Reducing Our Dependence On Cars

by Frugal Babe on June 16, 2010

People are often amazed that my husband and I have cars that are 20 years old and still going strong. Yes we’ve been lucky to have reliable vehicles, and we’ve also stayed on top of basic maintenance. But the real key is that we don’t drive much. We bought my car from its original owner in 2003. In the last seven years, I’ve driven it 38,000 miles, with most of those miles in the first three years I owned the car (before we had our business set up to be completely from home). These days, I put about 3000 miles on my car each year – so of course it’s lasting longer than it would if I were driving it 10,000 miles a year.  Our cars are old, so the registration fee is very low, as is our liability-only insurance.  And of course we don’t have car payments.

When we chose to move last year, we knew that there were some things we were giving up by moving to a small town.  The most notable of these (and the only one we even notice) is the lack of public transportation and the distance we have to travel to get to a good grocery store.  We don’t really care about other shopping – we don’t do much of it anyway.  But groceries are a must, and the small-town grocery store near our house just doesn’t carry most of the food we want to buy.  I support them whenever I can, and buy small packets of organic frozen veggies there, along with a few other things.  But they don’t have a single organic item in the fresh produce department, which is where I spend most of my grocery dollars.  Our garden is starting to produce stuff now, so my grocery needs are steadily declining, but I do still need to buy a lot of our food.

So about once a week, I load up my reusable grocery bags and head into the big town ten miles down the road to shop at the co-op or the health food store.  Lately I’ve been taking advantage of the trip to also drop off stuff at one of the big thrift stores in town.  If there are any other errands that I need to run, I make sure that I coordinate them so that I do them all in the same trip.

Other than my weekly trip to town, I’m able to do everything I need right here in our little town.  And my rule is that I never drive my car unless I’m leaving our town.  Nothing is more than about three miles away, and I can easily get to everything in town either walking (pulling our son in his wagon) or by bike.  The library, post office, credit union, hardware store, liquor store, even a grocery store that will do in a pinch… all are within easy walking or biking distance.  I told myself when we moved here that I wouldn’t drive if I needed to go somewhere within our town, so getting around by bike or on foot has just become second nature.

Working from home also makes a huge difference, as neither of us has to go anywhere for work.  We’re working hard to create a life that we love, and to be honest, we’re both happiest when we’re at home, working, working in our garden, hanging out with our son… just doing the things we do on a daily basis.  And that means that most of the time, our cars are just hanging out in the garage.

Tammy Strobel has written an e-book called Simply Car-Free for people who are looking to minimize their dependence on cars.  Check it out if you’re looking for ideas and inspiration.  We aren’t car-free (yet… maybe once our town grows a bit we could be someday), but I suppose you could call us car-minimal.  The disaster in the Gulf should be a big motivator for all of us to look for ways we can consume less oil, and driving less is a good start.  Do you have a self-imposed rule about not driving your car to go short distances, or on certain days?  Do you make an effort to combine trips to limit your total driving?  Do you prefer public transportation, bikes, or walking?

If you haven’t given much thought to the idea of being car-minimal or car-free, maybe today’s a good day to start.  A good first step is to tell yourself that you won’t drive if you’re going less than two miles (or whatever distance works for you) and then gradually increase that distance as you get more comfortable walking, running, or biking.  And enjoy the added benefit that comes with getting a workout while you do your errands!

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

NancyV908 June 16, 2010 at 12:16 pm

I try to be car minimal. I am quite the oddity in that respect in my suburban community. We are also 5 minutes from school, & within walking distance of a small shopping center. So we *can* walk to many places, which I realize is not the case for many people. But so many of my neighbors seem to drive all the time, even if they could walk. Apparently I am famous in my neighborhood for walking my kids in the cold. We live in NJ, not the Arctic Circle! I do it for exercise, but mainly for environmental reasons. I also really try to minimize my car trips by combining errands & doing one big shopping expedition a week.

