Why I Walk: Some Thoughts on a Car-Free Lifestyle

30 October 2014 · 19 comments

Since returning from Ecuador in early September, Kim and I have both been focused on fitness. She’s doing Jenny Craig and hitting the gym; I’m doing Atkins and walking all over creation. We’re both down about ten pounds in two months. Yay!

It feels great to be walking again. When I decided to lose weight in 2010, walking and Crossfit were the cornerstones of my fitness plan. (With them, I lost fifty pounds in eighteen months.) After my divorce, I rented an apartment in northeast Portland from which I could walk to everything. I loved it. I loved it so much that when I decided to buy a new home, I looked specifically for locations with a high walkscore.

But when I allowed my life to be subsumed by the Get Rich Slowly course last spring, I stopped exercising. As part of that, I forgot to walk. I got in the habit of driving even the half mile to the grocery store. For six months, I was sedentary, and my body showed it. Over the past two months, though, I’ve re-discovered the joys of walking.

First thing in the morning, I roll out of bed and take a long walk. I walk to “run” errands during the day. I walk to the grocery store. I walk to restaurants. I walk for exercise. I walk for fun. Kathleen and I even conduct business meetings while walking.

True story! Right now, I’m outlining this article about walking during a two-mile stroll to the gym. I’ll write more during my two-mile stroll home.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that sometimes it’s possible to forego the car for longish jaunts into downtown Portland. The center of the city is five miles from our condo. It takes about twenty minutes to drive that distance (counting time for parking). If I take the Springwater Corridor, I can bike downtown in 25 minutes or walk the distance in 85. Not bad.

So, I walked six miles to meet Kim before the final Portland Timbers match. And although I drove to meet her and Sahra for drinks before last Friday’s Jason Mraz concert, we left my Mini at Lloyd Center overnight. The next morning, I hoofed it exactly five miles to retrieve the car. (Believe it or not, I’ve found that walking can be an excellent cure for a hangover.)

If I were to become adept at Portland’s plentiful public transportation, I’d never have to drive downtown.

Because I’ve been walking and biking (and riding my motorcycle) so much lately, I’ve actually begun toying with the idea of selling my Mini. As much as I love the car, I just don’t use it that often. It’s very easy to imagine a car-free lifestyle.

Actually, I suspect that most folks — especially young folks — could profit from experimenting with carlessness. I don’t mean profit in strictly a financial sense, either — although your bank account would certainly benefit — but in myriad other ways as well: physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and more.

From a personal-finance perspective, automobiles are mostly money pits. The Consumer Expenditure Survey from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that vehicles are the second-largest expense for the average American family, making up about 17% of the typical budget.

According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), the average new vehicle cost 60.8 cents per mile to operate in 2013; that includes fuel, maintenance, registration, insurance, depreciation, and the cost of buying the vehicle (with finance charges). AAA figures the average driver spends just over $9,000 per year on her automobile.

But, as I said, going car-free offers other benefits. Here are a few of the reasons I prefer to walk:

  • Walking keeps me fit. I’ve always said that my body is built for walking, and it’s true. Some guys are natural muscle men. I have a good friend who is one of the world’s top ultrarunners; she was born to run. Others are naturally adept at jumping or climbing or swimming. Me? I’m built to walk long, slow distances.
  • Walking calms my mind. Normally my brain buzzes like a swarm of bees. But when I get outside, the pace of the world seems to slow. I’m more present in the moment. I watch the natural world around me. I feel a part of my environment rather than apart from it.
  • Walking connects me to my neighbors and my neighborhood. In a car, I drive the same streets all the time, and I travel through them at high speed. By foot, I’m more aware of the changes around me. And I meet people. Walking home on Tuesday, I struck up a conversation with an older guy who lives nearby. He’s lived here for thirty years, and was full of neighborhood lore. If I’d been driving, I’d never have met him.

When I suggest that more people ought to test-drive a car-free lifestyle (heh), I meet a lot of objections. I’ll admit there are folks for whom biking and busing and walking don’t make a lot of sense. If you live in rural Alaska, you probably need a car.

Often, however, the objections amount to little more than laziness: “I don’t want to put forth the effort and won’t even try.” People are quick to point out why biking or walking or public transit wouldn’t work for their situation, but fail to acknowledge that there are plenty of people in similar circumstances who do make it work. Mostly it’s a matter of will.

To truly go car-free — or to build your life around biking, busing, and walking — may require some forethought and drastic changes, but it’s almost certainly possible.

Note: Interested in car-free living but don’t know how to start? Mr. Money Mustache just issued a challenge: “Can you go car-free this weekend?” he asks. Can you? Give it a shot!

