The one-car household: a car junkie cuts back

By Martin Daley

soapbox badgeI am what you may call a recovering car junkie.

I. Love. Cars.

I've had over 10 of them -- even a couple of classics. And I still pine for the restored 1986 Jeep CJ-7 I once owned.

But a couple of years ago a muffler shop noticed a ton of frame rust on my barely-broken-in Toyota Tacoma and told me about a buyback program created to address the problem. After a month of back and forth, Toyota eventually bought my beloved truck back.

Since then, we've been a single car household.

Here's how it's worked out.

A little background

My wife and I come from a professional urban planning background -- she programs federal transportation money, I help communities develop multi-use trails. We're both big "urbanophiles," so it doesn't surprise people that we are a one car household.

Still, we didn't plan to give up a car. And I must admit, despite my love for all things city, cycling, mass transit and environmental, I wasn't quite sure this one car thing would work out.

The transition

Not long after I let go of the truck, my wife and I used the proceeds of the sale to help us buy a home on Myrtle Ave in Albany. The location allowed me to walk, take the bus, or bike to work. Jen and I sold her tiny hatchback and bought a Honda Element (I joke that it's the love child of the hatchback and the pickup). It's so versatile that we never find ourselves wanting of a bigger or smaller car. My wife used the car for getting to work, but sinceBus Plus launched, she's been biking and busing more.

Now, to be fair, we're a one car household but we do have a motorcycle that I can use seven months of the year to get me to the places I can't get with CDTA. Also, we don't have kids, which would definitely make the one car lifestyle more difficult.

The pluses

The environmental benefits of giving up a car are obvious and well documented. But no one ever asks me about them. What people really want to know is: do you save money? And how much?

+ The car payment on our Element is $300 a month. If we had another new car that would amount to $3600 a year just to drive it.
+ Gasoline, in an average week, is $50 a tank. That's $2600 a year.
+ With one car we pay about $750 a year on insurance (perfect driving records, too). Another car and driver would add about $500 per year.

These are just a few of the expenses of owning a second car and they total up to $6700!! I'm not even adding the cost of maintenance, parking, tickets, registration fees, or repairs. Let's just say at the end of the year we have an extra $7,000 in our pockets. Who wouldn't like that?

Tips on having a one car household in the Capital Region

There are definitely some things you can do to make it easier to live in the Capital Region with one car. Here are a few:

  • Live in an area served by transit and sidewalks. I cannot stress this enough. If I lived in the suburbs and worked downtown (or vice versa), giving up a car would be extremely difficult.
  • Start slow. Take it from one day a week with using one car and then build up. When you can go a couple weeks without using that second car, it's time to sell it!
  • Get a sturdy, comfortable, reliable bicycle. It doesn't have to be expensive.
  • There's no bad weather, just bad clothing. When you commute by foot or bike you're guaranteed to be affected by the weather. Dress appropriately (Goretex, solid winter boots, Yaktrax for the ice) and you'll be fine.
  • Get a 5-day or 7-day CDTA swiper. Price Chopper has the same promotion for swiper cards that they have for gasoline. My employer pays for my swiper -- it's a LOT cheaper than paying for my parking spot. Ask your employer if you can make that deal, too. If your employer won't buy your swiper, ask about buying it pre-tax.
  • Finally, and this may sound a little odd, but the next time you watch a car commercial pay attention. What are advertisers trying to sell you? Will you skid through the desert at 100 mph? Will you suddenly go on a rafting trip with your handsome and rugged buddies? Will kids flock to your minivan because you have a DVD player? Once you divorce yourself from the ridiculousness of marketing for cars, the easier it will be for you to deprogram the idea that you MUST have a car or you'll be shunned from society!

The downside

So, do I miss my truck? Sometimes. I spent a lot of weekends driving far and camping out and being on my own -- but a lot of that's just nostalgia for being a young guy with a pickup and ambition.

And there are some things that would make living in a one car household easier. CDTA, for example, still has no schedules at any of the bus stops. And the only CDTA app available is for Bus Plus. I also hate these new developments, like Patroon Creek Blvd, where mass transit doesn't go. I once had to walk from the bus stop on Brevator St. across lawns and parking lots to get to urgent care when I was sick. That's a real fail for Albany's planing board.

But mostly, I have no regrets. A one car household in the Capital Region takes a little planning, but it is possible. Take it from me, an automobile-junkie.

Martin has a great -- and very appropriate -- username on Twitter: daleyplanit.

Martin on the Soapbox:
+ The Lark Tavern: Where everybody knew your name
+ Of government and chickens
+ Loving -- and hating -- the Empire State Plaza
+ An urban planner grows in Albany

Earlier on AOA:
+ The Capital Region without a car


CDTA app:

Also, Google Transit directions.

Good for you! My husband and I have shared one car ever since college, and still do 15 years and two kids later. The single most important thing for us has been to have at least one person's job accessible either by foot or public transportation. Right now, both of us normally bike the five-ish miles to our jobs, but when there's a foot of snow on the ground my ability to take the bus makes one-car living possible (his job is nowhere near a busline).

