Can you live without a car?

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 2, 2006

There are a few places on Earth where it makes little sense to have a car. The innercity of Venice, for example. Or Manhattan. But apart from these exceptional places, is it possible for families in post-industrial societies to live comfortably without a car?
There are several things I dislike about the Netherlands (like “this”:, but one thing I like a lot, is that in this country it is possible to have a family, have a “normal” life, be mobile, and not to have a car. (If you want to have many kids, it might become trickier, or you need to space them sufficiently so that you never have more than two of them on your own bike). For people like me, who love trains and bikes, and who profoundly dislike cars, this is a great advantage of this place.
So what are the necessary ingredients for a life without a car? First, a good railway system. The Dutch system can certainly be improved, but given the density of the network, it works fine. In peak time there are four trains per hour between the major destinations, and prices are affordable for most people, with discounts for students, elderly and other groups. There are some sections which are too packed, like Utrecht-Amsterdam in peak hour, but Dutch people who complain should spend some time on the British railway network.
Second, good public policies for bicyclists. There are bicycle lanes everywhere, and in some places they even have priority over the main roads. The only serious problem is bicycle theft – at least in the main cities it’s necessary to lock your bike twice, and lock it onto something. But once you get into that habit, it’s fine. Moreover, I don’t know whether car theft is less of a problem.
Third, a relatively good bus and tram system, which is affordable, frequent and reliable.
Fourth, carsharing systems. I am a member of such a system – there are about 4 cars of this not-for-profit company in a square kilometer around our house (the closest being at 100 meters). You pay 5 Euros a month membership fee, and then you pay for each hour and kilometer you drive. Booking a car goes over the phone or through the internet. All very efficient and flexible. The car is of course helpful when doing big shopping or the odd visit to a person living in a place which is hard to reach by public transport.
Fifth, all these systems are harmonized: there are several of the shared cars outside each major railway station, the bus stations are always next to (or below) the railway station, there are guarded bicycle parkings under the railway station.
Sixth, it helps if the area is not too hilly. Though it is not unsurmountable to cycle over a hill each day – and it would help to get people fit without having to spend money on the gym.
Finally, there is a culture of people using public transport: for example, some employers only pay for bicycles or public transport and do not reimburse employees driving to work (or only very little), as part of their mobility or environmental policies. We might not always be aware of them, but all places have ‘cultures of mobility’ – and it helps to live in a place with a culture of mobility that is not biased against public transport and bikes.

There have been two exceptions to my enthusiasm for not owning a car. The first time was when I was about to give birth. How I was going to get to the hospital which is 10 kilometers away? I really didn’t want to call a taxi – the idea of being in a taxi with contractions looked very unappealing. And I didn’t want to wake up the neighbours, who offered to drive. And it seemed tricky to count on one of those shared cars being available on such short notice for what could be a long time in hospital (one never knows). So luckily a friend offered her car – she was only using her car to drive to her sailing boat, and didn’t need it that month, so we could park it in front of our house.
The other exception was the first time I took my child onto my bike, now about a month ago. I put him into his babyseat which is attached to the front of my bicycle. Such a little baby, on front of a bicycle – what if…? But he is not scared – he loves it. He likes the wind in his face, looking at the people, trying to ring the bell. He even doesn’t seem to be too bothered when it rains (no monsoons here, luckily). So it seemed more my anxiety than his, and I soon got over it. But perhaps we should get him a helmet (though no-one wears helmets here…).

I think it’s great to be able to be mobile, while at the same time minimizing environmental damage and not contributing to the zillions of cars that destroy the esthetical aspects of our cities and towns. But I wonder in how many places on Earth this is genuinly a matter of choice, or rather not a choice at all since the enabeling conditions are not fulfilled. Can you live without a car? And would you like to?



scott 10.02.06 at 3:15 pm

Good public transportation and a walkable city are the key. In Boston and Toronto, both places I’ve lived, it’s easy not to own a car. I haven’t ever owned a car, and haven’t even driven in over a decade. If I ever needed to drive anywhere, I could easily rent one. In Toronto, it’s not at all unusual to meet people who don’t have a car and don’t drive. I’ve met a couple of people who never even learned how to drive.


des von bladet 10.02.06 at 3:16 pm

I live in the Netherlands, these days, but by a cruel twist of irony I more or less need a car: I work in the mighty Sterrenwacht (“Astronomy institute”) in Dwingeloo in the middle of Drenthe’s considerable nowhere, and I live in Groningen.

Outside of the stinky Randstad, which is to say, there are more than a few places public transport doesn’t serve exceptionally well. (Not just Dwingeloo, which I admit is slightly bijzonder.)

By a cruel twist of irony, I previously lived a happily car-free life in neo-liberal old Blighty. (When I left the city of Bristol it was by train; when I didn’t I got around just fine on foot. The buses were an excellent incentive to walk, for sure.)


hermenauta 10.02.06 at 3:19 pm

It seems Netherlands lack the concept of “suburbia”. Well, public transport, I know, but…

It happens that I live in Brasilia, capital city of Brazil. Distances here are pretty high; I drive myself 50Km everyday. As you must know, unfortunately developing countries don´t have very good public transportation systems.

I have a bike, but I have to dress a suit in my work, so bikes are not really an option. And the security issue implies that bikes are OK only if everybody bikes (brazilian drivers are not very bike-friendly).

I wonder if the bike solution is better suited to very dense urban tissues like that of Europe and some asiatic countries. I´m afraid it doesn´t fit well to the new world urban style, apart that of small cities.


Cryptic Ned 10.02.06 at 3:21 pm

Can you live without a car?

Let’s see, Pittsburgh has one bike lane (on part of Beechwood Boulevard; perhaps there is another one somewhere); lots of hills; no car-sharing system; taxis that you have to reserve via telephone, generally a couple hours in advance at any time people are likely to want a taxi; and a light rail that consists of one route from downtown to the southern suburbs. Also, there are no 24-hour bus routes, even the one to and from the airport doesn’t operate in the early morning.

