Why I Went Carless: A Financial and Moral Analysis

By Nat Eliason in Social

In August, I moved to Austin, Texas (best city in the world), and decided I was going to try living without a car.

For a city without a metro and an abysmal bus system, that might seem like a bad decision. But after sitting down and taking into account the financial, temporal, psychological, and physiological costs of having a car vs. going without one, it made a lot of sense.

If you’re thinking about ditching your car as well, here’s my reasoning. Hopefully, it will help you too.

Financial Reasoning

The first argument is that you’ll save money by not having a car.

This depends on:

  • How much you drive
  • How long your commute is
  • How available other forms of transportation are
  • How much you pay for gas, insurance, car payments

Let’s start with just the cost of having a car. Say you buy something midline, so your monthly car payments come out to $250.

Now let’s say that on top of that, you spend $50 in gas. (Total: $300/mo)

Then, there’s insurance, which we’ll say is another $100. (Total: $400/mo)

And last, the yearly maintenance, which might come out to another $100/mo. (Total: $500/mo)

This is ignoring any parking costs (probably another $50 / month), and ticket costs (which, if you’re like me and always forget to pay for parking, adds another $50)

The question then is can you get around town on less than $500/mo without having a car?

Well, that depends.

Cost of Getting Around Carless

When I moved here, I decided that I didn’t want to have a commute to work, so I live half a mile away from the office.

That puts me in walking distance not just of work, but also of plenty of restaurants, and a lot of the bar scene in downtown. And since it rarely rains for that long here, and doesn’t get below 40, I’m almost never prohibited from walking by the weather.

Just by cutting out commuting, I save 30-60 minutes of my day and a large amount of the driving.

The only times I need to drive are when I’m going to restaurants farther than ~1 mile away, visiting friends, or going out to farther away bars.

I only use an Uber every other weekday or so (usually less), so my average daily weekday cost is ~$5.

On weekends, I use it more, but my average cost still only comes out to ~$20 since nothing is that far away.

So we add it up:

(# of weekdays * 5) + (# of weekends * 20) = (22 * 5) + (8 * 20) = $270

Adjust for other costs

That’s only part of the story though.

On weekend nights when I’m going out, I would be using an Uber anyway. So I can factor out half of the weekend cost ($270-$80 = $190).

Groceries are one of the first things people ask about, but it’s a non-issue. I use Instacart to get all my groceries delivered. They price match with Whole Foods (so there’s no surcharge) and I just pay $99 / year for unlimited free deliveries(seriously, I don’t know how they make money).

Now it’s $190 + ($99/12) = $200 (yeah yeah yeah, it’s $198.25, but I want to keep the numbers clean).

Final Result

What this comes to is around $200 in other costs from not having a car, with $500 in savings, for a net gain of $300 a month. Even if you can’t walk to work now, by cutting out your car you could afford another $200-300 in rent that might just get you close enough to get away with it.

The financial reasoning is only part of the equation, though. Even if the math hadn’t worked out in my favor, I might have still ditched it.

Bonus Reason 1: Car Stress

In a subtle way, your car is likely killing you.

Study after study has shown that stress, any kind of stress, has a massive negative impact on your short and long-term health. In the short-term it makes you an unhappy asshole, in the long-term, it gives you a heart attack.

As much as we like to point the finger at carbs, alcohol, and other dietary concerns as the reason for obesity and cardiac disease in the US, stress is likely an even bigger cause, which is why switching to a healthier low-stress lifestyle can reverse heart disease.

It also partly explains why the people of Sardinia Italy, who mostly live on pork, pasta, bread, cheese, and olive oil, are some of the longest-living people in the world: there’s no sense of time there. No one is stressed, they’re just enjoying life.

‍I’m sure it also helps that it looks like this

Health and longevity are as much about stress minimization as it is about diet and exercise optimization, and cars are a massive source of stress.

The human body isn’t meant to move at 60 miles per hour. Our reflexes aren’t designed for it, and while we can apparently learn to do it, when we’re driving we’re in a constant state of (albeit low-grade) stress.

Your fight or flight instincts are primed, you’re surveying for dangers, you’re in a mental state not all that different from a Navy SEAL trying not to get shot.

And you might be thinking “but I don’t feel like I’m stressed to hell and about to get shot” but that’s just because we’re used to it. All of the physiological symptoms of stress are happening as we drive around, whether we acutely feel the stress or not.

Which raises the question: What is subjecting your body to that kind of stress every day, multiple times a day, for years, doing to it?

