This Is How I Went Car-Free In Denver

Kurt
Kurt Woock, and his wife, Kati, on the day they sold their car and gave up driving in Denver.

Denver’s share of households without a car remains unremarkable. At 12 percent, it’s just over the national average. But that doesn’t mean it’s difficult to live without a car here — it might just be that too few people are taking advantage of other options.

My wife, Kati, and I traded in our car for cash last month. We had been hypothesizing for a year, testing ideas and routes against four seasons of Colorado weather. Would we miss our car when a camping trip popped up unexpectedly? Would the idea of biking home with a basket full of groceries on a warm, June evening be less picturesque come February?

Absolutely. But, in the final calculation, the benefits dwarfed the negatives.

Even when the idea was little more than a what-if conversation over a beer, we already believed in two core principles. First, we want to live, work, and play in the same area. Even a daily 15-minute commute means you spend more than a week of your waking hours in a car each year. That’s crazy. Second, unless you collect cars or drive one in a parade, the sole benefit of owning one in a city is, at least sometimes, convenience. Everything else a car provides has a ready substitute.

What are you willing to pay for that convenience? Our car was paid off, but registration, maintenance, insurance, gas, and depreciation kept the cost significant: $4,000 annually. That realization was enough to start seriously looking at selling. We just needed to figure out how to replace the ol’ metal box. Turned out B-cycle, RTD, Bustang, Lyft, Uber, Car2Go, and ZipCar would suffice. The challenge became finding the right combination to fit each of the trips we took.

If you’re thinking of going carless, it’s tempting to fixate on trips that seem the most challenging without an engine — heading to the mountains, for example. Don’t do that. It’s discouraging. Instead, arrange all the trips you take in a year into a pyramid, with the most frequent trips (like your commute) at the bottom. Replace those trips first. Next, work your way up, replacing trips that repeat weekly, like the grocery store. Already you’ve replaced 75 percent of your car trips, which you’ll realize are only to a few different destinations. This discovery builds confidence.

Replacements for the infrequent or spontaneous trips you take within the city become easier to see and do once you’ve made a habit out of replacing your pyramid’s base. The city becomes a game board, and travelling through it efficiently, a game.

The tip of the pyramid usually consists of trips that require a major haul, like furniture, or trips that take you beyond the reaches of Denver’s transportation network. Car sharing works well for hauling. For long-distance, overnight trips where carpooling isn’t an option, renting a car makes sense. The savings of not owning a car are insane. We can rent one for a weekend every month if we want and still come out ahead. And the cost of a single month of our (former) car insurance coverage buys an entire year of the gold-plated B-cycle membership.

The biggest benefits of not owning a car aren’t monetary, though. Since we’ve weaned ourselves off driving, we’ve discovered new streets and neighborhoods to enjoy. We are oblivious to rush hour. Exercise is built into our lifestyle; even on busy days we get a few miles of biking or walking, which makes us happier. We’ve discovered we shop (and spend) less.

There are plenty of ways Denver must become a better place for people to drive less or not at all, but don’t let that be an excuse. Infrastructure improvements are a bureaucratic, gradual process. Choosing how you get around is completely up to you.

Kurt has been living in Denver since 2013, writing since 2010, and bicycling since 1989.

  • mckillio

    Thank you for the story, hopefully it will lead to some others giving up their car/s as well. Back in February of 2012 I started taking the Light Rail to and from work and I quickly started to realize that I was only using my car to get to the LR station about a mile away. When going somewhere with my girlfriend (now wife) we always took her car, in May or so I got a bike and started taking it to the LR instead. In early July I sold my car, my only regret was not doing it sooner, between all of the costs that you mentioned and the depreciation of my car, I wasted a lot money.

    Three years in and it’s still one of the best decisions I ever made. There’s close to zero chance that I’ll ever be able to get my wife to give up her car (and rent our garage spot) but one is still better than two.

  • Nathan Batchelder

    Great article. Curious as to what neighborhood in Denver you live?

    • Kati Woock

      We live in Cheesman Park.