As for traveling to other cities, there is a train station for Amtrak trains, of which there are about four every day and which are invariably between one and three hours late leaving the station; and a bus station that is over a mile from the train station and at least a 15-minute walk from the nearest stop for city buses. The bus station was right next to the train station until a year ago, so Pittsburgh is getting actively worse for non-car owners.

So yes, I can survive here without a car, because I have no family and live a 40-minute walk from the office with at least 8 bus lines that could also take me home from the office. But most people here can’t.


abb1 10.02.06 at 3:28 pm

Life without a car ain’t worth living. Period.


Liadnan 10.02.06 at 3:38 pm

I get by quite happily without a car, living in central london.


harry b 10.02.06 at 3:44 pm

I lived 5 1/2 years in Los Angeles without a car. Mostly busses (I don’t think I ever saw another white person on a bus east of La Brea — certainly I was regarded as an oddity), some cycling, and quite a few rides from friends. I’d never have a family in LA without a car. But if you are poor, single, and have time, the busses are ok; certainly they are the friendliest public spaces in LA. Or were (I now realise that I left more than 15 years ago).


ingrid robeyns 10.02.06 at 3:47 pm

abb1 – any arguments? As a joke it did its work.


aj 10.02.06 at 3:51 pm

I live in Melbourne and get by fine without a car. I love the tram system. This is great after living in Texas (the driving capital of the world). I don’t have kids though.


ingrid robeyns 10.02.06 at 3:53 pm

des von bladet: you are right that you can’t live in just any place in the NL with a family and without a car. But at least many more places than in any other country that I know. And I guess we need some sort of public discussion about what is needed for people to be able and willing to live without a car, since it seems like a safe assumption that life would be better for many of us (especially future generations and those living below or just above sea levels) if fewer people would drive, and more people would drive less often.


Kelly 10.02.06 at 3:53 pm

I lived for several years in Seattle, Washington without a car. The things you listed were there: good public transit, carsharing systems all over the place, a lot of space for pedestrians and bikes, a good taxi system, Amtrak connecting Seattle to all the major cities on the West Coast (making visiting my parents in Portland a snap), a lot of mixed use areas where you could easily walk to a corner store, bar, bookshop, and etc.

Now that I’m in Albany, New York, I own a car. This has got to be one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities I’ve ever lived in. The sidewalks, when they exist, are narrow and poorly paved, there is almost no mixed use, the bus system is horrible, the only car sharing I found is not heavily populated with cars (the nearest one to me is laughable), there are no corner markets, the airport and Amtrak are not easily accessible… I do know people here who don’t have cars, but typically their roommates or significant others do, so it’s not like they’re dependent upon the poorly implemented/non-existent transportation options here.


Gdr 10.02.06 at 4:03 pm

Most people in the world manage fine without cars. It’s only in a few of the most wealthy and profligate countries that people have the luxury of pretending that they can’t manage without personal motorized transport.


Nick Barnes 10.02.06 at 4:20 pm

Cambridge, England. We lived there, a prosperous middle-class family with two small children, without a car. We bought a car when one child developed a life-threatening long-term illness and we needed to be able to get to and from the hospital 24/7 at little notice. We have friends still living in Cambridge, a prosperous middle-class family with three teenage children, without a car.
Now we are separated (still with two children, thank God), and living in Manchester, and my wife doesn’t have a car and is unlikely to get one (she dislikes driving). It seems to me that there are large parts of Manchester in which such a lifestyle is possible.


Dennis 10.02.06 at 4:26 pm

I’ve lived without a car in central New Jersey for five years. It has gone well, but I wouldn’t do it with a family.

Good trains and buses, bike-friendly roads where I happened to need them most, and friends with cars have all helped out.


Jon H 10.02.06 at 4:29 pm

I lived in Chicago from 1994 to 1995, and from 1997 to 2002, without a car. First time I lived on the north side of the city (4180 N), near the lake. The bus line ran outside the building, and the L red line was about a 20 minute walk away. Work was at the Board of Trade, downtown.

The second time around, I lived in the South Loop, downtown, near the main library. Cabs and buses were plentiful, and I lived close to the red and blue L lines that are underground downtown, and also close to the elevated Loop trains. Kinda pricey though. I had two jobs during this period, both a 10-15 minute walk from home. (Come to think of it, my old job at the CBOT was also quite close)


hermenauta 10.02.06 at 4:32 pm

gdr, maybe you should first ask them, these poor people in exotic third world coutries that lives without a car, if they like their current situation. Of course, this is not matter of choice.

In fact, poor people living in brazilian large cities like Rio and São Paulo can spend as long as four or five hours a day commuting. I´m pretty sure they would like to have a car _ or alternatively, better public transport, or jobs near their houses.

I think this topic really collapses on the issue of urban planning.


sasha 10.02.06 at 4:32 pm

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 12 years without a car. I bike everywhere. Of course, San Francisco has a pretty good (by American standards, not by European, I don’t think) public transit system, and is pretty small and has tolerable weather all year round.

I will say, though, that I had surgery recently and was dependent on the buses for a month, and boy did it suck. I am so damn happy to get back on my bike.

One thing San Francisco has is a very big, very active bicycle lobby. It’s one of the most powerful in town in terms of membership and power to turn people out, second only (maybe) to the tenants’ groups. So there’s a growing network of bike lanes, and generally rising awareness that maybe there are other methods of transport besides cars.


Jared 10.02.06 at 4:34 pm

Yes, the Asian cities I know are very non-car friendly, and it has to do both with quality of the railway system and population density (as hermeneuta suggests.) The only American cities that come close are on the east coast.

But bicycle-friendly cities are not always easy places to be car-free, I suspect. I’ve heard Minneapolis is a great place to bike, and Urbana-Champaigne looked nice when I visited (flat, plenty of bike lanes.) But what happens when you need to take a weekend trip? Intercity trains just don’t exist in a lot of places, and buses aren’t much better.


nick s 10.02.06 at 4:35 pm

I now live in a small American city with half-decent and cheap public transport, and bus-mounted bike racks so that you can cycle to the bus stop. The problems, as with all US public transport outside of big cities, are the cultural aversion to ‘riding the bus’, and the time factor.

