Self-Righteousness Fail: We Bought a Car

At least we got something interesting. Image: Paleofuture.

At least we got something interesting to drive. Image: Paleofuture.

Back in March, a video producer who was texting-while-driving slammed into me and totaled the early 90’s hatchback that Kelly and I shared. We went from a one car household to a car-free household overnight. A combination of environmental guilt and distaste for car shopping led us to a six month car free living experiment in Los Angeles. That period ended in late September when we purchased a car from a friend. It’s well past time we came clean and discussed the ups and downs of car-free living, as well as the reasons that led us to start burning dinosaur juice once again.

Only a nobody walks in LA
First let me dispel the myth that you have to have a car in Los Angeles. At least once a year some out of town journalist blows into LA to repeat the usual tired stereotypes about the place, about the celebrities, shallow intellectual culture and always, the notion that nobody walks or bikes in LA. This is because the people writing this stuff have never tried negotiating LA without a car. Over the last twenty years LA has installed an extensive network of trains that will take you in all four directions with considerably less stress than sitting in traffic, especially during rush hour.

The subway and light rail system works especially well if you ride a bike. This was a hitch for Kelly. Understandably, she’s nervous about riding a bike in traffic here. While the bike network is getting better, it’s got a long way to go. Bike lanes have been squeezed in where it’s been convenient for engineers and politicians to do so. To make the bike network really work we’re going to need to begin a more uncomfortable conversation about taking away driving lanes and parking. We’ll know bike revolution has really begun here when we see more women riding bikes (and older people, and kids! — kelly) . And that will happen when it feels safer to do so.

Induced demand
During the time we had no car we figured out our transportation needs almost effortlessly. Having had only one car for a long time we already knew how to use the public transportation system. When we needed a car to go to a far flung suburb or out of town we rented one. We also perfected the fine art of bumming rides.

But when an almost new and well-cared for car dropped into our hands via a friend I couldn’t resist. I’ve struggled with some knee problems of late, which made biking hard, and I felt sorry for Kelly whose dislike of cycling kept her home more ofen. I thought that if we got a car we would not use it much. Unfortunately, cars are like crack pipes and I went on a driving binge for the first few weeks.

But I rekindled my love affair with the subway after one epic two hour car journey in rush hour.  If it’s going to take me an hour to go 10 miles I might as well be reading and relaxing on the Expo line. One great thing about living without a car is how all those traffic reports don’t apply, not to mention insurance, repairs and gas.

It took me a long time to write this confession. The truth is that I’m ambivalent about the car. It’s more convenient to have one, especially late at night. And there are times that I don’t feel safe on my bike. On the other hand the automobile is one of the worst machines on the planet and I’m part of that problem once again. It’s also really expensive to keep and maintain a car.

Kelly chimes in:

I’m glad we were car-free for a while, because it deepened my acquaintance with the public transportation system. And as Erik says above, it is actually often faster or more pleasant or more convenient to take public transport than to drive.  I expect we’ll continue to use public transport frequently–and I always love to walk.

I will admit that I was gleeful to get the car. I didn’t think we’d ever get one again, because the combination of our innate cheapness, our environmental guilt, and our hatred of used car lots would conspire to prevent any forward momentum. In that light, our friend’s offer was like a gift from the sky.

Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy about a car. Erik was a teeny bit mopey there for a while after we got it–sore from falling off his high horse, I suspect–whereas I was like a thrilled contestant on The Price is Right, jumping around and crying for joy. It’s just a little hatchback but it feels like pure luxury. I couldn’t imagine wanting anything nicer. And yes, the car is evil,  but I can’t fight the evil. Not here.

While I could survive without a car, I felt limited, both by my lack of bicycling cajones cojones, which made getting around much slower and less fun than it would be otherwise, and more importantly, by the complete inaccessibility of many activities I wanted to do. I was missing out on a lot of stuff, and missing nature. We rented a car about once every other week–there was no car share service convenient to our location– and tried to cram our errands into that day, but we couldn’t load the rental car with horse poo or straw bales, and I couldn’t rent a car every time I needed to go to the woods, which is often.

