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First Time in 25 Years, I Don’t Own A Car!

July 5, 2007 Bicycling, Environment, Public Transit, Scooters 26 Comments

I bought my first car, a horrible ’74-1/2 Mustang II, when I was 15 years old. I couldn’t drive it yet but we had plenty-o-parking — our suburban driveway could hold up to nine vehicles with two more in the garage. We never had that many cars at a time but you get the point. Since then I’ve owned a whole series of cars — once having three at one time.

For the first time in my adult life I can say “I don’t own a car.” More importantly, cars no longer own me. This is not to say I will ban cars from my life because I know that not to be true, I will ride with friends and I will even rent a car now and then. And yes, come winter, I may break down and buy a car to get me through the really cold weather.

The longest journey begins with a single step, not with a turn of the ignition key.
Edward Abbey

For years now I had been bicycling and, since September 2005, using my trusty Honda motor scooter to get around in town, all while still owning and using a car. The car was always there when I needed it or just didn’t feel like getting out the scooter or bicycle — that quick trip to the store or some other errand. Even when I’d have a car break down I’d routinely get a loaner from the dealer or pick up a rental. I was never long without a car.

On May 7th I parked my car at a friend’s house while I was going to be on my 5-day trip through rural Kansas & Iowa. The next day I walked a few blocks to catch the bus and then caught MetroLink to the airport. Even on that trip I didn’t drive — my friend Rich rented the vehicle and drove the entire time. Aside from me not being a good passenger (although I am learning to be), I’ve really enjoyed not driving.

Upon return I left my car at my friend’s place so I’d not be tempted to drive it — I had to see for myself if I could manage, and I did. In the time since I have relied on my scooter to get me where I needed to go — I mostly stay in the city or inner ring suburbs. Those of you locally know we’ve had some pretty good downpours of late and I can say I did not escape the wrath from above — I got drenched a couple of times. The world did not come to an end when I got wet or adjusted my schedule around some bad weather, I dealt with it.

A few days ago I thankfully handed over my car keys to the new owner and on the 4th I celebrated another type of freedom. Some long awaited financial freedom — I’d been making car payments since the Fall of 2000 on three different vehicles (VW, Audi and Scion). I’d had periods before that of payments and unplanned repair bills.

In the 3 years since I left my well-paying 9-5 job my income has dropped considerably while my personal happiness has increased dramatically. The old joke has to do with going to work to pay for the car while needing the car to get to work — a never ending cycle. The car has brought us an unmatched level of personal mobility yet the costs give some less freedom than they like. The freedom of the car had, for me, turned into the trap of the car.

Driving a brand new car feels like driving around in an open billfold with the dollars flapping by your ears as they fly out the window.
– Grey Livingston

I did the math on what I’d probably spent in the last 24 years that I have owned a car — well over $120,000 and I have zip to show for it. That is really depressing when you stop and think about it. I could be nearly debt free, including my mortgage, with that kinda cash.

Of late, the cost of graduate tuition at St. Louis University was conflicting with car ownership (payments, insurance, etc…), something had to give. Getting a masters’ degree, I decided, was more important than retaining a car. My ego would simply have to deal with society’s view of me not owning a car — I frankly don’t care if someone thinks less of me for not owning a car.

Americans are broad-minded people. They’ll accept the fact that a person can be an alcoholic, a dope fiend, a wife beater, and even a newspaperman, but if a man doesn’t drive, there is something wrong with him.
Art Buchwald

As I indicated above, I was making some good money in the past that I am not now. However, my real estate and consulting business is picking up quite a bit of late — more on that next week. The point is I am not going to do things I don’t like to earn money to pay for things society thinks I must have, I want to do the work that makes me happy. I’ll be the first to admit that a good bit of my personal ego has been wrapped up in the car I drove and I have sadly passed judgement on others about their car choice or even worse, a lack of a car.

A car is costly and should not be mandatory for functioning in our society. I had long thought that you had to live in Manhattan to be car-free but that is just not the case, the last two months of personal testing have proven that to me.

Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.
Lewis Mumford

It will not be my intention here to guilt owners of cars (SUVs yes). I already know many couples that have managed to go from two cars down to one — I hope that my sharing future experiences will encourage others to reduce car ownership and/or total miles driven. Not everyone can or should take the journey that I am embarking on — we must all do what is right for ourselves. For me, this was a good time to go car-free.

Mumford is right, let’s build our cities for lovers and friends, not the damned car.


Currently there are "26 comments" on this Article:

  1. LisaS says:

    congrats! Although I love each member of my fleet, there is a part of me that is very jealous. I’ve entertained the notion of doing without, but with the kids and all their stuff, West County/St. Chuck clients, and elderly relatives in rural Arkansas who need frequent visits, being car-free doesn’t fit my life right now. Maybe when they’re older, old enough to scooter? I don’t know; as I mentioned to you when we met, I’ve been really nervous about scooters ever since I saw a scooterist die after being hit on Kingshighway last year.

    Does this mean I want my city torn apart to accomodate my cars? No. I’d like using a car to be an option. I consider using mass transit every time I go downtown, to Clayton, or the Loop …. I usually opt for the car because of time convenience and cost. If I’ve got the family with me, it now costs $13.50 to take transit anywhere.

    But inquiring minds want to know … how does a Realtor do business without a car?

    [SLP – I was going to say I understand about the whole kid thing but in truth as a non-parent I don’t really know what it is like.  I must say, I like having a great-niece and great-nephew that adore me but that is a totally different relationship than being a parent.  I hope, in a few years when she is old enough to travel alone, that my great-niece can some stay with me for a week or two. 

    For those visits to Arkansas you can certainly rent a vehicle for the trip — that will be my plan for road trips.  You get to drive a nearly new vehicle and not worry about how many miles you are racking up — some of the specials can be quite cheap.  I have a number of friends that own cars that still rent one for out of town driving trips.  As for transit, give some thought to buying monthly passes or even some day passes for the weekends — once you get past having to pay per trip you might use it more.

    I’ve been a realtor for over five years now and very seldom have I put people in my car to drive around at house after house.  It helps too that I also deal with multi-family and commercial properties so not everyone I am working with is looking for their home.  For the last couple of years I’ve found that when I do work with people looking for a house it is usually in a geographic area they like and we can simply meet at one place and then go from house to house in separate vehicles or ride in one. In the future I will be able to rent a vehicle if the need arises or any client coming to me may understand that they will do the driving if we are in one vehicle.]   

  2. Jim Zavist says:

    Good luck – life is full of choices. I’m just not sure that “letting someone else drive” counts as being “car free”. But then again, you’re setting a good example, I’m not. I’ve even been known to drive the 3 blocks to Huck’s to pick up a newspaper, in good weather.

    Tangential observation – my wife and I flew out of Lambert last weekend for a quick getaway. We had great intentions on using Metrolink, but upon arriving at the Shrewsbury station, we saw the signs stating “No overnight parking” and listing the towing charges, so we drove out to the airport, instead. (Yes, I know we could’ve taken the bus to Metrolink, but we chose to drive for the convenience – our choice.) I could understand the prohibition on overnight parking IF this (and many other Metro) lot was ever full (it’s not). I wouldn’t even mind pay a couple of dollars a day for the “privilege” of parking in a lot my tax dollars are paying for. It just seems like the prohibition is a disincentive a group of ridres that one would expect Metro would want to encourage?!

    [SLP — Yes, the more technical term is “car-lite” as opposed to car-free. I was using car-free in that I don’t own a car now.  

    I’ll have to ask about the no overnight parking at MetroLink.  I certainly can’t imagine tons of people filling up the parking lot while going out of town.  I’m guessing it is an insurance/risk thing to make sure they are not liable if someone vandalizes a car parked there overnight.  Also keep in mind the idea of having a friend drop you off/pick you up at the station.]

  3. Tyson says:

    yes congratulations Steve, here’s hoping that our city becomes even more friendly to folks who want to kick the habit. I think I’d need a good car-sharing system like flex-car before I made the leap.