Two other things: I have made a conscious effort to drive slower, again to save gas & reduce pollution. This can be hard, especially on the highway–I find that a natural speed for me is around 70 mph, & where I live, at least, that is slow-lane speed. I try to do 60, & do best if I can find a slow vehicle to tail. Also, a while back I read an article about hypermileage, which intrigued me. (I think the driver who was profiled got around 100 mpg.) Apparently a lot of the tricks to accomplish this are dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. But I did adopt the habit of coasting to stops–that is, instead of keeping my foot on the accelerator & then applying the brake, letting the car slow down naturally. I also try not to keep my foot on the pedal on downhills, or accelerate too much going uphill, on the theory that there is likely a downhill on the other side, which will help me build up momentum. I’m not Type A, so maybe that helps. :-) But I do often lose my nerve on these if there is someone right behind me.

I also have to admit that I have no idea how much of an effect this all has, but it can’t hurt. Lately I have really been noticing people’s driving habits, & I figure they have to be causing at least some excess emissions & wear & tear–e.g. people who are always hitting the brake b/c they are driving fast & get too close to other cars, instead of going at a steady pace.

David @ The Frugality Game June 16, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Wow – that’s an impressively low amount of mileage. I’m supposing that working from home makes it much easier.

Here’s a great side benefit: if you’re not driving your car around town, you’re much less likely to spend money on other things, as well (such as impulse shopping or eating out).

FrugalBabe June 16, 2010 at 2:03 pm

David,
Working from home absolutely does help, although for several years before our son was born I also had a part time job outside the home. When I went looking for that job (which we needed in order to make ends meet while our business was getting off the ground) I purposely limited my search to places within two miles of our home so that I would be able to bike or walk to work. In the four years I worked at the public library, I probably drove my car less then 20 times, total (in really bad weather, or if I had to go somewhere far away right after work). Even when I was 9 months pregnant, I still walked or rode my bike everyday. If you just tell yourself that driving the car is never an option if you’re going less then a certain distance, it becomes habit.

AD June 16, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I’d love to walk everywhere, but the nearest town is about a 20-minute drive, so it’s not feasible. We live down a winding country road with no shoulder, so even if I wanted to try to bike it, it’s very unsafe. I know this because I’ve nearly been in two accidents because a cyclist was taking a leisurely trip on a road not built for bikes, and I drove around a blind turn and was almost hit by a car trying to avoid a cyclist.

But I’d literally have to leave hours early to even try to bike it, and I’ll be honest, it’s not gonna happen, esp. in 100+ degree weather.

I know people would say to move to the city, but I am an only child and I live near my parents. I see how my mom has to drive 50 minutes to see her mom, which is difficult when my grandma is in the hospital and my mom wants to see her after work (it’s about 1.5 hours from my mom’s work). When my parents start to need me more, I’ll be 5 minutes away. So, it’s a trade-off. But I carpool into work most days and we always group our errands, so we try to do what we can.

Also, public transit in Texas, esp. Austin, pretty much sucks even for people in town. It’s a mess. I’d *still* need a car just to make it to the nearest bus stop!

FrugalBabe June 16, 2010 at 3:28 pm

AD, I know what you meant. I’ve often thought about biking into town, but the only road to get there is a fast, curvy highway and I just don’t think I’d feel safe. I definitely wouldn’t want to put my son in the bike trailer on that road. I feel like the compromise of biking/walking around our little town and driving when I need to go to the big town is ok for now. Hopefully someday our little town will grow enough to have more of the stuff we need right here, and we’ll be able to drive even less.

Erin June 16, 2010 at 6:22 pm

I love the idea of setting goals for walking or biking vs. driving. Going to have to try that. We have a decent grocery store within a couple miles. I try to combine trips with other things – so it’s not just a one-task affair. On my way back from a doctor’s appointment or the post office. But once every couple of weeks a craving for something will hit and we’re down there in the car. The walk would be far better for us, our finances, and the environment!