I suppose, in the end, it’s all about lifestyle. I can easily imagine a lifestyle here in the city which would not require a car — but that is not our lifestyle.


A couple things we learned which make car-free living in Los Angeles much more pleasant:

1) Live within walking distance to a train line. This will make all the difference. The city will be your oyster.

2) Own a smart phone. Seems most folks do now, but being luddites really hampered us. With a smart phone we could have checked bus routes and schedules (LA doesn’t post such things at bus stops), and tracked arrival times. You also need a smart phone to use alternative cab services and some of the car share schemes.  If we’d remained car-free we would have had to invest in a phone and data plan, and considered that part of the price of transportation.

What do think? Comments!

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  1. It seems like a good experiment. I’ve done it in the DC area in the past, and it was hard. I did get to do a lot of reading 🙂

    Kelly: cojones=testicles; cajones=drawers

    Fondly, Mareena

  2. I’m glad you’ve kept your sense of humor about it all and called it a “self-righteousness fail”. You’ve done more with public transportation, walking, and pedal power in a year than most folks would ever consider doing in their entire lives and that’s highly commendable. The truth is that it’s difficult to live in LA without regular access to a vehicle, plain and simple. You’ve done a magnificent job as a family living without a car, and with the bare minimum of vehicle assistance, hold your heads high.

  3. Most European cities grew up around the public transportation systems that had been built (like rail) and therefore are easily accessed by using public transport. My elderly mother lives in London, in a village where every single house is within reasonable walking distance to a bus stop, which will take you to any number of rail stations and from there, almost anyplace in the country if not most of Europe. But she could never get on a bicycle, she’s too old. Yet she still goes ALL over the UK! *Walking distance* to places is, I think, the key to people using mass transit as their main source of transportation. LA suburbs were (mostly) laid out with freeway access in mind, not public transportation, so I think having a car, while not essential, IS necessary for most people still young enough to work, to shop and to visit friends who live in areas not well accessed by bus or rail. You should not feel guilty about occasionally using a car to get to places you love. LA is a hard enough place to live, crowded and often unpleasant, without adding that to your burdens! Congrats on the new vehicle, and I hope it lasts many years for you.

  4. Another key concept is the idea of what “walking distance” means. I grew up with public transportation in Portland, OR. My husband grew up driving from the minute he was able. My idea of ‘walking distance’ – on a nice day when I’m not in a hurry to get somewhere – is up to about 3/4 of a mile to get from bus stop to bus stop or to my destination (a half-mile if it’s rainy). His idea is about a block, maybe two at most.

    Another problem is the idea of having to transfer. I ride the bus to work and errands, and it takes me at least two pieces of transportation to get wherever I’m going (bus + light rail, sometimes a trolley or streetcar). I suggest to friends that they ride the bus to somewhere. They say “oh, which one?” I say well, you ride bus 4 to this stop, then get the 9, and… “oh. never mind. that’s too much trouble. I’ll just drive.” Even though riding my two buses takes less time than or the same amount of time as driving and finding a parking spot.

    Most Americans will not consider public transportation if (a) it takes them more than one bus/light rail/subway to get from home to destination, or (b) will involve a walk of more than about 2-3 blocks.

  5. “every time I needed to go to the woods, which is often.”

    Is this from the mouth of a Druid? I thought that was cute even though I wonder what the need is beyond just being in the woods.

    I certainly did not think you were self-righteous or that you failed.

    When I think about taking a bus, I cringe. It has been 50 years since I rode a bus or transferred. I cannot get my purchases from the house to the car without making several trips, often with the help of my Radio Flyer little red wagon. Getting onto a bus would be a problem. Walking even a block would be excruciating. I know I am not the only older (or younger) person with mobility problems. What do these people do in your city, other than be totally isolated and cut off from activities? I would think it would lead to mental and physical atrophy.

    I am with Kelly and would be doing a happy dance after getting a car. Erik gave it a good shot, tried and did not fail in my opinion.