  4. Curtis says:

    Congrats. About 9 months ago we went from a 2 car family down to just the one minivan. I’ve been taking the bus to work and loving it. We are starting to think about getting a scooter as well so we can cut down on the use of the van also. Being in Southampton and so close to Target, Walgreen, Schnucks and our wondeful Buder Library, there are a lot of short trips that we don’t always need to use the car. Good luck!

  5. M says:

    Our family, yes family with kid, has been a single car family for over 6 years now, using mass transit whenever possible. The relative little use of our one car saves us tremendously on gas, repairs, etc. I will never, ever pay a car payment again for a second car, and hopefully will never pay a car payment again, period. Literally working a 9 to 5 to support a metal box is rediculous to say the least. Congratulations.

  6. Don says:

    So, does this mean you’re going to revive your scooter blog? Your scooting experiences encouraged me and my wife to try the scooter thing, and now, having bought two used Hondas from the ’80s, we hardly use our car except for large grocery trips.

    [SLP — LOL, yes and no. If you go to stlscooter.com now you will not see the blog I had started (view blog) in September 2005. Instead you will see a notice about an upcoming web forum for discussing scooters, a joint effort of me and some others. Once up and running, I will make an announcement here.

    Congrats on reducing your car useage!]

  7. Hans Gerwitz says:

    Welcome to the elite ranks of the St. Louis car-lite. Reducing our household to one has saved me so much money in the last two years I feel like I went up a caste.

  8. Expat says:

    Congrats Steve! I currently have a car and use it a lot. But, I must say my happiest years were in St. Louis without a car. It can be done. More than anything, it brings an unexpected freedom that many people cannot understand. And it brings your appreciation of the city to a new level. You truly become part of the city, rather than a observer passing through. Regarding the families with children, going totally car-free (or car-lite), may not be practical. But, maybe going down to one car is possible? And regarding the guy going to the airport, why not splurge on a cab to the Metrolink station or airport, rather than trying to park at the station? And don’t forget to splurge on a rental car for any out of town trip. You can afford the luxury of taxicabs & rental cars when you have no car payments, insurance premiums, gasoline, & maintenance expenses. Enjoy the freedom!

  9. Cheryl Hammond says:

    Since I moved to St. Louis City from Maryland Heights, my car goes mostly unused. I use it once a month to drive out of town to see my mother. There may be a few other trips, like visits to the vet, but not many. Metro works very well for me. Also, I am lucky that the #1 bus goes by my house every 15 minutes during the week, and the Forest park Metrolink is only a short walk down the street.

    There is a Yahoo group called autofreeSTL dedicated to discussing living auto lite in St. Louis. I hope more people will join it.

  10. Dole says:

    Funny thought…..when I was younger and more vain, I used to see people driving older less luxurious cars and I thought “gosh, if only these people would buy nicer cars it would make our city look better to outsiders.”…….…it wasn’t until I wised up a little and realized cars are a waste of money that simply pull money away from other things…………Imagine if everybody driving a $30,000 car instead drove a $15,000 economy car and used the other $15,000 on investments such as home improvements and self-improvement like education or health…………… Granted it is not such a simple ‘equation’ but I hope readers understand what I am saying. If more people would forsake expensive cars and either drive economy cars or no car, that money could be spent on much wiser uses.

  11. I wouldn’t mind a motorcycle, but those scooters are too girly.

    [SLP — Doug scooters are a form of moped/motorcycle — just more comfortable in my view.  You can get up to 600cc scooters that will blow the socks off a lesser motorcycle.]

  12. Dustin says:

    ^Those who are comfortable with their masculinity need not worry.

  13. MichaelKime says:

    Congratulations. You will save a fortune without the expenses of a car.

    I got caught in a few of those downpours myself. It is no big deal once you get used to it.