I happily survived a decade without a car in Oxford, and would gladly go back to that pattern of life.


Tracy W 10.02.06 at 4:44 pm

I think it could be done with kids in Christchurch and Wellington (having done it without kids) – assuming you got around the question of supermarket shopping somehow.

The limiting things I found was getting out of the city, or visiting a friend who doesn’t happen to live on the same public transport route as you. Eg to get to the seaside in Christchurch where I was living was two long bus trips or a long bike ride including through some heavy commercial/industrial areas. Obviously in Wellington getting to the harbour is not a problem, but getting to the Tararuas or the Rimutakas for some tramping requires private transport. When I was living in one of the outer suburbs, to visit my great-uncle by public transport would have required a bus trip and a train trip at times when neither were running frequently since it was off-peak. It’s possible to work around, but it’s a hassle.

And none of the hospitals in the Wellington region are in the centre of town so getting to them is a major hassle (unless you happen to live close-by).

I’ve also often found it impossible to safely transport a fragile costume by public transport, but that’s probably due to Wellington’s weather and not a normal problem around the world.

The other side is that the public transport has to feel safe. I grew up in the Hutt Valley, and my father eventually stopped riding the trains home and got a second car because he was often travelling home late at night and the druggies on the train got him worried.


Gdr 10.02.06 at 4:45 pm

#15: The question is, “can you live without a car?”, not “can owning a car improve your standard of living as long as not very many other people have one?”


econgeek 10.02.06 at 7:19 pm

Buenos Aires, if you live downtown, is perfectly fine without a car. Vancouver is the same (much nicer bicicle lanes but not nearly as flat).

In the case of Buenos Aires the public transport system is superb (PP adjusted :-), european public transport systems are somewhat nicer but then again so are incomes).

In terms of Vancouver; the whole city appears to have been designed with cyclists in mind. Those of us who work at the university (about 10k from downtown) have to go over a small hill that keeps us healthy :-). If one lived in the surrounding suburbs the above is not quite posible (but living on, say, Commercial Drive, it is fine not to have a car).


tom bach 10.02.06 at 7:34 pm

I live in upstate NY with some 100 inches or more of snow per year. Have to get to three, sometimes four, different jobs sites and on a weekly basis to a city some 40 miles (by the short hilly route) away. I have not had a car for over 5 years now. I started riding in Germany and then lived in London, but conituned the practice here.

Things like mass trans make it easier but are not necessary. What is necessary is accepting that some days you ride some days you just stay home, although I will note that I have never missed work because of the weather. I love the bike and love the rides both long and short.

As far as kids go, given that there are all manner of folks in the “developed” world who make do without, often in the grip of a rural poverty that is truly unspeakable, of course you can. I once had a long conversation with one such who would routinely walk the five miles to school for a part time job or the grociery because the car didn’t work, this individual had three kids. Think how much easier that life would be with a bike.

Plus and also, think of the pure joy of the first ride of your life. How much fun to experience that each and every day.

So, not only is it possible to live a life without a car, my question is why on earth would anyone want to lock themselves into a tin can that, if you were alone with it in a locked room, would kill you? And, on the evidence of my experience, turns the average human into a full on nut case more interested in shaving ten seconds of a commute than in the lives of their fellow citizens.


Eszter 10.02.06 at 7:41 pm

Growing up in Budapest, my parents had a car for about two years of my life. (We did always have a car when living in the US.) It was not a problem not to have one. Recently, the motivation is in part due to not having a garage and how often cars get stolen. But still, it’s not particularly necessary. I don’t miss it when I visit. Public transportation is quite good and recently bus/car lanes have been designated to make it more manageable with the crazy city traffic. Of course, some people disregard the restrictions on those lanes. Stricter enforcement would help.

When I lived in Geneva, Switzerland, I didn’t have a car and it was not at all a problem. Partly, the city is very manageable and you can even walk to a lot of places. Otherwise, there’s also a ton of very reliable public transportation. And with monthly passes, it’s affordable. Same is true for Zürich. I love public transportation in both of those towns.


Gary Farber 10.02.06 at 8:14 pm

“Can you live without a car?”

As someone who has never had the financial choice, and is about to turn 48: yes, definitely.

“But apart from these exceptional places, is it possible for families in post-industrial societies to live comfortably without a car?”

Entirely different question. I’ve never had a family of my own, and there are definitely uncomfortable aspects to not having a car, particularly when not living in NYC. It’s a pain in the ass in various ways.

But certainly entirely doable.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.02.06 at 9:01 pm

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles in which it was perilous to ride one’s bike, yet I frequently commuted across the valley to night classes at Pierce College and various jobs during the day. One reason for leaving the valley and heading northward was several near-death bicycle accidents.

The first seven years of our marriage we rode the bus and bicycled here in Santa Barbara. The few times we needed a car or truck, others lent us same. We had a nifty bike trailer for our son (who now, at 25 yrs., is an avid bicyclist), but with the birth of our daughter, it became too difficult to do chores with the bike trailer, as we could not cart both the kids and the groceries. So, we purchased a somewhat sad looking 1967 VW bug, which we still have! When my father died, we inherited his colossal Suburban, which I have a hard time parting with for sentimental reasons, so it largely sits in our driveway. We now have an old VW van to complement the bug. I ride my bicycle to school as often as possible, a beautiful old single geared Schwinn, with high-rise handlebars and a seat suitable for a 50 yr. old of my build (I’ll leave that to the imagination). All the same, it’s nice to have a car for vacations, which for us is usually trip up along the coast of California.

I love going to San Francisco if only because one can get by there without a car.


