How Much Does Going Car-Lite Really Save a Family?

In my first post, I talked in general about going car-free or car-lite. I didn’t really get into any specifics about what it costs, mostly because our family was fairly new to it at the time. We ditched our second car in early September of 2014 (though I hadn’t driven it more than a couple times since having moved to our home in Minneapolis back in June). So now it’s been over a year, and I wanted to see what the results were.

For background, we have 1 young kid in daycare. One of us (usually my wife) drops him off and picks up him on the way to/from work. She works in downtown Minneapolis (~4 miles from home), I work downtown St Paul (~12 miles from home). I mostly did a single transfer bus trip or biked to a bus in downtown Minneapolis. My wife mostly took the bus to daycare then walked or bused the remaining mile. Sometimes we were lazy and drove or took Car2Go (something I need to get better at in particular since my laziness came with a hefty price each time). I went and tallied all our gas, parking, car-share, and bike costs starting October 2014 through September 2015. Here’s what we spent:

HouseholdMobilityCosts

Of course, this ignores things like maintenance, upkeep, depreciation, insurance, and registration taxes. It also leaves out the several road trips we took to Iowa, and one to Duluth to give a clearer picture of what we spent on regular mobility. Parking includes the daily rate I paid at the ramp on random days plus any meters around town (something you’re bound to pay when living in a city).

More importantly, I wanted to know how that compares to living in alternate universes where we both still have jobs and a kid but live and/or work in different locations. I envisioned 6 scenarios in addition to our current one. Right now, we own a two-year old Honda Odyssey. It was expensive. But we knew it would likely be a single household vehicle racking up very few miles (and therefore likely lasting us a long time) and we were comfortable with that. The other scenarios fall into 2 buckets:

Bucket 1 – Moderate-to-high income family

  • Scenario 0: Exact same living/travel patterns as today, but assuming we bought a less expensive used van instead for around $18,000
  • Scenario 1: Living in our home, but both owning a vehicle and driving to work in respective downtowns. Second car is a mid-range junker (something like an $8,500 car with about 100,000 miles on it already)
  • Scenario 2: Suburban living, somewhere 10-12 miles from downtown (Bloomington, for example), one commute to downtown, one commute to suburban job about 10 miles away (same cars as Scenario 1)
  • Scenario 3: Suburban living, both commute to suburban job (same cars as Scenarios 1 & 2)

Bucket 2 – Lower income family

  • Scenario 4: Exact same living/commuting patterns as today, but assuming we bought an even cheaper van at $13,500 and I was less lazy about the random Car2Go usage and avoided paying to park as much as possible
  • Scenario 5: Suburban living, both commute to suburban job, same van as above but the second car is even cheaper at $4,500

I made assumptions on things like insurance, taxes/tabs, and maintenance (oil, windshield wiper blades, etc), upkeep (larger things like tires, periodic repairs, etc). “Weekly mileage” is a random guess for trips above and beyond commuting. I ignored finance charges in all cases and depreciated the cars assuming they’re kept for 150,000 miles but no longer than 12 years. And I put gas at a relatively low $2.50/gallon just for fun. Check out the results:

Transportation_Costs_Compare

This really flies in the face of the typical urbanist mantra that going car-lite can save a family thousands upon thousands of dollars. Most families aren’t buying two brand-new vehicles at $30,000 each and selling them every 6 years. I laid out a much more practical scenario which I believe represents the lives of many suburban families – one or no commutes to downtown (where parking is expensive) with the remaining commutes to a somewhat close suburb.

As you can tell, a middle-income family buying a typical bucket of vehicles probably only spends $6-8,000 total on daily transportation. Even still, a similar family living closer in like my wife and I saves almost $1,000 a year by taking the bus, biking, and walking for many trips. A lower-income family with two workers in the core city saves over $2,000 a year relative to their suburban counterparts driving to jobs offering free parking. That’s no small change for a family who is likely struggling to make ends meet.

Here’s the problem: I really don’t think most middle class families will see living in a (likely) smaller house (especially if it shares walls) and riding a bus to work every day to save $1-2k a year on transportation a very good tradeoff. That’s assuming either adult even works downtown. My wife and I love where we live. We can walk or bike as transportation to destinations, we’re centrally located to all the jobs in the metro, and truly enjoy the urban neighborhood we live in. I love that i get exercise as part of my daily life, and that my alma mater’s home football games are within biking distance of my house. That’s not for everyone, I get that.

But those numbers would shift quite a bit if we charged drivers for carbon and other pollutants, tolled freeways during busier times, raised the gas tax, and revealed other costs borne by cars that aren’t today. Conversely, this is an argument for making both suburbs and core cities more walkable and bikeable, with stronger job and destination density along with fewer housing regulations ensuring adequate housing across all price points.

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7 thoughts on “How Much Does Going Car-Lite Really Save a Family?

  1. mulad October 22, 2015 / 4:32 PM

    I’m curious how you came up with that number for insurance, since it typically costs me around $1,200 annually (+/- $200 due to neighborhood and vehicle age).

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    • Alex October 22, 2015 / 5:21 PM

      In lieu of updating the xls sheet and then the image for the blog, yes, that was a mistake. Our insurance is $100/mo for our one vehicle, which seems pretty common. When we had a second car it was another $55/mo. So, the value just needs to be multiplied by 12. This basically saves an additional $700/year in the 1 car scenarios.

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  2. Julia October 22, 2015 / 5:11 PM

    Interesting to see the numbers crunched. I’ve been carfree my entire life, by choice, and while I’ve seen myself save thousands of dollars annually compared to friends living similar lifestyles, I’ve never had the chance to actually compare the numbers. I do notice that you don’t mention any parking tickets, towing, etc., which perhaps are more common in circles of renters.

    I’m thinking about my expenditures for transit. As a freelance graphic designer and caretaker, my commute needs are very different from yours and vary greatly daily. In a studio apartment, I don’t have space for parking a bike and NiceRide doesn’t use bikes that fit me. I usually end up walking most places, not because I’m trying to save money but because I love walking slightly more than I love the bus (and that’s a lot of love). I actually sometimes take the bus when I don’t really need to in part because I want to financially support the system. I probably put $40 on my go-to card every 2 months. I’ve been replacing my walking shoes perhaps every 8 months at about $90 a go (not re-sole-able).

    Given my tighter budget, $500 vs $1,000+ is no contest, particularly since I’ve never spent the $1,000+ so I’m unused to thinking of it as anything but unnecessary waste, especially since I’m not sure what I’d use it for or when. I also see the pain and stress of a car for friends who drive daily as well as those who go weeks without driving. Having no car is a huge freedom and I can’t imagine being burdened by one, even for part-time use.

    I think your point is a solid one, however, that right now cost structures aren’t going to provide the necessary incentive on their own for individuals and families who might be balancing the books like you are to think about going car free.

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    • Alex October 22, 2015 / 5:25 PM

      Excellent thoughts. I should note that both my wife and I have a monthly transit pass, both subsidized by work (mine more than hers). With a fairly regular commute at peak hours (and me using an express bus between downtowns), it definitely pays for itself. Other people who rely less on a 7-5 commute like yourself and work from home or about town are probably better served with a Go-To card.

      Also, this is a very “nuclear family” view of a household. A single working adult (especially one who doesn’t have many or any family or friends in the region and also in the suburbs) can easily get by with no car at all. I would think any college grad complaining about student loans and living/working in the city would seize this time in their life to go carless for a few years. In this city at least, that’s not as common as it could be.

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