  • Robert

    I’m curious if you owned an expensive car to come up with that $4k yearly COO. Keeping a middle-aged vehicle around for necessary trips to the hardware store etc. seems like a no-brainer to us. I pay ~$250 yearly insurance (collision only), $75 registration, and $50 a year for an oil change given I rarely drive. Though this 2000 Cherokee is pretty much at basement depreciation we’ll be conservative and estimate $500 yearly. We’ve averaged ~$100 yearly in maintenance/repair as, again, we rarely drive. That puts me closer to $1k a year and the gas is a wash as you have to buy it for those rental cars anyway. This also eliminates biking to the rental place, doing paperwork there on both ends, etc., a decent time suck. I get the idea of biking more but my time is also valuable. To me, the convenience and time saved is worth far more than $1k/yearly. The middle ground of a rarely driven older car seems much more appealing to me, and I suspect to most.

    • Kurt Woock

      Great question. I used Mint.com to quickly capture the past 12 months of costs. Broken down below.

      Keeping variable expenses down by driving it only when necessary is a great option, as it keeps your overall cost down and lets you keep that convenience factor. We decided, however, that our car (a 2008 Ford Edge, worth $11K) was hoarding too much value to justify serving that kind of role (it has heated seats, GPS, etc). Owning a 2000 Cherokee sounds like a much better way to implement that kind plan. We’ve decided to keep our hands off a big chunk of the money we made in the sale: If after a year we decide that we truly want that convenience or if we move to a neighborhood that doesn’t have the quantity of nearby stores that we currently have, we’d consider getting a car without the bells and whistles.

      Annual costs were:
      Auto insurance – $700
      Registration – $200
      Gas – $750
      Maintenance – $600. New brakes and an oil change last year. At 120,000 miles, we saw some expensive repairs on the horizon. We were due for new AWD tires (at least $500) before winter.
      Depreciation I peg this around $700 for the next couple years. KBB might show a little less than that, but, due to street parking, I think it’s more: our parked car has been bumped or swiped at least three times in the past year with noticeable damage. We could pay for off-street parking to avoid that, but that would probably end up costing even more.
      Savings – $1,200. Although it was paid off, we knew that it wouldn’t last forever. We’d rather pay for that replacement now in the form of savings instead of later in the form of financing. So we tuck away $100 every month.

      • rossbagley

        You saved $1200/year?

        Not bragging, as I’m not especially proud of it, but we spend $1200/month on day care for just one of three children. I routinely remind myself that that childcare bill is the same as the lease on a Tesla S. Saving $1200/year is about the same savings in our budget as having one of us brew coffee at home instead of stopping at starbucks daily. Or less than packing a lunch instead of eating out.

        We saved $2200/month and are in a better school district by buying in a close-suburban neighborhood instead of an urban neighborhood (Seattle). Our play is also all over our metro area so even if I did live closer to work, we’d still want to regularly explore beaches on the sound, the lake, farms to the north, islands… in three years of living in Seattle and visiting two or three parks/playgrounds a week, we have returned to a non-local playground we’d already seen maybe… ten times?

        I can totally see how your decision could work for the type of people you and your wife are along with your particular circumstances. But I’m not seeing how saving $2000/year (our 2006 Chrysler minivan probably depreciates a little more than your Edge) justifies the significant loss of utility for our family and massively altering how we choose to show the world to our kids. I think our circumstances will allow us to get rid of our cars once there are roaming fleets of self-driving taxis servicing the Seattle metro area. And I do look forward to that day.

        • Kurt Woock

          You hit the nail on the head — our particular set of circumstances are a prerequisite to our being able to give up the Ford. Definitely not a universal template. In fact, as you mention, it would be a bonehead move in some situations.

          One sidenote–the $1,200 in savings you referred to was only a subset of our savings. That amount refers to money we were redirecting to a savings account each month for a replacement vehicle in the future. Added in with the rest of our expenses, we’re saving about $4,000 a year. The impact of that amount of savings is relative to total earnings, of course, but, for us, that’s worth more than a raise at work.

    • Brian Grover

      Car ownership is expensive. The average cost of car ownership in Canada is nearly $10,000 per year according to the Canadian Automobile Association. By comparison, Statistics Canada reports that the average individual spends $5,400 on groceries annually. Going car-free pays dividends on time as well. Instead of driving to work then working out in a gym or going for a run, cycling combines the commute with aerobics, effectively killing two birds with one stone. One other plus is that you arrive pumped for work rather than dragging butt. I’m 60 years old, have been car-free since the mid-80s and have practised the lifestyle in Canada, Japan, France and Korea. This past semester, March 1st to July 1st, I logged 1000+ km on my commute.