  6. Our car broke down in June, and we sold it off to the scrapper. We live in a very bikable city (though the cold winter rains and icy roads have yet to set in) so for the most part we have been okay. There is a car share co-op in our town, with a pickup truck close to us, so even our recent move was not too bad. And the move made for some hilarious loads carried by bicycle.

    But, the economics of car sharing does not make sense for every trip. When you own a car, you sink an enormous amount of money into the car, the insurance, even into a full tank of gas. After that, every kilometre feels free.

    So, for example, we are part of a local food co-op that requires us to drive out to a farm once a month, and then deliver the food to other members. Doing this via car sharing increases the cost by 50%, which means we are discussing dropping out. So, our access to good, local farms is greatly reduced.

    What I really want is kind of a personal car share, with just one or two other folks. Something that would allow us cheaper access for mid-range trips, or for the quick jaunt to buy something off Craigslist.

    And it seems like all the “sharing economy” stuff should be facilitating this, but most of the web tools seem to focus on much bigger situations (AirBnB scale). If anybody has any tips….

    • I agree about the personal car share. Erik and I talked about that, but couldn’t quite figure it out. I’m sure people are doing it–it makes such perfect sense for people like us who don’t use a car every day. What would be swell is if someone who has set up this arrangement would post a “how-to” for others to copy.

  7. My husband and I have started talking about going down to just one car in the near future, but sadly since I work in theatre and can be on the other side of the SF bay late at night after transit stops running, having a car is practically a necessity for me. But we live within walking/biking distance of a train that takes him to work, so his car only gets driven on weekends these days when we make a conscious decision to use his not mine. But in talking about going down to one car, the reactions of other people always come up: somehow this person or that person would freak out if we didn’t each have a car. Never mind that we would cut our insurance almost in half, not have to pay for smogging that car, or maintenance, or the fact that he’s healthier and happier when riding his bike and not sitting in an hour of commute traffic every day! I’m hoping that we do make the plunge soon, since that modern expectation truly is just a sinkhole of money and resources.

  8. Bwahahha hahahhahah……my evil plan has succeeded!

    put my “friend” reference in quotes…..we shall join each other in the car pit of Hades!

    Crack Car Dealer John

  9. I live in Portland OR, which does have reasonably robust public transit. The thing that really became obvious to me when I, for economic reasons, gave up owning a car, is that unlike what some people say, it is not at all quicker to get around on transit. Trips that took me 20 or 30 minutes by car take an hour or two each way, and there are many places that are not accessible at all. I allow several additional hours each day to spend on transit. As I cannot afford to rent a car when needed, or afford the cost of a Smartphone, I have had to become more adept at asking for help from friends when anything I cannot carry in my daypack, or that is only available away from transit needs to be acquired. I have been refused admittance to the bus when carrying a few small pieces of lumber. There are far fewer options for scavenging garden compostable materials, and many activities that are no longer an option, as travel on transit later at night is not particularly statistically safe, as transfer between routes often happens in deserted dark locations… If car ownership, or small scale car sharing was possible, and at all affordable, I would be happy to go back to it in a limited fashion. (The current car share options here in PDX all require a Smartphone)

  10. For financial reasons, I currently live without a car and bike/transit/bum rides, and where I live (Vancouver), it’s really quite manageable. I’m lucky because I do have a smartphone, which as you mentioned facilitates using the fantastic public transport here, and I live within walking or biking distance of most of the places I need to go. However, I really find myself missing having a car when I need to buy something big and heavy, such as gardening stuff, or when I want to go out of town to go hiking or camping. (Though there is lots of transit-accessible hiking here too!) So far, I’ve managed by carrying ridiculous things on the bus (ie: a stack of plastic paint buckets to make self-watering pots) and renting a car for longer camping trips. When I do buy a car, I’m worried I’ll rely on it too much and I’ll lose my year-round-biker status, but that day is far off given the price of gas and insurance.

