Henry Ford did something amazing: He brought the automobile to the masses. This made way for new freedom of movement, new kinds of cities, plus classic films such as Grease and The Fast and the Furious. And although we love our cars and cherish our mobility, we don't love sitting in traffic, paying to fix them when they break, and shelling out hard-earned money for gas.
The average American commute adds up to 100 hours each year (more than a two-week vacation), and this isn't helping America with its obesity or other health problems. According to the Department of Transportation, cars cost the U.S. economy more than $80 billion a year and along with trucks, they release about 20% of our country's greenhouse gases. Maybe it's time to consider doing the unthinkable and ditching the automobile. But can you live without a car?
Key to Freedom or Ball and Chain?
Sure, cars cost money, but how much are we really shelling out? Chris Balish, the author of "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car," says it's serious. "Most people don't realize it, but their car is what is sucking most of their cash away."
His book isn't an environmental treatise, it's a "personal finance and lifestyle" guide, and the message is clear: Owning an automobile is a really bad move. "For most people," Chris told me, "buying and owning a car is the worst financial move they will make in their entire lifetime, and people make this mistake again and again."
How bad a mistake? Balish says that after buying a car, we pay for it all over again in the first five years, effectively doubling the sticker price. Based on AAA statistics, Americans spend a fifth of their income, about $8,410 each year, on buying and maintaining their cars (and that's based on the 2004 gas price of $1.83).
In his book, Balish takes the liberty of demonstrating not only what we could save, but what we could be reaping were we to invest that money elsewhere. That money can be used for investments such as a down payment on a house or paying for your kid's college education.
Zip and Flex: the Car Sharing Revolution
So maybe cars are money pits with wheels, but you still need to get to work, to meetings, and to the fly-fishing cabin you bought with the money you saved not owning a car. For a growing number of people, a car sharing service is doing the trick.
The two largest car sharing companies in the U.S., Zipcar and Flexcar, both work on a similar premise: You book a car online, pick it up from a local designated parking spot, and then do your thing, paying by the hour or day. Gas, insurance, maintenance and everything else is covered in the cost and you choose from an array of vehicles depending on your needs (a Honda Element, a MINI Cooper, a Toyota Prius, etc.).
I asked P.J. Palmer, an actor and filmmaker, about his car-less life as he drove a Flexcar from his home in Santa Monica, California, to an audition in downtown Hollywood. "If I didn't live in the city I'd own a big truck," he admits, "but no one who lives in a city should own a car. As long as I live here I won't purchase a car."
P.J. moved to L.A. with a Dodge Durango, but the pumps and his conscience were getting to him, so he traded it in for a Jetta. "And the Jetta didn't make me any happier. I felt like: It's still a car, it still weighs 2,000 pounds [the Jetta actually weighs around 3,000 lbs.] and is full of metal and toxic things, plastic and gas. Do I need this monstrous machine to live?" After seeing a Flexcar ad on the side of a bus he was riding, P.J. signed up. A few months later he sold the VW—his friends said he was crazy. But it's been 18 months and he couldn't be happier. "I felt like two thousand pounds were lifted off my shoulders." P.J. also says he saves about $500 a month and has no idea what gas costs these days.
The Return of Carpooling
It's hard to think of carpooling and not be brought back to pungent elementary school memories of sour-smelling minivans with windows that only open a crack. Maybe that's why 77% of Americans drive to work alone. But carpooling, or ridesharing as it is more often being called, is making a comeback among those looking to cut back on their motoring. At least that is what people like Robin Chase see happening.
Chase was one of the founders of Zipcar but left to start GoLoco, a ridesharing website that resembles a mashup between MySpace and a Craigslist rideboard. Users make profiles and build social networks, while "sophisticated matching algorithms" pair up drivers and passengers to share rides. People can only link up with others in their own network and everyone leaves feedback on one another.
I asked Chase how she thinks a service like GoLoco cuts through people's inhibitions about carpooling. She said it tackles the three main problems: fear of strangers, a cumbersome process, and a lack of incentives to share.
With GoLoco, the social networking aspect lets people feel like they're not riding with strangers, the high-tech flow of the site makes it more convenient, and it creates incentives by letting people split costs via online accounts (money never physically changes hands). Chase hopes this will be the next big thing, and that "over time, if we can establish a strong friend and neighbor and coworker network, we could feel more comfortable getting rid of a car."
Making the Shift
Still, choosing to go footloose and car-free is likely to be an intimidating prospect for most Americans. As Chris Balish points out, we've built our lives (and our cities) around cars, so it takes some re-planning to comfortably get out of the driver's seat. "The best thing is to plan your next move," said Balish, and he means that literally. "According to the US Census, most Americans move about 12 times in their lifetime."
That is exactly what Michelle Knepel did. Michelle works in the finance department at General Motors in Detroit. She got the job out of college and promptly moved to Troy. "I spent hours a day commuting and I was so unhappy that all my life was just working and commuting." She moved to Ferndale, a little closer, but it was still killing her. Finally, she decided to move right into Detroit with the specific aim of eliminating her commute. She still owns the car but only uses it on the weekend. It is her bike that takes her through the streets of motor city to GM every morning.
If the experts are right, this year marks the moment in history when more than half of the human population lives in cities. This means more cars in less space, more traffic, and more pollution. Maybe the urban sociologist Lewis Mumford was right: Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf. London, Singapore, and now possibly New York are trying to fight the trend with congestion charges, making drivers pay to enter downtown areas during peak hours. The amount of time we spend stuck in traffic is going up, public transit ridership is still low, and we ride solo now more than ever.
For such an advanced society, personal car ownership is looking more and more primitive. Maybe learning to live without an automobile is the wave of the future, the lifestyle of the evolved urban-dweller. A clever hybrid of carsharing, ridesharing, walking, biking, and choice of location could mean that when we actually do get behind the wheel, we do it for fun.
In the market for a new car? MSN Autos is pleased to provide you with information and services designed to save you time, money and hassle. Click to research prices and specifications on any new car on the market or click to get a free price quote through MSN Autos' New-Car Buying Service.