You’re really going to need coffee for this one, get it now before you start.
In Part One of What Free Days, we talked about the (editor: ugly, fat, smelly, comfortable, dry, cheap, and easy) car in our driveway, non-subsidized transit costs, kids biking in the city, and Seattle bike infrastructure to name a few.
I’m sending a huge ‘Thank You” to all who reached out on the blog, Facebook and Twitter! (editor: it’s been nearly a year since we’ve posted anything and me, the grumpy, negative part of the team thought we’d hear crickets, if that. Instead, ya’ll came through with some great contributions. So pat yourself on the back and say: “nice job”). I’ll highlight a few comments that resonated with me:
“This is a fun-to-read highly pragmatic and honest assessment of where we are today, and as a guy who went through the 2 kids in a Bakfiets to Xtracycling to kids on their own bikes evolution and who loved every minute of it, driving when you need or want to is just fine. Thanks for saying it loud.” (Frank)
“I console myself with “best tool for the job” phrases. We are all fortunate to have options.” (Stacy)
“One day I will write a blog on the benefits of a multi-mode life. I love it all: biking. Busing, walking, occasional car ride, train. It all beats daily one person car commute alone! I’d much rather have these options. It is a luxury to have options and the people watching is hilarious!” (Charlotte)
Added bonus, we only heard from one hater who called us ‘lame’ on Twitter! Of course, the hater hides behind an anonymous Twitter handle. Of course. Anonymous commenters get what they deserve, dismissal. I can, in good conscience, ignore them on principle. If you’re going to call me lame; face me, take off your hat and dark sunglasses, and use your name!
Back to Part 2. If you’re still with us…. aw, shucks, thanks! Read on to find out the rest of our story.
Back to Cars. Why we bought a car.
I’ll spare you most of the marital deliberations, discussions, and negotiations that lead to the car purchase. Suffice to say, Tim really, really, (editor: really) didn’t want to buy a car. It took me months to convince him that it was a good idea.
He finally gave in a couple of months after we returned from the second leg of our two-summer Pacific Coast Bike tour (editor: you left out how I totally screwed up my knees on the second tour–I hate you, crappy, old, steel Trek tandem).
Settle in for a few long stories about some of the reasons a family -car re-entered our life.
Car Buying Reason #1, Insurance: Protect your (Ass)ets
We’ve already established that being car-free, doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t drive ever. Many car-free people rely on some form of car rental or car sharing to fill in the transportation gaps when/where bikes, feet and transit don’t make sense.
During our family’s experimental car non-ownership phase we mostly relied on the Zipcar, car sharing system (tagline: a “smarter way to get around the city”). Zipcar likes to brag about things like…
- “Drive cars by the hour or day. Gas & insurance included.
- In neighborhoods, cities and airports across the globe.
- Save hundreds over car ownership.
- Choose from sedans, hybrids, vans and more.”
But…um, we experienced things differently. We didn’t save hundreds, we spent thousands (see below). And about that “free insurance” bit–make sure you take a look at what ‘free’ really gives you. You can go all researchy (editor: as your resident librarian, I highly encourage it. In fact, librarians–hi Kreg! hi Jessi!–are standing by) or just leverage this handy article to get your inner insurance sense all tingly. Bottom line, it doesn’t come close to covering the real costs you’d incur if something really bad happened while you are driving.
I don’t need to go into all of the scenarios here. Our money-buddy, Ron, already laid them out for us. Suffice to say, I was shocked when I read that NYT piece. Our family accountant (me) recommends preparing for the worst case scenario. Here’s what I think sums up that article in one sentence:
If you use car share and also have assets: say, a house, savings, or anything really (editor: what about my Farrah Fawcett poster, vintage Boy Scout camping gear, and/or 22 bicycles?), do yourself and your loved ones a favor and get your own auto liability policy.
What’s the insurance solution for non-vehicle-owners?
Some states/companies offer auto policies for non-vehicle-owners. But they aren’t cheap! $368 a year is a lot for personal liability insurance for one person. Multiply that by two drivers, and it doesn’t make any financial sense to own such a policy. Car owner auto liability is cheaper than that.
