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Simplify your life: Go car-free

By Maureen Jenkins, Special to CNN
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 4, 2013
If owning a car is causing more trouble and expense than it's worth, there are often commuting alternatives. If owning a car is causing more trouble and expense than it's worth, there are often commuting alternatives.
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No car? No problem
No car? No problem
No car? No problem
No car? No problem
No car? No problem
No car? No problem
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maintaining a car can be more trouble and expense than it's worth in urban areas
  • Even in more rural locales, trains, buses, and bikes can replace a car ride
  • It's possible to simplify your life by adding a few nondriving days to your weekly commute
  • Bike and car sharing can take the place of car ownership too

Editor's note: The "Simplify your life" series offers tips and tricks to save you time, money and stress.

(CNN) -- When 25-year-old Emily Knies moved from Seattle to Chicago two years ago, being able to easily and happily live car-free was a key consideration. For one thing, she doesn't have a driver's license -- and from the time she was a kid, she never wanted to own a car.

"I knew I wanted to live in a city where I could find a job and the culture I wanted. That normally comes with public transportation," says Knies, program events manager at the nonprofit Step Up Women's Network in downtown Chicago. If there's a work meeting outside the office, "I am much more prone to just walking; it's always my first instinct."

Living in the artsy Ukrainian Village neighborhood west of downtown Chicago, she finds having a vehicle "is just not that necessary. It doesn't make sense to buy a car to go to the grocery store or to the movie theater. I would rather have a really nice dinner than fill up a tank of gas." If she and her partner need occasional wheels to get around or out of town, they rent them.

To folks who have always owned a car, suggesting they might simplify their lives by getting rid of it may sound like madness. After all, what's simpler than grabbing the keys, jumping in your ride, and heading wherever you'd like to go?

Well, think of the simplicity of not paying a car note or handing over hard-earned dollars for insurance, license plates, and municipal auto stickers; not needing to obsess over which stations have the lowest gas prices or which roads have the fewest tolls.

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If it makes practical sense for you, consider going "car-free" -- even if just occasionally.

Granted, if you live in a rural or exurban area far from amenities or without public transit, this may not be a viable option. But many of those living in cities and suburbs across the United States -- and across the world -- have access to car-sharing services that make it easy to use a car only when you need one, sparing you the hefty costs of ownership. Plus, you'll help put the brakes on carbon dioxide emissions by driving only when you absolutely must. And if public transit's available near you, perhaps it fits into your getting-around routine.

As an off-and-on downtown Chicago dweller since 2000, I lived happily car-free for 10 years. Like many Americans, I once owned a vehicle out of habit alone. But it finally dawned on me: Why was I paying $300 for a car note, $200 to park my Honda Civic in a nearby garage, $100 to insure it each month -- to say nothing of the cost of gas and maintenance -- when I drove maybe three times in that month? It made absolutely no sense, especially since I worked downtown for a company that paid for my 30-day Chicago Transit Authority bus pass.

And with my supermarket, pharmacy, dry cleaners, doctors, dentist -- even my church -- within short walking distance of my home, retrieving my car from the garage was more of a hassle than help. Selling my Honda was one of the smartest things I ever did. I just wish I'd thought of it sooner.

San Francisco dweller Daniel Corbett, 52, sold his convertible 10 years ago, fed up with scarce and expensive parking spots and high insurance. "I found I wasn't using it that much, and it just became a quality of life issue." A dog adoption counselor at the nonprofit Pets Unlimited, Corbett found a small studio apartment three blocks from work, giving him a five-minute walking commute. "Less than half my friends have cars now; I know a couple people who sold theirs," he says. "There's a general mood toward trying that."

As soon as I sold my car in 2003, I signed up for I-GO, a car-sharing service that now operates 275 vehicles across Chicago and in four nearby suburbs. Members reserve cars online for as little as 30 minutes or as long as one day, paying $10 or less per hour. I-GO reports that 73% of its members say they've either sold a car or postponed the decision to buy one because of joining.

"Many people, especially in a big city, only need a car every now and then. We're the 'now and then,'" says I-GO business development director Richard Kosmacher.

According to Zipcar, whose car-sharing network stretches across North America (including hundreds of college campuses) and extends into Europe, its members report saving an average of $600 per month compared with owning a car. While services like Chicago's I-GO and LAXCarShare in Los Angeles are locally based, other national programs, including Enterprise CarShare and U Car Share -- operated by U-Haul -- have also driven onto the scene.

But even if none of these services exists where you live, or if you have no intention of getting rid of your car, you still can simplify your life by leaving your car parked some of the time.

If you can, walk to the supermarket or drugstore rather than automatically hopping in your car. Feel like browsing and shopping? Take a suburban or city train to the nearest downtown shopping district rather than driving to a massive mall.

Some drivers mistakenly think all public transportation is inefficient and forces you to share too-cramped quarters with total strangers -- but before you judge it, why not give it a try in your own city, suburb or county?

Consider splitting up your workday commute by taking a bus or train a few days a week to give your car a break from the road, and your wallet a break from the gas pump. Use the time you would have spent behind the wheel reading or texting or merely gazing out the window while leaving the driving to someone else. And once you exit said bus, train or tram, you'll be putting more steps between you and your destination, giving you a great excuse to move.

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If you've got a bike, hop on and use it to run quick errands that don't involve hauling heavy merchandise. Don't have one? If you live in or visit cities with "bike sharing" -- where you pick up your wheels at a conveniently located bike station and return it there or to another one when you're done -- give it a try. The practice started in Europe, but now you'll find it everywhere from Denver to Kansas City, Missouri, to Houston to Anaheim, California. More areas are joining this rent-to-ride movement all the time.

Or just get some exercise by moving your feet for a change -- and not just to the garage, driveway or parking lot.

"I'm used to walking because I work with animals," says Corbett of San Francisco. "If I had a car, I'd probably weigh about 40 pounds more." Being car-free also affords him "more economic freedom."

I recently had to buy a car, thanks to a new suburban job that's inaccessible by public transit, and I explored a host of different scenarios to make that option work. But once I drive back home, this car owner will park and use buses, trains, and her own two feet to get around. My boots are made for walking, as the Nancy Sinatra song says -- and that's just what they'll do.

Maureen Jenkins is a freelance travel, food and lifestyles writer. She recently returned to her native Chicago after a year in France, and blogs about international travel at UrbanTravelGirl.com.

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