When you begin walking, it can seem like a hassle. It takes so long to get where you’re going! Soon, however, you learn to love the slower pace. How much time does it take? Both less and more than you’d think. Less time because it generally doesn’t take much longer than driving, especially over short distances. But more time in that people tend to grossly overestimate how quickly they walk.

Because I’m a nerd, I keep close tabs on how long it takes me to get to common destinations. This helps me to know when it makes sense to walk and when driving is a viable option. For instance:

  • The gym is a 2.5-mile drive (eight minutes) from home. It takes 32 minutes to walk or twelve minutes to bike to the gym via the nearby multi-use path.
  • Our grocery store is a half-mile drive (four minutes) from home. It takes ten minutes to walk that distance and five to bike it.
  • Our neighborhood is a little spread out. Our favorite restaurant is 0.6 miles up the street, but the movie theater is 1.3 miles away. It takes between four and six minutes to reach these places by car. It takes from ten to twenty minutes to walk and between five and ten minutes to bike.

When you figure in the fitness benefits, it almost always makes sense for me to walk to nearby destinations. Yes, biking can be quicker, but it’s also more of a hassle. I don’t do it often. (Biking makes more sense when I’m going downtown. It’s an hour quicker each way than walking, so the “overhead” of getting the bike out is worth it — especially since biking downtown doesn’t take much longer than driving.)

How fast do people walk? Non-walkers often believe that a good walking pace is four or five miles per hour. I wish. Over the past five years, I’ve logged thousands of miles by stopwatch and spreadsheet. My average pace hovers around seventeen minutes per mile (or 3.5 miles per hour). When hard-pressed, I can crank out fifteen-minute miles. (Once at Crossfit, Kyra paced a group of us to walk a 42-minute 5k — 13.5-minute miles. That was insane. I’d much rather run that distance in 25 minutes than walk it in 42.) If I’m on a groggy early-morning walk, I might amble through slug-like nineteen-minute miles. I feel like my seventeen-minute pace is pretty average — and might be a bit brisk over long distances.

According to my trusty pedometer, I’ve averaged 13,182 steps per day during the month of October. Because I know that the length of my stride yields almost exactly one mile per 2000 steps, I figure I’m walking about 6.5 miles per day. (Some days I walk twelve miles. Some days I walk zero. Most days, I walk five or six.)

Kim and I aren’t ready to go completely car-free. Her work office is 6.5 miles from home. She’s biked before, but it was a bother. The streets were busy, and it was tough to carry everything she needed. If her office were three miles away, or close to the nearby multi-use trail, she’d be more open to the idea. But for now, she prefers to drive.

Meanwhile, I still need want a car for a handful of errands. My orthodontist is twenty miles away, for instance. Also, my mother is in an assisted-living facility halfway between here and Salem. And what about Costco?

But you know what? My braces will come off in a couple of months. After that, I ought to be able to structure my long trips so that I can either take my motorcycle or borrow Kim’s car. Maybe I really could sell my Mini. We’ll see.

1 PawPrint October 30, 2014 at 08:49

That’s wonderful! Since moving to Seattle about 18 months ago, we’ve been walking everywhere and only use the car once a week for shopping. We often combine bus use and walking. I also walk to the gym, which is 2.5 miles away, and back. Walking in the rain isn’t that bad because I put on a rain suit and a pack cover. I noticed when hiking this summer that I wasn’t breathing hard on the hills, which I attribute to so much walking. Looking at all the wonderful gardens that people plant, how they’re remodeling their houses, meeting new people and their dogs, discovering pocket parks and new neighborhoods–it’s fun!

2 bethh October 30, 2014 at 12:21

I’m living the car-free lifestyle experiment right now! I totaled my car in mid-September (a week after hanging up my bike for a long post-Cycle Oregon break, I thought!) and haven’t replaced it yet. I live in NE Portland, work from home, and can get things by foot, transit, or bike if I need to/want to. I’ve also signed up for Car2Go (pay by the minute, point A to point B cars on demand, sorta), and have borrowed cars from friends a bit.

Since I’m doing a ton of travel this fall so it felt silly to rush out to replace my car just to leave it sitting in the garage, but I do miss the convenience of having a car on tap. I think I could very easily live in a one-car household, but a zero-car situation does feel a little challenging.

So when you’re ready for a break from your car, I’ll be happy to car-sit for you, to make sure you get the REAL experience!

I know I’m going to replace my car, but it’ll be interesting to see how long I can hold out.

