My car was totaled in an April accident, triggering events that led my wife, Jenny, and me to be car-free. We rented a car for a few weeks, thinking that after our summer travels we’d buy a new car. Our attention focused on hybrids, electrics and other environmentally friendly options, but slowly we came to realize that there was another option.
Maybe we could not buy a car at all. This was a radical thought, as we’ve both had cars for all of our adult lives, sometimes making hour-long commutes. We were proud to have cut down to one shared car a few years ago, which was possible because we work at the University of Maryland and could commute together, discussing daily business while cruising the Beltway or while stuck in traffic.
The idea of going car-free was a bigger step, and, frankly, it felt un-American.
We decided that we would try the car-free approach, and when we had enough of this radical solution, we would buy a car. September without a car was pretty easy, with good weather encouraging us to walk or bike. Metro was just fine for getting to the District, and it freed us from thinking about where to park. Sometimes after a meeting in the District, we’d take Metro to College Park. Destinations that were two to three miles from home had seemed to require a car, but they became walkable, and we proudly hit our daily 10,000-step goals on our iPhone apps.
Destinations that were four to six miles away became biking events, although we are cautious bikers who like daytime rides on dry pavements and off-road paths such as the Capital Crescent and Bethesda Trolley trails.
The J4 Metrobus took us from the Bethesda Metro station directly to the University of Maryland. It was a 50-minute ride instead of a 25-to-30-minute drive, but we could chat, email or read. The extra time became a valued payoff, even though the rides were a bit bumpy. On the bus, we interacted with a wider range of people than our campus colleagues and building neighbors. The seats were cramped, but the buses were rarely crowded.
We came to learn bus schedules by heart. An iPhone app with bus arrival information removed some of the uncertainties of making the 8:15 a.m. departure of the last express bus from Bethesda.
As October and November came and went, the colder temperatures and rains were a modest concern. We felt better and better about the car-free life, learning more about other bus routes to reach other destinations.
Still, we weren’t completely car-free. Uber and an occasional taxi became important parts of our lives, getting us to more distant destinations. I took an Uber to Odenton for the funeral of a colleague’s wife, and one of the attendees offered to drive me back, giving me 40 minutes of relaxed conversation with this trusted but always busy colleague.
And then we discovered two Zipcar locations hidden in plain sight within two blocks of our apartment building. Our favorite ride was a trip to stroll the boardwalk in North Beach, followed by a visit to friends in Annapolis, making for a satisfying, warm December day on the Chesapeake Bay.
Our choices of destinations also changed. We shopped within walking distance, and we ordered items online rather than driving to a mall. We favored friendships with neighbors and those who were willing to meet us for dinner in Bethesda. Occasionally we would ask for a ride from friends going to the same party or poker game, making for another happy social occasion.
Being car-free meant we could ignore the morning traffic reports and changing gas prices. My pants pocket is roomier without a bulky car key. Even with the Uber, taxi and Zipcar bills, we saved money compared with owning a car. No more car insurance bills, parking lot charges or campus parking fees.
We were surprised with how much there was to learn to go car-free: alternate services, iPhone apps and Uber rules. We’re proud of our accomplishment, and talking about it generates spirited conversations about other environmentally friendly solutions. We know that our location in Bethesda helps a lot, but we encourage others to find bold solutions that work for them.
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