Is It Shameful to Not Own a Car?

A look at the pros, cons, and stigmas of the car-free lifestyle.

I haven’t had a car for almost four years, and I’m okay with that.

Sure, I could afford a car payment… but I can live even more comfortably without a car. Some people get it, but others don’t quite understand why I’d make that choice.

Perhaps it’s because I’m American that this is an odd issue. After all, our country’s very infrastructure and societal status has long been dependent on the automobile. But now more than ever, there are valid reasons for not owning a car. There are some setbacks, but they aren’t as bad as you’d think.

Disclaimer: If you live in the suburbs or the countryside, you need a car to get around. I know that. Rather, I’m trying to argue that for urban life in America, a car is a luxury and not a necessity.
Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

The Advantages of Not Having a Car

There are some pretty good reasons for living an automobile-free life:

You Save Money

I save a lot of money by not having a car. About ten grand a year, if you wanna get down to it.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2017, the average vehicle cost its owner $9,576 a year. That includes car payments, gas, and other costs like maintenance and insurance.

In my city, a 31-day bus pass costs $40. The average Ride Austin or Lyft for me is rarely over $9, and I only use that when I’m in a pinch or can’t get to the bus. My bicycle cost a fraction of what a car would, doesn’t require an insurance premium, and needs minimal upkeep.

$10,000 is a lot of money for most people. Can you think of what you’d use that for, apart from a car?

You Exercise More

A sedentary lifestyle is an unhealthy lifestyle. And what are you doing while driving? You’re sitting down. You’re probably sitting down a lot, because the average American spends 42 hours a year in traffic.

Moreover, Americans are getting fatter because they aren’t moving. Just two years ago, a study reported that American teenagers are as active as 60 year-olds. Which is to say, not very active at all. Processed foods aren’t the only thing to blame — automobile dependency is also a culprit.

In a worldwide study published by Nature, researchers investigated the concept of activity inequality, or the gap between a country’s active (walking) and inactive (driving) people. The higher the gap, the higher the obesity rate. In America, the most walkable city — New York City — had the lowest inequality. Sprawled, commuter-heavy cities like Arlington, Fort Worth, and Houston had the highest inequalities, and inactive populations. “Walkability is linked to increased activity levels,” said the study.

Japan routinely tops the list of healthiest nations, and a pedestrian lifestyle is a major reason why. Car sales there have dwindled since 1997, and 2017 saw car ownership reach its lowest point in twenty years. Why aren’t they buying cars? They just don’t need them. A superior train, subway, and bus network makes cars largely unnecessary for urban life — they just walk everywhere.

Your Footprint is Smaller

There’s just too many damned people on the road.

Almost 90% of Americans commute to work by car, and over 75% of them are only driving themselves. That is a wasteful amount of cars on the road.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a single passenger vehicle produces almost 5 tons of carbon dioxide a year. And a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study determined that road emissions lead to 53,000 premature deaths in America. Just imagine how those numbers could be reduced if we carpooled more, took the bus, or hopped on rapid transit.

Climate change and pollution aren’t political talking points, they are scientific facts. And in this subject, actions speak louder than words.

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

The Disadvantages of Not Having a Car

Now that we’ve gone over some great reasons to not own a car, I’ll be fair and mention some of the setbacks a car-free life brings:

You Can’t Carry Much Cargo

Grocery trips can be managed afoot or by bike, but you’d better have friends if you wanna transport something bigger. And lord have mercy if you’re without a car and need to move to a new house.

Fortunately for me, I’m pretty well-settled in my residence, and there’s a nearby grocery store. But make no mistake, it could be a huge problem for those not in my situation.

You Rely on Public Transportation

I live in a city with pretty good public transportation, but some days are better than others. The bus driver is too early or way behind schedule, and if you’re careless with your time it can really screw up your plans. Personally, I get anxious if I leave things to chance, so I try to catch bus routes at least two time slots earlier to give me wiggle room on being on-time.

The other downside with public transportation is the crazies. For a big, tall guy like me, I have nothing to worry about; but it’s a whole other ball game for women. The world is seen through a [white] man’s perspective, so we take for granted that we can go about our daily lives without fear of harassment or assault. A car brings you safety and a barrier; so I completely understand why a woman would not budge on this choice.

Dating is Hard

I don’t mean it‘s hard because you can’t physically meet your date — that’s not an issue. I’m talking about something completely different.

There’s a stigma surrounding men without cars. They’re poor; they’re lazy; they can’t commit; they’re unambitious. A woman without a car may be seen as needy or helpless. A lot of undesirable connotations come with not owning a car. Sometimes, they’re applicable. But sometimes, they’re not.

Now before I get any hate mail, let’s get this out of the way:

You are not obligated to date anyone you don’t want to date.

You also aren’t anyone’s chauffeur — if someone demands a disproportionate amount of effort on your end, then they aren’t worth your time. Those people are the kind of folks who are bums.

But the entire point of this article is to illustrate that there are valid reasons for not owning a car. Losing interest in someone for not having a vehicle isn’t wrong. But if that same person who loses interest also preaches about minimalism, environmental issues, and living green… it is hypocritical.

Photo by Guus Baggermans on Unsplash

Not having a car has its ups and downs, but for me, the pros outweigh the cons:

  • I save a crazy amount of money and stress.
  • I get way more exercise than I normally would.
  • I can honestly say I lessen my environmental impact.

Really, I’m not even lobbying for an abolition of cars — that’s not possible with how our infrastructure was built. It’s a catch-22: America is overdependent on the automobile because it was designed entirely around the automobile.

Nevertheless, our car culture is a problem that needs solving. People opting for a car-free life are part of the solution — so we should stop shaming them.

Clifton Long Jr. is a writer from Austin, Texas. When he isn’t shaking his fist at the bus driver who just ignored him at the stop, he contemplates investing in a burro.