Life without a car, or how I’ve learned to embrace simplicity

Giving up a car is weird.

There’s no way around it: car ownership is the rite of passage into adulthood, it’s a symbol of independence, and hell, there’s no better symbol of untapped potential and freedom than a tank full of gas.

And yet… How many of us take car ownership for granted, as if it were not only inalienable but also an inevitable part of life? Have you made peace with the idea of paying for car maintenance, and gas, and insurance, and all the other random expenses that come with it?

In my opinion, there are two main types of people: urbanites and suburbanites. It’s more or less impossible (or at least very difficult) to make it in the suburbs without a vehicle. At the same time, depending on the kind of city you live in, it may be possible (or even preferable!) to live without a car at all. Over the course of my journey, I’ve lived in lots of places: rural Nevada (Winnemucca and Fernley), Reno, Las Vegas, Fort Worth (the rural part, next to cow pastures), Tampa, Seattle, Toronto, and now Quebec City.

I’ve seen some fairly pedestrian-friendly cities that had pretty overloaded bus systems (ahh, downtown Seattle at 5pm… I still have nightmares), I’ve seen cities that where being a pedestrian was generally a bad idea (get a sunstroke in Vegas with this one weird trick!), and I’ve lived in places where the very concept of catching a bus would’ve been downright hilarious. (There aren’t any good options of going from northwestern Fort Worth to downtown Dallas. Actually, scratch that – there aren’t any options at all.)

On the other hand, you have places like San Francisco or Toronto or New York, where it’s entirely possible to live your whole life without a car – assuming you can afford the rent. Each city is different, and my strategy might not work for many of them. All the same, if you can imagine a future without a car, in a town where that’s entirely possible, there are tremendous benefits that will come with it.

This romantic bridge isn’t rated for vehicles, sorry.

Over the course of my quest for early retirement, having a car was mandatory. Even though I tried living close to work as much as possible, it was still a few miles away, and there aren’t any bicycle lanes on highways leading up to gigantic warehouses. Riding the bus also wouldn’t work because sometimes I’d have to come in at 4am. (That was very unhealthy, I know.)

My mindset began to change during the year of working from home. When I moved from my rental room in Toronto suburbs to a tiny studio in downtown Toronto, I suddenly realized that I could just walk to the nearest grocery store – it was just three blocks away. I also realized that between Toronto’s subway and bus system, I could get wherever I needed to go a lot cheaper  and safer (and, in many cases, faster) than if I drove. It got to the point where I’d turn on my car once a week (just to keep the engine from rusting over), drive around the block for a few minutes, and ask myself, “why am I doing this?”

In the end, I ended up selling my beloved little Kia (it’s okay, you can laugh) and going full-pedestrian, full-time. I’ve been car-free for about five months now, and I must say – it feels great. There are lots of benefits, and only a few drawbacks:

Pro: I’ve saved 100% on car insurance by selling my car! (Try to match that, Geico.) I also don’t have to pay for gas, or for a parking spot (that doesn’t apply if you have your own home, I suppose), or for car maintenance, or for the annual license plate fee. Just the parking and insurance and gas used to cost me about $320 USD ($400 CAD) a month. (Insurance can be pretty pricey in Canada.) By ditching the car, I’ve saved $3,840 USD or $4,800 a year.

Con: Sometimes, my subway pass in Toronto would run low on funds and I’d have to spend a few minutes to refill it. That’s tragic, I know – but that’s also the only financial downside I’ve experienced so far. (Because, as we all know, time is money.)

Pro: By walking places (or occasionally riding the bus if I’m feeling lazy), I get a much better feel for the city I live in. It’s not just the fresh air and random encounters with fellow fun pedestrians, it’s also good exercise and almost always more memorable than a car ride would’ve been.

Con: You can’t go through the drivethrough without a car. Well, technically, you can, but that’d be pretty funny. (Ask me how I know! In my defense, that Tim Hortons was shut down for walk-ins, and I really wanted that donut.) If you’re hankering for some fast food, you’re gonna have to walk inside and wait.

Pro: Having to lug my groceries home on foot really made me reevaluate what I want vs what I need. (See my earlier post on this topic.) I’ve always known that soda wasn’t particularly healthy (at best, it’s slightly worse than neutral) but I didn’t quit it until I realized I really didn’t want to lug a 12-pack of soda in addition to all my other groceries. A 1-liter bottle of red wine is much healthier – in moderation, of course – and weighs 75% less! I hadn’t anticipated this side effect, but I ended up buying a lot less unhealthy food.

Con: there’s no sugarcoating this – you’ll need to find a way to get your groceries. Your options are: walking to the nearby grocery store, riding a bicycle with your groceries, taking the bus (not recommended if you’ve got a lot of bags), or having them delivered to your door. The latter isn’t the most frugal solution but it’ll save you lots of time and energy.

Pro: Feel free to laugh at my idealism, but giving up driving is a net positive for the environment. Giving up a car is weird. Once you get over that, though, you’ll realize how many unnecessary trips you used to take. Electric cars are better for the environment than old-fashioned gas-guzzlers, sure, but a future where everyone has an EV is not sustainable. If we’re to put a dent into our carbon emissions, we must brainstorm more pedestrian-friendly cities and much better transit options. A single bus replaces dozens of cars.

Con: When you’re buying furniture or moving (like I recently did, from Toronto to Quebec City), you’ll definitely need to rent a truck. You can always carry that new coffee table on foot, but that would be pretty frupid. (Don’t do what I did, kids.) Right now, I’m in the process of buying a nice used couch and a huge chair, and I’ll need to work out the delivery details with the furniture store. They never would’ve fit in my Kia, but if I had a truck, that’d be a different story. Fortunately, moving to a new place and transporting large furniture doesn’t happen often.

Your personal situation is unique and different from mine, so my car-free lifestyle might not work for you. It’s possible, though: this is just another thing I love about Quebec City, and I hope this is something when you consider moving for work, or finding a place where you’ll declare your own early retirement. Giving up a car is weird. That freedom you get in return, though? That’s priceless.

What do you think? I always look forward to your thoughts and feedback – sound off and let me know what’s on your mind!

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