Annoying Nathan about cars

A sketch of a Model T on cardboardIt’s hard to stop thinking about cars. The current situation in the US is obviously not working long-term and probably not even medium-term but it’s hard to switch away. With gas prices the way they are it’s becoming easier, but you still have to change your thinking about transportation before it starts making sense (sort of like switching from Blockbuster to Netflix). Part of the problem is that most of us already have cars, so that’s a sunk cost.

My friend Nathan just found out that his car has transmission trouble that’ll cost as much as his car is worth. Obviously, he can’t sell the car for much (maybe a couple hundred bucks to a junk dealer) and a new car would cost more cash on hand than he’s willing to put up. So Nathan is looking into other solutions. For now, he’s biking to aikido and using our car for other errands. Once we’re back in town and using it ourselves, that’ll be less useful. That got me wondering how much it’d cost to go entirely car free for those of us like Nathan, who go a couple of places around town but also take long car trips several times a year. I keep telling him that he should try it out, but I haven’t had any hard numbers to back myself up

We already have bikes, so that’s a sunk cost too. Maintenance costs will increase with increased usage, but I’d guess not by much. Maybe $50 a year to keep everything in working order. For longer trips or trips in bad weather, we’ll want a bus pass. The buses around here have spots on front for a bike, so combining the two is possible as well. A month’s pass costs $30 or $25 if you buy 6 months at a time. That covers in-town transportation and isn’t really much less convenient than driving since you no longer have to find a place to park or buy gas.

Occasionally, it’s nice to be able to haul stuff around too, like when we got our new mattress. That cost us about $30 but would have been more like $50 if the Sam’s Club had been further away. With bike maintenance and a bus pass, that adds up to $400 a year, about what I pay in gas and car insurance.

I’d always assumed that long-distance travel would be the sticking point. Maggie and I go to North Carolina several times a year and Nathan visits his family in Goshen even more often. According to Avis, we can rent a car for the trip from Bloomington to Raleigh for $80. Bloomington to Goshen is only $30! Since we have to pay for gas whether or not we own the car, that makes the marginal cost $160 per trip ($60 for Nathan, lucky guy).

We can assume that Maggie and I visit Raleigh about twice a year, which would make our travel costs $320 a year. That’s a lot, but not too much more than we spend on maintenance (it’s less than Maggie spent on maintenance but more than I have). I’m going to guess that Nathan goes up to Goshen five times a year, since it’s a lot closer. That makes his annual cost $300.

Renting a car certainly isn’t as convenient as owning but it looks like the costs are comparable, at least in our area. I’m not sure if that’ll work for Maggie, since she makes a lot of medium-range trips, but if it were just me I’d probably get rid of my car. I didn’t have one in college and it worked pretty well, especially since I was able to borrow when necessary. I feel like I have enough of a support network in Bloomington now that I think that’s true again.

Now all I have to do is convince Nathan that he can do it too!

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6 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Andy said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

    Although cost is a great way to convince someone, there’s many benefits that I don’t need equations for. My 40 minutes 5 days a week of biking to work have not only made me in the best shape of my life, but it makes me happier and I eat better when I am active. I don’t own a car, so I save all of the hassle from repairs, maintenance, insurance, brake downs, filling gas, waiting in traffic, and being enclosed in a bubble. I never kept good track of my car expenses, but once I got rid of it I could tell that I was easily saving thousands.

  2. 2

    Will said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 10:45 pm

    Good point, Andy. I don’t want to imply that financial reasons are the only reasons to give up a car.

    I wrote this post to show that even if you’re extremely frugal with your car (my costs are less than $700 a year including gas), it can be cheaper to bike, bus, and rent occasionally than to own. My guess is that a scooter would provide similar, although smaller, cost benefits (with other benefits and drawbacks, of course).

  3. 3

    Mishlor said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 11:31 pm

    I did some checking today and I figured I could also take a train from Indianapolis to South Bend for 50-odd. As long as I can get TO indy and FROM South Bend… that’d be about as much as I’d spend on gas. A little more, maybe.

    Howeverrrr… the other consideration is that I am often the dude that goes on business trips, and I’m not sure that taking public transport is the best way to go on that, so one of us should probably have a vehicle around.

    A week of bus and bike hasn’t been that bad, especially since I have other friends with cars. It just takes longer to get anywhere.

  4. 4

    Karen said,

    September 20, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    i didn’t realize you went to college in bloomington. did you know either a marybeth or a jason flickner? just curious…but i know it’s a small world, but i figured i’d ask. they both went to IU up there i believe.

    i’ve dithered with selling my car, too … but I just know the second I did it I’d want a road trip to Montana or something to get away. Hm. It’s definitely not an easy decision to make. But it would sure help me to pay some of my bills.

  5. 5

    Lindsey said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

    I wish Bloomington had Zipcar. Ohio State has a Zipcar program — it seems like IU is ripe for that sort of thing, too, if we can drum up enough interest.

  6. 6

    Will said,

    September 24, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

    karen: I only went to grad school in Bloomington; I went to undergrad at NCSU. Unfortunately, I don’t know either of them. 🙂

    JD of Get Rich Slowly recently suggested a stuff replacement fund, where you get rid of the stuff you’re keeping around just in case and then put aside some money every month. If you ever need something you got rid of (like a car for road trip to Montana), you use the stuff replacement fun to pay for it (a rental in this case). That might be something to think about if that’s the only reason you’re keeping your car.

    Lindsey: Some people have tried to interest Zipcar (or one of the other similar services) into moving to Bloomington and had no luck. It’d be a great way to reduce the parking problem on campus if you could get the students to go along with it. There used to be a Greyhound bus to Indianapolis, which got canceled, so it seems like there’s been less interest in that sort of thing in the past.

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