      • Robert

        I’m not advocating going bike-free, I’m advocating having a simplicity vehicle that improves my efficiency. Very few reading this post fit the assumptions that your link makes. It’s based on an expensive newer car, expensive full insurance coverage, and a lot of miles that I don’t drive. It’s as fair as me saying my COO is only $250 bucks a year based on IRS mileage of ~$0.57/mile and my 500miles/yr average. Using your link I plugged my numbers in and came up with $1090 based on 3,000km yearly. For that, I’ll take it. Maybe no-car works for a renter, but for a homeowner who does any work themselves a bicycle simply won’t serve the need for sheets of drywall, plywood, landscaping supplies etc. Like everything, I suppose it boils down to what you value. The utility I get is worth the $1,000 yearly as it saves me at least that much in time.

  • It’s great to see you making the switch to living car free and being a model for others! I just wanted to mention eGo CarShare [carshare.org] as another option for people in Denver & Boulder looking to be car free, car-lite or looking for different transportation options.

    We are the only local, nonprofit carshare in Colorado and do lots of work in the community as a whole, including partnering with low income housing. eGo’s fleet boasts an average fuel efficiency of 33.7 mpg, compared to the national average of only 20.3 mp, and we have many hybrids as well as pickup trucks and AWD vehicles with bike and ski racks for when you want to get out of town.

    eGo may not be the right fit for everyone but I wanted to mention that we’re an option- as a not for profit company, we’re always trying to get the word out about alternative personal mobility options and are happy to see you sharing about living car free! Check us out at carshare.org

  • Trmist

    Way to go Kurt.
    My wife and I went for two cars to one about seven years ago. We ride in the summer as much as possible. The car often sits for 5-7 days between uses during the riding season. In the snowy cold winter we car pool. My hope is to try going car free when our current vehicle expires some time in the next few years. I like the pyramid idea for organizing your trips, very clever.

  • Sarah Arnio

    Totally agree with you Kurt. I sold my car in Miami, a city where people tell you HAVE to have a car, a few months ago and it’s been blissful not having to worry about finding parking, getting towed, or unexpected car-related expenses. I did a trial run of one month without using my car before selling it and I found it really wasn’t that bad. The important thing is to budget in for car rentals and car-sharing services from the money saved, so you don’t feel like you’re missing out by not having a car. It’s refreshing to show people here that it can be done, and to know in other cities the same thing is happening!

  • BurbManDan

    I’m almost car-free, having given my daily driver to my kids and commuted primarily by bike for the last year. While I definitely advocate the benefits, including health and cost savings, I acknowledge it takes a combination of circumstance and commitment. In my case, I live about 3 miles from the Platte River Trail up north in Thornton, and work about 6 miles from the Cherry Creek Trail in Littleton, so my commute is relatively safe. My work/life situation accommodates spending 3+ hours a day on the bike, but that isn’t such a sacrifice when considering that time is equivalent to the 2 hour car commute plus 1+ hour at the gym. It’s a good trade if you can afford the time for fitness. It is a physical and mental commitment, but I’m in my mid 40’s and capable of making the daily 72 mile round trip with an ebike.

    It means I must leave home early and arrive home late, carrying my lunch, cloths, rain and repair kit in my bike bag. I occasionally find myself in discussions with people who profess the desire to commute by bike, but who say “if only I lived closer to the office”… Perhaps there are real circumstances in their life that won’t allow it, or perhaps they just aren’t willing to make the commitment. It is certainly convenient to drive, and our infrastructure is aligned with that convenience. However, you don’t have to live and work downtown to commute by bike.

  • My husband and I recently made the decision to go carless. Before making the final decision, we experimented with it for a few months, using the car we had only occasionally. We tried things like having groceries delivered, found a church to attend in walking distance from out home, ran errands using public transportation, etc. We live in the suburbs (Littleton, close to a Light Rail station), work from home, and are empty nesters. So for us it is easier to pull of than for many others. So far we love it.

  • Rafael F

    Quite an interesting article. The main benefit of the car is the chance to get to the right place quickly. As it was written in the article, there are many shortcomings. For example, I broke a key in the ignition lock yesterday. I called the locksmith service –
    http://keykonglocksmith.com/. It’s good that their office was nearby. While all the work was done, I was already late for work. So it’s hard to say which is better.

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