3 jdroth October 30, 2014 at 14:21

Bravo, Beth! I’m curious to see how long you can hold out, too. I have another friend who moved to NE Portland about a year ago and has been able to remain car-free ever since…

4 bethh October 31, 2014 at 10:21

To be honest, I’ve borrowed cars frequently so far. Right now my parents (in their 70s) are visiting, so I”m using a friend’s car; the first weekend I was without a car I had an out-of-town visitor so borrowed a car for convenience, and last weekend a friend was out of town so left me with her car, but I only used it to go pick up another car-less friend.

It’ll probably be January before I get a REAL taste of a stretch of time at home without a car.

I’m also crunching numbers: I don’t want to touch my six months of living expenses, or my some-day mortgage prepayment fund, and don’t want to take out a loan, so the longer I hold out the more I’ll have available for car replacement. Right now I’ve got about 3k I guess I’d be willing to part with, but the longer I hold out the better-funded I’ll be!

5 Dan October 30, 2014 at 14:00

What trusty pedometer do you use? I feel like I’ve seen you write about it before somewhere (perhaps GRS at one point) but I can’t recall. Thanks!

6 jdroth October 30, 2014 at 14:20

Ha. In this case, I’m using shorthand to refer to my Bodymedia armband, which records steps, sleep, and calories burned (among other things). That said, I’m a big fan of the Omron HJ-112 pedometer, which I still use often. It’s expensive but accurate.

7 Tyler Karaszewski October 30, 2014 at 16:39

I find the juxtaposition humorous:

People are quick to point out why biking or walking or public transit wouldn’t work for their situation, but fail to acknowledge that there are plenty of people in similar circumstances who do make it work.

and:

Yes, biking can be quicker, but it’s also more of a hassle. I don’t do it often.

It’s funny how these are both symptoms of the same problem, which is getting yourself into the mindset that this is an acceptable mode of transport.

Frankly, for me, anything non-motorized isn’t feasible for going to work. It’s 27 miles each way. It’s about 35 minutes by motorcycle, 45-50 by car. I’ve got myself riding the motorcycle almost every day (saves 20-30 minutes a day and get 52 mpg), but this required the same change of mindset. You have to get to the point where this seems *normal* instead of seeming like a hassle. You’ve got to put on all the gear, deal with the cold, etc.

Also, one very large category of people for whom this is significantly more difficult is parents of small children. You might not mind walking three hours downtown and back, but you’re not going to find many four-year-olds who can do it, nor parents who want rot carry them for 155 of the 170 minutes that the trip takes. This isn’t to say you can’t do at least some of this with kids. Moving kids via bicycle is easy for shorter, flatter trips.

Frankly, I’m reluctant to give up the time, because unlike J.D., I don’t have the flexibility to wander downtown for hours all that often, and even at the times that I do (weekends), I’d generally rather spend that time on something else, like playing with my daughter. The time concern is a real factor for people working 9-5, especially if they have families.

8 Lynne October 30, 2014 at 18:29

Great post!! Keep up the good writing and interesting subjects.

9 Kimberly Russell October 30, 2014 at 23:00

I haven’t owned a car in more than 25 years – mostly because until 7 months ago I lived in midtown Manhattan. Having a car in NYC just wasn’t practical or necessary. I walked or took the subway or bus everywhere. I’d occasionally rent a car for weekend trips or an IKEA run to NJ, but it was rarely more than once or twice a year. So when I moved to Portland in April, everyone asked, “Are you going to buy a car?” So far, the answer is a resounding, “NO!” I managed to find a place to live in inner SE and a job downtown. I’ve mastered the bus and the Max and find I’m walking 6 miles a day on average. I love it! It takes some planning and occasionally I have been frustrated by the lack of what I refer to as “north/south” bus lines, but between my new bike, Zipcar, Car2Go, Getaround and some wonderful new friends who’ll schlep me and my sewing machine to my quilt guild’s Sew Day at Fabric Depot, I’m doing just find. I don’t see a car in my future any time soon.

10 Kerry McQuaide October 31, 2014 at 05:50

I am a fan of GRS and MMM, so I have been cutting back my car usage for about two years now, but I can’t cut the cord either. Between walking, biking and my motorcycle, my car mostly sits in the driveway for about eight months out of the year. But once the snow and ice arrive here in Upstate New York, I revert back. (I’m just not as badass as MMM). However, I have tracked the amount of money saved in the gasoline category over the last two years and it’s great motivation to keep working on ways to cut back. Also, as you said walking and biking can be counted as several activities – exercise, mental health/stress management, brainstorming, and entertainment all rolled up into one.