We are essentially a one car family. And luckily it’s very fuel efficient. My partner uses it for work daily. For the rest of the year I will be working from home. On occasion I need to borrow a family member’s car to get to a doctors appointment, etc. But otherwise we stick to the one car.

Thanks again for the good ideas.

Karen June 16, 2010 at 9:05 pm

I have been thinking more and more about going carless or at least going down to one car. Up until the middle of January my husband and I had carpooled for almost four years as we both worked near each other. That was imensly helpful. My office moved further away and in order for me to take a bus my communte would double each way.

My husband does carpool most weekdays so that does help. I have no one to carpool with.

We are not in a position to move until after his kids graduate from HS (one in two years and the other in four). Once they have graduated we do plan on moving and the car situation will definately be at the forefront of my mind.

Bankruptcy Ben June 16, 2010 at 9:53 pm

I’m cycling more, and contrary to what you might think it’s pretty safe. I’ve riden along highways and main roads. Just put on your refective vest and ride as far to the left as possible. This being said I have a car.

Has anyone read Tammy’s book, i’m intrigued?

Trina June 17, 2010 at 8:20 am

I’ve always thought it’s ironic that moving to the “country” for the purpose of raising our children in natural surroundings (gardening, watching wildlife, feeding birds, woods walks, etc.) also has meant driving longer distances for other activities in our lives. We work at home, homeschool, and enjoy home-based leisure. We combine errands, buy food in major bulk to limit shopping, and our kids’ activities have been close to home for years.

However, our best efforts couldn’t change the demands of raising teens and college students. Once our kids could drive (and so could all their friends), their world changed (and so did ours). We’re still an environmentally friendly family, but saving gas and CO2 pales in comparison to our emphasis on their driving responsibly, not drinking or using a cell phone while driving, etc. Commuting to college classes puts many miles on the cars and uses a lot of gas, but living on campus is much more expensive. Everything is a matter of balance and compromise.

Someday, when our kids are grown, we’ll be down to one practical car, but we’ll probably still drive a lot to visit our kids. What our society needs is greener cars and fuel. Many of us just can’t move to a city or give up the freedom that driving provides.

Everyday Tips June 17, 2010 at 10:30 am

Unfortunately, I am incredibly car-dependent. I put about 27,000 miles on my car per year, and I don’t work outside the home. Driving to all my kid’s activities is what puts the miles on. When they play school sports, they play teams that are quite often 40-50 miles away. We also usually drive to a distant destination for vacation each year.

I envy your situation immensely. Where I live, it isn’t super-safe to ride your bike around either.

Tiffany June 17, 2010 at 12:20 pm

I LOVE this post! I used to ride my bike everywhere. I live in Boston…and now that I think back on that, I think it was incredibly dangerous. It is NOT a bike friendly city.

I’m actually moving to the burbs in two days and am psyched about being able to ride my bike around our little town. The grocery store is about 1.5 miles away…and easy ride! Main street is half a mile away. I’m so psyched that our date nights can be walking/riding to the historic theatre.

I LOVE riding my bike more than anything…and stopped over the past year because it just felt so dangerous around the city…I will definitely walk or bike places around town..

I’m also job hunting, and I apply for jobs only in locales that I can bike to. I will wait to switch until I find that job!

Andy Hough June 17, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Your mileage is impressive. I’ve driven way more than that this year and I had my car parked for three weeks. At least some of my driving was reimbursable.

I went carless from November 2008 to November 2009. It wasn’t too bad since there was still a car in the household. My fiancee and I share a car now but I need to reduce my driving.

Victoria June 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm

I am very car-minimal. Working from home makes all the difference. I prefer to shop online too. So I only go out for groceries. With my old Chevy pick-up truck having a huge gas tank, I can fill it up once a year! I bet you don’t hear that very often. Certainly beats the days of driving every single day to and from work.

Tom June 18, 2010 at 8:50 am

I am carless. I live and work near the subway and groceries are within walking distance. Once I have a family though this may have to change (per sq footage cost in the city I live in are getting insane).

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