I went to college in Southern California, where we all know the car is king. My grandmother gave me her old car, a 1995 VW Golf, as a gift for my high school graduation. I remember crying with joy when I saw the keys. I told her that she was giving me more than just a car, she was giving me independence.
I named the car Betty Jean Golf, and loved Betty Jean like a child. We had so many good times together, from late night runs to Del Taco, to road trips with my best friends to Utah or Baja, Mexico. But after four years of studying sustainability and bemoaning the impacts of individual actions on the environment, I was over it. The insurance payments, fluctuating gas prices, and constant maintenance needs of a ten-year-old car may have helped to push me over the edge, but the long and short of it is that I wanted out.
When it came time to decide where to move after college, being able to get by without a car was one of my top priorities. In our classically nerdy fashion, Mike and I made a spreadsheet to compare all the different cities we were considering by all the different criteria that mattered most to us. Public transportation and walkability were at the top of my list.
Washington, D.C. won the spreadsheet contest, and shortly after moving there I donated my car to a charity. In the almost five years that we lived in DC, I loved not having a car. The Metro and bus systems in DC and surrounding suburbs are frequent, convenient, and fairly affordable. I also got a membership with ZipCar shortly after moving to DC, which came in handy for moving, the occasional IKEA shopping spree, impromptu camping trips, or visits to the vet. All told, we really only ever used ZipCar a couple times a year, at most.
So DC gave us options outside of car ownership, which was wonderful. Not having a car saved us money and allowed us to live in (subjectively) better neighborhoods, where owning a car would have been such a pain. Thank you, smart growth.
Well, this past fall we relocated from DC to a tiny city (“micro-urban” is the term they use here) in the Midwest. Champaign-Urbana is actually two cities, with a humungous university spread across the two of them. Within the first two months of moving here, I had already found myself wanting a car more times than I did in 5 years in DC. C-U has a great bus system considering the size of the city, and it’s relatively compact and walkable within the central area. I'm also riding my bike almost every day when the weather permits, something I was too terrified to do in DC.
But overall, it’s harder to get around than it was in DC. The waiting time for busses is longer. The bus schedule is largely based on the University’s academic calendar, so weekend service is scaled back, as is service during school breaks. Thankfully, they have ZipCar here too, and we’ve already used it a few times, but even that proves less convenient here than it did in DC.
We decided when we moved here that not owning a car would be a social experiment, to see how long we could last here without one. The experiment continues, but I've already found myself checking out used cars on Craigslist, and I even emailed one of them this morning. (It's a hybrid, for what it's worth.)
It seems I have a lot of pros-and-cons lists to make, to decide if I'm really going to give up my foot loose and car-free lifestyle that I've been so proud of for almost six years, or if I'm going back to my west coast roots where a car isn't just a car, it's independence.