Randy Paul 10.02.06 at 9:11 pm

Never owned a car. We live in Queens (so Manhattan is not the only borough where you don’t need a car). We get by just fine. On those rare occasions when I need a car, I use Zip Car or rent one.


Andrew John 10.02.06 at 9:27 pm

Singapore. Not so great for biking, but excellent public transport and cheap taxis.


Randy Paul 10.02.06 at 9:31 pm


When I was in last in Brasília (1998) they were building a light-rail system. Did it ever get finished.

Curitiba, by the way, has excellent mass transit.


Platypus 10.02.06 at 9:39 pm

You can easily go car-free in Toronto. We’ve lived in Toronto for 8 years with our teenage son and drive our car only intermittantly. My wife and I use the subway to commute most days. (Although bicycling is faster you can’t read the newspaper). Our son is 19 now, but shows no interest in learning how to drive as he spent his teenage years in central Toronto where it isn’t necessary.

The lease for our current car is up for renewal next year and we’re having recurrent discussions as to do we need our own car and if so, what kind. We mostly use the car on weekends for shopping outside of our neighborhood. Our weekend usage, together with occasional trips to Ottawa, Buffalo and Chicago, adds up to about 6,000 miles/year. Right now we’re debating signing up for one of the car sharing programs vs. buying an urban car like a SMART. It’s a far better life than the one we had when we lived in Connecticut and spent 2 hours each day driving back and forth from our suburban house and the Yale campus.

The critical issue for us is the presence of a tight (geographically and temporally) public transit grid. Our local subway is very reliable, frequent (2-5 minutes between trains) and tied to a network of streetcars and buses. Excellent public transit coverage also made it possible for us to go de facto car free in San Francisco.


Scott Spiegelberg 10.02.06 at 9:51 pm

You should wear a helmet, as should your son. I am one of the only bikers here at DePauw that wears a helmet, but I’ve been in too many accidents to not wear it, or have my children not wear their helmets. The pavement is hard, no matter how slow you are pedaling. And you never know what other people are going to do. I biked year ’round in Rochester, NY and Minneapolis. I don’t bike in snow here, only because I can walk the short distances here. Minneapolis has beautiful bike trails and bike lanes, as well as a good bus system and was building a light rail when I left in 2002.


Another Damned Medievalist 10.02.06 at 10:37 pm

When I lived in Germany, absolutely — if I needed to travel to friends in the countryside I could take a taxi or rent a car. Otherwise, public transport and bicycling. Here in Dabbaville, I live within walking distance to campus, but have a bad hip which, when coupled with the very heavy book bag and bulky gym bag, makes it painful and impracticable to walk to campus (it’s just under two miles). Dabbaville is amazingly unfriendly to bicycles. There is no public transit to speak of. People do walk a lot on the weekends, though — into town, and in my case, my friends and I will frequently walk both ways or just home if we go out drinking. If there were any way to get away from it, though, I’d lose the car.


The Constructivist 10.02.06 at 10:39 pm

Living in Fukuoka, which satisfies all the conditions described in the post, is better when you’re car-free, even with 2 kids under 3. Haven’t even gotten a bike yet, although my wife will when our youngest is old enough to sit in a bike seat….


Belle Waring 10.02.06 at 10:43 pm

singapore again–no problem not having a car. the taxis are plentiful and (relatively) cheap, though they have gone up. you can order one by phone and have it waiting for you for an additional fee; it almost never takes more than 5 minutes, but they are generally manhattan-level plentiful, i.e. 4 out of 10 vehicles is a cab. the public transit is excellent. I get my groceries delivered. no real possibilities for biking or even much walking, though, because it’s so hot. still, Singapore has lots of trees and shade, and so is much better off for walking than someplace like Bangkok, which is an endless baking maze of concrete. finally, I really recommend that you get that baby a bike helmet!


dave 10.02.06 at 10:51 pm

I’m in Hong Kong and have quite happily lived here for 9 years with no car.

Public transport is excellent, and the taxis are cheap.

One of the things which makes the public transport outstanding here is the single fare mechanism. I have one card (Octopus) with money stored electronically on it which works on the railways, bus, minibus, ferry, tram, light rail.


bad Jim 10.02.06 at 11:05 pm

I was car-free in Berkeley for several years, as a student and afterwards. The distances were short and parking was scarce, so cars weren’t practical for the daily commute. There were always cars in the household, though, so it’s doubtful that doing without would have been practical for a family.

Now that I’m a retired Southern Californian, I find I miss my daily commute. I enjoy driving my quick little car. I almost never take the local bus, which runs hourly from 8 to 5, Monday through Saturday, and it’s actually cheaper to drive, considering only the cost of gas.

I do love visiting cities with subways and fast trains and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Buses and taxis are boring in comparison.


Matt 10.02.06 at 11:33 pm

Philadelphia has pale immitations of many of the things you mentioned- a so-so bus and train system that doesn’t run late and is the most expensive mass transit system in the country, at least for a large city. We have a small car-sharing system but it is sparse so far. We have some bike lanes and some very nice places to bike (and I bike a few times a week to get around) but also many places where biking is quite hard and the drivers aggressive. But, it must be possible to live here w/o a car since I’ve done it for more than five years now and in general don’t mind it. The only times I wish I had one is when I went to get out of town or to buy something larger than I can easily take on the bus.

I didn’t think Albany was that bad for walking or taking the bus when I lived there, either, though- not great, but better than most places in the west for public transportation, at leat.


brennen 10.02.06 at 11:41 pm

#20 – I spent a few months in South Brighton last year and it seemed like it might have been do-able, just, with kids. Then again, we were close enough to the supermarket that we actually rolled groceries home in the cart a couple of times, and we were working within bike distance, and we had lots of people willing to drive us around when necessary. If I’d had to get into the city proper very often I think things would’ve been different. Still, it seemed like a friendlier place to be carless than some I’ve been in.

It strikes me that while getting along with no car is a really difficult proposition for lots of us, getting along with less car is a lot more realistic.


