I just went carless

By Steve Heimoff

When I told my old friend, David Schonbrunn, I was going carless, he asked if I would tell my story for TRANSDEF. So here it is.

I’m 72 years old. I came of age during an era when having a car was practically a matter of patriotism. Of course you need a car! This is America! Every American has to have a car. How else can you get around? My father bought a new car every three years. As soon as I was able to afford one, I bought a car. too. Not having a car was—well, unthinkable.

It’s funny, though, how sometimes, life gives you a kick in the butt that changes your perspective. My kick occurred last month, when my car—a 2002 Toyota Camry—abruptly gave up the ghost and died. This was as deeply disturbing as would have been the death of a friend or beloved pet. How could I live without a car? So I did what generations of Americans before me have done: visited auto showrooms, in my case, up and down Broadway, near my home in the Uptown section of Oakland. Toyota, VW, Nissan, Honda, Subaru and so on—I checked them all out.

I plunged into my new project with gusto. I researched the latest makes and models. I Googled consumer reviews, interrogated salespeople, checked out cars on the street. I soon learned that buying a car nowadays is a lot more complicated than when I last did it, sixteen years ago. The choices were overwhelming: buy new or used? If new, which car? There are so many different models, and the differences between them are sometimes arcane. If used, from where? In addition to dealers, there are so many online places, as well as traditional car rental agencies, like Hertz, that will sell you a used car. Should I lease or pay cash? If leasing, on what terms? How much down payment? What will be the residual value? How long did I expect to be driving? And on and on. As is my wont when unable to make a decision, I stalled, waiting for my mind to make itself up. I had the luxury of being able to take my time. After all, in retirement, I hardly drive anymore. Almost everything in my life (food markets, bank, gym, restaurants,doctors, bars, theaters) is within walking distance. It was easy for me to do my research and live for a while without a car.

And that’s when it hit me. After three weeks of not driving—and not being inconvenienced in the slightest—I suddenly had the most startling, unexpected thought: Maybe I don’t need a car!

The radical nature of this scared me. As I said, in the America in which I grew up, not having a car was almost blasphemous. In California—of all states, synonymous with driving—a car was as essential as oxygen. My mind was filled with dreadful “what if’s”. What if Gus, my dog, were suddenly taken ill, and I had to bring him to his vet, several miles away? What would I do if my family, who live in San Mateo, invited me to dinner? How would I get to Bayfair Center Mall, in San Leandro? To the Jack London Square farmer’s market? What happens next time my friends invite me to visit them in their beautiful home in wine country? What if I just want to drive up with Gus into the hills? What if, what if, what if?

But after three weeks of “what if-ing,” I began to realize that maybe my apprehensions were more in my head, and not based in reality. Slowly at first (and I got better with practice) I began to entertain the concept of not having a car. It was essentially a process of imagining, which has always been the genesis of the most important developments in my life. Increasingly, I could imagine not having a car!

I went on Nextdoor.com and asked my neighbors if any of them had gone carless, and, if so, what had been their experience. Back came the replies—many of them—and everybody said going carless was great. They described all the money they saved, and told me about the many alternatives to car ownership, many of which I wasn’t even aware. Uber and Lyft, obviously, but there are lots of other services you can use through a smart phone, such as GIG, GetAround, Zip Car, Fair and Turo—places where you can rent a car by the hour, day or week. Of course, there’s also public transportation (I’m a 5-minute walk from BART), and all those scooters that have popped up in Oakland suddenly started making sense to me. The fear of being carless began to evaporate: I would not be stranded!

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to actually make the leap. It seemed too radical, too apocalyptic. I realized that I was procrastinating—a fault I’ve always had. I needed something to push me off dead center. And then the push came along.

One of the car dealers I’d spoken with asked me if I’d be willing to sell my Toyota to him. Although it had wiring problems and needed a new battery, I’d kept it in great shape all these years; he figured he could fix it up. I thought about that for a while, and then realized that, if I sold him my car, that would be the tipping point: instead of just thinking of being carless, I would in fact be carless. I played with that thought for a week or so, and gradually, the thought became less terrifying. It’s like being on a cliff, 20 or 30 feet above a deep lake. You know it’s safe to jump—you want to jump—you know you can do it–but still, you hesitate, because it’s scary. So you gird yourself, and jump!

I told the auto dealer guy he could have my car (for cash; I didn’t want to deal with a check that didn’t clear). I called AAA, my insurer: Yes, they would send me a pro-rated rebate on my premium. I cleared out all the stuff that had accumulated in my Toyota: road maps (which I hadn’t used for years), snow chains, tape cassettes, CDs, receipts, pens, a packet of soy sauce that had been in the well as long as I could remember. (Hey, you never know when you’ll need soy sauce.) Then it hit me that I could rent my parking space out (I live in a condo) and make a little extra money, in addition to all the money I’d save by not buying a car. And with all that saved money, I could spend on alternative transportation and still come out ahead.

If I do have to make a short or long trip, I can Uber or Lyft or try out the new online rental places. I can buy insurance on an as-needed basis, also online. So I sold my car to the dealership guy, cancelled my insurance, and gave my old Camry a little love tap. “You’ve been good to me, car!” I said.

By the way, I’m not doing this for philosophical reasons: to have a smaller carbon footprint, to be “green,” to help fight global warming. I’m glad that my action will contribute to those ends, but it’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because, at this point in my life, it makes sense for me.

So wish me luck! And thank you, David Schonbrunn, for letting me share my story with your readers.

Postscript: It’s been seven months now since I went carless, and it’s all good. Yes, there have been a few times I wished I’d had a car. But somehow, everything has worked out. In the back of my mind, I know that I can always buy a car, if I decide that I really, truly need one. But so far, I haven’t reached that point. I’ve adjusted my life to my new reality, and it works!

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