Living Car-Free in D.C.

Maggie riding the busI’m up visiting my best friend in Washington, D.C. She has lived here for almost three years and has been living car-free for almost one year. It has been challenging but she feels it makes a huge amount of sense both financially and ecologically.

Being in a big city makes it easier to live without a car in some ways but harder in others. There are many different public transportation options here – a bus system for each county, the D.C. metro system (which encompasses subway and buses), a car-sharing program (Flexcar and Zipcar recently merged), a brand new D.C. bicycle rental system, an informal carpooling system called “slugging” that helps folks share rides from Virginia into the city to take advantage of carpool lanes, and taxis. Of course, that means there is a lot of options.

She focuses on taking the bus and subway for commuting to work and doing most of her travel around town. She usually takes the D.C. metro buses but sometimes will take the local county bus. Of course, there are some places that are still very complicated (or impossible) to reach by public transportation (especially on the weekends) and it can be pretty awkward to take the bus when buying groceries or other bulky items so sometimes she calls upon friends with cars. She signed up with Zipcar but hasn’t used it because it seems prohibitively expensive ($14/hour, which means a trip to the grocery store would be about $30).

She chose her apartment largely on the basis of having good access to the Metro line that takes her to work and also having some nice restaurants and stores within walking distance. (There was also that whole affordability issue; always huge in a big city.) I was impressed by the number of little stores and shops within easy walking distance but of course a lot of them were places I would go to only a couple times a year (liquor store) or never at all (hot yoga studio) and there were some basic things missing like a major grocery store.

I asked if she felt the car-free lifestyle was working and she said it is. She really enjoys having the ability to use her commute time for knitting or reading and it doesn’t take too much longer than driving. For anyone who is considering it, she says the key is figuring out your commute to work by public transportation. Everything else you can figure out one way or another. There are still some things that are really difficult (going to the doctor) and some places she just doesn’t go because it’s impossible to get there without a car. She has a friend who takes public transit to work but uses her car sparingly in the evenings and weekends, which seems like a reasonable compromise.

We didn’t end up taking public transit much during my visit because we were trying to cram a lot of activity into two short days. Today we traveled to Georgetown and decided to take the car since there were four of us but this evening, just the two of us took the bus to Silver Spring (see photographic evidence). It was nice to see buses getting some use (unlike the last time Will and I rode the bus, when we were the only riders). I love to see public transit really work and I love urban neighborhoods where people can walk to their neighborhood stores. If only big cities didn’t have so many people, I might be tempted to move.

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7 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Linnea said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 11:56 pm

    Here (in Seattle), some of the buses shut down relatively early, so it can be a hassle if you’re going to see a show that lets out after eleven or midnight. I’ve had to walk down Capitol Hill my fair share of times, and this last time caved and drove my car.

    I find myself condensing all of my car-related errands into as few trips as possible. And I have some back up errands that I can run (I can walk from the grocery store, but it’s a short hike), just in case there isn’t any parking (hey, I’m already in my car…)

    Speaking of cars, tho…. I should probably make sure my tires haven’t been chalked…

  2. 2

    arduous said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

    I would *love* to go car-less but unfortunately in LA, that’s not really an option. But in cities like DC, or Chicago or NY, it is possible. You do pay a premium for living near public transit, but then again, if you don’t have a car, you’re not paying for insurance, car payments and gas!

  3. 3

    rosiegirl said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 11:03 pm

    I have to agree with arduous. For years I have maintained that I would gleefully give up my car, but the transit system where I live is appaling at best. I live and work in town and it takes me approximately 10 minutes to drive to work. If I were to not use my car I would have to walk to work as no form of transit even comes close to where I live. At best this walk would take me over an hour and a half. Similar to Linnea I tend to condense all of my trips.

  4. 4

    Maggie said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

    Los Angeles is a really tough place to go car-less. I was amazed at how sprawly and car-centered it is, even in the urban core. It was also probably the most overwhelming big city I’ve visited and I can’t say I feel the need to go back, although I have friends there who are quite happy. I generally find big cities totally overwhelming but I think it’s good for me to visit them every now and then to get a reminder of the good parts (some really charming walkable neighborhoods, an astounding variety of shops and restaurants, pretty impressive public transportation) and the bad parts (insane traffic, overwhelming numbers of people, long distances to the places you really want to be, obscene housing prices).

    I read a book awhile back about living car-free (How to Live Well Without Owning a Car by Chris Balish) and although he overstated some of the savings , you really can save a big chunk of money even if you end up renting a car every once in awhile. And perhaps I’m spoiled by living in Indiana and driving an old car so my car insurance and license plates are relatively cheap (he was estimating he saved something crazy like $10,000 a year by getting rid of his car but I’m pretty sure I would only save about $2,000 if I could pull it off at all.)

  5. 5

    Jessica said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

    I went car free in DC for two months last summer. I was at Ft. Meade for some advanced photography training. I could have driven out there, as I normally do, but I was pregnant and didn’t want to drive all the way across the country in a car with no cruise control, so this year I flew.
    I had a hard time getting around because I was pretty far from the metro station. I looked into zipcar, but like your friend, it was too costly for me. It was cheaper to take a cab to the nearest metro station. I made good friends with one of the cab drivers who frequented the post, but a cab trip to the metro station would cost me 40 bucks.
    Once I got to the metro station, however, I loved it. I wish we had some public transit like that here in Denver. We have two lightrail lines, but they hardly get you anywhere. The only problem with the metro was that, since I was pregnant, I had a tendancy to get motion sickness on them. I still have some metro passes with money on them. I should send them to a friend out there so they don’t go to waste.

  6. 6

    Andy said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

    About the carsharing, I work for a carshare compnay, but in a smaller city, and I haven’t used it in large cities before. I can understand how it may not work the same there, but it’s one of those things where looking at the full cost is needed. If you are trying to get around to many locations in a city under 5 or 6 hours, then carshare could be a lot more convenient, but if the public transit works well also than that might be a little less convenient but cheaper. Carsharing sounds amazing though when you don’t own a car, because although a trip could cost tens of dollars, you likely wouldn’t be doing that all the time, and you drive less and pay a lot less compared to owning. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a typical car user could save $10,000 by not owning a car. Just imagine how many times a week you drive somewhere, when you /could/ have combined some of those trips. If you didn’t own a car, or paid for it by the hour, you would be very careful how much you drive and make sure the trips are meaningful enough.
    -Andy

  7. 7

    The Real Cost of Owning a Car | GreenCouple.com said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 8:01 pm

    […] There were some great comments in response to my post last week about visiting a friend who lives car-free in D.C. and it got me thinking about alternative transportation. It also got me thinking about how much […]

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