"We're paying more to insure these two vehicles - one of the cars with liability coverage only - living in a relatively low-risk area, than I paid for my car when I was 21 and living in Los Angeles!" The renewal bill had cited some arbitrary and non-specific reasons for the increase in rates, but I just couldn't believe how much we were going to be paying.
I used to work in the auto insurance industry and I know how outraged drivers could get on the phone with me when they'd receive their bills. Now, here we were on the receiving end of one of these notices and I was not happy. Sam had offered to call our agent and see if there's anything she could do, but I knew that she was not in control of the rates and the only thing she'd likely do would be to shop other possibilities that would likely come up even higher (again, this is experience talking).
So, we sat chatting about the ever-increasing rates, and tried to think of some reasonable (and a few unreasonable) solutions. Yes, we could shop other rates (and we have done just that nearly every time the bill has come, only to discover that we'd actually be paying even higher premiums), but there had to be something we could do.
For those who have been reading here for awhile, you may recall a post written as I was approaching the end of my second (err, I guess actually third) round of post-secondary education a few years back. At that point, I thought we were going to be finding ourselves as a single-car family. We were on our way to selling our second vehicle and I was certain that things were looking brighter.
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All of this was nearly four years ago. We hadn't gone back to having two car payments, but we also haven't eliminated the second car from our home. Owning the alternate car, regardless of whether we pay a monthly amount to the bank for it, is still a second vehicle. It requires gas (assuming it's driven - which it is), maintenance, potential repairs (it's 25 years old), insurance and annual tags. It's a reliable vehicle that hasn't given us problems, but it still costs money to operate and it will, eventually, need major mechanical assistance.
As we sat talking through our frustration with the increase in auto insurance, we began again with the possibility of removing the second vehicle. There was (is) a part of me that still had that sinking feeling about the idea of giving up the perceived security of the secondary vehicle, but I had been reading about some others experiences with going to a one-car family and I realized that we could give it a try without actually selling off the car.
Instead, I suggested a one-week experiment to see how things would go. I realize a single week is not the ultimate test of this scenario, but I figured it would be enough for the random things that come up to happen and for me to determine if I really could live within this pictured future possibility.
With that, we set out to plan our one-week experiment, pretending that the other car had disappeared from our lives.
A suggestion I'd read about prior to all of this was that one of the people in the household should commit to being the 90% person. Meaning that this person is agreeing that s/he will be the one who primarily gets around on foot, by bicycle or via public transportation.
There was a small amount of debate over which of us should be that individual. Sam thought it should be him because he doesn't need the car while at work. He merely drives it to and from and then it sits all day.
In truth, I thought I should be the 90% person because I work from home, I don't have a ton of errands to run very frequently, and even though the thought of packed up snow is a little scary to me in the coming winter months, I figured I would find a way to get where I need/want to when the time arrives. After all, necessity is the mother of all invention, right?
And so, our one week experiment began. Sam drove to work and I committed to only driving if we were both home and only one vehicle was being used.
We couldn't have picked a better weather week, which was both good and bad. I appreciated that I didn't have to deal with ice (it's just not cold enough for that yet) or even rain (which I actually don't mind when riding), but instead we had pleasantly warm days in the forecast.
I also had no real plans for anything outside of the house, which meant this experiment might not actually be realistic... which made me question whether it was even worth trying.
Soon however, what appeared to be the start of a week spent at home turned into one that had me out and about quite regularly. I had a few meetings set up, I had a doctors appointment already on the books, a couple visits to the bank, and of course the random grocery and other needs that popped up throughout the week.
What I realized as I was biking to each of these meetings and appointments is that there was nothing different taking place than what normally transpires. If I'm meeting up with someone in town, I bike there. If I have an appointment (doctor or otherwise), I ride my bike. Just because there is a motorized vehicle at my disposal doesn't mean that I'm using it constantly. It was actually reassuring to know that this one-week experiment had really been something taking place for many years, and was an excellent reminder that I actually enjoy biking to my destinations.
During the week, I did have an unanticipated box that needed to be dropped off for shipment. Normally, I don't have a problem biking a package to a carrier, but this box was particularly large and unwieldy and instead of attempting to strap it down in the bike trailer and maneuver my way across town, I asked Sam to drop it for me on his way to or from work. Additionally, there is always the option to simply schedule a pick up from the carrier, rather than dropping the package myself.
Everything that needed to be done during the week was completed, and shockingly it all happened without too much disruption to normal schedules and routines.
Of course, when icy weather hits, I know there would be other challenges. I see bike commuters who ride every day (and even know a couple personally) regardless of the weather, but I am a klutz and I don't do well on ice. Snow is one thing, slick and packed ice is quite another for me. Despite our city claiming that there are roads that have cleared bike lanes every snow day, I have found the opposite to be reality. I don't think it would be impossible to overcome the winter-weather obstacles, but for me personally, I know from experience that it does mean fewer trips by bike during the icy parts of the year.
