How to go car-free — or car-light — in Middle America
People like me who choose to get by without a car in a place like Cleveland, where I live, or just about anywhere in the US outside a few dense coastal cities tend to get a reputation for being a bit eccentric. After all, we are the exceptions in a nation that was built around the automobile.
Adults, especially workers, who don’t drive are a rare breed in the US. About 85 percent of American workers use a car to commute daily, the vast majority of them driving alone. Only about 8 percent of US households don’t have a vehicle. For many, it’s because they can’t afford one, not because they don’t want one. People of color are less likely to have access to a car than white people, a difference that tracks with wealth disparities. Those with higher incomes who don’t have cars are more likely to live in one of a handful of major metros with robust legacy transit systems like New York, Boston, or Washington, DC.
Yet there is a small but mighty group of people who live in low-density areas and choose to be car-free. And it’s gaining a foothold (or at least fighting for one) in midsize and interior American cities. Although the US is still overwhelmingly designed around cars, younger generations are driving less than their older counterparts and seeking alternative ways of getting around. The reasons range from the altruistic to the economical. Going car-free is far better for the planet (transportation is the country’s top source of carbon emissions, with cars responsible for nearly 60 percent of those), individual health, and, because car crashes are a major cause of death in the US, public safety. Considering the immense costs of owning a car, it’s easier on the wallet, too. And with so many Americans now working from home, there’s arguably never been a better time to try it.
But ditching cars in a country that’s thoroughly dependent on them isn’t for the faint of heart. The car-free folks I spoke with had a common list of complaints: dangerous conditions for walking or biking, buses that run on unworkable schedules, or relatives who live in distant, inaccessible locations. But many say the benefits make it more than worthwhile, and even short of abandoning your car entirely, there’s a range of alternatives that allow you to significantly reduce how much you drive — an option I call “car-light,” the transportation version of a reducetarian diet. Having done it for a long time in Cleveland (my husband has a car that I occasionally use), I can attest that it might be more doable than you think. If you’re curious about making the plunge yourself, here is our advice.
You don’t have to rely on public transit (but it helps)
Many Americans might imagine that to live without a car, you need access to great public transportation — which is hard to come by outside of a few coastal cities. But while the car-light might look longingly at the kind of extensive and reliable transit system enjoyed by Hongkongers or Berliners, it’s not a prerequisite for living without a car, since most trips people make by car are relatively short. Almost half of US car rides are 3 miles or less, and the majority are four miles or less — distances that, for many nondisabled people, are eminently bikable, if not walkable.
But transit aside, the infrastructure needed for pedestrians and cyclists, like safe sidewalks and bike paths, can vary dramatically. Many people I spoke with said the most important consideration when giving up a car isn’t necessarily the city you live in, but the neighborhood you call home. Even in car-dependent regions like the Midwestern and Southern US, you can find sweet spots that function as “15-minute neighborhoods” — an urban planning term for places where daily essentials are available within a short, convenient walk.
Ashira Morris, who lives with her husband in Tallahassee, Florida (a city with an average of two cars per household), and has never owned a car, said she manages her lifestyle by keeping a relatively small radius in her everyday life. “We’ve made peace with … being creatures of our neighborhood,” she told me in a Twitter direct message. “When we decided we were going to buy a house here, [we] had a one-mile radius we were willing to live in that we knew was walkable to essentials (groceries, restaurants, bookstore) and bike-able to a lot of other aspects of our lives (friends/parents houses, swimming pool, library).”
If all that sounds daunting, keep in mind that not owning a car doesn’t mean you can never use one again. Car-sharing and rental services like Zipcar, or trips on ride-hail apps, can help you make long trips for work that aren’t accessible by light rail. These services can be a wonderful tool for making car-free living work, and they can easily be cheaper than buying and maintaining a car. The American Automobile Association estimates that ownership, insurance, maintenance, gas, and other associated expenses for a car purchased new cost Americans an average of more than $10,000 annually. Not every car-sharing service is available everywhere — Zipcar isn’t really an option where I live in Cleveland — but something can be found in most cities.