11 Jennifer October 31, 2014 at 09:28

I didn’t realize that our habit of walking everywhere has changed until I read this JD. Living in Lake Oswego, having the gym within walking distance…we used to hoof it several times per day up and down the hill.
I’m self-imposing a challenge. I’ll “roll out of bed and take a long walk” as many days this week as I can. I know it’s emotionally good for me(ask Kim, by the time we finished our talk, we had walked 4 miles!).
I also just acquired a bicycle from Britny’s former roommate at college. It is a nice bike! I rode for 30 minutes the other day and realized I have NOT ridden one in quite a while!
Carless living has so many merits. Thanks JD, good idea! Now, to get the city to join our trails so that you, Kim and I can meet up to walk together!

12 Thegoblinchief October 31, 2014 at 09:47

We’ve been getting progressively more car free, outside of my wife’s commute to work (26 miles RT). I stay home with the kids and basically only use the car for grocery shopping, and only because it’s still worth it to drive 10 miles to a much cheaper grocery store than to stay local – but I may revisit this.

My kids occasionally complain, but in general I think they love biking deep down. This has been our best month so far. My 7&8 year old girls have done 130 miles under their own power. My 4 year old used to ride in a trailer, but we just upgraded him to a trail-a-bike that he adores.

13 Kim Hawkins October 31, 2014 at 10:13

I lived three years in Everett, WA car free. Walked, bussed and got rides. Door to door from Everett to Gresham on THANKSGIVING DAY to celebrate with relatives. (Portland has AMAZING transit!)
Car free is very do-able if you live in an urban area. You just have to decide to TAKE THE TIME, and that it is WORTH THE TIME. As you note, there arr a lot of upsides to a car free lifestyle.

14 bethh October 31, 2014 at 10:32

I was pondering this topic further, and it seems to me it’s a certain kind of life that has the flexibility and time required to go car-less. If I had kids, or a longer commute, or made less money (and was less able to throw cash at cabs/car rentals/more-expensive yet convenient groceries), it would likely be a lot harder to go without a car entirely. Still, it’s a useful thing to think about for many people – it’s easy to be lazy!

I never drove much even when I had my car, but definitely could have biked or walked instead most of the time I used it. But I crunched numbers for what it cost me with minimal insurance, once-every-five weeks gas purchases, and the very rare maintenance, and it was worth it for the convenience alone. Now that I’m faced with paying cash for a replacement… it feels a little different.

I haven’t mastered the biking-for-errands thing. Truly, I’d do better with a different bike than my road bike, since the frame can’t accommodate fenders or a rack, and I wind up carrying everything in an increasingly-heavy backpack! I may borrow my sister’s bike this winter and see how I like using it for errands.

15 Green Girl October 31, 2014 at 12:53

I sold my car a year and a half ago and I LOVE it! I don’t think I will ever go back to owning a car. I originally did it to reduce my environmental footprint, but I quickly found that this car-free lifestyle rapidly increased my health, wealth and happiness! Isn’t that what everyone wants in life anyway? I really don’t understand why more people don’t try this.

You might enjoy this similar post:

http://greengirlsdontgetfat.com/2014/09/28/does-this-car-make-me-look-fat/

16 Michelle November 1, 2014 at 19:25

It makes me glad to see more people going car-free. I won’t say that “I wish I could but…as I take responsibility for driving where I need to. I switched jobs in the same company so I could work at home. dropping from a 30km one way commute to 0, but I can always do better. Main obstacle is time efficiency with older kids, and also that I am not hard core enough to ride my bike through truck crazy Alberta in regular, or brrr. upcoming winter traffic. Always room for improvement though!

17 dh November 2, 2014 at 10:08

So interesting, JD, that you are trying Atkins. I wonder if you’ve heard of the Dukan diet, which is similar to Atkins —

http://marshallbrain.com/dukan-diet.htm

18 chacha1 November 11, 2014 at 10:32

I lived car-free for four years here in L.A. It was possible because we lived a mile from my office – I could walk, easily, and did. I didn’t rush – my mile was 20 minutes. In part because it was a heavily-traveled neighborhood with lots of four-way stops and inattentive drivers, and in part because I didn’t want to be sweaty by the time I got to work!

Now we live two miles from my office, but for me a forty-minute walk each way is not sustainable given the other demands on my time. I ultimately bought a car (used, for cash, heh) because I knew I needed to leave the one-mile job and needed to have the option of driving to a new job. I tried the walk once here in the new job and it was much more stressful than relaxing, because of the inescapable traffic, plus getting to work fatigued.

Would love to get back to a walking commute though. It’s in my mind every time I start thinking about whether we should move.

19 Cujo May 6, 2015 at 15:54

Ugh. My house has a walkscore of 2. Yes, 2. And the business it thinks is nearby doesn’t actually exist.

Yes, we’re trying to move.

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