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March 29, 2006

Car-less in Seattle


(Editor's note: Also see "A Mile From Home" and "Dead Man Walking.")

Six weeks ago, my 18-year-old son slammed our 19-year-old Volvo stationwagon into the rear of a high-clearance pickup. All the people were fine. So was the pickup.

But the Volvo wasn't, as you can see in this photo. Repairing It would have cost many times the Blue Book value. So we accepted the insurance company's check for $594 and bid farewell to the family car.

Happenstance thus made us car free. But we decided to stay that way . . . at least for a little while. OK, actually, it's more of an experiment, to see whether a middle-class family of five can live a contented life in Cascadia's largest city without owning their own car.

Why are we doing this? Cost, conscience, and capability.

Cost: Owning a car is expensive. Replacing our car with another old Volvo would cost us, well, several thousand dollars up front plus at least $400 a month in fuel, taxes, insurance, and depreciation. Buying a new Prius would cost about $650 a month, including the same things (and more than $1,000 a month during the first year!). (There's an automatic cost calculator at Edmunds.com, a manual one at Seattle's One Less Car Challenge, and a guidebook about car costs--if you want to understand the data--at Todd Litman's invaluable website for Victoria Transport Policy Institute.)

Conscience: As Al Gore said the other day, climate change is not a political issue. It's a moral issue. If I won't give car-less living a try, who will? (And I've ratified Kyoto in my own life, so I was looking for ways to further trim emissions.)

Capability--in other words, because we can. Thanks to past choices plus some good fortune, car-free living is a smaller disruption for us than for most people. Our kids are old enough (the youngest is now 11) to walk or bike unaccompanied to a lot of places. We live in a compact city neighborhood with an abundance of nearby amenities. We've got respectable local transit service and five FlexCars stationed within a mile of our home.

We're only six weeks into this new lifestyle, so I don't want to make too many conclusions. But so far, what's surprised me haven't been the moments of inconvenience (I expected those). It's been two unexpected pleasures: more little adventures every week and fewer backseat arguments to referee.

We're walking more, biking more, planning our activities more thoughtfully, and appreciating the FlexCar when we use it. My 12-year-old daughter said to me the other day, laughing at herself as she said it, "I'm noticing that cars go fast, really, really fast."

It's all very new, so this feeling may dissipate with familiarity. But so far, the biggest bonus of car-free living has been an added increment of mindfulness. Who'd have thought that wrecking the family car would be good for our souls?

There's much more to say about this experiment, but I'll save it for another installment. In the meanwhile, I know there are lots of car-free readers of this blog. I'd welcome your advice, especially if you've got kids.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink


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» A family experiment from City Comforts, the blog
The Alan Durning family goes Car-less in Seattle. Interesting experiment. It's not my cup of tea at all but they definitely have the makings of a book....maybe a significant one. All I ask is that they don't pull punches. Don't make their recounting of... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 30, 2006 8:51:48 AM

» Walksheds, Cabspotting and Smart Places from WorldChanging: Another World Is Here
A few weeks ago, Worldchanging ally Alan Durning's 18 year-old son totalled their family car. He was fine, the other driver was fine, but the... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 13, 2006 6:33:50 PM

» Walksheds, Cabspotting and Smart Places from WorldChanging: Another World Is Here
A few weeks ago, Worldchanging ally Alan Durning's 18 year-old son totalled their family car. He was fine, the other driver was fine, but the... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 13, 2006 6:35:08 PM

» Walksheds, Cabspotting and Smart Places from WorldChanging: Another World Is Here
A few weeks ago, Worldchanging ally Alan Durning's 18 year-old son totalled their family car. He was fine, the other driver was fine, but the... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 13, 2006 6:36:24 PM

» Walksheds, Cabspotting and Smart Places from WorldChanging: Another World Is Here
A few weeks ago, Worldchanging ally Alan Durning's 18 year-old son totalled their family car. He was fine, the other driver was fine, but the... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 13, 2006 6:50:35 PM

» Life Without a Car from Tread Lightly :: Personal Sustainability
Heres a Seattle family that inadvertently found itself in a feasibility study of living without a car.  Alan has kept a loose blog of the events and how things are at present.  The blog is well-written and poses some interesting questions. It ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 23, 2006 4:54:44 PM


I'm not really car-free, but my wife and I sold one of the two cars we had owned a few years ago. I've found that since selling the car, I'm able to justify all sorts of small indulgences. (Sample internal monologue: "Dang, I just missed the bus. Well, if I'd been driving, my car would have cost me, say, $15 today. So I can afford to buy fancy coffee while I'm waiting for the next bus and still come out way ahead financially.") Those indulgences alone make selling the car seem like a great idea.

Posted by: Steve Mooney | Mar 29, 2006 4:35:33 PM


We went through an almost identical process a little over a year ago and are still car-free.

For us, living out in Issaquah (16 miles east of Seattle along I-90 for readers outside the Seattle area), where buses are few and far between and flexcar isn't an option, it has a different set of challenges. Around town here, we can get by most of the time with bikes and feet. For trips around the region, the bus works sometimes, and when it won't we rely on informal car sharing relationships with our wonderful friends. For trips, we rent a car or take the train.