Harald Korneliussen 10.03.06 at 1:00 am

“…is it possible for families in post-industrial societies to live comfortably without a car?”

Am there, doing that. A T-shirt would be nice.


jacobite 10.03.06 at 1:12 am

Obviously the question here is not, “Can you live without a car”. In every city mentioned above, there are people living without cars. And if one has an income sufficient to own a car, one probably has an income sufficient to ameliorate most of the inconveniences that living without a car in an environment designed for automobiles and real estate developers rather than actual human beings produces. So, the question here is, “Where is it easier to live without a car than with one”.

The criteria you list are good, the one you seem to miss is that you need dense multiple-use neighborhoods, or it’s not going to work (as Jane Jacobs well described).

Even if you have a great bus system, with clean, safe, on-time busses that run every 10 minutes, if you have to make 4 stops to do 4 different tasks, people aren’t going to do it. A car is faster. And even if you have great flex-car solutions, if every place you want to visit requires a car, you won’t do it – owning a car will be faster and cheaper.

The vast majority of products and services I need are available within the range of a well hit baseball (well maybe 2X said range): my workplace, 2 grocery stores, 2 drugstores, 2 convenience stores, at least 3 coffee shops, deli, newsstand, bank, a couple parks and a playground, great restaraunts and brewpubs and not-so-great fast food places, a record store, liquor store, thrift shop, some clothing stores. All literally within a few hundred yards of here. The post office and the best book store in town are a bit farther, although less than a mile.

It’s easier to walk to most of those places than it would be to drive and then find parking, and if you’re going to more than one of them, it is almost always easier to walk.

I still have a car, as the last neighborhood I lived in was not as pedestrian-friendly, but I don’t think I will replace it the next time it needs major repairs. Using a flex-car for the few times a week I need to make short trips in town out of walking range, and renting a car (an idea that for some reason seems oddly foreign to many of the “but I need a car once in a while” posters above) for the weekend or two I want to take longer trips would be cheaper than car payments + taxes + depreciation + maintenance + insurance + psychic cost of adding one more object to the list of objects that own me. If owning a certain brand of car is central to your identity (don’t laugh – it is to many people), this won’t work, but most of those people all left for the suburbs anyway (and good riddance).


floopmeister 10.03.06 at 2:27 am

…wonder if the bike solution is better suited to very dense urban tissues like that of Europe and some asiatic countries. I´m afraid it doesn´t fit well to the new world urban style, apart that of small cities.

As another Melbournite I have to disagree. This city has a vocal and organised bike lobby, and consequently has more than 2000 km of bike lanes and bike paths in the urban area alone.

The ‘Round the Bay in a Day’ ride is coming up soom – they’re expecting 10-15,000 riders this year, apparently. So much of this is cultural – bike riding has just become so ‘normal’ here that it is not really commented on much any more.

Mind you, Melbourne is flat.

It’s also better in the inner city (Melbourne is HUGE, area wise) but there are paths everywhere. North of the city they follow the creeks and rivers, making green commuter corridors that pass under and above the streets in towards the city like the spokes of a wheel.


Add to that an excellent train, bus and tram network, and a couple of carsharing schemes that have just opened up in the inner city.


Miguel 10.03.06 at 2:30 am

My wife and I lived carless for 14 years in NYC. We’ve been carless in Madrid for the last 6 until recently and could have remained so. Still, we use the car maybe 3 or 4 times a month on average. We’re fundamentally carless as far as daily consumption and pollution though not carless in the economic sense.

You can live carless in a lot of places, many more than people imagine.


Emma 10.03.06 at 2:42 am

Here in Brisbane, Australia, I can get by without a car, and love being able to do so! But I live in an area where I can walk to the shops, library, train etc – some of the poorer outer suburbs tend to lack these facilities close by and I can’t imagine it would be easy there.

When a car is useful is at night – our public transport slows down at night time and it can be scary walking through quiet train stations/shopping streets alone at night. When I was a student I ended up having to get a lift home from the uni after night classes as I couldn’t find a safe way home otherwise.


David Ahn 10.03.06 at 3:46 am

You should wear a helmet, as should your son. I am one of the only bikers here at DePauw that wears a helmet, but I’ve been in too many accidents to not wear it, or have my children not wear their helmets.

As someone who also cycled year-around in Rochester, NY, for three years (although I admittedly also owned a car, I used my bicycles for most of my transportation needs there—I particularly enjoyed cycling in the snow) and who lived car-free in Palo Alto, CA, for a year, as well, and who now lives in Amsterdam, I would say that accidents just seem much less likely here. Certainly per passenger mile, they must be miniscule compared to anywhere in the U.S., but even in more absolute terms (per person, or whatever else), bicycle accidents just seem to be really rare (it’d be interesting to see real statistics, of course). I suppose that part of this is attributable to infrastucture and cycling experience (as well as the fact that most people ride on large heavy bicycles that just don’t go very fast), but a lot of it also has to do with drivers’ attitudes, I think. Not only do I never get cut off by left-turning cars here, but, even though bicycle lanes are always to the right of car lanes, there are never problems at intersections with cars turning right (one of John Forester’s major complaints about bicycle lanes), because right-turning drivers here always yield to cyclists, which is something that never happened to me in the U.S. And, of course, no one ever whizzes by in a car and shouts that I ought to be riding on the sidewalk or throws bottles at me (both things that have happened to me in the Rochester area and a more important reason to wear a helmet when cycling there than the possibilty of accidents, I think).


john h 10.03.06 at 3:46 am

Such a little baby, on front of a bicycle…He likes the wind in his face

There’s a handy Dutch word for that: uitwaaien.


tribald ozgevir 10.03.06 at 4:00 am

Ingrid…you forgot seven: a national cultural consensus that pedaling miserably along for half an hour, soaked to the skin, in 12-degree weather, is refreshing and good for the soul, or in any case that it would wimpy and unnatural to complain about it.

This may be not unrelated to the reluctance to administer painkillers during labor which you excoriated in your earlier post.