We also have two dogs. Two larger dogs - a Labrador and a Golden Retriever. Not the biggest of pets, certainly, but between the two of them they add about 140 lbs/63.5 kg to a ride should I have need or want to take them anywhere - but these days and moments do arise. It also means buying or constructing a bike or trailer (or having changeable options on the current trailer) that allows them both to fit comfortably. Again, it's not impossible, but it does require advanced planning and preparation, and likely extra funds to get everything set up.
With some planning, we could also avoid spending any extra on bikes or accessories though. In reality, if I needed use of the car, Sam could fairly easily take public transportation or even bike to work (his travel distance is about 19 mi/30.5 km one-way, so he'd probably skip the gym and use transportation as his workout), and there's also the option to have me drop him at work and he could bike the one way distance home or take the bus.
The key, from what I've learned in this, is that planning is important. Short trips repeatedly throughout the day don't work as easily when a car isn't at the ready, but it's also easy to see how many potential trips could be taken by car when I'm not really thinking things through. If I know I need to go to the post office, the grocery store, pick up dog food, and I have a meeting, when riding I seem to be much better about time management and arranging things so they fall in line with completion one after another. If I have an automobile at my disposal, it's a lot easier to forget about better or more careful planning.
I think time is sometimes a poor excuse for not riding as well. It is true that on longer distances a car will win just about every time (assuming that there isn't a backlog of traffic on the roads), but for short-distance needs (let's say under a few miles), two wheels really don't take much time out of the day, and parking spots can often be easier to find on a bike than in a motorized vehicle. I am guilty of often allowing far too much time to ride a distance than I really need, but getting more accustomed to how fast one travels really does help cut down on lost minutes (or hours if you're particularly worried) in a day. In reality, it can actually be far more convenient to ride a bike than to drive a car.
Bike maintenance and repair is important to keep up on as well, particularly when it is the main mode of transportation. Having reliable tires is super important to me personally (I don't want to deal with flats around town when I'm dressed for an event or on my way to a meeting), but there are other parts that need maintenance and checking too. Chains need regular lubing and they don't last forever. Bikes should be tuned on a regular schedule too. Riding and realizing that the derailleur isn't shifting properly (or won't shift at all) likely isn't something a rider wants to deal with in a suit or skirt on the side of the road. Even having a back up bike to use is nice insurance for those times when I'm in a hurry and don't have time to deal with last minute issues too.
I will admit that this may not be the ideal situation for everyone. We have some things that make this potentially work for us that others may not. The first of these items is that I don't have to leave the house very often. Working from home allows me the opportunity to focus entirely on work, if I choose, rather than venturing out; but we've also grown used to the reality that I have a flexible schedule, which means that if something can or needs to be done during the week, I am likely the one to complete it. I fully admit that not everyone has this sort of flexibility, and that for some, it may actually mean that the person at home may be the individual who requires the automobile over the one commuting.
For many, there are two adults in the home who commute to a job every day. In this case, it may mean that one takes public transportation or bikes to work rather than using a car. It also means figuring out who that individual will be or deciding some sort of predetermined schedule each week.
Our city is set up fairly conveniently for a suburban location, and we live about as centrally in our town as one could. While not many destinations are walkable from home, most of what we need in our household is located within a few miles. Grocery stores, gyms, banks, doctors, post office, shopping, and so on are all reasonably reached by bicycle, and sometimes even on foot. The furthest one-way distance I would need to travel regularly is approximately 4 miles, which is pretty easily bike-able for many. Additionally, we have nearby cities that could be reached by bicycle or public transportation when needed (they range from 15-20 mi/24-32km in distance).
We also don't have children (at least not the two-legged, human variety). For some, this may bring another aspect to consider. While I believe encouraging children to ride to school, to activities, and to see friends should be encouraged, some may not feel confident on their own, particularly depending on the child's age and skill level. It may mean riding with him/her to his/her destination until s/he is comfortable on their own, or possibly that the adult transporting the kids uses the motorized transportation with more regularity than the other.
This experiment left me with much to consider. We can afford both of our vehicles: the fuel, insurance, tags, and so on (even though we complain about it), but do we need two cars? I have to admit, it's a nice luxury to have a second motorized vehicle because there are days when I do need or want to leave town, and while biking longer distances is possible, there is also the reality that it takes a larger chunk of the day to get 15-20 mi/24-32 km by bicycle than it does to travel a few miles locally. There are options for this possibility too though, such as an electric bike or even covered electric bikes like this, but these require a significant initial investment as well - a cost that would not be covered simply by selling off our second, multi-decade old car.
At this point, I don't know if we will keep the second car or bid it farewell. Despite my real-world knowledge and experience and knowing that I will continue to make most of my travels by bicycle, there is a disturbing amount of comfort in knowing that a second car is available, whether I use it or not. On one hand, it's a nice back up plan, but on the other it feels a bit wasteful and unnecessary. I think the planned experiment was a good indicator that we could make this work if we choose, but it becomes a question of whether or not to truly move forward in this direction.
Do you live a car-free or car-light life? What type of city (rural, urban, suburban) do you live in? What has been your experience with using your own body power to get around (or public transportation)? If you aren't car-free or car-light, would you consider this as an option in your household? What ideas do you have for making this type of life realistic for you and your family?