Going Car-free May Work for You, But It Won't Work For All

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
going car free may work for you but it won t work for all

Journalist Randy Essex of the Detroit Free Press took to those same digital pages last week to discuss how great his new car-free life is, even during the life-threatening cold of the polar vortex.

To which I say, good for him. If he’s happy living a car-free life in Detroit, more power to him. But his article is just the latest part of a conversation happening, at least in certain circles on social media, about going car-free.

This isn’t to pick on Essex. Again, if not having their own car works for him and his wife, that’s fine with me. To each their own, you do you, all that jazz. But going car-free won’t work for everyone, and urbanites, especially urbanite auto journalists, need to remember that.

Speaking of urbanite auto journalists, I am one. If I didn’t get test cars on the regular, I could handle about 80 percent of my routine errands without a car and use a car-sharing service for the rest. But I don’t presume to suggest the rest of America live that way.

I live in the big, bad city in part because of transportation choice. I could live for less in the suburbs, but it’s nice being able to complete some errands by walking. I lived in the suburbs in the mid-Aughts, and while I mostly liked it, I wasn’t a fan of firing up my Accord for a run to the store in which the engine wouldn’t even get warm. However, if I tried walking that same distance, it’d be about a half-hour round trip, before factoring in time at the store. So walking wasn’t a good option.

While I do get test cars on the regular thanks to this gig, there are times that the press-car gravy train skips this stop. Press fleets simply don’t always have enough cars to go around. Were I a suburbanite, I’d have to buy a car. A beater, maybe, but I’d still be adding expenses I don’t have now (although with parking fees no longer part of my budget, it might even out). As it stands now, I am not reliant on the press fleet. Should they be short on cars, I can get around via other means. Heck, I do that even when I have a press car parked in the garage – sometimes I use Uber or the El because it’s easier, or because I plan on imbibing some adult bevvies.

I often wonder if I’d own a car had I a different job. I could save a mint on monthly parking. I suppose the answer depends on where this hypothetical other job was located and/or how much I might need a car for weekend sojourns to the suburbs.

Thing is, this is all about my personal situation, and everyone’s is different. I know someone who sold her car upon moving back to Chicago – she works from home and lives in a densely built part of the city, near an El stop. Her two feet, Uber, and the CTA will help her get around. I have other friends in the downtown core who are in the same boat. But I also know other Chicagoans who could easily be carless, but aren’t – they keep wheels around so they can do grocery runs more easily, or go to the suburbs, or go on road trips.

Of course, some folks who live in the city reside in parts of town that aren’t well-served by mass transit. As densely built as the central parts of Chicago are, once you get into the bungalow belt, the vibe feels slightly more suburban. Parking becomes more plentiful, and it becomes harder to get around without a car.

That’s how it is in many cities, of course.

This is why I don’t fully understand why auto journalists who live in Manhattan or downtown Chicago or some other urban core are suddenly talking about going carless (to be fair, I could be overreacting to a small but noisy subset of Twitter users). Putting aside the irony of auto journalists suggesting that more people go carless, if you live by choice or necessity in an urban core, please understand that most people don’t. Most people need cars, whether they like it or not.

If you’d like to advocate for more/better mass transit, that’s fine. I’d actually like that – it might help reduce traffic. But taking to Twitter or a big-city newspaper to brag about easy it is to live in a city and go carless shows an ignorance towards the rest of the world. It may work for you, but it won’t work for everyone.

To Essex’s credit, he seems to understand that. He admits he’s lucky enough to be able to afford to live where he does, and he doesn’t talk about a future with no car, but a future with fewer cars. I think even us car people can live with that – as long as we can still drive when we want, where we want, why should we care if others find other means of conveyance? We’re not the ones selling the things, and as long as cars exist, we’ll have something to write about.

I think that’s what bugs me about sanctimonious auto writers on Twitter – the lack of understanding that what works in Manhattan, New York doesn’t work in Manhattan, Kansas. Go ahead and advocate for more transit choice, or policies that could reduce congestion, or whatever. But understand that just because you can exist without owning a car, others can’t.

I’m getting a little repetitive, just like those Twitter warriors, but the point must be hammered home.

Go carless, or not. It’s your choice. Just don’t tweet about it.

[Image: Veronique Duplain/Shutterstock]

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4 of 60 comments
  • Kendahl Kendahl on Feb 16, 2019

    If you read the Essex article carefully, you will see that he is far from carless. He rents something whenever Uber or public transportation won't work. He has simply found a place where the amenities he values most are accessible without a personally owned car. Other people have different priorities. I used to work with a guy who lived well out into the country. His house was surrounded by farm fields rather than other houses (or apartments). To him and his wife, the space and solitude were worth the time and expense of an 80 mile round trip daily commute. Others wanted to live in a town of 3,000 while working in a city of 400,000.

    • Scoutdude Scoutdude on Feb 17, 2019

      Count me as one who prefers to not live in the city and prefer living out in "the country" where I can go outside and hear and see nature instead of people.

  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Feb 18, 2019

    When I worked for a software developer we had a trade show in Chicago and my sister lived in Oswego at the time. I would stay at her house and take the train in every morning. It actually wasn't bad and took about 1/2 hour each way including walking a few blocks downtown. I could see where a single car or no car could work for some people, but you still have the cost of the public transit so it isn't totally expense free to go carless. Where I live now I drive 16 miles to work and we live out where the nearest neighbor is 1/2 mile away. Good neighbors though and we see them out on our walks often enough. We are still only 3 miles from a couple local grocery stores in the small towns near us. $1.99 for butter or a gallon of milk, fresh baked bread, cheap gas. Of course we have to drive 20 minutes minimum to go to a decent restaurant but I bet it is a 20 minute trip for anyone in a big city as well. Sometimes there will be a traffic jam because a herd of deer are trying to cross the highway, or someone's cows got loose.

    • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Feb 18, 2019

      If I lived in a big city, like Chicago, I’d take the train. (In 2005, I found that MARTA was a nice ride from Hartsfield to the Olympic Park area and back out.) But Toledo, OH? The rta here just cut hours back because they aren’t making enough $$$. Trains aren’t going to fly here!

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  • Cprescott Jim Farley and the Fire Starters. Perhaps he should throw his wig into the fire!
  • MaintenanceCosts Seems like a decent candidate for someone who wants to restore a Mustang. The year/configuration/body style combination is pretty desirable; only a 4-speed would make it better, although there are complete kits to make the conversion. The great thing about early Mustangs is that every single part is readily available from somewhere.
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