If Zipcar were around we'd be able to go car-free. We invested in a cargo bike for grocery runs and kid transport, and live in a nicely walkable neighborhood. Maybe someday....

This entire article is a sham, the guy's got a motorcylce, which is buried halfway through. so 2/3rds of the year requires almost no sacrifice in, what an inspiration!

I've thought about going the 1 car household route at some point, however right now it's not a good option for us. My husband is writing a book, and it requires him to go on the road for 4-6 weeks at a time, with his car. While of course I could be without a car in theory, in practice it would be a problem - for example, CDTA doesn't allow dogs.

However, it is something I would like to do eventually. I am walking distance to my job, so if it weren't for the trips that put my husband away from home for long stretches of time, we'd have no real reason to have two cars.

Married? Homeowner? Congrats!

@ Ike - wouldn't it have been more of a sham if he had not mentioned that he had a motorcycle ?

As someone who was in a carless household in the capital region until recently what Martin says rings true.

I have never owned a car. I knew how to drive and had a license, but never had any desire to incur the expense of a vehicle. When I lived in NYC it was easy. When I lived in Seattle it was easy when I stayed in my 'hood (Capitol Hill - which is also close to downtown). The bus system leaves A LOT to be desired (and now they are adding light rail), but it's nowhere near as bad as CDTA. Also, Seattle has car sharing which to me was the best thing EVER! If I wanted the use of a car I reserved it for a few hours (at the time it was about $8 an hour), they paid for gas and insurance and when I returned the car I never had to look for parking because all of the cars have dedicated parking spots. The Capital District would benefit SO much from a car sharing program.

Now I have to deal with paratransit (CDTA's STAR) because of my physical disability and the medications I take I am no longer able to drive. It is a constant exercise is in frustration. All trips have to be scheduled in advance (so no spontaneous trips) and when the regular buses near your home don't run (like on Sundays near me) paratransit is not available to you. Also, you have to apply and be approved for STAR which they keep making more and more difficult and CDTA has a reputation for refusing paratransit to people who rightfully deserve it. And finally you have to live within 3/4 of a mile of a regular bus route in order to even be considered for paratransit eligibility.

If I were miraculously cured of my progressive neuromuscular disease tomorrow I would return to a city with much better public transportation and a car sharing program and would continue living my life without owning a car. While it's admirable to be a single car family, honestly Americans need to start looking toward less reliance on cars, unless they want to pay more than $5 a gallon for gas. They will not be able to have it both ways.

a sham? the bike is for pleasure and after two years i have yet to crack 2000 miles. Its useable only when nice and 7 months of the year. i also owned a motorcyle for years before i ditched my car. so asterisk the stat if you must, but still. one househould, one car, and were driving less and less by the month.

a sham... this is i try not to read blog comments anymore...

Of COURSE this whole post is a sham, and not just because this guy has a motorbike (though that is a big factor).

This couple lives in an area served by public transit (albeit the less-than-ideal CDTA), doesn't even have kids, and they still think sharing a giant SUV is a big deal? Hahaha, where exactly is the sacrifice here? This is like hearing someone put on airs about how they manage without buying a vacation home!

Get back to me when you live in the suburbs and share a Toyota Yaris, mmmkay?

One of the major perks that the new 17 Chapel condominiums is promoting is that being downtown allows you to easily walk to a lot of attractions, and even work if you work downtown. Walking or biking around is so much more fun and healthier!

Great article! Good points about using a swiper and dressing for the weather. Regarding the suburbs, it is possible to be a one car family in the suburbs, but you have to choose your location carefully. I think unless your house and job are both in walking distance of the bus line, it would probably be very difficult. But IF you have both of those things going for you, it's worth a try.

As our kids have gotten older, and since we left Albany for the suburbs, we thought we would feel more pressure to get a second car. Sometimes, we do. But overall, having just one vehicle forces us to slow down, to be more selective/deliberate about the running around we do, and just to generally not overschedule the kids or ourselves. This is a major quality of life benefit, in my opinion.

I lived carless in Albany for 3 1/2 years. For the most part, it was OK. I was working pretty cruddy jobs waiting to go back to college & it made sense to go carless & spend those funds elsewhere (mostly buying gas to get friends w/ cars to go on day trips & vacations!).
What I learned quickly is to maximize the trips you get to take in cars so you don't wind up on the bus with a broom & a 50lb bag of kitty litter...
It also made me obsessed with timing how long it takes to get everywhere. Even now that I have a car & live in the sticks, I still say things like "we need to leave by 11:44 to make it to Price Chopper by noon!" 60 seconds late via car means 60 seconds late. 60 seconds late for CDTA means a minimum 20 minutes late to your destination!
& don't even get me going, especially in June, about jerks who don't shovel their sidewalks...

To those questioning Marty's lack of sacrifice.. Maybe I read this wrong, but I thought the whole point of the story was that he's taking advantage of city resources and thus downsizing his fleet isn't as painful as perhaps one would expect. I never got the impression he was trying to pat himself on the back or make himself out to be a hero.

