How I learned to live without a car

by Margaret Boehle

I never imagined myself living in a big city like Chicago. I grew up in suburbs until I was 14, when my parents moved to the country. From that point it was impossible to imagine not having a car to get around, since our closest town of note was 12 miles away. When I was 20 I purchased a car, and three years later it was paid off.

Accepting a job in downtown Chicago in May had me making a lot of decisions very quickly, ones I didn’t realize would greatly affect whether I even needed a car. My initial thought had been to move to the suburbs of Chicago and commute via Metra into the city, however performing some quick math had me rethinking that possibility as financially viable. A $200/month Metra pass from Joliet to Chicago, versus an $86/month pass for all the CTA buses and trains in Chicago, meant that I needed to find an apartment $114 less expensive in the suburbs for the commute to be worth it; and this wasn’t even counting gas and depreciation for my car, that I would probably have to drive to the Metra station.

Some quick checking online helped me discover that as long as I didn’t want to live downtown, I could easily find an apartment in the city for a price comparable to the suburbs, and in a decent neighborhood. Since my job was conveniently located close to all the trains and many of the buses that run express from the northern part of the city, my biggest goal in apartment hunting was finding something also within walking distance of a mass transit route to downtown – and I did.

When we rely on cars we always have an eye towards minimizing our commute and exercise: take the shortest route, get the closest parking space, use a cart while shopping, park in the garage at home. We carry our purchases maybe 20 feet total. Grocery shopping was the biggest change for me. It is particularly difficult because I tend to buy a lot of fresh fruit, which is HEAVY! Although initially I was going to buy one of those grocery carting contraptions, I’ve decided it’s better exercise to just buy what I can carry and go two or three times a week.

The biggest hurdle to transitioning to not using a car is actually relativity. The first few times I walked to a nearby grocery store, I found the walk incredibly long. However, once I started to realize that it was a really short walk – less than 10 minutes! – I started to enjoy it. And since it occurred to me that all of this walking was really good exercise, I’ve started trying to incorporate more of it into my life.

While I had my car in the city, I would do my grocery shopping on the weekends in the early morning before traffic was bad, and I would drive away from the city rather than further into it. Since I’ve gotten rid of my car and have been relying on public transportation, I choose the stores I am going to shop at depending on their proximity to a train or bus that can also drop me near home. Although with the CTA you can get pretty much anywhere in Chicago if you’re willing to take multiple buses or trains, waiting for that connection is no fun!

Another item which can be difficult is cat litter! In this case I’ve gotten lucky, because about a year ago I switched my cat from clay litter to newspaper pellets – and bags of the pellets are definitely lighter and easier to carry than the boxes or bins of clay litter. If I were still using clay, I might consider buying in bulk and borrowing a friend’s car (or using an iGo/Zip car) for a couple of hours to stock up.

Zipcar and iGo cars are a handy creation which can be found in many larger cities. Both are in Chicago; in fact I see them all over town, both on the streets, and parked in lots. They fill the gap that comes when you realize that although most of the time you’re fine without a car (or for families, without multiple cars), sometimes it would be really nice to have a set of wheels. With these two companies, you can borrow a car for an hour or a day, insurance and gas are included (miles might be, but depends on your plan), and they are parked in lots all over town, usually two or three cars in each location. All you have to do is reserve a car and go get it. You don’t have to pick up keys anywhere. There is a card reader in the windshield of each car on which you scan your personal card (received after signing up), and the car unlocks for you – the keys are inside, and the car is ready to drive.

So far, however, I haven’t come to that point of really needing a car. The CTA or Metra can get me anywhere I want to go, in a reasonable amount of time – and I haven’t even mentioned how much reading (or texting) I get done on my commute now! At this point, I’ve been without a car for three months, which means I’ve saved about $165 in insurance ($55/month), $25 in Illinois license registration ($99/year), $22 in Chicago City sticker cost ($85/year), $120 in gas (average of $40 a fill-up, at least once a month), and about $25 for one oil change (if I did it myself), for a total of $352. Subtract my CTA pass ($86/month) and that is still $94 in straight savings. If I were driving to work every day I’d be paying at least $12/day for parking downtown ($240/month).

Another thing we rarely factor into our calculations in the cost of having a car is how much that car is depreciating as you own it, and that at some point, you’re going to have to buy a new (or new used) one. If you decide to drive your car until it is falling apart, you’ll still be paying repairs along the way. This will vary widely depending on what kind of car you’re driving, so I won’t even try to estimate that cost – but keep in mind that it is there, and hefty.

For me, living in Chicago without a car has been an exciting experience. I’ve greatly increased the amount of walking I do in a day, been able to read more books, and I’ve even saved money. One last thought to leave with you…

Not having to worry about parking tickets: priceless.

Margaret Boehle is an electrical engineer in Chicago — and my daughter. When I was writing Ecothrifty, I interviewed several people in the city who had chosen to live without a car, including a family with four children. Everyone in the book had been living without a car for several years, and when Margaret decided to sell her car after moving to Chicago, I thought it would be interesting to share her perspective with readers.

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6 thoughts on “How I learned to live without a car”

  1. In may neighborhoods in Chicago, a car is actually a detriment. Kudos to Margaret for making the adjustment! And there are options to help her solve her cat litter issue, too. There is a pet supply delivery service that is really quite affordable: backyardchickenrun.com I have a car, but I'm so glad I no longer have to lug heavy bags of dog kibble and chicken feed in and out of it now!

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  2. While I don't live in a city, I got tired of the cat litter and the expense that goes with it. It's the usual story — all the little people wanted a cat but no one wanted to clean the litter box and it got very stinky. So I decided to toilet train the cat. It took four months which required a lot more patience than I was born with. The cat doesn't like it one bit, but I do. She still has the scratching reflex and occasionally gets a hold of the toilet paper and it's all over the place. For this reason, I'm not going to teach her to flush, but potty training was the best thing I ever did with her. The other cat is an outdoor one so she figured out her options early on. I guess we both were thinking outside the box.
    If you want tips, there are many youtube videos with advice. I highly recommend it.

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  3. With respect to cat litter, you also can use the subscribe and save feature at amazon and have it delivered to your door on a regular basis with much less carrying involved.

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  4. I've learned a lot of things after reading it. Well it was hard for me also to decide because of considering many factors, but when I saw a car dealership seo, this made me decide that I need to buy a car, not just a "want" but a "need"

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  5. Living without a car i would say is the smartest choice,
    personally, i am a single dad,not only did i get rid of my Mustang that used to be 410 a month( so glad i did it), but i bought a 25 yr old car for cash to have just for those grocery store runs on weekends and to visit family.
    I only drive 30 miles a week on saturdays and thats it.
    This car i bought for 950 off of craigslist, my insurance is 37 dollars per month, and the greatest part is, after paying child support, cta bus ticket, and my car insurance i still save…give me a min….a whopping $473 per month in my pocket…now multiply that by 12..minute again…whopping….$5576 a year or so. I get to still vacation every year with that money and have $3000 from it left.
    Bike and Cta, i love you.

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  6. I live in Joliet (small world!) and work from home. Most of my errands, I realized, were within five miles of my home. Through most of the year, there's really no justification for driving, except during extreme weather and, as you pointed out, it's easy to rent a car for special trips, if necessary. I'm looking at possible replacements for my bike and considering the option of adding an electric bike for occasions when I don't want to show up sweaty and out of breath. Glad to see others are on a similar path. Now I just have to figure out how I'm going to pick up my CSA boxes!

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