Another idea. Even if you don’t plan on driving (editor: much), buy a cheap beater car that runs, if only for the liability insurance. A parked car can provide a $500,000 in auto liability. Having a car and a house also enables you to get an umbrella policy, giving you even more insurance. Then you’re really covered. You can just refer to your beater car as your passive ass-saving asset. Ours was a gift, thanks, Mark! We kept this licensed, leaky, barely running, 1974 VW Super Beetle in our driveway for two years for just this reason. Even when we were paying regularly for Zipcar.
Anyone have another/better insurance solution? I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment and share!
Car Buying Reason #2, Access to the outdoors:
This should really be #1 for us because it was the main reason I used when I lobbied Tim for a car (editor: she totally suckered me here)
Tim and I are both Pacific Northwesterners. Tim’s a fourth generation Wasingtonian, his people were salt of the earth homesteaders in Sequim, arriving in Washington before the turn of the century. I’m one of those evil California transplants Seattle natives like Tim hate so much (editor: FWIW, I like her and think she’s hot). My family moved from San Diego to the suburbs of Seattle in the early 1970’s (editor: newby losers!). Even though I wasn’t born here, I’ve lived in Washington all my life and certainly feel like a native (editor:well, you *were* here for the opening of the Kingdome and remember that other Sounders team, so I’m gonna give you a pass-ish).
Like many native(ish) Northwesterners, Tim and I both love the outdoors. We grew up hiking and camping and paddling and skiing (just me, not Tim) (editor: it’s true, I didn’t ski until I followed my girlfriend to Wyoming because she was going to be a ski bum and I was smitten, but I did all the other stuff) and backpacking and walking along remote beaches on the Pacific Coast.
Tim’s single mom used to load up her beater car (editor: 1966 Ford Country Squire Wagon. They were all beaters then) and drag her kids camping in the summer, all by herself. My parents loved camping too, they took me and my four sisters all over the Pacific Northwest in our seven-seater-Catholic-mobile (editor: A General Motors product. As if). Camping was the natural choice in those days of less money and less stuff — how else would a family of seven afford to vacation?
The northwesty outdoors stuff continued through college. Tim and I met while we were both working at REI (thanks Arleen!). You can’t get more Northwestern than that. Tim sold shoes and bikes, and ran promotions and events; I was a friendly cashier.
(editor: sappy love story alert. Click here to jump down the meat & potatoes of the post )
Tim used to
make up the stupidest (editor: find the sweetest and best and most gallant excuses (editor: reasons) to come up to the front of the store and talk with me. I looked forward to those visits, and eventually we started dating. After we’d been dating a couple of months, I told Tim I was quitting my job and moving to Jackson Hole for a winter to ski. Tim quit his job too and came with me, even though he didn’t know how to ski. Learning to ski in Jackson Hole, with the steepest vertical drop in the county, at 26, that’s love! I fell in love with his humor and wit (editor: and my legs. You’ve always looooved my legs) and we’ve been laughing and enjoying the outdoors together for 23 years.
(editor: hey, didn’t this have something to do with cars or not cars or something like that? Let’s get on with it)
In the years we were car-less, car-lite, car-whatever, we didn’t get out of the city much. Sure we rode bikes, and relished everyday adventures in the city; visiting local parks and spending time at the lake trying to satisfy our nature cravings. But no matter what story REI is pitching lately (editor: because they’re trying to cope with a millennial demographic who isn’t sure yet if they want to go outside, but is sure they want to shop), those in-city outings weren’t enough.
After awhile, I started to feel trapped in the city. I needed to get outside, and experience more thrill, more serenity, and more wildness in my adventures than our (admittedly awesome) local parks provide.
As we’ve said ad nauseam, we tried using Zipcars to get out-of-town, at least for our ski adventures. If you talk to native Northwesterners, many will tell you that skiing saves them from the winter blues. Playing in the mountain snow is the prize for enduring months of sea-level rain.
So during the two ski seasons that we were carfree, we booked standing 24 hour Zipcar reservations, every weekend throughout the three-month ski season (editor: Zipcar only let members book eight reservations at a time. So Anne would use up her eight reservations and start booking in my account. I’d be minding my own business around, say, Thanksgiving, then out of nowhere, bam, my email inbox would go nuts with love letters from the Zipcar people: Confirmations, date changes, car changes, more confirmations, and so on).