    • Ah and I wanted to add that I was part of a carshare and found I didn’t use it enough for it to be worth the cost, so I quit it and invested the money in getting better rain gear for the bike. So I guess I just don’t need a car that often!

  11. I had foreseen you’d ultimately find that high horse less practical than a car – and here we are. Perhaps the new goal should be making the *best* use of your car possible; offering your own friends transportation, carpooling, biking or taking public transport where possible. Make minimizing the wasteful use of your car the new game.

    Like Seneca said, “The heart is great which shows moderation in the midst of prosperity.” This is a useful thought even for those of us prosperous in self-righteousness. 🙂

  12. We made it on one car in a city for many years, and then my husband got a job across town that wasn’t accessible by transit and needed it. By then, I was on a leave from work and we had three kids. I tried to get along without the car, but our school was 2 km away, with one kid in full day, one half day, and one baby with me all the time. School, a birthday party, groceries were all an ordeal. Walking took too long (walking with little kids takes a lot longer). Biking through the city with the kids (6 and under) was hard on a good day, and impossible in the Toronto (Canadian) winter. The car share was nearby but lugging three car seats there and back as well as our bags while keeping my eyes (no hands, obviously) was a nightmare. After six months, we succumbed to two cars. It won’t be forever, but it makes living possible without wanting to jump off a bridge. I think about the gas every time I use it, but it was crippling to be without it.

  13. I think sometimes you have to pick your battles; like environmental triage.

    You mentioned having problems with carshares… I think there are a lot more options if you have a smartphone. It is difficult to do without both smartphone and car.

    Also, I don’t want to be rude, but you have to consider, if you are still bumming rides off friends, are you still a carless household? Or are you just externalizing the cost and CO2 impact of the car onto your friends?

  14. We live in another incredibly car-centric city, Houston, TX. When we first moved here 7 years ago I really tried to ride my bike (with my younger daughter on a ridealong). After numerous close calls I too feel very uneasy riding my bike here (and I’m a former bicycle messenger from Washington DC). We’ve managed to get by as a one car family (two adults and two kids) by consciously planning buying our home on a bus route that goes to my partner’s workplace and by buying as close in to the center as we could afford (which in Houston, saying center isn’t saying much). People are always astonished that we’ve made one car work for us, but I too would prefer no car and am stuck in the same bind…this city just doesn’t make it very safe or easy. Only four more years until our youngest moves out and then the question will be do we move more centrally and get rid of the car (but then live in a small apartment and give up our incredible garden and edible yard for walkability) or stay in our seemingly suburban area where we grow a lot of our own food….

  15. It sounded rather like an adventure! It’s good to know you weren’t injured in the wreck.

    I think it was a good experiment for as long as it lasted. You were able to reevaluate the things you need or more to the point where to get them. I suppose shopping more local than if you had a car at the time. I would imagine being in LA provides many choices as to where to shop. Being that I live in a rural area I need my car and there isn’t a public transit system. It takes me 40 minutes to commute to work.

    When I was still living in Savannah I rarely used my car. I traveled by foot, electric scooter or bike. It’s something I truly miss.

    However, sometimes you just need a car. At least you were able to get a good pre-loved vehicle. It’s not like you bought into all the latest gadget hyped form of transportation.

  16. Another hazard (common in the small communities of South Texas) to bike riders and pedestrians is being chased by dogs…not by Lassie, but by mean dogs that can do serious harm. All it takes is one or two of these in a neighborhood to keep everyone on high alert–one lives across the street from me. I can’t ride a bike due to knee issues, but I did try walking, with and without one of my dogs. Both times, I was confronted with a mean dog that was called back by the owner in the nick of time. Fortunately, I have a large yard where my dogs can run around–and I bought a treadmill. Much safer.

  17. My husband and I commute to work by bicycle and our 4 kids travel to school/uni/work by bus or bike, however, we still have two cars.

