living in L.A. without a car

October 4, 2015 4 min read

I've never been into cars or driving. I've owned exactly one car in my lifetime, a stock 1999 Honda Civic. It served me well for 16 years. It was relatively cheap, fuel efficient, and got me where I needed to go. And it never broke down on me, despite my subpar driving skills that put it through 4 accidents.

Since 2011, I've lived within 2 or 3 miles of my workplace, so I started cycling to work. My car got less and less use, usually one or two short trips per week at the most. It seemed like a waste to pay for insurance and all the other costs of maintaining a car when I was using it so infrequently. Conventional wisdom says you need a car in LA, but with the rise of car sharing (Uber, Lyft, Zipcar) and delivery services (Amazon Prime/Fresh), it is starting to become more feasible to get by without one. As fate would have it, I got into an accident that while not too serious, caused enough damage to be a total loss. I was fed up with driving and didn't want to deal with it anymore. The insurance paid out $3500, and it was the perfect opportunity to try out life without a car. Instead of using the money to buy another car, I wanted to see how far it would take me using the alternatives. After 4 and a half months of this experiment, I've gotten by just fine and can confidently say that I prefer not owning a car.

Let's make a list of the things I hate most about owning a car

  • I have to drive it. Driving requires a lot of focus and attention, and the danger of it stresses me out. I prefer outsourcing this task to someone that is good at it and/or enjoys it.
  • Maintenance. I know nothing beyond the extreme basics of how a car works, so I have to just hope that mechanics aren't ripping me off.
  • Insurance. Regardless of how often I drive, I have to pay for insurance all the time.
  • Parking. Driving in circles looking for a parking spot or paying for one are equally annoying.
  • It is a poor investment. The value depreciates rapidly the second it comes into your possession.

And here's a list of alternatives to owning a car that have worked well for me

  • Bicycle. I bought a nice road bike in 2011 for $1000, and it is now my primary vehicle. In four years, I estimate I've put around 21,000 miles on it that would have otherwise gone on a car. It is great exercise, fun, and good for the environment. You could argue that it's dangerous, but I actually feel more in control and have better visibility to avoid accidents.
  • Walk. I choose my residence carefully to have as many things within walking or biking distance as possible. So I do pay a little more for location, but I think it's worth the convenience of getting things done on foot and not having to deal with a car.
  • Public transportation. It's certainly not great in LA, but in some cases it comes in useful. I was able to get home from the airport for a dollar + a 10 minute walk (Take lot C shuttle to the bus terminal, and the Culver City 6 bus takes Sepulveda pretty much all the way to UCLA). This is compared to a $40 taxi (until UberX can do pickups). Get a TAP card from a Metro Station, put some money into the Stored Value, and you can use it on any bus or train.
  • Uber/Lyft. Faster and cheaper than a taxi. This covers all the places that public transportation doesn't go to.
  • Zipcar. I subscribed through work at a discounted rate ($35/year vs $70 at regular price). This gives you access to cars at an hourly rate. It is more expensive than a rental car, but the experience is exponentially better. No waiting in line, gas and insurance included. I've used this for the occasional Costco run and while traveling. Also a fun way to try out different cars.
  • Friends/family. There is no shortage of cars in this city. Bum a ride off someone else, and chip in for any significant gas or parking costs.
  • Amazon Prime/delivery. For $99/year, you can get pretty much anything delivered to your door in 2 days or less. In general, just always try to get things delivered when it's an option. It might cost a little extra, but you remove all the costs/risks of driving.

So let's do the math now. In the past 4.5 months, I've spent a total of about $191.25 on transportation costs:

  • Zipcar: $35 year long subscription + 1 free trip promo + 1 Costco trip ($15) + day trip vacation in Portland ($62)
  • 3x $1.75 metro trips + 1x $1 airport bus ride + 4x $2.50 public transport in Portland
  • 1x Uber pool ($4) + Uber airport rides ($59)
  • Lots of bike rides, walking, and riding with family/friends ($0)

Car costs can vary widely, but it would be a challenge to spend that little in one month on a car. Obviously this won't work for everyone. I am a single guy that spends most of his time at home. If you are going out all the time or have young children, you will probably want to have your own car, but if you are somewhere in between, you might want to rethink if it's worth owning one.

© 2020 Mikey Gee