So yeah, Zipcar worked for skiing. They had a few cars close by that were all-wheel drive, plus chains and ski racks. But, the expense and the routine slowly killed us over the course of the season. We spent thousands of dollars on Zipcar. Multiple thousands of dollars. When your personal Zipcar rep (editor: when you have a personal Zipcar rep) starts sending you gifts in the mail, you know you’re
an idiot a valued customer. (At least our rep had good taste in books!) I mentioned routine being as bad as the expense: The drag of fetching and returning cars using folding bikes before and after long days of skiing quickly became a chore. Yes, playing in the snow is payoff for the lowland rain. But that would have been better without cold, rainy Zipcar-fetching rides bookending the playing. Tim already talked a little bit about our Zipskicar Rochambeau in the last post. This usually involved the winner (the one who gets to stay warm and dry) trading alcohol and personal services to the loser (ie, the person dropping the car off and Bromptoning home in the cold rain):
“I’ll unload the car, and hang up the clothes unpack the gear and ski clothes, make dinner and have a cocktail ready when you get home, IF you’ll return the Zipcar”
Car Buying Reason #3, Teen Bike Rejection Syndrome:
The Teen’s bike-hate factored into the car-decision as well. She hated (editor: still does) bikes. And we were making her ride them. A lot. And she still hated them. And teenagers can be really difficult to live with with imaginary obstacles in your path. Need I say more? No one wants to live with that much teen-hate. No one.
In her defense, she’s turned into a pretty capable bus rider. She may not ride bikes, but she’s still a transportationally independent, teenage bus chick.
Car Buying Reason #4 Kid Activities:
I still cringe a little when I re-read this post where I talk about how easy it is to get kids to their various activities on bikes. Yikes! The 2011 Anne was excited about biking, but also a tad smug (editor: tad?).
My kids were in 5th and 3rd grade when I wrote that post. Their practices were at local fields and games usually kept to the 2-3 mile neighborhood zone. Unless kids play select sports, most elementary team sports stay relatively local. Naturally we rode bikes to practices and games when the kids were in this stage. Easy peasy.
As some of the commenters on that post note, that hyper-local-team-sport ease shifts when kids hit middle school. Kids’ sports-world expands, taking them from local to regional play. That’s when parental extreme-driving becomes commonplace.
When our daughter entered middle school, her lacrosse games took us all over the region: to Snohomish, North Bend, Auburn and Tacoma. Riding bikes for hours or taking buses to games was out of the question. Renting cars became the weekend norm. It only took one season for the family accountant (me) to question the feasibility of continuing on this path without a car. Doable, yes. Affordable? No!
Again. This is just our story. Maybe you don’t ski, or backpack or hike. Maybe your kids aren’t sporty and you spend most of your time doing indoosy things in the city, or having everyday bike adventures at local parks. If that’s the case, enjoy your in-city bike life bliss!
Are we happy with car ownership?
I’d say yes. (editor: I’d say maybe. Talk to me when I need to change the oil in the rain. But to be fair, also talk to me after I’ve come from an awesome day on my paddleboard made possible by the hated car)
But I won’t lie, owning a car has changed some of our habits. The giant grey elephant is warm and dry and convenient, but it also makes us lazy at times. When the car is just sitting in the driveway and it’s pouring down rain, it’s hard not to use it. And I do.
Tim and I still walk and ride bikes within our three-mile zone–to the store, to the library etc. The twelve-year-old boy still rides bikes too. He’s getting some payoff from a childhood on bikes. As a capable rider, he’s able to enjoy the freedom of getting around on his own; he rides between home and school and friends’ houses regularly. The fourteen year old bike-hater has become a bus rider. She loves the confidence gained by riding buses on her own in the city. The other day she turned to me and said, “I’ve become an urban kid.”
Cheers to independent city kids who take buses!
For now I’ve decided that moderation and balance is our car-wise happy medium. For now.
We’ll see what happens when the kids move out of the house, and it’s just the two of us again. It’s kind of fun to get around on the bikes (editor: or else we could buy a sports car. Don’t all old retired men want a sports car?).
But that’ll come soon enough. We’ve only six or so more years until they’re both in college. Yikes!