(I speak as a massive enthusiast for biking, Holland, and the soul-resuscitating effects of getting soaked in the rain…)


Far Away 10.03.06 at 4:23 am

We’ve lived with two children in Paris (within the peripherique)for six years without a car. It has a brilliant public transport system, not great for bicycles though, mainly because too many other people still have cars.


William Burns 10.03.06 at 6:11 am

I’ve lived in Washington DC for several years without a car, and its perfectly doable for me, a non-biking person living alone. It helps that I live half a block from a Metro station.


Tangurena 10.03.06 at 8:37 am

I currently live in Denver. I spent just over a year carless (not by choice) and with the public transport available, was able to continue working. There are lots of bike trails and bike paths, and just purchased a bike this year (I got run over by a car more than a decade ago and it was hard for me to get back onto one, partly because the cheap ones bent under my heft). I try to bike part of the way into work a couple times a week as part of my exercise program.

Many people have bike racks on their cars, and I believe that some people only purchase a bike to stick on their car rack as some sort of fashion symbol.


Matt 10.03.06 at 8:38 am

I agree that it’s easy to live carless inside-the-beltway DC if you’re near a metro station– I live in Bethesda and rarely use my car for anything but commuting to work.


Slocum 10.03.06 at 11:07 am

I could. Some people here (Ann Arbor) do it. And I don’t commute (home office) and ride my bike downtown often (because I enjoy it and because I don’t have to hassle with parking). Sometimes we even take the kiddie trailer to haul stuff home.

But I wouldn’t *want* to live without a car. Cars are great for all the obvious reasons: convenient, comfortable, quiet, private. You can haul your dog, your bikes, your camping gear, your kayaks. And when loaded up with the family on trips (which is how we do most of our driving), a private car is a very efficient form of transport (120-150 seat miles per gallon in our case, depending on whether or not you count the dog in the seat-mileage calculations). And, of course, a car — unlike public transport — goes point-to-point, so there’s extra efficiency there, too.

Based on widespread preferences, I think the future is one of increasingly efficient and clean private transportation rather than mass transit.


Tim 10.03.06 at 11:17 am

It’s pretty easy to get on in Portland OR without a car. The bus, light-rail, and streetcar systems are very well used, and by choice: the full range of people from bums to suited lawyers are well represented. The “fareless square” (ie, free rides) downtown is nice, too. Portland also prides itself on being exceptionally bicycle-friendly, though I found Vancouver BC to be better that way when I lived there.


abb1 10.03.06 at 11:45 am

What Slocum said. Someone once wrote that automobile is not only a means of transportation, but also a little house, a chair, a suitcase, a bed, a coat, an umbrella, a wallet and a makeup and shaving mirror. So, there you go.


Doug K 10.03.06 at 12:04 pm

Without kids it can be done with a little effort, even in America. I lived in Winston-Salem NC and used buses for work, shank’s pony for shopping. Of course riding the bus in the US is seen as only for the failed and poor, plus a few staunch bearded be-sandaled idealists; and many shopping areas are frankly pedestrian-hostile; still it could be done. Similarly in Sacramento, between bike paths and the bus system a car wasn’t necessary most of the time.

Unfortunately I have always owned a car for weekend excursions – wilderness is where I look for solace, and you can’t get there from here without a car. So, no, I could not live without a car: not unless I won the lottery and had time to bike anywhere I wanted to go.


minneapolitan 10.03.06 at 12:26 pm

I’ve lived without access to a car for most of my adult life (with the exception of occasional rides from friends.) I lived for a whole year in Omaha without a car, and I’ll never complain about public tranist here in the Twin Cities again after that.
Minneapolis is certainly a bike-friendly town in many ways, although the placement of bikes-only paths has mostly been dependent on the convenience of automobiles. The popularity of the light rail (just 1 route so far) has massively exceeded expectations. Most of the commuter runs are packed, and even off-hours get a fair amount of ridership. Sadly, the bus system has suffered immensely at the hands of the Republican junta.
Even with those cuts, however, as long as you live fairly close to the central cities, getting around to any place you want to go by bus, bike or foot is not really a problem, assuming a modicum of mobility. The awful sprawl that characterizes the metro area here is easily avoided. The only time I ever voluntarily go to the suburbs is when I ride the train out to the Mall of America to buy cheap shoes.
I can’t really imagine ever buying a car. My partner had one up until March of this year, but it only encouraged our vices, and was horrendously expensive (esp. since we live in a “high-crime” zip code). The only real annoyance besides generalized coldness in the winter is not being able to go on short trips out into the country. I concede that with more than one child, being carless could turn into a huge hassle, but obviously the many families I ride with on the bus and the light rail manage to do it.
I sure wish we had regular local train service out to the hinterlands as they did 40 years ago.


Megan 10.03.06 at 1:26 pm

My quality of life went up when I got rid of my car in small, flat, warm Sacramento. But I wouldn’t want to have kids and no car.


Maynard Handley 10.03.06 at 2:28 pm

Hmm. You (at least implicitly) criticize cars, and then go on to give people with many children a free pass. WTF???
Is the goal here to build a sustainable future or to exhibit political correctness? Because I gotta tell you, sister, me having no children and (very occasionally) driving a car is doing to whole lot more to solve the problem than some dutch pair congratulating themselves on their bicycles and having three (or even one) child.

The fact that this sort of woolly thinking, even from those who imagine they are trying to solve the problem is why we are all freaking doomed. Picture the earth as an ocean liner heading towards icebergs and piloted by chimpanzees.


Slocum 10.03.06 at 2:59 pm

Is the goal here to build a sustainable future or to exhibit political correctness?

So many on the left seem to have a quasi-religious devotion to the idea that private autos are evil and mass transit is good, but why? Why is everyone apparently convinced that only a mass-transit future is sustainable?

