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Thinking of ditching your car? Just do it already

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A suburbia-raised Seattleite who has never lived without a car takes the plunge

Oksana Perkins/Shutterstock

I made it all the way up I-5 before the engine light flicked on. It happened on an overpass—that one right by the stadiums in downtown Seattle. My car, a 2007 Kia Rio 5, had never done well on inclines, so the sudden lurch didn’t scare me. The engine light did.

“$1,500,” said the mechanic. “Are you sure you want to keep it?”

He knew I’d been playing chicken. This time last year, a similar spring had sprung. He told me then what he told me now: “If you want this car to keep running, you need to put at least $1,500 into it.”

Practically, I knew it was a good deal. The car was 11 years old and 60,000 miles in; $1,500 to get it back in working shape wasn’t a bad long-term investment.

I just didn’t want to do it.

I was sick of fighting for a parking spot. Sick of buying overpriced gas. Sick of dealing with engine lights. Sick of owning a car.

And so I decided I wouldn’t.

Goodbye, car

I’m not alone in making this choice. Last year, the percentage of Seattle households that own a vehicle declined — the first time that’s happened in decades. More specifically, car ownership among Seattle residents under the age of 35 dropped by an estimated 3 percentage points. That’s the biggest dip among the 50 largest U.S. cities (No. 2 was Detroit, of all places).

It’s no surprise: Our very own city council is encouraging us to stop driving. A recent proposal aims to reduce parking throughout Seattle in an attempt to increase people’s likelihood of opting for options where they don’t have to park.

This news would shock my insurance agent. When I asked him what my options were for insurance to cover my new car-sharing, ride-sharing lifestyle, he paused. “I’ve never tried to live without a car before,” he said, only a hint of judgement hanging in the air.

I would go on to have several similarly stalled conversations with my agent as well as spend hours Googling my insurance options. What I found: plenty of horror stories but very little practical information about what (if any) car insurance I needed if I wanted to keep driving occasionally, but didn’t actually own a car.

Clinging to car insurance

I’ll spare you the gory details but lesson No. 1: There is such a thing in the world as “non-owners’ insurance.” It helps cover the “gap” in coverage that insurance companies tell you can jack your premiums if you ever decide to buy auto insurance again (by how much, they don’t disclose). In my case, non-owners’ offered less coverage than my traditional car insurance but for a nearly identical price.

Lesson No. 2: The insurance baked into ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber should, in most cases, cover you more than that baked into car-sharing companies like car2go or ReachNow, if only because you’re not driving the car and so, theoretically, not at fault in an accident.

Car-sharing companies also offer insurance. It’s at least the minimum that your particular state requires (in Washington state, this is $25,000 per person, $50,000 per accident, and $10,000 in property damage).

My insurance agent assured me such “low numbers” would “never be enough” in case of an accident I caused, which is why his company offered $100,000, $300,000, and $100,000 in the same situations. He’s probably right but, again, couldn’t offer me a option that would provide me that kind of protection while recognizing the reality that I now rarely drive a car.

You can, of course, look up every ride-sharing and car-sharing company’s specific amounts of coverage (gird yourself before you do; insurance jargon is gnarly). I also recommend you talk to your agent; maybe they’ll know more than mine did.

The bottom line

Insurance aside, actually getting rid of my car was easy. For a number of reasons, I donated it to Seattle-based radio station KEXP. Whatever they sell it for at auction counts as a charitable donation toward the station, but the part that convinced me to donate rather than sell is that, like many charities, they’ll tow your car away for free, no repairs needed.

Of course, that didn’t dampen my fears of actually doing this thing. I’m a red-blooded, suburbia-raised American who’s never lived without a car. Would my privileged constitution be able to stomach the uncertainty of always needing a ride?

Here’s what I’ve learned: If you have a smartphone and a credit card—tools I realize not everyone has—finding a car in 2018 isn’t hard.

Between ride-hailing, car-sharing, and old-fashioned rental cars, it’s easy to get wheels. I’ve even had luck for longer trips. On a recent voyage out to Redmond, I rented a ReachNow car for three hours. A weekend trip to Snohomish involved an online reservation with Enterprise that was startlingly cheap: $39 from noon on a Thursday to noon on a Saturday, a (not-so-agreeable) $100 more if I added insurance. (I did, and the gleeful Enterprise agent assured me: “We’ll cover you as long as you don’t run into an airplane.”)

Even more surprising: People are often very willing to accomodate the carless among us. Just saying the sentence, “I don’t have a car so could you pick me up? Drop me off? Reschedule our coffee to a place I can get to on the bus line?” has been surprisingly fruitful. Those with cars seem more than willing to share the love (or, at least, use the HOV lane).

There’s always the bus, too. My ORCA card and the app OneBusAway have grown even more indispensable since I went carless. The only downside: What transit doesn’t cost you in fares, it often costs in time. A ride that’ll take me 10 or 15 minutes in a Lyft will be at least twice as long if I take the bus.

But hardest part is how I’ve had to upend how I’ve always thought about getting around. This is particularly true for the financial part of going carless. Rather than having an automatic insurance payment magically disappear from my bank account every month, I’m paying that cost up front in the form of rental car fees, tips for Lyft, and taxi fares.

That means that ditching my car wasn’t necessarily cheaper, even when factoring in using mass transit. All told, it’s cost me about the same as what I used to pay in insurance and gas (if less than what I would have stomached at the mechanic).

What has gotten better: my state of mind. A whole trunk full of worries rolled away with my car. Sending those off with my Kia was worth the frustration of figuring out insurance and the fear of not always having a car.

Of course, going carless isn’t for everyone. Many can’t afford it, whether in terms of cost or time spent waiting for a ride. Others live in areas that don’t support walking or lack an adequate bus line. Still more have a kid or two who needs to get to soccer practice on time.

But for those of us who’ve long toyed with the idea of leaving our cars behind, I have four words for you: Just do it already.