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The Family of 5 That Went Car-Free

Lifting their third son into the rear middle car seat of the family’s Toyota Prius, while the twins cry loudly in her ear, Ruth decided she’d had enough. She, with her husband Owen, sat down together to figure it out. Could their family live life without a car?

Traipsing 3 kids around to school, daycare, and extracurricular activities wouldn’t be easy. How would they grocery shop to fill all those mouths? What about family vacations, weekend trips away, or heading out to the movies – could they survive?

Here’s my interview with Ruth about her family of 5 going car-free.

When did you decide to go car-free?

In November 2017, we took our car, a 2004 Toyota Prius, in to get the winter tires changed over. While there, we asked about a sound we had been hearing when we went over bumps. The mechanic checked it out and let us know that the car would probably need some work on the back struts in the next few months, but it was still safe to drive. The sound got louder over the winter, and we knew we would need to look into fixing it. When we looked at the cost of repair versus the amount the car was worth at the time, they were about the same!

We were also quickly growing out of the car. The twins were almost 2, and our older son was nearly 5. When they were little, everyone kept their hands to themselves, and it was easy to lift smaller babies into the car seats. It had become difficult to get everyone into the car, and no one was happy when they were in their seats. I was pretty sure one of the twins got car sick in smaller cars, so that added to the general unhappiness of the kids during car trips.

What was your first step? Did you sell the car? Did you figure out how you’d live without a car? Did you look at the budget and the cost savings?

When we found out about the cost of the repair, we crunched some numbers and looked at our budget. We figured we would save at least $200 a month in car insurance, gas, parking permit, and general maintenance if we sold the car. There are many different grocery stores within walking distance and a few others that deliver for a fee. We are close to transit, Uber/Lyft/taxis are readily available, and there are a bunch of car rental places around if we needed a car. We figured that if we could keep our costs below $200 a month then it was well worth it to sell the car. Most months we are well below the $200 range and only come close if we have to rent a car for an out of town trip around holidays.

When we were ready to sell the car, we went to a dealership, and we were happy with the price they were willing to give us for the car, especially given the work the car needed. Once we were given the quote, it sealed our decision.  

Before we sold, we did need to come up with a solution for getting the kids around to places in our day to day life. We had a stroller they were growing out of and needed replacing. We purchased a stroller/running stroller/bike trailer combo. This would be versatile enough to be used daily for walks and could be easily hooked up to our bikes for longer trips. We didn’t want the cost of the new stroller to come out of the money from the sale of the car, so we financed it by selling the old stroller and other baby items we had around the house.

What have you learned about living without a car? Is it easy? What’s the hardest part? Are you going to stay car-free?

Things take a little more time and a little more planning when you don’t have a car, but for the most part, it’s easy. I think this is due in part to where we live and the walkability of our neighbourhood. It would be much more challenging in the suburbs. I actually find it much easier to get the twins and the stroller out the front door,  than I did getting everyone into the car.

The hardest part is dealing with the weather in the winter. We were taking swimming lessons in the fall. As we got into November, our motivation to get the bikes out and cycle to the pool declined.  We decided to take a break from swimming for the winter and signed the kids up for activities that are a walkable distance.

At this point, it doesn’t make sense to get a car unless one of us needs it for work. So until that happens, we will be staying car-free. 

You have three kids. How do you get everyone to school and daycare? How do you buy groceries? How do you handle road trips? Did you keep the car seats? How often do you rent a car?

We live 2 blocks from the school, and I am home with the twins for now. Each morning, I get the twins in the stroller, and we walk my older son to school. Once we drop him off, we go to our morning activity. We pick him up at the end of the day, too. It’s a bit of a pain to get them dressed in winter gear for a 5-minute walk up the road, but easier than getting them in and out the car at home and at the school.

For groceries, I often pick up fresh fruits and vegetables with the twins during the week (limited to what fits in the stroller). We occasionally get dry goods and staples delivered. If we rent a car, we’ll usually do a big grocery shop before returning it.

Both sets of our parents live less than an hour west of the city. If we are going out to visit, we’ll rent an SUV. All 3 kids seem happier in an SUV – it gives everyone a little more space and they are less prone to being car sick.  We kept the 3 car seats, and I’ve gotten pretty quick at installing them. We have rented a vehicle around 4 times since May 2018 when we sold the car. We also borrowed the grandparent’s SUV for a week in the summer.

Our older son is still in a 5 point harness when we go on longer trips on the highway in case he falls asleep and slouches. But for quick trips in taxis the city, we just purchased a portable booster seat. This means that getting to things that are a little further away, like karate lessons, is feasible if we are short on time and can’t take transit. We’ll probably end up getting the same boosters for the twins once they meet the age, height, and weight requirements. 

Are there any regrets? Any repercussions? Do you miss living without a car? What’s the hardest thing to do being car-free?

No regrets so far! I don’t miss having a car.  I only really used it to drive to work, and I hated commuting on the highway for 30+ minutes a day. I enjoy not having the stress of worrying about when to set my alarm based on the prediction of the weather for the next day.

When I return to work, I hope to find a job closer to home where I am not dependent on a car to get there.

The hardest thing to do without a car is grocery shopping, but it really is manageable if you plan shopping trips and online grocery delivery. 

What advice would you give someone looking to be living without a car?

Go over your budget and write out a pros and cons list. Make sure you can still get the things done you need to get done like groceries, shopping, getting kids to school/daycare/extracurricular activities without spending more than your average car costs. If you decide to take the plunge and go without a car, remember that you can always reevaluate your decision about car ownership if it doesn’t work out for your family.

What’s next? Are you excited about the future of autonomous vehicles? Will you continue living without a car?

I think autonomous vehicles are pretty cool. I hate driving in general, so if the car could safely do the task for me, I’m game! I do think this will take a lot of planning and infrastructure changes though and probably isn’t going to happen in a widespread way for a while.

At this point, I think we will be car-free for a while unless something changes in terms of employment. It doesn’t make sense for us to own a car that sits parked on the street for 95% of the time. But again, that may change as the kids get bigger and no longer fit in the stroller or bike trailer. We also have not made it through one full winter yet so we may end up changing our minds! When the time comes, we’ll reevaluate our transportation options and figure out what works for us as the kids get bigger.

In a world where cars are ubiquitous, where society almost deems us successful when we own a car – like a rite of passage to becoming an adult, Ruth and her family turned all that notion on its head.  Driving is a privilege, and as Ruth shows us, it’s one you can live without. She didn’t do it alone either, her whole family is on board, and they’re all reaping the rewards of a healthier, more active lifestyle. Her savings accounts are much healthier, too.

Could you give up your car?