Mass transit has both efficiencies and inefficiencies relative to private transport. Trips with mass transport are longer and less direct. And there’s the off-hour problem. You have to keep running the system at some level even when demand is low, which means empty trains and buses. But a train or bus with only a few passengers is a gas guzzler. And we’ve only really begun to push the envelope with the efficiency of private transport.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.03.06 at 3:34 pm

I don’t think there is any political correctness involved in this post; the question asked is *if* you want to be mobile, and don’t want to drive a car on a regular basis (or posses one), whether it is possible. The question is one about what conditions need to be met before a choice becomes a real choice. I framed the question for families, because they make this question harder, since small children can’t bike themselves, or walk/walk significant distances.
The question what would be the best transport set-up from an ecological point of view is a related but different question; despite all his rudeness, Maynard Handley has a point that producing children may cause more harm to the ecosystem than driving a car, but that was not what this post was about.


David Sucher 10.03.06 at 3:37 pm

There is a family in Seattle answering your question:


Maynard Handley 10.03.06 at 4:03 pm

Come on Ingrid.
“I think it’s great to be able to be mobile, while at the same time minimizing environmental damage and not contributing to the zillions of cars that destroy the esthetical aspects of our cities and towns.”
But no, this was not a post about the environment and ecology.
Don’t treat us like idiots.


hermenauta 10.03.06 at 5:17 pm

Randy (comment #29), yes, the light rail is finished, but it doesn´t come close to satisfy significant numbers of commuters.


Doug 10.03.06 at 5:25 pm

I think that the pre-condition to almost all of Ingrid’s conditions is population density (including people willing to live relatively densely).

The Netherlands is one of Europe’s most densely populated countries (maybe the most, I’m not going to look it up just for a blog comment), which provides a sound economic footing for all the other conditions. Sure, bike-friendly choices are not dependent on density, and hilliness is orthogonal, but the others rely on a certain amount of population to be either economically or environmentally viable. Imagine the size of bus network necessary to give service to all of, say, Atlanta’s suburbs.

And in rural areas? I don’t know about the Netherlands, but in rural Germany, places off the rail network might get a bus every three or four hours.


sara 10.03.06 at 6:03 pm

At the risk of going off topic again, not having a car is probably better for your health, because you walk more or ride a bicycle.


tom bach 10.03.06 at 7:49 pm

I don’t know about rural Germany and buses, but I do know that when I lived in Germany me and my bike could get on the train in Halle an der Saale and arrive in say Bad Koesen get off and ride to the most out of the way place you might imagine in less time than I once though possible. And, what is more, I saw more and, to be honest, stopped at more small town pubs than ever I could have in a car.

As to people choosing to drive cars; if you’re an American the idea, or so my car driving friends tell me, is that you have no choice. Cars are a necessity. Cleaner personal motorized transportation sounds fine but where are these mythical beasts?

People in cars move are self-enclosed and isolated they do not “see” the things that cyclists see. One has a more direct connection with one’s city or countryside moving along unprotected at 20 mph than hermetically sealed in tons of metal, glass, and whatnot at fourty, fifty, or whatever. It is easy to ignore the decay and crime when the radio blares and the cell phone rings. Plus and also, if you drive be honest with yourself and keep a record of all the laws you break in the course of one day, speeding, rolling stops and so forth. Pedestrian and cycling unfriendly cities are just those in which motorists assume that the rules of the road apply to others.

For those of you who wish to get the wilderness, how wild can it be or will it remain if you get there in a car?


tom bach 10.03.06 at 8:53 pm

This is, of course, neither here nor there; however, while considering the greatness of the automobile and its related necessity consider too the greatness of the bike and its advantages.


the cubist 10.04.06 at 1:02 am

Ingrid, thank you for raising the question. From the looks of things, car use doesn’t seem to be much of a survival behavior for humans much longer. I am enjoying my recumbent tadpole TerraTrike, a three-wheeler (2 in front) that looks kind of like a naked sports car, and sits like a Lay-Z-Boy. You can look around more, as you go by. And it’s as sociable as a mobile front porch. (Better a porch than a Porche.)


Joshua W. Burton 10.04.06 at 1:40 am

Israel has superb intercity and local bus service everywhere, and a robust network of private vanpool (sherut) taxis that follow the bus lines and charge the same price. From my home in Rehovot (small college town, just south of the Tel Aviv commute orbit), I could get to friends in odd corners of Jerusalem or Haifa with two buses, to Eilat in four hours with one bus, to friends on a rural farm eighty km away in two hours total with three buses and a ten-minute walk. In the last decade they’ve added a good commuter rail system for Tel Aviv, but suburban sprawl is beginning to break the rule of six-story urban density right to the edge of the orange groves, which gave even small towns good bus networks.

I’ve lived carless for years in Cambridge, MA and Berkeley, CA; for months in Vichy, Madrid and Segovia; for long enough to buy groceries in several countries in northern Europe. I’ve lived as the nondriver in a one-car family in Providence, RI and Skokie, IL. But Israel (early 1990s) was far and away the easiest. Part of it is that the national bus line has so much patriotic resonance for Israelis (their Pony Express under the British Mandate, a melting pot for new immigrants, and since 1996 a notorious target) that they don’t grudge it funding, but mostly it’s just urban planning. Build a city so everyone who doesn’t drive on the sabbath can cope, and you’ll find you can cope without a car there the rest of the week.


Slocum 10.04.06 at 4:28 am

As to people choosing to drive cars; if you’re an American the idea, or so my car driving friends tell me, is that you have no choice. Cars are a necessity.

Nah, that’s really not true — people can and do live without cars in big cities like New York and Chicago that have good mass transit systems. Chicago is also a very bikeable city when the weather is decent (and that is how we usually get around there when visiting). In fact, I’d much rather bike in Chicago than most European cities I’ve visited — the roads are wider, the traffic is less dense, the drivers are not as crazy, and there’s a great north-south bike-path system along the lake. From what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t rely on a bike for transport in London or Paris the way I would in Chicago.


tom bach 10.04.06 at 5:07 am

“Nah, that’s really not true—people can and do live without cars in big cities like New York and Chicago that have good mass transit systems. Chicago is also a very bikeable city when the weather is decent (and that is how we usually get around there when visiting).”