As you say, though, your transportation needs are subject to your own choices. Choose to live close to work or close to transit and your need for a car decreases immensely. Kipchoge Spencer said it well recently: "The most efficient kind of transportation is already being where you want to go."

Taking the plunge with a family of five, though, that's true courage. I look forward to hearing more about your family's experiences!

(I was going to include a bunch of links in this comment to entries in my own blog about our ongoing car-free experiment, but it looks like links aren't allowed in comments here, so I've put the linkified version of this comment on my blog which looks like it'll be accessible by clicking on my name.)

Posted by: jeffy | Mar 29, 2006 4:38:10 PM

Thanks, Steve and Jeffy.

Yes, links don't work in comments. We're changing platforms soon. Perhaps then . . .

Steve, the "small indulgences" rule is definitely something I've noticed in my own behavior already. More about that another day!

Posted by: Alan Durning | Mar 29, 2006 4:58:16 PM

Congratulations from Vancouver.

When we moved to Vancouver from Boston a few years ago, we sold our car and did not immediately purchase a new one. Therefore, for almost two years, we did not own a car. We have three children, ages 6, 2 and 2, and what made it work for us was car sharing and living in the city (five minutes by bus from downtown). What finally made us break down and buy a (used) station wagon was (1) having to install car seats every time we used a car, and (2) twins (if you had them, you'd know :-)).

With the money saved, we allocated a transportation budget which covered transit passes and fares, taxis, bicycles (including maintenance), rental minivans, and car sharing (Cooperative Auto Net here).

You can consider giving your kids a new/used bike (or push-scooter, or inline skates or skateboard) or other sustainable vehicle.

Finally, if you stay the course, you might want to let your two younger children take driver's ed at 16 (or 17). It's definitely nice to have the skills, and the licence is a handy ID card.

P.S. - I like to post anonymously, but let me know, and I'll send you an e-mail.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Mar 29, 2006 5:20:20 PM

You couldn't live outside of city limits sans car, Alan, but certainly you can within city limits, no problem.

I rode my bike everywhere from Wallingford and didn't need to ride the bus much. The time on the bike was similar to bus ride time (way more hazardous and rewarding, though).

Posted by: Dan Staley | Mar 29, 2006 6:04:48 PM

I've been car free for a while. Use Flexcar. It's awesome. I'd ride a bike, but I don't want to die.

Posted by: Will | Mar 29, 2006 8:22:48 PM

Anonymous Coward --

Wow! 2 years car-free with small children. That's amazing! The thought of resetting carseats for each car-bound trip is a nightmare!

About driver's ed, here's a puzzler we've yet to figure out: our eldest, who's 18, is not allowed to drive FlexCar. The insurance rules that FlexCar operates under prohibit drivers under 21 or with fewer than five years safe driving experience. Is Vancouver's Cooperative Auto Network the same?

Anyway, Gary has taken the heaviest mobility hit in the family. You might say, "serves his right for wrecking the car." But we don't. The circumstances of the accident were (almost) beyond his control. And furthermore, he was only driving that day as a favor to me -- picking up his younger brother from my sister's place in (note this, Jeffy) Issaquah.

(Dan, I completely agree. Three kids and no car outside of the city would be a recipe for family dysfunction.)

Posted by: Alan Durning | Mar 30, 2006 7:03:14 AM

Congratulations! It's a worthy experiment, and I hope it works out.

Posted by: Mars Saxman | Mar 30, 2006 8:34:03 AM

This is great news!
I am looking forward to hearing how this progresses.

Posted by: Christina Bollo | Mar 30, 2006 11:00:50 AM

David Sucher has endorsed the experiment at his City Comforts blog and offered some advice.

Shorter Sucher: tell it warts and all.

Here's the URL, which you'll have to copy into your browzer:

Posted by: Alan Durning | Mar 30, 2006 11:12:48 AM

Go for it!
There is a pretty good public buss system in Seattle and when linked lite rail goes online it is going to be awesome to live in Seattle without a car. I did not need a car when I lived in Seattle and my freind has gone over a decade with no car. It would be good practice for the coming peak oil crash.

Posted by: Jake of 8bitjoystick.com | Mar 30, 2006 1:38:42 PM

I used to use Metro Tripplanner daily

Posted by: Jake of 8bitjoystick.com | Mar 30, 2006 1:48:17 PM

I would like to go entirely carless, but with two young kids, two jobs, and many night meetings we haven't got there yet. Perhaps someday...

But about three years ago our second car was totaled. We chose not to replace it. Our thinking was along the lines of many posts, that we would find creative ways to flex our schedules. It has worked well for us and saved buckets of money. If you have two cars you will always take the easy way out when scheduling tough days.

Having a car can be necessary in many ways. We camp and hike frequently. Our kids both have active sports/arts interests. We have a rental house that we need to haul stuff for. But having a car doesn't mean that you can't incorporate goals to reduce its usage.

