It was 7 years ago today that I moved from Cincinnati to Arlington. I did so without a car. Back then, I didn’t think much about it. I had studied abroad the summer before my last year of college, and learned how easy it could be to get around in a city with good mass transit. I didn’t own a car upon leaving Cincinnati (I had just graduated college, and my parents had owned my car up until that point), was living on the metro, and saw no real need to buy one. As a result, without a ton of thought, I moved and started my “car-free diet.”
Seven years later, with much more reflection, it is pretty cool to look back at my time without a car. Over the past few years, my love for cycling and understanding of transportation concerns has increased dramatically. So much so that I think I finally found my real passion in life. That is not to say that I think cars are bad. People always say arguments that you are a “cyclist” or a “driver,” completely ignoring the fact that almost all cyclists drive sometimes, and nearly all drivers have been on a bike. I end up in a car somewhat often (at least once a week), as my wife has a car. Her commute from Arlington to Manassas is pretty difficult without one, and so not having a car doesn’t make sense for her. But going car-free, or car-reduced, is often much easier than you’d think. Over the years I have heard so many interesting thoughts and questions about going car-free. I wanted to address some of those concerns, and hopefully shed light on how someone can go about reducing their dependence on cars. Here are some answers to some of the most common questions I have received over the past 7 years:
1. How do you get to work? Luckily in DC, you don’t get asked this question much, but some of my friends from home (Cincinnati) ask. The easiest solution is mass transit. In DC, this is primarily covered by the Metro, Buses, and commuter trains. Biking to work is a great option, though requires living in at least somewhat close proximity to work (though some people ride further to work, over 12-15 miles each way would for me be a stretch to accomplish regularly). Ridesharing or carpooling are also great ways to go car-reduced.
2. How do you get groceries? This one is pretty easy really. There are a lot of options for non-car owners to get groceries. First, there are a lot of places around here to live within walking distance to a grocery store. Rosslyn, Ballston, VA Square, Clarendon, Old town, S. Glebe, etc. all have grocery stores located near a lot of apartments and houses. These places often come with a price, so I’m not going to be unrealistic, but trying to live within walking distance to the grocery store can be a HUGE step in making car-free easier. Second, there are a number of outlets to have groceries delivered. For a few years, I was using Peapod fairly regularly. Peapod is easy, reliable, and a pretty decent option. I will say that Peapod does not represent the least expensive groceries ever. They are not crazy expensive, but they certainly don’t seem to be as cheap as the store. Also, produce is kind of hit and miss, so I eventually was using Peapod for the basics and non-perishable (or at least less-perishable). Third, I used Zipcar for a year or two to get groceries. Zipcar is great and especially great for this purpose. For about $7-$10 (1-1.5 hours), I could get to the store, shop, and get home. One hint is to bring a cart along with you in case you are short on time. That way, you can park the car back in the spot and just unload into your cart, versus having to take everything up to your apartment or house and then back to the parking spot. While I haven’t used Car2Go, I’m sure it is similarly a great option. Fourth, public transportation is an option. For large trips, this is a little harder. However for smaller trips to the store, riding the metro or a bus is a decent option. The Orange Line and Pentagon City all have good grocery stores off the metro. Just don’t try it during rush hour, and it shouldn’t be that big a problem at all. Finally, supplement your trips with farmers markets as much as possible. A lot of the big working and living areas now are hosting farmers markets. This can be a great way to supplement the weekly grocery store to reduce the number and need for additional trips.
3. How do you go on dates? This one always makes me laugh. I mean honestly, people really think that you can’t get a date without a car. After years of answering this, I’ll give you the highlights. First, it can limit the pool a bit, which I admit. But most people that I hang out with live in and around the city, and so over time most of the potential dates have been people living in DC or Arlington/Alexandria. As far as first dates, there are a few options. The easiest is to find somewhere good for a first date that is very near the other person’s house. That way, you can get there however you have to get there (metro, bus, bike, etc.), and simply walk from their place to your date (dinner usually). Being in their neighborhood has the added advantage of making the other person feel comfortable on the date. A nice stroll together isn’t bad either. Dates in the city (I am an Arlington resident) are often done via metro or cabs. This is especially true because often on a date, you’ll end up having some drinks. Because DC has extremely strict drinking and driving rules, I think it is the smart and safe decision not to drive into the city. In a scenario that necessitates a car, you can simply rent or grab a Zipcar (please refer to the “If you need a car” section).
Forgetting about the logistics, the bottom line is this: not having a car is a fairly interesting concept to most people. As a result, choosing a car-free lifestyle is something that a lot of people want to talk to you about, ask questions, etc. I think that going car-free helps the dating life more than it hurts it, because you have something truly interesting to talk about and discuss. Furthermore, if a girl won’t date a guy because he doesn’t have a car, why on earth would someone want to date her? It simply helps demonstrate who in the dating field is narrow-minded, materialistic, etc. Not that having a car is bad in any way, but to not want to date someone simply because they don’t….well that’s a bit shallow. Simply stated, some people might not like that you don’t have a car, but they probably aren’t worth dating anyways. And the people that don’t care about your lack of car, they will probably be far more interested in talking about your choice and lifestyle than they ever would have been before.
