What Free Days (Part 2)

This place we drove (Salt Creek)
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

geico_stillsposea3-rgbWe’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?

Snowy 74 Super BeetleSome 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)mt rainier

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.

Aw shucks.

2011 Powder Day(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!)zipcar care pkg 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”

Tim was the champion 39-degrees-in-the-rain-Brompton-riding-car-returner. And I make a mean margarita. Zip+Brompton

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: 

soccer game transportation
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!

Stay tuned.

– Anne

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6 responses to “What Free Days (Part 2)

  1. Everyone’s experience is different, obviously, and ours has been very different from yours. However you asked for comments specifically about insurance, so I’ll say that when I read this post, my first thought was that you should fire your insurance agent and leave a fusillade of negative reviews for them on every available consumer review site.

    For years we have both a named non-owner auto insurance policy for rental cars and a huge umbrella liability policy on our home (which is definitely possible to buy without owning a car). Later we ended up adding two “motorcycle” insurance policies for our assisted bikes (don’t get me started on that issue). Added together, all of those policies cost less annually than the price you were quoted for one person’s named non-owner policy. My sister and her husband have not owned a car for a decade and are similarly insured; they pay even less than we do (due to neighborhood). Frankly I don’t even notice the cost of these policies relative to the outrageous premiums we pay for earthquake insurance on our condo. By contrast, the lowest rate we were ever able to get for auto insurance when we owned a beater car was about $100/month. Because we are getting all of these policies and our condo insurance through one company we also get a 15% discount on each of them (except the earthquake insurance because that goes through a state agency, dammit). Anyway, when it comes to insurance: shop around. The price you quoted took my breath away, and we live in San Francisco, which is not exactly noted for low insurance rates. We have saved literally thousands of dollars on insurance alone over the years by not owning a car.

    I also wanted to comment on your Zipcar experience, because it reflects a mistake we made with our local carshare service, City CarShare, for a couple of months, until I was enlightened by my brother-in-law. Zipcar and the equivalent services are designed around an hourly rental model. They are great cars to rent for trips to Ikea or to get a nervous kid’s giant poster to school without damage in the morning. However their rates are designed to make it very painful to rent a car for longer than a day. My brother-in-law, who for business reasons had to rent a car every weekend for a couple of years, routinely used Enterprise. They rent most of their cars for business travelers on weekdays, so they marked down their cars on weekends, and he was typically paying $35-$50 to rent a car from Friday afternoon to Monday morning. What’s more, Enterprise agents will pick you up and drop you off at home/work before and after the rental, which means no Brompton rides in the rain. (We ourselves are closer to a Hertz office, which offers similar rates as well as a pick up and drop-off service.) There are also local car rental agencies that offer similar plans and better rates–because both my brother-in-law and husband have occasionally used their car rentals for business, they always rented from national chains, but not everyone needs to do that. I have also used Getaround to rent cars for excellent rates for week-long and weekend trips. Finally, in our situation specifically, City CarShare offers holiday specials around the end of the year when everyone else is out of town. For a couple of years now we have rented a car then at $100 for 10 days and driven around visiting all of our relatives who live in remote Northern California locales–which seems fair given that at other times of year they drive into the city to visit us.

    Our kids also like skiing, but we’ve preferred taking one of the ski buses for short trips, because we don’t have to deal with traffic and can sleep on the trip, and because our son gets violently carsick. For longer trips we rent a car as above (and bring a change of clothes, lots of towels, and a barf bag).

    Anyway, as a result, we have never spent thousands on short-term car rentals, as you experienced. At the very worst, when I was badly injured and had to be shuttled to multiple surgical appointments for a couple of months, we got up to about $600 on one month for car rental and taxi expenses. The difference has been significant: not owning a car saved us enough money that we were able to buy a condo in San Francisco. Anyway I think there are a lot of ways to approach not owning a car, even if, as my brother-in-law did for some time, you are driving pretty much every weekend. When my accountant sister did the math (repeatedly, because it seemed counter-intuitive), they were still better off renting, and thus far, so are we.

