June 04, 2005

Car-free with cars

Before I start prattling on about buses and walking and bicycling I need to come clean and confess that while we haven't owned a car for almost three months that doesn't mean we haven't used cars in that time. I'd say that maybe two days per week on average we've had the use of a car.

We've done weekend rentals from Enterprise twice which is ridiculously convenient with their rental office only a couple of miles from our house.

We've mooched rides to events with friends (thank you, Chris and Larry & Ann and Karen and Marilyn and others). ("mooching" is carpooling when there's no prospect of your returning the favor of being the driver any time soon)

We've taken shameless advantage of the fact that Rachel still has a functioning car.

But the most gratifying thing has been how many people have just handed us their keys and loaned us their car for an afternoon or a week when they weren't going to need it.

My favorite example is Becky's Thursday art class. The class is in Kirkland. Taking the bus from here to there is far from convenient (rant saved for another day). A friend pointed out that when she takes the bus to work each day her car sits at the Issaquah park and ride doing nothing. She gave Becky a key and Becky takes the shuttle to the park and ride, finds the car, drives it to Kirkland for her class, does a couple errands on her way back and leaves the car back at the Park and Ride. It's like the car has a secret life on those days.

The gift in all of this is that it makes us aware of our dependencies. When we have our own conveyance, we live in the illusion that we are self-sufficient. We hop in our car and we go where we want when we want without having to answer to anyone. But there are dependencies tugging at us all along the way that we don't even think about. We depend on other drivers to follow the rules of the road and be predictable. We depend on emergency personnel to help us if we have an accident. We depend on the road crews that build and repair our roads. We depend on the businesses that supply our gas and car maintenance and our cars themselves. We depend on the people who work to pull crude oil from the ground and process it into gasoline.

Each one of those dependencies has a need on one side fulfilled by an effort or surplus on the other. Yet almost all of our dependencies are formalized away, fulfilled without our ever having to face the people in whose lives we are partners. We live in tight community that we don't even see.

One unlooked-for benefit of our carlessness has been that it gives a glimpse of the community of need, not just to us, but also to those who have so generously been helping us.

Posted by jeffy at June 4, 2005 01:12 PM

How cool to read about the community you've experienced. Great post!

Posted by: Julie at June 4, 2005 03:24 PM

Car washes, per mile payments and fuel stops can
nullify the mooching aspect of your blessed
Have you considered tracking the mooching and
renting of cars in your life, in miles and dollars?

Posted by: Dan L at June 5, 2005 11:41 AM

Ob. mention of FlexCar, Seattle's shared car program, also available in a handful of other cities. Dozens of cars parked throughout Seattle neighborhoods, just reserve a particular car through an automated system (by web or phone) and pick it up and drop it off at the location. $9/hour (or less); gas, car washes, taxes and insurance are included. (No cars available in Issaquah, as far as I know.)

FlexCar means we can afford a house closer to the city, with walkable grocery stores and libraries and parks and schools, and excellent bus support. For occasional car use (bus to work), it's almost as convenient as owning, but much, much less expensive. I can almost always get the closest car to our house with 48 hours notice, and a car within a mile of the house at a moment's notice. We spend less than $150/month.

Regarding hidden costs in "mooching," I think FlexCar's rates are a straightforward example of the costs of car use in a carless lifestyle. But miles and dollars would never account for quality-of-life costs, which are deep, complex, difficult to measure, and specific to the individual.

Regarding social consciousness, I'm off topic, because FlexCar is so easy I almost forget that the cars are shared. But I make up for it by living in an urban neighborhood, and by saving enough time on my commute to enjoy it. :)

Posted by: Dan S. at June 7, 2005 03:04 PM

Thanks for bringing up FlexCar, Dan.

We bought a membership back when it was a one-time charge and have yet to use it. There are indeed many cars around Seattle, but out here in the burbs, not so much. There was a car at PCC in Issaquah for a while, but it's been listed as unavailable for the whole time we've been car-free (as I discovered when I went to reserve it a few weekends ago).

Posted by: jeffy at June 7, 2005 03:19 PM

DanL, I like the idea of tracking our usage. We'll have to come up with a system.

We started off with a policy of filling the tank when we borrowed a car, but when we paid over $100 total into four different cars one week, the need for a more systematic solution became clear.

Posted by: jeffy at June 7, 2005 03:25 PM

Thanks for the link to your blog, Jeffy, and we appreciate the kinds words about Flexcar.

I,too, am car free and have been since returning to Seattle in 2001 after living overseas for 6 years. As Dan S. mentioned, Flexcar is fantastic for those living in urban areas. It also works well for those in the 'burbs who are within close walking distance to buses that can get you to downtown Seattle relatively quickly. For example, I live in West Seattle and usually use downtown vehicles for the times that I need a car because I can get downtown in less than 30 minutes by bus.

Not sure if my E-mail shows up or not, but I now work for Flexcar and welcome any e-mails with more specific questions about how we operate.

Posted by: Toby at June 7, 2005 03:50 PM

Thanks for all the posts about living car-free! I gotta say, though, I've never been able to figure out how people can use Flexcar in an effective manner; I signed up several years ago, but haven't used it except for one occasion.

I needed a car for a trip to Ikea, and hadn't the foresight to rent one, so went with Flexcar. The trip ended up costing me more than a full week's rental would have cost. I'm not sure if it's more economical if you're on a monthly paid plan and use the car frequently for very short trips, or what, but it seems to me that buying a bike and occasionally renting a car is much more cost-effective than Flexcar.

Posted by: Eric at March 30, 2006 06:53 AM