  14. Tom Shrout says:

    We have been a one car family for about six years. My wife takes it for her commute. Our Prius turned four years old this week. It has less about 31,000 miles. We rent for out of town trips where the train, plane or Megabus do not go. MetroLink and the bus work well for me. Being a pedestrian gives you a better appreciation and knowledge of my neighborhood. People aren’t invisible any longer.

    At CMT we are working to get a car sharing program going. We have had some obstacles to overcome, but have made progress in the last few weeks. Nothing to announce just yet, but we have made some progress.

    Jim, look again at the signs at Shrewsbury. I think they say no 24-hour parking. Overnight parking is allowed on MetroLink lots because there are overnight shifts at the hospitals.

    Metro has some long term parking in Illinois and is considering it for some of the Missouri lots.

  15. Margie says:

    Go Steve! As a one-car couple in Chicago, we almost never feel inconvenienced. Alan needed the car today, so I took the Metra to work downtown and the El home. I got the bonus of a lovely walk on each end of the day and a lot of added character and texture in my life. I like Tom’s comment that people aren’t invisible when you walk. I learn so much just watching folks interact on the trains. I don’t feel like I’ve given up anything — except for several thousand dollars in annual expense.

  16. Tom Kabat says:

    Congratulations Steve.
    You made a smart choice and it is more reversable than a tattoo.

    I’ve been “Car Liter than average” and sometimes Car Free since leaving my mom’s one car 5 person household 30 years ago.

    My wife and I have one car at a time (for 24 years) that she usually drives. We and our 13 year old daughter get by very well even w/o using much public transit.

    We have saved a bundle on costs, invested it in IRAs, etc and plan to retire at 55 in a couple years.

    Ivan Illich (look him up for fun) did some interesting calculations of the average utility speed of a car by putting the annual miles a car goes in the numerator and the time spent (driving and earning money (after taxes) to pay for all the car’s annual expenses) in the denominator and found the speed of an average car is about 5 MPH! My bike calculation came up twice as fast as a car.

    For alternative bike fun, checkout http://www.woodenbikes.com
    -Happy Trails.

  17. Dan Icolari says:

    Steve, it seems you’ve been moving in this direction for a while now. So, though I’m not completely surprised, I’m completely delighted you’ve reached this happy day. Congratulations.

  18. there soon says:

    Great job steve! I am also going to go carless soon – that is if someone buys my car. I have had my car online for 3 weeks but only one potential buyer emailed. It didn’t work out but maybe one day I will find a buyer.
    I saw you riding down Meramec on Monday or Tuesday… When I sell my car I will also get a scooter too…


  19. MattHurst says:

    Funny how your and Joe Frank’s lives would invert like this – him recently obtaining a car despite his intricate knowledge of the metro system. any advice for a young person trying to figure out that same public transit system?

  20. Jim Zavist says:

    Matt – go to the Metro website and download their system map, then go to the appropriate schedules, OR just use their Trip Finder on the website.

    Steve – did you ride your scooter to Collinsville? Which bridge did you use?

    [SLP — Jim the system map is huge and very cluttered making it hard to read.  I’ve actually downloaded the map and make a city-only version that I look at.  The trip finder is fine if you are at your computer and know your A to B.  But if you day includes A to B to C back to A and then to D it doesn’t help at all.  System maps need to be posted at bus stops. 

    No, I did not ride my scooter to Collinsville — I had visited there by car numerous times including earlier this year and last September.  I do plan to ride in Illinois but I need my motorcycle license first.  The Eads and soon to re-open McKinley will be my bridges of choice.]

  21. Jim Zavist says:

    While the system maps are, by definition, large files, you can zoom in on them with Acrobat Reader and get a much better picture of which routes serve a specific area. You can also download the individual maps for each route from Metro’s website. The problem/challenge with posting anything at a bus stop is vandalism and keeping it current. If Matt, like many folks, will be making either a one-off trip or the same trip over and over, it’s better to figure out the various options ahead of time (online or by phone*) than to show up at a stop and hope for the best. Unfortunately, St. Louis is not a transit-intensive city, so unless one relishes waiting a half hour or more (a very typical scenario, including up to two hours) at a bus stop, planning ahead is , unfortunately, required to use transit here and keeps one’s sanity.

