Sunday, October 6, 2013

being a NO CAR family (and enjoying it!)

My friend Rosemary shared a link on Facebook, which I can no longer find, about how to fit three carseats into one regular car, so as to be able to avoid changing to a minivan, as a part of being able to afford to live on one income. Oops, never mind, changed some Google keywords and I found it.

(As a brief aside, this is one thing I don't like about Facebook and most other sites like it... if you're trying to find a link that someone shared a few months ago, it's a complete headache. Back to my topic.)

Anyway, a related post on the blog is titled "Growing a Family on One Income: Being a One-Car Family" and at the time, I commented (on my friend's Facebook) that I should make a post about "Growing a Family on One Income: Being a No Car Family." And another friend said we should make some kind of a blog round-up or something.

I don't know if the round-up/link-around/whatever mom-o-sphere term will happen or not, but I thought I'd jot down how we make being a no car family work.

Apparently to be a hip mommy-blogger ya gotta make images for people to pin on Pinterest or whatever, so here goes. (This picture was actually taken when a bus got stranded in the snow near our place, hence why she's sitting in a solo seat instead of next to me!)

Firstly, as a caveat, I have to say that neither my husband nor I knows how to drive. I know this makes us absolute freaks in the North American context, and for us two freaks to somehow find and fall for each other has got to be very bad odds. For both of us, it's for very similar reasons: parents expected us to pay the difference in insurance etc to be able to drive family cars, we didn't find it feasible while in high school, then we went to universities where we lived on campus and having a car wasn't any more feasible, and before we knew it we are 31 and 27 and neither of us ever in possession of a license.

But I actually think this has been a great blessing for us. We mostly don't know what we're missing; we don't have a car mindset. We didn't expect to have a car, so when we were looking for a place to live, finding employment, we didn't do it with the mindset that a car was an option.

Second caveat is that I'm going to use all local prices. I have to compare apples to apples; this isn't about renting and transit-ing in Vancouver versus driving in Teton Village, Wyoming.

Vancouver has one of the best transit systems in North America, which is damning with faint praise; probably only a dozen communities or so in all of North America have public transit that is adequate to thrive car-free... I can only think of eight myself off-hand, but I'm generously assuming there's a few others I don't know about. Nevertheless, a lot of people in Vancouver still drive, and I think a lot of it is just car mind-set. The most tragic are the people who live out in the suburbs because they can't afford a city apartment and a car payment, and now they need a car because they live out in the suburbs and they need to commute... vicious cycle.

So I thought I'd crunch the numbers on what we, personally, are saving by not having a car, and how that compares to the rent we pay here (Vancouver proper, but not downtown) vs for a similar space in, say, Surrey. We pay about $200-300 more per month than we would for a similar apartment there. We'll say $300 (I'm going to minimize our savings estimate as much as I can, so that I can say we're saving at LEAST this much, and probably more).

Our costs: $91 for one monthly one zone FareCard, plus around $21 for ~20 FareSavers per month, plus around $10 for times we need to add fare to travel to another zone, for a total of $122/mo. FareCards aren't tied to a single person. On normal days, they can be used by only one adult, but on Sundays and holidays, two adults can ride on one FareCard; we take full advantage of this. Children four and under ride free. Strollers can be taken aboard buses, trains, and ferries, although they may need to be folded if space is lacking (uncommon, in my experience, probably have to fold or take the next bus once or twice a month). There is no tax on transit fares, and you actually can deduct the monthly pass from your taxes, but we'll ignore that for these purposes.

Estimated costs for a single car: Recently read an article that said that gas had edged above $1.50/liter, which is roughly $5.68/gal for American readers. Let's pretend we use 100 liters a month (about 26 gallons; drivers, is that a reasonable amount of fuel?). That's $150 a month just on gas.

Ok, but what are we spending on the car? Let's be realistic and say it's a bit of a clunker. It's pretty hard for me to gauge what we might be spending. I went onto a bargain hunters forum (where I would think people are being pretty frugal) where there was a thread about car payments, and the payments ranged wildly. $250/month seems to be on the low end though, so we'll pretend that's our car payment.

So higher rent + transit fares = $422/mo and gas + car payment = $400/month. So we haven't quite broken even yet. But we're about to.