4. Don’t you feel claustrophobic or trapped? I understand the concern and the question here. A lot of people think that they will feel trapped in the city without a car, like there is no getting away. I have at times felt inconvenienced by it, but not really trapped. For one, with the money you save from not owning a car, buying a flight every few months doesn’t seem like a big deal. Flying not only allows you to travel, but allows you to travel much further than driving. Also, renting cars is not particularly difficult or expensive. Renting a car one in a while to get away is certainly less expensive than owning a car. A weekend getaway to the country, out to vineyards, or even back to the Midwest have all been accomplished by simply renting a car for the weekend. You’d be surprised how easy and inexpensive this can be. Also, in this area, you usually don’t have to go to an airport to find a rental place; they are all over the city. Odds are you can walk to one.
5. What if you have kids? I can’t totally comment on this, because I don’t have kids. I think I would recommend a more car-reduced lifestyle for people with kids than car-free. If you are raising a child with someone else, then perhaps only having one car between the two of you is sufficient. It may require more planning and more juggling of schedules, but still could be a great option. Getting your kids to reduce their dependence on cars can be a great thing as well, whether that means riding or walking to school, practices, friends houses, etc. I know my friend is Milwaukee often rides with her kids when they go over to friend’s houses. This helps to alleviate safety concerns. So just because you don’t have a car, doesn’t mean you can’t help your child get places.
6. What if there is an emergency? Similar to the above answer, one car between two people can usually suffice for any of these issues. Let’s be honest, emergency’s aren’t that common, and if it is your own emergency, perhaps you shouldn’t be driving. Another thing I would recommend is being friendly and familiar with your neighbors. This can be a really great help if you are in a serious jam (need to get to the emergency room). While your neighbor won’t be fond of just driving you to the grocery store often, a good relationship will usually mean that they will help you in a true problem situation.
I know some people that when they have lost or quit a job, if in a financial position to do so, they take a little time off before looking for another job. My suggestion is that people try to do this at the end of the life of their car. If you don’t want to go get rid of your car today, because you already have it and maybe don’t have a payment, then don’t. You don’t have to go throw your car away! But that car has a certain shelf life. And despite the fact that the car is expensive, the shelf life isn’t all that long. So the next time your car breaks down for good, when it is no longer fixable or drivable, take a little time off from car ownership. You can always go buy a new one if you want, but while you’re not tied down with one, see what it’s like to not have one. I think you will be surprised at how easy it is, that the inconvenience is not major, and that you feel less restricted by the costs of ownership. It’s not a radical effort or some major change, just allow yourself a few weeks or months in between cars, and see what it’s like.
As I said, looking back over these seven years, I am much more reflective and thoughtful than I was when I decided to go car-free. I have become very interested in transportation and making sure that people have options. Cars aren’t bad by any means, but as cities become more congested, there have to be some better transportation solutions than just, “build more, bigger roads.”
I hope these points help someone to understand how they could go car-free. The main reason I wanted to write this particular post was to help others understand how easily they can go car-free or car-light. Further, I wanted to make sure people understood that the decision doesn’t always have to be thought out, it doesn’t have to be for some enlightened reasons, it sometimes can be as simple as just trying it out. While I am trying to provide a little insight for new car-free dieters, I’d like to thank a few groups for helping my understanding of the importance of cycling and transportation issues. First and foremost, I’d like to thank Bike Arlington and Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA) for the unbelievable work you have done to advocate for cycling concerns in the area. Without your tireless and I’m sure frustrating efforts, none of us would have the infrastructure to explore our passion. We always want things better, but in this area, we have things pretty good as cyclists, and it is a direct result of your efforts. Second, I’d like to thank the various DOT's in this area that have provided support for cyclists and pedestrians. Whether it be DC’s implementation of protected bike lanes, or Arlington’s support of the “Car-Free Diet” and bike boulevards (though not the optimal solution), the DOT’s and various transportation-centric programs have made this a great area for people like me to live without a car. Finally, I would like to thank TheWashCycle, the greatest blog on the internet. TheWashCycle has not only provided basically all relevant cycling news in the entire DMV, but more importantly has taught me so much about transportation concerns and issues. It has shaped my understanding of the fact that it is not driving, cycling, and walking, but rather is a transportation system, in which these things must work together. TheWashCycle is the impetus that has led me to read further, learn more, and inspired me to hopefully tackle transportation as a career down the line. To post the morning and afternoon commute each day, and sometimes some mid-day stories has to require immense effort, and for doing so I am grateful. Thanks for the inspiration and education.
If anyone out there has any questions or comments, do not hesitate to contact me. I’d be happy to help clarify anything in this post.
Good luck going car-free!