    The main reasons for this are:
    – there are three drivers and one L plater in the house, so we anticipate that one car will be used by the adults and the other by the kids
    – Saturday sports. With our younger three kids still at school, they often need to be at opposite ends of the city for sporting fixtures on the weekend which just isn’t manageable without two cars

    I don’t think you have done anything unethical by buying a car, especially as it’s a second-hand one, and especially if you ration its use.

    Kate (in South Australia)

  18. Well done for ‘fessing up to the new car! That can’t have been easy.

    As a European city dweller, being carless is easy so I’ve not faced this dilemma. Even though London’s public transport is not as convenient as that in other parts of Europe, it is still a god send. There are of course a few inconveniences but I’ve learned to organise my life round not driving. It just involves being organised about chores (much the same way I organise my weekly oven use or laundry to minimise fuel consumption).

    Our happy car-free life does not stop people pressuring me and Mr M into get a driving licence and a car. It’s as if being conscientiously car-free annoys others more than it does us. One of the reason we hold out is because we’ve seen many people cope very well without a car but then treat it as an essential when they finally buy one. You used the word “luxury”. Please please please let it be that and continue to walk, cycle, bus/train as much as possible.

    Kelly, if you are a wary cyclist, take a look at Dutch-style trikes (like the Bakfiets – literally box-bike). I know some retailers on the US east coast sell these. Their centre of gravity is lower so they feel more stable, drivers don’t mess with them and you can carry heavy loads. Some European retailers use them for deliveries and I borrowed one once to transport bags of compost to our allotment…

  19. Dont beat yourself up over it you tried carfree and if it had been a lifestyle choice that had been doable you wouldnt have a car now right?
    At least you have discovered that living where you do you need a car for some aspects of your everyday life but not all of it.

    You could look at this from another angle and that is if you didnt discover that you could incorporate public transport into your daily traveling as well as the car you would probably be feeling guilty about the fact that you had never tried to go carfree.

    You tried it it didnt really work for you cars still have vital function in our lives and will continue to do so until they find a viable mainstream option.

    Ive just moved and have gone from not using my car to using my car again I figure that it will be like that over the next couple of decades. Like you said there are other factors that weigh into the debate.

    Its great that Kelly can do some of the activities that she has been missing out on and you wont need knee replacements!

    Helenbeee 🙂

  20. Hi, your car adventures got us thinking a couple of months ago (about the same time you bought your car!), and we decided to become a car-free family. It was simple for us: The kids are young adults now and can get around without us; and we were paying good money to keep the car parked in our driveway. Most of the time, we were doing without the car. We call it the Car-free experiment, and the rules are easy: We can change our mind whenever we have had enough, we can always hop into a cab, and we are to make it fun!

    The challenge will be over the next few months, as it gets very cold where I live in the suburbs of Montreal. I bought a long warm winter coat to help me stay toasty at the bus stops when it is -30 degrees Celsius!

    Have your heard of ? It is by a family who went without a car in Calgary, Alberta since 1998. Also, check out (if you haven’t already), and two films: Bikes vs Cars and Car Less in Calgary.

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful stories!

    • Congratulations! We’re so happy to have inspired you. I think you’re right to make it fun–and optional. It’s good for as long as it’s good, and it works as long as it works for you. Thanks for the links–we’ll check them out.

  21. Pingback: Confessing Our Green Sins | 4 Mothers

  22. Thanks for your post.

    I’m curious about the tile of your post. Did you really think you were being self-righteous in your attempt to be car-free or was this your way of allaying any accusations of being so?

    A couple of people, including “Mrs. Homegrown”, have mentioned car coops. I’m pretty proud of our neighbors who started one over a decade ago. They own the vehicles collectively – in spirit, if not in title – and they charge themselves fifty cents per mile for every mile they drive. The money goes towards the collective, which then reimburses members for times when they have to pay for gas/registration/insurance/repairs for any vehicles in the collective. It’s straightforward.