@Janet-- I'm thinking you didn't get the gist of the post, which was, what factors have led to us being able to give up a car. I'm not asking to be a saint and be called the most environmentally friendly guy in the area. When we talk sacrifice I'm happy to admit there was relatively little because we don't NEED that second car. Before I sold my truck I truly believed I couldn't get by without it, and I rarely rode the bus, biked, or walked more than a few blocks. But now it's easy to see that the second car was totally superfluous.

A giant SUV? Have you ever seen a Honda Element? It's one of the tiniest SUVs on the market, with a 4 cylinder engine and it's shorter than a Civic. We aren't willing to sacrifice our lifestyle. Jen and I have two dogs, we've driven cross-country a few times and car camped, and a Yaris just can't handle two mountain bikes and two kayaks, or 1000lbs of yard material. We decided to get a small, but capable car to do everything we could not do with a little one. We just try to leave it in the driveway as much as possible. ""The Prius owner is someone who has been convinced by advertising to broadcast that he is an environmentalist, not by driving less or recycling, but, ironically, by buying a car." - Carjacked

Jay Leno, a HUGE car fanatic, had an interesting take on alternative fueled vehicles and mass transit. I'm paraphrasing, but essentially he said these forms of transit are SAVING big/classic/inefficient cars. Gasoline is a scare resource. Everyone can have a piggish muscle car, or an SUV, but that doesn't mean we should be driving all over creation.

I think people are missing the point of the article, really, and that is, you can have a normal life and not have two cars. We're told that when we have kids that the one car dynamic will change. It will because I'll sell my motorcycle (!), but in essence, the convenience of the neighborhood, and the proximity of one of our jobs to the house, means that there just won't ever be a need for two cars. *whew!

I think also added to the "tips" should be:
this is much more feasible if you have a desk job, AND day job. For those of us with jobs where we are on our feet 6-8 hours and who work nights, the thought of shlepping home on foot, or standing and waiting at the bus stop in the dark, is extremely unappealing.

and frankly, anyone who is influenced enough by car ads thinking that particular car will change their life, gets what they deserve. My dad used to SELL cars and he adamantly thought anyone who bought a *new* car was a fool. I mean really, isn't a car that's a few months/years old new enough for people? Cars are well made today--it's not like buying last year's model is going to leave someone stranded by the side of the road, but makes better financial sense.

Thanks, Martin, for sharing this. Sometimes we don't realize the resources that exist right around us simply because we never looked or never knew to look. Your wife Jen is always, without realizing it, offering me a kick in the butt via Twitter to reevaluate the things I'm doing and this follows suit. Thank you for sharing.

It's now been over four years since I've been carfree, and the more time passes, the more resolved I am to not purchase a car again. Do I drive? Absolutely. I rent cars when I need to, and I still really enjoy driving (though I've gotta admit, not quite as much as I once did).

Did someone actually comment on Martin's piece, "Get back to me when you live in the suburbs...."??? Now, I could be wrong, but I can't imagine Martin and Jen heading to the car-dependent suburbs. Nothing against those who choose the 'burbs, but as Martin pointed out they are both big "urbanophiles"-- so I don't see them abandoning walkable neighborhoods where they don't need to drive for a beer, a burrito or to pick up some groceries.

I'm fortunate that Martin and Jen moved to our block a couple of years ago! It's great to see then not just when I'm walking the dog, but on my way to work, Bros Tacos or just taking a stroll in the neighborhood.

add to those savings - depreciation (what do we know the car is worth once we drive it off the showroom floor?) and the cost of borrowing (loan payments) or the loss of interest from paying for the car from accumulated savings. The $7000 savings quoted in the article is understated!

And of course you won't need two cars with kids - that's why there are grandmas! :)

My husband and I have only had one car for the last 5 years - and we've lived in the suburbs the whole time.

Sure, we had to leave for work a little earlier or sometimes arrange for a friend to pick us up if we were going out (and not going together). We did have the benefit of both of our jobs being in the same direction away from our house most of the time & working fairly regular schedules (at least, I did).

It was sometimes quite annoying or inconvenient, but it was always worth the amount of money that we saved by not having two cars.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed this post. I think too often an idea, such as this, is written off too quickly as "I can't do that". What I took from this article and the positive comments is that the idea deserves more thoughtful consideration. As for you negative nellies, perhaps it is the filter through which you read it that is a sham and not the post.

Assuming you live somewhere with frequent and reliable public transportation, and it takes a roughly direct route to your destination, using it *saves time*.

This IMHO is the largest benefit of public transportation - time spent on the bus or train is time you can spend doing work or relaxing. It sounds trivial, but when I lived in Albany I spent the 20 minute bus ride to school reading, and that extra 40 minutes of reading per day adds up fast.

ignore the nay sayers. There are plenty of people who live and work in Albany w/out any cars. Many of them do so simply because they can not afford a car. I bet you see them. Some are the single working moms with the screaming babies who are crying after a long trek to get to price chopper by bus in inclement weather. They could use an improved CDTA more than any one.

So rather than second guess daleyplanit's motive, applaud his efforts. It is people like him that will help Albany become a better more rational place to live.

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For a decade All Over Albany was a place for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. It was kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who could help you find out what's up. AOA stopped publishing at the end of 2018.

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