    *from Metro’s website:

    “MetroBus & MetroLink Information
    Open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
    Closed Saturday & Sunday, New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving & Christmas
    E-Mail transitinformation@metrostlouis.org
    Missouri Phone 314-231-2345
    Illinois Phone 618-271-2345
    Missouri TTY 314-982-1555
    Illinois TTY 618-875-1200

    Timetable Requests – anytime that is convenient for you, leave your name, mailing address & the name/number of the printed timetable(s) you are requesting
    E-Mail transitinformation@metrostlouis.org
    Missouri Phone 314-982-1521″

    [SLP — For me, planning ahead is not really possible because my schedule changes frequently throughout the day.  Still, I am told that regular riders did learn the system through use and know how to get around.  For the casual user like me, it is not very helpful.]

  22. Beth says:

    Congrats for you! I’m so glad to hear that it is possible to get around STL without a car. We will soon be moving back home to STL from Chicago and I’ve often worried about our future reliance on cars in STL. It seemed unavoidable and a hard transition to make after relying so heavily on public transportation, my own two feet and my 10 year old bike for years. Glad to hear that this can be done. Kudos!

  23. john says:

    Unless you’re single, young, childless, and have the right attitude to deal with unexpected inconveniences, being carless in the StL area is virtually impossible. Yes my family is carlite (having only used one car in the last two decades) but school functions, particularly those involving car-pooling, require the sharing of transportation responsibilities (too many childrens’ parties are scheduled in far away venues like Chesterfield valley). As a society, we have imprisoned everyone by our transportation designs which create unnecessary dependency you note as ” a never ending cycle”. I wish you luck and be sure to watch out for all those irresponsible drivers, particularly those in control of Metro buses.

  24. Myke w/ a Y says:

    I’ve found the big .pdf files from Metro to be very informative…if I take the time to study it.(you also learn some very interesting things, like how no bus routes go down Lindbergh between 40 and Manchester, even though there’s no other good N-S route for miles…) I also happen to like maps, so it’s an advantage. I am spoiled from when I lived in DC, where we had the online Trip Finder years before StL did, route schedules posted on every bus stop post(with very little vandalism!), straight bus routes instead of weird confusing windy ones(which is easier in a grid-based city like DC), and of course, the wonderful Metro(not to be confused).
    Of course, I only have to worry about the bus when my motor scooter is in the shop which makes me a casual user, but I’ve eventually learned the routes around my apartment.
    I sold my car 6mo after I got my 1st motor scooter, and haven’t looked back since. In fact, whenever I think about maybe getting a car, I realize that I couldn’t afford it anyway. It’s difficult enough w/ the insurance/upkeep on my scoots!
    I know I’ve said it already, but welcome to the world of the car-lite, Steve. It’s great to have you. 🙂

  25. Joe Frank says:

    That is kind of funny… although in my own defense I would note that I’m driving my wife’s vehicle, we plan to remain a one-car household for as long as possible, and I still take the bus to work. Some days, our vehicle will sit for days on end without moving from its place on the street.

  26. Jenn says:

    Hurray!! I been freaking out about the possibility of having to buy a car (gross) because i am moving to st. louis this fall from Brooklyn, where not owning a car is certainly looked at as normal. I was talking to my boyfriend about how much use the metrolink gets but he had absolutely no info on that for me b/c of course he uses his car to get everywhere. I think hes afraid to use public transportation, it can be really out of the norm for people who are really used to treating it as an extention of their home.
    I haven’t lived in Brooklyn for an extreamely long time so im sad to go being that nyc is such a pedestrian friendly city, but i like the midwest and im exited about moving to stl.
    I was wrestling with my self about the propsect of having to buy a car, but i am going to really try and make it work without one. The u city area is where ill be the majority of the time and i have my bf’s car to rely on in a pinch.
    But your post gave me some more hope in my plans, to know that others are trying to do the same thing is inspiring. All it takes is some effort!


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