Barry Greene, who lives in suburban Richmond, Virginia, and mostly bikes or takes the bus, said he also relies on Uber and Lyft in a pinch. His wife, who does have a car, has been catching on to the benefits: “She’s like, ‘Oh, you can bike there in 20 minutes? Oh, it only cost $12 to get there?’” he said.
How e-bikes change the game for car-free living
One of the biggest advantages of going totally car-free is freeing yourself of your ongoing financial relationship with a vehicle, but no matter where you live, it’ll likely require investing in some gear. I managed without a car when my kids were young in Cleveland by ferrying them (or more accurately dragging them when they weren’t cooperative) a half-mile to day care or the doctor’s office on Micro Minis: a brand of easy-to-use, three-wheeled scooters for young children.
But among all the car-free and car-light people I talked to, by far the most common and important tool cited was the electric bike, or e-bike. E-bikes are especially well-suited for replacing car trips because they allow you to travel farther with much less effort than on a conventional bike, making long distances or hilly terrain less daunting. E-bikes can be pricey, starting in the $500 to $700 range for cheaper models and more than $2,500 for cargo e-bikes that are built for hauling kids or groceries. But even on the high end, they’re much less costly than a car.
Christian Kurpiel-Wakamiya, a single father, lives without a car outside of State College, Pennsylvania, a small college town. State College has its charms, but it isn’t Manhattan — getting to the grocery store required a 17-mile round trip. “Right when the pandemic started, I purchased an electric cargo bike, and that’s what makes this possible for me,” he said. His now-7-year-old son used to ride along on the back, but he’s become such a strong cyclist that he sometimes puts as much as 19 miles on his own bike daily.
Safety is a major concern — but to address it, we need to start getting out of our cars
Getting around by foot, bike, or scooter can enable children to have far more independence than idly sitting in a car. But in so much of the US, roads are dangerous for anyone outside a vehicle. “The most difficult part is the abrasive infrastructure around here,” said Kurpiel-Wakamiya. The two wide, high-speed roads that run through downtown State College concern him much more than his son’s ability to keep up with long rides. To make cycling in his area safer, he’s organized a “bike bus” — a group bike ride to school with his son and about a dozen other kids.
Unsafe road design may be the single biggest obstacle to car-free mobility in the US. Even in cities like New York, which has made progress on car death rates thanks to major investments in protected bike infrastructure, cyclists and pedestrians still face fatality rates many times higher than their peers in Europe. On Cleveland’s near west side, where I live, short trips by bike or foot sometimes leave me fuming. Even if you can get past the terrifying intersections and seemingly homicidal drivers, you’re likely to be greeted by a degrading trudge through an unwalkable parking lot when you arrive at your destination.
As the author of a book about the country’s growing pedestrian safety crisis, I’m not here to downplay this concern. Car supremacy is so culturally ingrained that pedestrians and cyclists are routinely blamed for being hit by cars, and drivers are rarely held legally accountable for it. Black and Native Americans, wheelchair users, and low-income people are killed by cars at disproportionately high rates. Due to Americans’ increasing preference for big cars like SUVs and pickup trucks, among other factors, pedestrian deaths have been soaring — up more than 60 percent over the last decade. And car crash deaths increased during the pandemic, both for people in and outside cars, even as miles driven fell.
“I’ll just get fatigued — not from riding long miles but from how bad the infrastructure is and how hostile drivers can be [to cyclists] sometimes,” said James Holmes, who lives without a car in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s mentally exhausting and a little depressing.”
America’s lack of progress on road safety is one reason that people are eschewing car dependence in the first place. Cyclists and car-free city dwellers have been leading voices for better road safety, and those efforts are starting to yield results. Vision Zero, a movement that aims to achieve zero car crash deaths by prioritizing the safety of people outside cars, has been adopted, at least nominally, by most major American cities. They have a long way to go to actually make a dent in the rate of roadway carnage — but having an organized constituency of people who care about safety is essential to getting there.
Car-free mobility is a mindset
We don’t have to wait for conditions to be perfect to learn to live without cars — nor should we. As a car-free veteran, I’ve come to believe that, more than any single tool or tactic, it’s helpful to think about navigating the world without a car as a skill that can be learned. I’ve ridden the bus since I was a tween, in places where the quality of service has varied widely. That’s helped me become very good at it over time (it doesn’t hurt that I have a good sense of direction and am adventurous).