    I do think we have to be cognizant of a couple of things when we talk about the topic of being or not being car-free. I agree with Sara A. who said that using friends’ cars simply externalizes the cost and CO2 impact; as others have pointed out, however, not having access to one’s own *personal* vehicle tends to reduce one’s overall usage (for various reasons). Also, I doubt that most of us, if we really were honest with ourselves, drive for things that are absolutely essential to our physical sustenance or even emotional/spiritual well-being. Most of us drive, either our own cars or somebody else’s, because it simply makes our lives more convenient. Furthermore, I think we need to be cognizant of the overwhelming pressure we face as Southern Californians to own and drive our own personal vehicles. That pressure comes from corporations who put out commercials to get you to buy their vehicles, it comes from neighbors and family members who might find our (relatively) car-free lifestyles offensive, and most of all, it comes from living in a fast-paced and individualistic culture. Even trying to live car-free, as admirable as that is, can itself be as a separatist (in the pejorative sense) attempt that avoids these larger issues.

    I think we can all agree that whichever path(s) we choose, what matters is continuing to wrestle with not only our own car usage, but the larger issues that precipitate it.

    One final comment. Southern Californians are obsessed with time management, with getting a lot done. If we cannot release this obsession, the effort to adopt public transportation in one’s personal life will always be a losing battle. One thing I’ve tried to do when I feel rushed is to walk, to eschew even the bike or the bus, to intentionally spend time with myself and the environment around me, to be mindful of the present, to reconfigure how I interact with and relate to time and the moments of time available to me.

  23. New to this blog, and really enjoying it!

    Being car-free definitely takes a fair bit of planning — particularly mentioning your #1: live near good transportation lines.

    It can be difficult to make some of these decisions, though, up front. For example, when my husband and I bought our first house (before moving overseas), we didn’t have any thought in our head about being car free or why it would be awesome. So we chose a place that required a car.

    Over the 10 years that we lived there, so many of our values changed. And since we were’t mortgage free and wanted to live another way, we took the plunge and moved.

    We rent so that we could “try on” different lifestyles, discover how much space we really need in a home, and to save money so that we can purchase when and where we are ready.

    We started in the city, in an urban apartment in a green space (guerrilla gardening, community gardening). We were car free for 18 months, before moving to a near suburb on the beach (our smallest dwelling ever — we do well in 500 sq ft as a family of 3). That required a bus, and then we started a car-share with two other families for our weekly grocery shop, for going out of town, etc. Ours was the first car share in the city!

    We then had a major shake up and moved closer to family. To facilitate the move, family volunteered to find us a place. We agreed.

    It wasn’t the best idea. LOL

    We had chosen a specific neighborhood — walking distance to school, our shopping choices (food co-op), the community garden, and our client’s (since we now work on-site with our clients instead of having central offices). This way, we could be car free — something we love when you have good walking paths, biking opportunities, and public transport.

    My family chose their suburb for us. It’s a 30 minute drive or 75 minute bus ride to the school. And, it’s not a pleasant 75 minutes with a 5 yr old in tow.

    But, the apartment is nice (if a bit big), we are across the street from the library and a park. We can walk to three community gardens. We are composting in our apartment’s storage area with bokashi and worm bins.

    So, we spend weekends “in” and around our apartment. My sister lives 1 mile away, and so we often walk over there to pick up my nephew and take him for a run (that is, to the park or community garden).

    On week days, we drive the kid in, park at the school, and then walk/bus/bike to any clients. We finish up our day (after DS’s school is out) with a nice hike in a local, wooded park (there are lots here). We hike for about an hour each day Mon-Fri. On one of those weekdays, we go grocery shopping right after, and then head home. That’s also when we take our recycling to the recycling center. Works out excellently in terms of conserving.

    Personally, I look forward to moving into our preferred neighborhood. I’m looking for a live-income property (two apartments would be ideal) with a little bit of land where I can garden and keep bees. Chickens are legal in the city, but you need 1,000 sq ft per bird — so that will depend. Ideally, it’ll have a fenced back yard where I can send out the kiddo for some play time, as well as use it to grow.

    And then, being car free would be great. We would join zip car for our weekly grocery shop/recycling effort, and then basically just bus, bike, and walk.

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