Ditching the Second Car?

BlogHer Original Post

A dear friend of mine is from England, now living in the U.S.  She sat in my living room recently, telling me that one of the hardest things to get used to in America has been the way that people spend so much time in their cars. 

In England, she told me, life was centered around smaller villages.  Mothers walked their children to school, because they lived close enough.  They walked to the market, and to church.  And it would be nearly unheard of to drive for 15 minutes to go shopping.

Her conversation came back to me as I read this article from MSN money:  Could you get by with just one car?  The article reports that, remarkably, the U.S. has more cars than we have drivers.  With the economy slumping and gas prices soaring, families are beginning to wonder if the extra car payment, insurance and gas are worth it:

Soaring gas prices are increasingly squeezing middle-class families. And that's just part of the cost of vehicle ownership: According to the public-transport association, it costs an average of $8,580 per year to own, maintain and drive a car.

This might not sound like a radical idea to many people, particularly those living in large cities.  My own family lived in downtown Chicago years ago, and we ditched our second car right away.  With public transportation at our doorstep, we hardly needed the one we had.  Escape Brooklyn writes:

All the cities we're considering relocating to must have good public transit and biking infrastructures, since we're going to try to stay car-free.

That's sound planning, but it won't work for everyone.  We specifically chose to take our kids out of the big city for greener pastures (literally), and I wouldn't go back.  We now live in a mid-sized city that is nice and compact--long commutes are a rarity here.  But public transportation is clunky at best, and most of the streets, believe it or not, don't even have sidewalks (which makes walking places with children a safety hazard).  According to the MSN article, communities are beginning to wisen up:

Cities and states have real incentive to invest in trains and buses. Studies show that property values -- read tax bases -- grow rapidly when public rail systems are built. One report found that the value of homes in one Dallas neighborhood doubled when a light-rail system was built nearby.

"City after city is finding that good public transit is good economic strategy," Millar says, adding that there is a 6:1 return on federal dollars invested in public rail systems.

Local governments around the country are encouraging residents to ditch their unneeded vehicles. Arlington, Va., Denver and Dayton, Ohio, are all starting programs designed to take cars off their roads. Under Seattle's "One Less Car Challenge," residents who successfully go on a monthlong car diet get discounted memberships to bicycle clubs and -- for those who actually get rid of a vehicle -- up to $600 in credit to a car-sharing program.

I'll be the first to agree that the idea has great merit.  I filled up my mini-van at the gas station for (*gulp*) $60 last week, and I live in the part of the country where gas is cheapest.  The idea of a slower-paced lifestyle with less time in the car is very appealing.  Walking more would certainly be healthier for both my children and for me. 

But the question I've turned over and over in my head since reading this article is, is it an idea worth considering for those of us who live in communities not geared for pedestrian traffic or public transport?  I wonder if the increase in stress over logistics would outweigh the stress over gas prices?  Green SAHM has done it, and she admits it's been hard:

As gas prices go up, this has been more and more a benefit to us. I work at home, and drive much less now that I don’t have my own car. Frivolous trips are much harder to make. But it’s still not easy.

For example, my son has speech therapy on the other side of town. I used Google’s transit website to check the bus schedule. The buses here would get me about halfway there; the rest I’d have to walk. You can see where there’s a bit of a problem. The walk is very long for a 3 year old.

Sara Schaefer Munoz of the Wall Street Journal blogged about her own experience:

It does require better coordination — mapping out the weekend to coincide errands with my husband’s squash games or birthday parties. If my husband has a meeting in the city, it means staying later or leaving work earlier to catch the same train so we can take the one car home from the station.

I'm game to investigate the options.  Even better than saving money or reducing fumes is the notion of simplifying life for my family.  I am most certainly making overt efforts to drive less.  But ditching my second car doesn't look like a hopeful option for me any time soon--at least until my city planner catch up with the idea.

Shannon Lowe is a BlogHer Contributing Editor (Mommy/Family), and she also writes at Rocks In My Dryer.


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