We now need to add car insurance. Now here I'm really going to show my ignorance. Remember, I've never had car insurance in my entire life. There's approximately eight bajillion variables affecting how much you pay per month in car insurance. I can't possibly guess how much we'd pay. Searching for "average car insurance BC" I found figures like $1200 or $1400/year. Let's say $100/month. Feel free to tell me if I'm way off in either direction. We're now officially saving money. Hurray!

We have more costs to consider though. Parking is not too bad in Vancouver, and lots of places have free parking, but we would still need to pay for parking sometimes. I'll be very conservative and say $50/month. Surrey is on the other side of a toll road. There is an alternative route, but it takes much longer, especially in high traffic situations. The toll is $3/trip. Again, very conservatively, let's say we take a mere 10 round trips across the Port Mann; that's $60/month. And the car has to be maintained, and repaired when stuff goes wrong. If we assume we have a clunker, those costs are probably higher, but again, super conservatively, let's say another $50/month on average towards maintenance and repair. It also costs money to register the car, and get your license, but the cost per month isn't that much so I'll be generous and ignore it. And since all this is just to have us be a single car family, I'm still left without transport when he's at work. So I'll at least have to spend SOME money on bus tickets for myself; fortunately Surrey's transit is still better than most places in North America. (I'd lay down good money that it's more convenient to use the bus in suburban Surrey than in downtown Pittsburgh, for example.) Let's say $40/month (since I don't have a FareCard to borrow sometimes, and since now more trips involve crossing zone boundaries).

So on the barest of bare minimums, we save at least $350/mo by not having a car and living in Vancouver vs. having a car and living in Surrey. This is why we are not bankrupt, as The Husband puts it.

There are also non-monetary benefits of being No Car:
Since I use tickets if I need to take transit when The Husband is using the pass (ie during his working hours), it gives me an incentive to walk if I possibly can, because the use of a ticket is very concrete. At some level people know when we take a car trip that yes, this individual trip uses up $X of gas, adds X miles towards the next maintenance milestone, etc, but I don't think people really think about it the same way. It's like how it's easier to keep to a budget if you spend cash instead of using a credit card.

Also, buses usually pick up and drop off a block or two away from my actual destination. This is equivalent to that old saw that people bring out as a weightloss tip that you should park in the back of the lot. Essentially, taking a bus means you are ALWAYS parking in the back of the lot. That adds up and it's great for my health.

It amazes me how many times I've gotten to chatting with a mom who drove to a playground (or whatever), and I mention I walked there, and it turns out she lives closer than I do! This is part of the car mind-set I was talking about earlier.

Toddlers love buses and trains. I can head off whining about not wanting to leave the playground (or whatever) by announcing it's time to get on the bus, or even better the train. My kid uses the bus pretty much every day, and it's still not old for her.

Just don't let the toddler drive the bus.
In a car, unless you're one of those people who texts or talks on the phone (and please stop being one of those people if so, thanks, especially if you're the dude who almost hit me in the crosswalk last week), getting to a destination is single-tasking. Now that I have kids, I don't get to chill out and read or play on my phone like I used to, but public transit is still a great place to multitask. I retie my toddler's shoe, nurse my baby, use my phone to check the flyer for a supermarket near my destination to see if I want to get something there before coming home.

Buses and trains put little babies to sleep.
This was so invariable that we used to call it Hypnobus or Hypnotrain. I know a lot of babies fall asleep in car seats, but even kids who hate car seats (like Pippa), you put them in a baby carrier on a train, watch those eyes close before you know it.

And then of course, taking public transit is better for the environment. I don't just mean less emissions, fuel use etc. The more people take transit, the less traffic is on the roads, which means roads last longer, less traffic jams, less need for parking spaces, etc. Car commuters who complain about their gas taxes going to transit should see just how much more hellish their commute would be if all the people on buses and trains were in individual cars instead.

The drawbacks:
It usually takes longer to get somewhere by transit rather than car, although not always--it's usually faster to get downtown via train for us, certainly when you factor in finding a parking space and walking from it. But most of the time, it takes an extra 5 to 30 minutes to go via transit, depending on transfers, whether the bus is running on time, etc.

