This Is How I Went Car-Free 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.