After decades of braving annual inspections, congestion, parking hassles and ice storms, D.C. resident Sharon Gang donated her 1996 Volvo in January to a local charity. “Between congestion, emissions and rush hour, I was happy to get my car off the road,” says Gang, a political communications consultant. “It was less a financial decision and more a lifestyle one.”
Having lived in Houston, Los Angeles and now Colorado, I can’t imagine my life without an automatic transmission. But car ownership is more of a choice for those of us who live in urban areas as our transportation options increase from improvements in transit systems and growth of ride-hailing services. Instead of asking ourselves, “What kind of car should I buy?” many of us can ask, “Should (or must) I buy a car?” Let’s take a practical look at some factors to help you decide.
Your living situation. Are you in a densely populated metropolis such as Manhattan, or are you in sprawling Los Angeles? Is there a high-frequency bus or train network close to your home? Are grocery stores and other services within walking distance? Do you have children or other dependents who need to be taken to a host of activities? People who are married or living with a partner spend at least 12 percent more time driving than those who are not. How do you spend your free time? In Denver, if I want to play at even the closest mountain resorts, I need a car to reach them.
Your public transit options. Public transportation is the backbone of city life. In some places, it offers the same freedom and spontaneity of owning a car. So, take a deep dive into the major rail or bus routes near you. How far is your home from the closest stop or station? Transportation experts call this “first mile/last mile.” Are there options for closing that gap, such as bike-share or scooters? Some public transit agencies even work out deals with ride-hailing services. Denver’s Regional Transportation District is the first public transit system agency in the United States whose routes appear within the Uber app.
Your commute. Can you get to work in a reasonable amount of time? If the bus only comes once an hour vs. every 15 minutes, that may give you pause, says Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research for the American Public Transportation Association. Does your employer encourage mass transit by offering a commuter benefit such as subsidizing a transit pass or carpooling? If you must drive, how long will it take, what’s traffic like and what’s the cost of parking?
Your bank account. The average cost of owning a new car, including fuel, maintenance, license and insurance is $8,849 per year, according to AAA. The annual cost of owning a pre-owned car can be half of that. AAA has a free online tool you can use to calculate your own driving costs. Even if you can afford to own a car, do you have the means to maintain it? Failing to do so can result in a huge hit to your bank account. A 2017 AAA study concluded that 64 million American drivers would not be able to pay for unexpected car repairs (around $500) without going into debt. AAA spokesman Skyler McKinley advises you stash about $50 per month into an “emergency” account for unforeseen issues.
Your ride-hailing options. There are a lot of good reasons to use ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, especially if you travel a limited number of miles each year, use them sporadically such as after a night on the town or have mobility challenges that prevent you from driving. However, they aren’t a cost-effective replacement for car ownership, according to AAA, which calculates that relying on ride-hailing as your primary mode of transportation in an urban area adds up to more than twice the expense of owning a car. If you park free at home and work, using a ride-hailing service is three times as expensive as vehicle ownership.
Your flexibility. Even the best transit system sometimes falls prey to bad weather or mechanical mishaps resulting in delays or missed connections. Car ownership amps up the convenience factor. With most of her adult life spent in San Francisco, Paris and New York City, former opera singer Cristiane Young never needed a car until she moved to Chapel Hill, N.C. Now, Young says, “If I want to see a movie or go to the mall, I just hop in. When I lived in New York, I had to figure out the train and bus schedule, and sometimes it just didn’t work.”
Your environmental concerns. It’s no contest: Public transportation is better for the environment. Fewer cars on the roads means fewer emissions. More than 21 percent of transit bus fleets are hybrid-electric, with transit agencies opting for cleaner power sources including compressed natural gas, biofuels and even hydrogen fuel cells. Many rail systems use electricity.
Your desire to chill. I admit that I’m a control freak. When I go out with friends, I’m almost always behind the wheel. But using public transit gives you more time stay to stay connected or chill out. You can’t read, text or take a nap in a car unless someone else is driving.
Your love of being behind the wheel. According to Grisby, two-thirds of millennials say they own a car out of necessity instead of enjoyment. Gang was in the same camp. Even though she owned a car for more than two decades, she never got into driving. She took the Metro to work and rode her bike a lot. “In the winter,” she says, “I was afraid of the car breaking down, afraid of parking or getting lost.”
Being car-free isn’t for everyone, Gang acknowledges. “A lot of people say, ‘I couldn’t live without a car,’ ” she says. But, she adds, “it is living differently.”