Carless in Seattle can't work for everyone yet. But advocating ways of reducing miles traveled can be another key step. And certainly very few families really need two cars.

I get a warm feeling when I am able to pull off a busy day without moving the car at all...

Posted by: less cars, more bars | Mar 31, 2006 12:49:29 PM

Steve - that's a great attitude about missing a bus. If only they had an espresso stand at montlake that I could spend my frustrations at when I miss my bus transfer. For those bus users with cell phones wondering if you just missed the bus, I highly recommend http://www.mybus.org. This site is great for getting real time bus information. It definitley makes my commute by bus much easier. Mybus can be used from any computer, but from a web enabled cell phone it is really slick.

Posted by: Tanya Niemeyer | Mar 31, 2006 2:28:20 PM

I am carless, but also childless. One thing I really like about CityCarShare is the car maintenance is all taken care of: oil changes, tuneups, tire rotations, wiper fluid, etc. etc. is all taken care of. Even the insurance payments are taken care of with the membership.

It's not just the expense - it's the hassle, and the surprise expenses, and the condescension from mechanics (you haven't replaced your gasket in how long? tsk tsk) of car maintenance that I really don't miss.

Posted by: AF | Mar 31, 2006 4:41:10 PM


mybus.org is truly amazing. Thanks!


I'm looking forward to not missing those things either.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Mar 31, 2006 8:02:05 PM


We'd use a car about only twice a month because we live right in the city. We'd get groceries delivered, take our stroller on the low-floor buses, and walk a lot.

Here are the Cooperative Auto Net requirements for membership (no explicit age requirement):
a good credit rating;
at least 3 years' driving history;
3 or fewer traffic violations in the last five years;
a BC driver’s licence (or willingness to get one soon after joining);
NO at-fault accidents in the last three years;
NO criminal convictions under the Motor Vehicle Act.

For your eighteen year old, have you considered an electric bicycle or scooter?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Apr 1, 2006 4:19:15 PM

It seems to me that if you use car share, have your groceries delivered, or rent a car, you've just transfered a good part of the expenses and resonsiblities of having a car to others so you can feel virtuous about living a life filled with small non-car annoyances. It reminds me of people who complain about owning an SUV but always have a redneck brother-in-law with a big Chevy or Ford pickup they can count on when they need hauling done. You're not saving the world, your just car-less

Posted by: allen | Apr 2, 2006 2:29:12 PM

allen - i guess by dismissing positive changes other people have made, it makes you feel better about whatever kind of wasteful life you lead. too bad for you that you're completely wrong.
i have been car-less for two years now, and the VAST majority of my transportation is on bike or foot and a little on bus. I use a flexcar maybe three times in a month for groceries or other things. I am someone who used to go through a tank of gasoline in a week easily. I am also sure that I am typical of many other car-free people in Seattle. I feel really great about simplifying my life in this way, the conservation of resources, and the benefits for the environment of my choice. And if that makes you feel insecure about your own lifestyle, I really couldn't care less.

Posted by: tim | Apr 2, 2006 5:44:23 PM

Anonymous Coward: Thanks. Clearly, the insurance rules are better for teens in BC than in WA.

Allen: As Tim points out, the point of "car-free" is not to swear off motor vehicles entirely. It's simply not to own a car. By paying for car use "by the slice," we still have the option of driving but we end up driving far, far less.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Apr 3, 2006 6:54:31 AM

Hi Alan,

Your argument is logical, but I think it fails in practice. Home delivery, car-sharing, and so on, just relieve the pressure points, where not having a car is really inconvenient. That's at most maybe 20 or 30 percent of an average family's car usage. The other 70 or 80 percent gets replaced by walking, cycling, using transit, or doing things closer to home.

I've left a comment about my own experience with the car-free life at David Sucher's site.

Posted by: Chris Burd | Apr 4, 2006 1:10:00 PM

Sucher's URL: http://citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/cities/2006/03/cascadia_scorec.html

Posted by: Chris Burd | Apr 4, 2006 1:11:15 PM

Don't forget that a portion of the environmental impact of car use is the resources use to manufacture the car in the first place. By car sharing, having things delivered, riding a taxi, or even owning one car instead of two, you are helping the environment.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Apr 4, 2006 5:12:36 PM

I considered myself an environmentalist for years but knew I was a hypocrite even for supporting an obscenely wasteful system by owning a car, regardless of driving habits.
I quit 4 years ago and felt so much better about myself I haven't looked back.
The best advice I can give is to get hooked in to a network of others who share your values--
it's hard enough swimming upstream without hearing "you're crazy" day in and day out.

Posted by: Howard | Apr 10, 2006 10:02:16 PM

I've been car(e) free for three years and I'm LOVING it. The cost savings are substantial and parking in Chicago is an ozimoron.

Friends see me doing grocery shopping and other errands on my bike and are totally suprised if I show up without "your bike hat" (meaning helmet).

Yes, cars do drive fast.Too fast! Now, I see the trees and plants that make urban living tolerable.

Congrats on being car(e) free.

Posted by: Robaroo | Apr 12, 2006 5:21:56 AM