Car-Lite Living Saves Thousands

Car-Lite Living Saves Thousands

By Gary L. Howe

Last fall, a fierce windstorm blew through Traverse City. I was working unaware in a basement office, but it didn't take long for my phone to start buzzing. The first message was a tweet from a neighbor: "Dude, I think a tree just smashed your car."

And so it was. My beloved Honda Fit. My first new, off-of-the-lot car purchase. Crushed. It was totaled and because we were a one-car family at the time, we officially became a no-car family.

When a $13,000 check from the insurance company arrived we were faced with a choice: To buy or not to buy? We asked ourselves, "Do we really need a car? More accurately, do we need to own a car?" With some discussion, we decided to experiment with a car-lite life and have spent the last year just renting or borrowing a car when necessary.

To be clear, not owning a car doesn't make one anti-car. The decision not to sink the insurance money back into a car wasn't a choice to live car-free. Several factors helped our decision, and access to motorized mobility when needed was still important. What really helped was asking around and realizing there is an abundance of cars available in our life, as friends and family were instantly supportive. We individually work out the rental fee when we borrow. When we can't borrow we take the bus, a cab, or rent a car. In the past year, there is no instance where we've felt completely stranded.

Our advantage in this experiment begins with where we chose to live. When looking for homes, a house in walking or biking distance of daily amenities and work was a priority. We were willing to pay more upfront for the built-in freedom of accessibility that would save more in the long-term. I didn't realize at the time the return on investment would come so soon. This year, with little loss of perceived mobility, the savings from not owning a car is substantial.

Since January, I've logged every personal trip in terms of mode, distance, personal and externalized cost. The numbers in Figure 1 show my miles driven (4,000, rounded) so far this year and AAA's cost of ownership * ($2,432) based on $.61 per mile. The actual cost of renting and borrowing to drive those 4,000 miles was $1,111, so because I'm paying only when I use a car, not to store a car to have at the ready, even at my reduced miles I save around $1,300 by not owning.

Compared to my 2011 miles driven (10,000) going car-lite saves around $5,000.

According to AAA, the average American drives 15,000 miles a year at a cost of $9,120 and the average car-owner in northern Michigan, according to U.S. Department of Transportation, drives 23,000 miles a year at a cost of $13,984. Those are some staggering numbers. Having once lived in Empire while working in Traverse City, I understand how quickly those miles can add up.

In fact, beyond location, just owning an extra car leads to more driving. When we were a two car household, my personal annual driving was 13,000 miles and decreased to as low as 8,000 when we switched to one car. Not owning, as the results show, almost cuts that in half as we now plan ahead almost all of our motorized trips. More importantly, we pay as we go and the immediacy has helped us become more efficient consumers.

My circumstances are unique and I understand that not everyone can or wants to be car-free, however, more car-lite lifestyles are an option. It starts by asking if your family can go from two cars to one. Or, how often can you leave a car parked and hitch rides, take transit or any combination of those that includes a walk or bike ride.

Any action that reduces a mile driven has a compounded savings for individual consumers and for social costs we all contribute to in order to cover those externalized costs that so-called users fees don't cover. The former means more money to spend locally eating out, buying stuff, and for saving; the latter means more money available for other public investments or reductions in taxes. As I've discovered, driving less means earning more.

Gary L. Howe is a freelance journalist and instructor in the social science department at Northwestern Michigan College. He writes a blog about public spaces and civic engagement at And, as you can see by the pie chart, he likes to spread his mode share out evenly.