Farewell, Prius

I sold my car this week.

I walked over to a neighbor’s house, dropped off the keys and the vehicle, and walked home with a wad of cash. I’ll miss my red 2006 Toyota Prius. It was the longest I’d ever owned a car. It was my sixth and favorite of the bunch, a fitting farewell to what car ownership used to represent to me.

When I turned 16, one month and one day (the law at the time), I got my first driver’s license. The used 1991 Chevy Cavalier soon followed. Like most suburban American teenagers, I enjoyed the newfound sense of apparent freedom that my own wheels afforded — even if it was freedom to visit a friend or the nearest convenience store.

As I got older, my sense of priorities began to shift. My embrace of minimalism (fewer possessions) and frugality (fewer expenses) has me chasing financial independence and trying to make the best use of my time. In other words, the somewhat liberated high schooler had become the 40-year-old who no longer wished to own an underused, depreciating asset.

Lindy and I lived in the District of Columbia for more than 13 years. During that time, at least one of us always walked, biked or took transit to work. In fact, we were a car-free household for almost a year. I was the driving commuter, city to suburb, when we moved to Montgomery County in 2014. An effort to reduce that commute was a key reason. One of the first things we bought, besides the lawnmower, was a second car. We’d gone from a city-dwelling, transit-oriented couple to a suburban two-car family. Our daughter’s school, just three blocks away, was the only place we walked on a regular basis.

Late last year, I went back to working in DC. We live between two Metro stations, and the office where I work most of the time is a block away from the subway. I experimented with different ways of getting to work and found little time difference between them. But if someone else is driving, I can read, email, listen to podcasts or do anything other than fret about stop-and-go city traffic. I worked some exercise into my commute as well, pulling my bike out of storage and riding it the 1–½ miles each way to the station. Yes, it’s truly uphill both ways.

Day after day, I’d pull my bike up the driveway after work and look at the unused red Prius sitting there. On weekends, we’d never travel separately, and we only have one kid to shuttle around. I began to think seriously about whether the car had outlived its purpose for us.

It was an idea that crossed my mind more than once. Then, during Snowzilla, I moved the car to a public parking garage so I wouldn’t have to clear two feet of snow off of it in the driveway. (Our county executive encouraged this practice by opening the garages for free.) As the road crews cleared out street by street and day by day, the car’s free temporary lodging got extended once, then twice. When we were finally back to work four days after the snow began to fall, I brought the car home. But I could have left it in the garage for days, even weeks, if I didn’t have to pay to park it there.

I realized I’d spent the better part of a week’s time and attention dealing more with the logistics of owning a car than actually using the car. And I’m not alone. In cities, and close-in suburbs, it’s never been easier to not own a car. Uber, Zipcar, car2go and even bike sharing have transformed the transportation landscape, as technology companies and auto manufacturers race toward a self-driving future. I don’t have a lot in common with millennials, but this is a source of common ground. In short, I’m privileged that my situation allows me to make this kind of choice, but I also believe others will do the same.

So what about the cost?

Car insurance for a 10-year-old hybrid isn’t much, it’s a gas sipper, and it doesn’t use any gas at all if I’m not driving it. Keeping an extra vehicle around doesn’t seem like it would break the bank. But that’s not the whole picture. When you count the depreciation, the maintenance expenses and the gas, the Prius cost us about $300 a month over its 6–½ year stay with us. There’s no way I’ll come close to that level of expense even if I hail a ride or rent someone else’s car once in awhile. Since we’d also already been budgeting for the eventual Prius replacement, we’ll have significant funds available for other plans.

No, those plans don’t include a Model 3. More in a future post.