My prediction: not good things, and I feel the same compulsion to avoid it as I do refined sugar.

Bonus Reason 2: Not Commuting

We have no idea what will make us happy, mostly from the Impact Bias, the Empathy Gap, and a host of other biases, so instead of trying to build a “happy life” it makes more sense to focus on “unhappiness minimization.”

And commuting, it seems, is a massive source of unhappiness. Rounding up the research in Slate, they found that commuting:

  • Is generally disliked, and considered unpleasant and stressful
  • Was the least-enjoyed regular daily activity
  • Makes you sleep worse
  • Makes you more likely to get divorced
  • Makes you worry more
  • Makes you more lonely
  • Can give you back and neck problems
  • Makes you more likely to eat junk food
  • Makes you exercise less
  • Makes you fat

By not having a car and saving ~$200 a month, it’s easier for me to live in the middle of the city in walking (though I prefer longboarding) distance to work.

This is also just a personal thing: losing even 20 minutes a day to driving back and forth is not a life I want, so I knew that if I could cut it out, then I would.

Bonus Reason 3: Reducing Moral Risk

Imagine you open the news tomorrow (assuming you read the news), and see a story about how someone was driving through a neighborhood, saw a text on their phone, and then hit a kid who at that moment stepped out from behind a parked car.

Now the first reaction is “holy shit that guy is terrible how could he do that he should go to jail forever” but… let’s take a step back.

Have you EVER done something while driving that distracted you unnecessarily? It could be:

  • Checking your phone
  • Playing with the GPS
  • Arguing with someone
  • Looking at yourself in the mirror (guilty)
  • Putting on makeup
  • Taking off a jacket
  • Having a drink or two first, being under the limit, but being a bit buzzed

I’m going to bet that 99.99% of you have done at least one of these things more than once and that the remaining .01% of you probably aren’t very fun at parties.

Which raises the questions: Is that guy a bad person? Or is he just much more unlucky than you?

You could be driving home and get a call, check who it’s from, and have the same thing happen to you. If your conclusion is that he’s a bad person and should go to jail forever, then you should too, and so should all of us. The US incarcerated percentage is high, but not THAT high.

We have to accept instead that what he did wasn’t that bad (in its intention), he was just incredibly unlucky. And every time you get into a car, you put yourself at risk of being just as unlucky.

Is it an extremely unlikely edge case? Yes, but it’s a degree of moral luck I don’t want to expose myself to if I don’t have to.

Bonus Reason 4: Freedom

Having a car, just like buying a house or getting a pet, makes it one step harder for you to wake up one day, say “fuck it,” and run off to Thailand.

If, like me, you enjoy having that option always available (since, knowing you have easy alternatives prevents you from getting stuck doing something you don’t want to do), then you have to decrease the number of things preventing you from doing it.

Also, having monthly recurring payments that you can’t immediately get rid of (mortgages as well) makes you more job dependent and increases your “minimum burn rate” to a point where you’re less likely to take career risks, try new things, or be willing to leave your job.

I love my work, but I also never want to feel like I’m dependent on someone else to stay afloat.

Bonus Reason 5: Gas Powered Non-Autonomous Cars are Dead

Finally, even if you do decide to buy a car… DON’T BUY A NEW ONE

Autonomous cars will be actively on the road in the next 5 years. It’s started with Tesla, but Google, Uber, and some of the older players will soon follow. Many current car companies will take huge hits, and either quickly adapt or die (I bet at least one gets acquired by Uber).

Within 10 years, say 80% of production cars are electric. Gas reliance ramps down significantly, and gas cars become impossible to get rid of.

As we transition to electric cars, no one wants gas ones anymore, so anyone who still owns a gas car ends up just selling it for scrap.

Cars stay on the road for ~12 years, so if you’re buying a car now, that means you will be trying to sell it right when we’re in that period of completely moving away from gas. Do you really think anyone will want to buy it?

On top of that, there will be much less interest in a car that doesn’t drive itself, and possibly the lack of interest in people even owning cars (as opposed to just using Uber).

Even if my predictions are off by 50% (so 20 years instead of 10) there will still be significantly less interest in gas cars in 10 years, and you’ll be stuck trying to sell something quickly becoming a relic (imagine putting a VHS player on eBay after DVDs started taking over).

If you made it through all of this and still want to buy a car, get a junker and just use that for 2-3 years until Tesla comes out with the Model 3 (their $35k car).

Agree? Disagree? Did I miss a big reason? Let me know in the comments!

Footnotes

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