I am toying with the idea of getting rid of my car. Thanks to Sarah, who you may have seen commenting on this site from time to time, I have started thinking about doing this. I have some ideas, but there are major obstacles.
It is amazing how much I spend to own and maintain a car:
$200/month - Car payment
$200 - Gas
$100 - Insurance, license fees, oil changes
Already that is $500/month, and that does not even count repairs and pesky things like speeding tickets. Right now, repairs are minimal, but they usually start creeping in just as soon as cay payments start winding down.
Conservatively estimated, that's six thousands dollars a year! And this is a much cheaper automobile than what a lot of other folks are driving who have higher car payments and poorer gas mileage.
Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, we consider cars a necessity and rarely give a serious thought to getting rid of them. But this is some serious cash we are talking about. Giving up a car would be like giving myself nearly a 10 grand raise, when you consider the pre-tax money it equates to. It would also cut down on my carbon footprint and may encourage greater physical fitness.
(As a point of comparison for folks who aren't familiar with Ohio cost of living rates, my apartment is only $525/month. So having a vehicle is a virtually equal expense!)
Now I live in the city of Columbus, only live 10 miles from work via direct, city roads (slightly longer for freeway). That is a do-able bike ride. It would involve getting up earlier than normal, packing clothes and freshening up at work, but that isn't so bad. The bike is a worthy means of transportation the majority of the time here in Columbus, but there are days of blizzards and downpours. Maintaining a bike can involve some cost--helmet, decent rain gear, repairs. But all that doesn't seem too bad.
I could rent a car when I need to take weekend trips to visit my family in northeast Ohio.
So far, so good.
Now Here's the Downside
I live in the city, in the midst of bus service. I could get a monthly bus pass for $45. The COTA bus service that runs through town estimates my commute to work at approx. 1.5 hours. This is quite a shock. I can drive there in 25 minutes. From what I hear, this is not unusual for folks who take the bus. Even more shocking, the bus lines I would have to take are astonishingly simple--a ride down High St, then another west on Broad St (the two primary roads in the city). This is not a complicated route! It also has buses coming with greater frequency than on some of the other routes.
I realize a bus isn't going to match a personal car. You can get in your car whenever you want, take the roads you want, only stopping when you want to. It would be unreasonable to expect a bus service to match that. So I'm okay with incurring some time lag. But 3 times??
I am environmentally minded. I am fitness minded. I am loving the idea of saving a bundle of money. I am centrally located in a city near bus lines and close to work. And yet even with all of these factors, the thought of spending 2 extra hours each a day in commute or slogging my bike through snow and sleet on a regular basis gives me serious, serious pause. I consider myself one of the more likely candidates for getting rid of a car, yet it would still be hard. If I were to move to the other side of town, then the bus would be essential.
I suppose I could bike regularly and take the bus only in case of extreme weather. We also have the advantage of going half-and-half in Columbus: The bus service will porter you and your bicycle, so I could essentially take the bus for one convenient leg, then bike myself the rest of the way rather than wait to catch the second leg.
If someone who is as fitness and environmentally minded as I am really takes a long pause before considering such a lifestyle change, what hope do we have for a significant chunk of America to adopt these kinds of changes? Even if I take the leap, it is hard to imagine many of my peers following suit. It is not an attractive package.
I have heard about obnoxiously long commutes in New York City and Washington D.C. I always assumed that people just lived further away from their work than I do. Is the public transportation making their commute so long, or is it the distance of travel? How do cities such as Seattle and San Francisco (as well as European ones) encourage public transportation, walking and biking? Columbus is a rather compact, centralized city by Midwestern standards. And yet, these alternative means of transportation are not very user-friendly.
This gives some insight into the massive changes in lifestyle and infrastructure that we are up against. My goal is to promote changes that are actually do-able for a large swath of the population. I don't see how to sell public transportation in Columbus, OH, to people who already have automobiles.
The answer might be a combination of factors: People would live closer to their working and shopping areas, such as a quick one-leg bus ride away. Cities need to be planned with this in mind. You can't expect to live in the suburbs and have a smooth commute. However, it would be difficult for married couples to live in an area that is convenient for both of their places of employment.
Public transportation needs to flood the market with way more routes than the current demand would ever require. They need to have buses, streetcars and subways running constantly all around town. If that were the case, I could pick up a line anywhere, anytime, and get to where I need in relative economy of time and cost. Then and only then would folks such as myself give a serious thought to using public transportation. The government needs to subsidize the crap out of this.
I may go ahead and make the change, anyway. There are multiple benefits and the overall package isn't so bad. But before these other means of transportation become widespread, something has to be done to make these methods more attractive to more people.