    • Thank you Dorie! Glad to hear your experience is so different.

      Some notes about insurance, we do have a really good agent and we did shop around. And the non-car-owner policies were not as cheap as you quote. Maybe this is a case of Washington vs California? Housing is more expensive in CA, but lots of other services, and food, restaurants are cheaper in the sunshine state.

      We’ve already traded barbs about the motorcycle insurance for e-bikes. I still stand by my skepticism — has anyone actually used that motorcycle insurance with an e-bike? They’ll sell you the plan, but will they honor it…? I’m still skeptical.

      Side note: we also paid for earthquake insurance for 15 years. Until our insurance company informed us that they were dropping earthquake from their offerings. They referred us to an exorbitantly priced policy at another company, so we decided to just drop it. I guess the risk of the big one is just too great.

      Again, insurance varies by state. Maybe Washington just sucks when it comes to insurance.

      On rental cars. Yes we used Enterprise too. I know their day rates are cheaper for compacts etc than car sharing. But not for ski-ready four wheel drive cars that will hold all your gear. Those are spendy to rent. Plus you have to pay for gas. And they don’t come with ski racks, chains etc.

      We ski a lot. As in every weekend for three months. So renting just didn’t make sense for us anymore…

  2. With respect to motorcycle insurance: they did in fact honor our policy when we were hit by a car–we were covered under the uninsured/underinsured motorist section, as the driver who hit us was wildly underinsured and his policy limits were so low that they failed to cover even our ambulance ride. Since then we’ve changed our named non-owner policy, so that would be our primary coverage if one of us were hit again.

    We don’t rent ski-ready rentals through Enterprise; that was my brother-in-law’s business trips. Instead we have used Hertz, Getaround, and local companies, and they were all dramatically cheaper than Zipcar rates, even after paying for gas ourselves. Local rentals are particularly good about having things like bike racks in summer and ski racks in winter. However we wouldn’t rent a car every weekend, simply because the ski buses are so much more convenient, although they aren’t necessarily cheaper (the math gets complicated for those with season passes).

    • Good to know about the motorcycle insurance.

      We looked into ski buses too. The buses around here take you from a centrally located pick up spot to the hill. That central pick up spot is very far from our house. We still had to get our family of four and all of our gear to the bus, they don’t pick you up at your house. Again. Totally doable. But the hassle factor is great. And not something I want to do every weekend. How do you get your family and their ski gear to the bus every weekend?

      If only we could take trains….I went to Chamonix when I was living in Paris. Hopped a night train in Paris, and arrived at the base of the hill in the morning. Hostel was right next to the lift. Now that’s the way to travel to the ski hill!

  3. Yes, the ski buses meet at a couple of central spots in the city. For trips like that we take a Lyft; the bus pick-up is in the flat-rate zone so the cost is less than $10 even if you need to call an SUV for baggage (even better during the time that Lyft was matching Muni fares). We could also take the streetcar a block away as it’s uncrowded at that hour unless it’s Pride weekend, but we never have. Anyway getting a ride to the bus stop is slightly less convenient on the front end but getting to sleep through Tahoe traffic and skip the chain inspection station is priceless. The train would be even better, but because San Francisco is on a peninsula with public-transit-hating Marin to the north, no one ever built a rail line through the city. Amtrak will take you to Truckee from Emeryville or Richmond, and the resorts bus for free from there, but we can’t go that route without seriously major-league hassles.

  4. For those who already own or are considering a car, I’ll add to the insurance discussion.

    We just switched to Metromile which charges per-mile. This immediately reduced our bill between 25-50% depending on how many monthly miles we drive. The trick is that they require you plug in a device into your car’s OBD (onboard diagnostics) port. This transmits the actual data to Metromile, and a handy app for the owner(s). Obviously a bit Orwellian, but the cost benefits are hard to deny.

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