Public transit puts you up close and personal with your fellow man. During rush hour, sometimes REALLY close and personal. A lot depends here on the general culture of the place and of the people using the transit system, but no matter where you are, there might be crazies. There's crazies driving cars too of course, but at least there you have several tons of metal between. Truly dangerous incidents are rare. Much more common is dealing with overly friendly grandparent-types with unsolicited advice, people who are allergic to soap, people listening to their music so loud that you can hear every F-bomb even through the headphones, etc etc etc. If you're a Swift in reverse (that is, you love mankind but hate people), public transit will be your worst nightmare. But there's an upside to it too. Sometimes the unsolicited advice from the wannabe grandma turns out to be encouraging, the unwashed dude makes you laugh, the music gets your toes tapping, or what have you. And if you're Catholic like me... you can always offer it up... ;)

Not having a car severely limits your ability to leave the local area. That "takes longer" is alright when you're going from 15 minute drive to 25 minute bus trip, but when it's from 1 hour car trip to 2.5 hour bus trip it's much more discouraging. And that's assuming that a public transit option exists at all. There's no way to get via public transit from Vancouver to the zoo out in Langley, for example. When we want to go further afield, we HAVE to take Greyhound or Amtrak or fly.

Even when taking a car, there's a certain amount out of your control. There might be traffic, a road might close because of an accident, your car may develop a sudden problem. However, I will admit that unpredictability is predictable with transit. There is the phenomenon my husband calls "bunching and gaps", which is when a bus gets behind schedule, thus causing it to pick up larger loads, thus to run even slower, while the bus behind it gets ahead of schedule because there's no one to pick up, until eventually the buses are right on top of each other (a "bunch"), and then there's a long time until another bus comes (a "gap"). You can also never be really sure how long your individual bus will take. Loading and unloading wheelchairs, for example, takes a few minutes every time. So if you NEED to be somewhere on time, you gotta plan to be early.

Bringing home big purchases is a hassle. But this actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise because bringing big stuff home is such a hassle that I end up saying "Do we really need all that? I don't think we need that." Plus you know if you're pursuing a no car lifestyle for the money saving, you're probably living in a tiny place anyway. Can you fit all that stuff in your apartment? No you cannot. And you don't need it. Save your money.

In Conclusion:

There are lots of ways to make a family work on a smaller budget than you might expect, if you're willing to question a lot of the "of course we have to haves". Reducing from two cars to one car is radical to many in North America. But there are plenty of people raising a family with no car too, and I think if you make savvy choices about where to live, it can be a very rewarding, and even freeing, lifestyle.


  1. Whoa - gas is not over $5 a gallon! At least not in Pittsburgh. It's around $3.50 give or take. Our expenditure varies a lot per month, but always falls between $100-$200. So your estimate of $150 seems good to me. Before we paid off the car, monthly payments were $300/month (purchased new). Our insurance for two drivers is $85/month.

    Obviously, our public transportation around here isn't too great, and it's only getting worse every year. But even imagining it was better, I still couldn't imagine hauling two kids on the public transportation everytime! I used the trolley and the bus each several times with Sly, and it was...not enjoyable....standing with a baby out in the freezing cold, folding up the stroller, hefting stroller, baby, and bags onto the vehicle... ugh. I admire you!

    1. Sorry, I meant that gas IN VANCOUVER was above $1.50 per liter. Canadian gas prices generally, and Vancouver in particular, are higher than anything in the States, but still lower than in Europe.

      The fact that you can use a stroller on Vancouver transit WITHOUT folding it up makes a key difference for the ability of families with young kids to use it. The bus "kneels", I tip the stroller up (like hopping a curb), some seats in the front of the bus fold up and I arrange the stroller in there and then set the brakes. It's very quick and easy once you're used to it.

      One of the big issues with pubic transit is that it's very very much an "if you built it, they will come" thing. People won't commute to work on the bus unless they can be sure that the bus will get them to work dependably, and if they won't commute to work on the bus, then bus funding gets cut, so there are fewer buses, and getting places becomes even less dependable, and pretty soon you've cut the system off at the knees and only the truly, truly desperate use it, only because they literally have no other option, often because they have serious problems. And then, these desperation-filled buses become "what riding the bus is like" for millions of Americans, and thus they can't imagine investing money into something that is a mobile hellhole because there's no way they would ever use it themselves.

      The "gateway drug" for transit seems to be subways (and light rail generally). People who would never ride a bus will ride a subway, and I'm not sure why. Subways seem more glamorous somehow, even though they're just long underground buses on rails.

  2. Oh, and if either of you ladies wants to make this a blog series, that would be great! I could probably contribute something, as we definitely live frugally and on one income...just not sure what to focus on.

  3. I spent scads of time on buses with children when I was a young mother. We had a lot of fun, playing word games and telling stories. I wish more people used public transportation. Thanks for the post!