I lived in London for two years and went everywhere by bike; although it was not as pleasant as Berlin, it was perfectly safe. I live in Syracuse, which has lousy mass trans, and ride my bike everywhere including in winter. I do not own a car. When I discuss this last fact with folks they all insist that 1) it’s insane 2) they need their cars. So, of couse it is not “true” that American’s “need” their cars, yet when push comes to shove they generally insist that they do.


tribald ozgevir 10.04.06 at 6:04 am

There are many reasons why people like cars. They are, for example, a familial social space which has come to have tremendous resonance in Western family life. When driving alone, the car allows a degree of privacy unencumbered by responsibility and a certain amount of meditative relaxation (though less so, obviously, in the middle of traffic jams). The sense of control over one’s motion and destination, even if partly illusory, is psychologically more fulfilling than the sense of dependency and helplessness one experiences while waiting for a subway train. (Of course this is true of biking too.)

Mass transit is wonderful, and critical for the creation of exciting, livable cities. And bicycles are fabulous. (In Amsterdam, bicycles, too, are family social spaces — look up the amazing “bakfiets” for more on this.) But people love cars for a reason. We just need to get them running on electricity or fuel cells, and make them expensive enough that people use mass transit and bikes too to reduce sprawl. It’s all part of the mix.


roy belmont 10.04.06 at 7:04 am

The automobile is an armored wheelchair.


Don K 10.04.06 at 1:21 pm

I lived about two years in Tokyo, and decided that, between the congestion and the cost of parking and gas, driving a car would be pretty inconvenient as well as expensive. I started riding the subways, trains, and buses the day I got there and never looked back, but then I’m single, so it was very easy for me.

If you have a child in a pram (or young children who can’t walk as fast as adults), though, I could see the appeal of a car even in Tokyo. I saw parents lugging prams up and down the stairs in stations, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Also, for families taking longer-distance trips, even with the cost of gasoline and tolls, a car for four people is less expensive than the cost of four train tickets (not so for a single or even a couple).


Jon Kay 10.04.06 at 5:01 pm

The problem with public transit is that even the best ones (NYC) take 50-60min on average. In moderate-sized cities, the car-based transit time is more like 25. More like 10-15min in a small city.

That boils down to an hourish a day saved, just on commuting, never mind other things (shopping is sure is ton easier!).

Now, in NYC, London, etc., you’ll save nothing by having a car. So part of this depends on where you live. But little of the US has that kind of density.


peter 10.04.06 at 10:53 pm

“Also, for families taking longer-distance trips, even with the cost of gasoline and tolls, a car for four people is less expensive than the cost of four train tickets”

hmm… did you factor in the purchase cost of the car, and all the maintenance, etc?

This thread seems to be a lot about people’s preferences; liking cars, or not liking them. i think that’s beside the point; here in the US we have built a society that practically requires you to own a car. and it has not been a product of the “free-market” but in fact was achieved through massive public spending and building and zoning regulations.

this is not to say that the market is not there for this kind of living. in fact, i live this way, (for the most part), my wife and i live in a single detached home, and share a car. i think there is a lot to be said for a balanced, multi-modal transport system that provides lots of different options for getting around, and different types of house (dense vs sprawl, apartment vs home, etc).

the current pattern of building more, and wider freeways further and further out is clearly not sustainable.


Crystal 10.05.06 at 12:55 am

I lived in San Francisco without a car for several years. It kept me in great shape, I’ll tell you that. San Francisco, as others have mentioned, is a really good city in which to live without a car – small, good weather, bike-, pedestrian- and public-transit-friendly.

Now that I live in the ‘burbs, I cannot do without my car. Things are just too spread out, and public transit is not of good quality. In San Francisco I could walk to the store, take a bus to the library, etc. Here I can’t unless I want to spend all day on busses.

A couple of things that work against the car-free life, in much of the US at least, have only been tangentially touched upon: time and safety. Given that many Americans work far more than 40 hours in a week, many of us love our cars because getting from here to there is so much quicker. Not to mention that if one can only go to market, go to the library, run all those errands on a Saturday, you can see where the idea of spending a whole Saturday on a bike or bus, toting bags and books and parcels, is a giant pain in the butt.

Second – especially for women – there is the safety factor. A lot of us women do not feel safe waiting for a bus alone at night, especially in a dodgy area. We can’t always go out with partners or friends, and we feel like mooches always trying to bum rides. A lot of women just feel safer driving if we have to be alone at night.

So living without a car is really much more do-able in dense areas with low crime.


Chris Williams 10.05.06 at 7:28 am

I do it, with 2 small kids, in central Leicester. You can also do it in London, or in selected bits of central Nottingham, Birmingham, Cambridge, Manchester, Sheffield, or Leeds. But that’s about it. You need:

– a biggish city, big enough to sell one of everything, but not too big: Brum is probably pushing it.
– Mr Tesco to deliver your monthly shopping
– lots of local shops (multi-ethnicity helps a bunch here).
– Brompton foldybike.
– Seriously load-bearing non-folding pram
– Maclaren buggy for trains and buses.
– live on a low-floor busroute into town and to the hospital.
– be 20 minutes walk from the coach station, and
– (this is the killer one) be 20 minutes walk from a main line railway station with a decent service that goes north/south _and_ east/west.

So yes, it’s do-able in the UK with very little lifestyle angst. But you need to live in the right place, and these are few and far between.

By the way, the “folding bike plus National Express coach” combination is a very cheap (though not especially pleasant) way of getting round the UK.


Larisa M. 10.07.06 at 6:48 pm

I think Philadelphia is just fine for living without a car; admittedly, I’m a student and living on campus (so I can walk to class), but the public transit system is great for getting around the city. In fact, I think that a car would be more of an inconvenience than a help; parking is a major hassle here.

I haven’t even acquired a bicycle; don’t need one.

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