling guilty about what I'm doing to the world? It's yet another little stress I don't miss at all. And every time other families at our school see us bike somewhere that they would have thought was too far for kids or too inconvenient, I feel good that maybe we are encouraging others to take fewer car trips as well.

7. Appreciate Your Friends and Neighbors

I cannot count how many times our new neighbors have offered the use of their vehicles to us or offered to pick us up or drop us off places. We almost always politely decline, because usually we have been fine getting around on our own and don't want to save money simply by pushing our costs off onto other people. But simply getting the offer has brought us closer to new friends and neighbors. And sometimes the help has really come in handy, like on the occasional day when it's pouring and another mom from our preschool is driving there, anyway. We find non-vehicular ways to repay those favors and feel our new community grow closer.

I can't pretend there aren't also disadvantages to not owning a car. I have avoided signing up the kids for activities I know they would enjoy because they are too far to quickly bike or take public transit, and I feel like picking up a shared car would also be too much trouble with three kids in tow. Life is less spontaneous when you need to sit down and make a transportation game plan every time you want to venture off your beaten path.

But so far for us, these hidden advantages — when added to the big advantage of saving money — have made the car-free life a worthwhile experiment.

What advantages, or disadvantages, have you experienced by giving up the car?

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Guest

I would love to bike/walk instead of driving a car, but I live in the middle of nowhere so those aren't options for me.

I have a friend who recently moved into an apartment in the middle of town close to public transporation. She's a lot happier, and she saves so much money being car-less.

Guest's picture
Frustrated suburbanite

I don't have a car - can't afford one - and while I'd like to feel good about all these things the reality is, it's really hard to be carless where I'm currently staying - the suburbs. The city is a big one but apparently they don't think extending public transportation is worthwhile; there is only 1 bus route even within walking distance and its closest stop is still a 20 minute walk away (and it only goes one way - toward the city, of course). I bought a bike but the sidewalks here are few and far between and that makes cycling - and even walking - dangerous; I have to stay away from the main roads.

I looked into alternatives - all those little buses that go back and forth - but they're only for people older than I am or disabled (meanwhile, they drive around practically empty). That pretty much leaves cabs, but they're *way* out of my budget.

I'm stuck here right now but when I leave I plan to never live in the suburbs again. I had no problem being carless in the city, but here - I can see why there are so many vehicles parked in people's driveways. And I really think that if driving is hurting the earth the suburbs will be the main cause of the problem.

Guest's picture

Really interesting post! Apart from the exercising benefits, “getting rid of your car” can be helpful for people in need. Nowadays there are non-profit organizations that can sell/scrap your ride and donate the money for the charity type you choose. Every vehicle has its worth and if you are willing, you can spend the profit for a good cause.