Learning to navigate public transit can be intimidating; route maps can be overwhelming. If you’re used to the relative logistical security of driving — especially in the age of GPS navigation — it takes a good amount of faith to trust the system and yourself to get where you need to go. And in the US, for the most part, we don’t have great support systems to help people ease into using transit. The wayfinding tools — like the practically unreadable route maps sometimes posted at bus stops — are made for confident transit riders, not newbies.
But in my opinion, anyone with access to a transit system should give it a try. If you’re new to it, try choosing the route closest to your home, make a simple journey, and expand from there as you become more comfortable. Don’t be afraid to ask the bus driver questions. That’s what I did the first time I stepped aboard a bus alone as a kid; he told me where to transfer, and on the return trip, I was already knowledgeable enough to do it on my own.
Biking confidently alongside cars is a learned skill as well. Seeing my friends do it, especially other women, made it less daunting for me. “Stay out of the door zone,” the area alongside parked cars where people throwing open their doors can clip you, they told me. And “watch for right hooks,” or right-turning drivers who might not see you crossing a road. I learned other things mostly intuitively as I went, based on what felt safest to me, by starting on lower-traffic streets and graduating to more congested locations.
Still, not everyone wants to turn their daily commute into a game of Frogger, and these dangers are symptoms of a dysfunctional transportation system that often makes carlessness a hardship — and occasionally dangerous, too.
You also have to get used to being the commuting exception, which can sometimes mean blank stares and weird remarks. Two years ago, Sam Zilberstein, a graphic designer who lives in an outer suburb of Miami, started doing a combined bike, bus, and rail commute into the city. He loves it — fighting the north Miami traffic every day was making him miserable, and he says he’s now happier and healthier. But his co-workers can’t figure it out. “My office is right next to the metro, but no one there uses it but me,” he said. They’re “confused about my multi-modal commute … or they’re concerned about the safety of the Metrorail.”
It takes a high level of individuality (and stubbornness, perhaps) to choose this, given all the structural obstacles. During part of the year — January and February especially — it can be particularly tough for me in Cleveland. Pushing a stroller down the middle of a road because the sidewalks are impassable from snow will make anyone a little ragey. These are problems that have to be solved at societal and policy levels if we ever want car-free life to be embraced by a significant swath of Americans.
But by choosing a car-free or car-light life, you can play a part in effecting that kind of change from the bottom up, which builds pressure for better transportation policy from the top down. For many people I spoke with, not driving engenders a strong sense of pride and satisfaction, of building a better world. “I’m trying to advocate for what I believe is a better future,” Kurpiel-Wakamiya said. “I want [my son] and my daughter, too, to have a good example of tenacity … and instill in them that confidence” to make choices that might be countercultural.
As more people have explored alternative modes of transportation, cities have started recognizing that car-dependent design is bad for their residents, and have begun building better amenities for bikes and pedestrians. These are small steps, but a single piece of good infrastructure can make a world of difference: Cleveland has built a beautiful bike trail network over the past decade, for example, which has improved my quality of life dramatically. It’s gotten less lonely, too, to advocate for things like bike lanes and paths in Cleveland, as better infrastructure attracts more users.
“We’ve finally got a critical mass of people that care about living in the city without relying on cars,” said Alex Ip, a student based in Atlanta who uses the city’s passable bus and rail system. “Now the hard part is to translate that into demanding state and regional and local officials to do the work that residents want.”
At its best, local government reflects the interests of the people who live there; not having a car can push you to be a little more civically engaged — and, in turn, push your leaders to make life better for non-drivers. If you’re already the kind of person who leaves the car sitting in the driveway a few days a week, getting rid of it will compel you to make a few more difficult trips by bus or bike than you otherwise would. It’ll also involve you in a struggle that’s bigger than your own needs — to build a more accessible and balanced transportation system for everyone.
Angie Schmitt is a writer and urban planner based in Cleveland. Her book, Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, was published in 2020 by Island Press.
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