Why We’re A One Car Family in Suburbia

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Having a car can be a blessing and a curse. Depending on where you live, a car is essential to getting from your house to literally anywhere else. And in many large cities, it’s a headache because of both the traffic and the availability and cost of parking.

When we lived in Chicago, I opted to not own a car. I made this decision because I didn’t care for street parking — which is free parallel parking along the curb — because I had to fight with other drivers for space, and on street cleaning or snow plowing days, you had to move your car. There are also few places residents can park near their homes in Chicago because of parking zone restrictions, and sometimes there are just way more cars than spaces.

In a city like Chicago, especially on the north side, the public transportation options are limitless with every major street being serviced by a bus route with drivers scheduled roughly eight minutes apart. If we needed to go somewhere not convenient to the CTA, Mr. Green’s car was almost always an option. I never needed one of my own.

We now live in Scottsdale, AZ, and while most people who live in this part of the country and in suburbs have as many cars as adults in their family, we are sticking to one car for both of us.

Parking fees

When we rented the apartment in Scottsdale, we were told that one free garage space was available for our unit. Additional cars would be charged $45 per month. Before taxes. Arizona is so “free” that tenants have no rights and pay a small tax on everything their landlord collects. Rent, parking, pet fees, application fees, security deposits, trash fees, etc. If it gets paid to your landlord, slap a tax on it. When all these extras are totaled, it can be an extra $100–200 per month.

But I digress.

We have a one-bedroom apartment. I assume the landlord provides one free parking space per bedroom. The garage is also half empty at any given time, so they certainly have the room to provide free parking for households with more cars than bedrooms. They just don’t.

Lonely car

Gas

As of this writing, gas is averaging $4.69 in my state. I haven’t seen any experts stating they expect it to decrease anytime soon. With gas on the rise, having one car is beneficial because we only need to worry about operating costs for one vehicle. I don’t have enough money to buy a fully electric vehicle, so we would have to buy gas for two cars if we needed a second mode of transportation.

Registration fees at the DMV

Before I get into the registration fees, I’d just like to take a moment to announce to all of you that Arizona is such a rebel that instead of having a DMV, they have an MVD. That’s right, they call theirs the Motor Vehicle Department. It’s on all the official government documents.

Why?

Seriously, why?

Anyway, the DMV (I can be a rebel, too, bitch) charges a hell of a lot for vehicle registration. When someone from Illinois balks at another state’s taxes, you know they’re high. The Arizona DMV charges registration based on the value of the car when it was first on the market and first registered in the state. Don’t ask me how they account for potential inflation.

A car that cost $30,000 new (whether you bought it five years later or not) is $504 dollars for the first year’s registration. The lowest they charge is $218.92. I’m sure there’s a spreadsheet of the massive calculations they do to determine how much you owe, but essentially, a driver doesn’t know how much their car costs to register until they show up. Rude.

I just don’t think I can afford to register a car here. I expected car ownership to be cheaper than using the CTA, but it’s not really looking like that’s the case these days.

Purchase

If I can’t afford to register a car, I certainly can’t afford to buy one.

Okay, this is the part where Mr. Green pops his head around the corner and reminds me that we just sold our Chicago condo and therefore have about $20K each that we’re doing nothing with since we don’t want to buy real estate here, and certainly I can use that to buy a new car, right?

Well, yeah, but I don’t need a car yet, and not everyone is in my situation. In fact, most of the country isn’t in my situation. I am exceedingly finding it hard to comprehend how people can afford new cars and still fully fund their Roth IRAs, HSAs, and pay their ferret vet expenses.

Car buyers are still suffering from exceedingly high prices even when purchasing used cars, which cost 36% more than they did a year ago at this time. New cars are not being manufactured at the rate they were before due to Covid-19 restrictions and the shortage of semiconductor chips. Right now is not the time to buy a car you don’t absolutely need.

Rideshares & Public transit

Unlike a lot of suburbs, Scottsdale does have some public transportation options, even free ones. Unlike the CTA, they are lacking in even the basics of a successful public transportation system, and it is no wonder people have more cars here.

I was frustrated when we first moved here because unlike CTA’s Ventra card system, there is no way to keep your credit card on file with the Metro transit payment system. Ventra will automatically charge $20 to your transit card when you run low. That means that you can use the CTA as little or as often as you like without worrying if you have enough money to ride. There’s also a fabulous transit app that tracks when buses or trains are arriving.

Phoenix has none of that.

To use Metro — the public transportation system of Maricopa County — you need to buy passes ahead of time. The only affordable option for someone who sporadically uses the bus is to get a few day passes and buy more as you run low.

The apps that track the bus and light rail here are also incorrect half of the time. You’ll be waiting for a bus that’s supposed to be 1 or 0 minutes away, then suddenly, the app tells you the closest bus is 15 minutes away. Were you tracking a ghost bus with unfinished business?

Fortunately, this hasn’t detracted Mr. Green from taking the bus to work. We’re a few miles away from his work, but only one bus is needed to get there. I have never been a fan of transfers. Since he takes the bus and has a discounted fare card through his employer, he’s decided to leave the car at home when going to work. Sometimes I worry that he will change his tune once he needs to stand outside waiting for a bus in 120° weather, but so far, he is doing well with it.

Working from home

The real reason we don’t need a second car is because I am working from home full time. I realize how lucky I am to be able to do this. I certainly like it more than working at an office because I don’t have to pack a lunch (I used to overload my lunchbox with snacks like I was preparing for a famine), can do laundry whenever I want, and am able to let my ferrets out of their cage for more hours in the day. Plus, I don’t make friends at work anyway, so I’m not missing socializing.

If something changes, and I am only able to find suitable employment outside of work, I’ll take my Chicago approach, which is to find companies with offices close to my bus route. This definitely limits me, and in Chicago where almost all major employers have an office downtown (and all train lines go downtown), I didn’t feel restricted at all there when looking for new jobs. If I find a good job whose location requires that I get a car, I’ll look for carpool options and rideshares before jumping into vehicle ownership. I’ve actually never bought a car before, can you tell?

Carbon footprint

The real underlying reason why I don’t want to get a car now is because I got sad thinking of how my carbon footprint would surely increase when we moved here. In Chicago, we don’t need to keep the A/C on very much, and we have the best public transportation system of any city I have visited or called home. It’s a desert out here, and climate change is only going to make our lives more miserable. Anything I can do to keep my carbon footprint low, I am willing to try.

We still compost our food, and we still shower less often than the average person, so we’re probably producing the same amount of carbon we were in Chicago. We will need to run the A/C a lot here, though, and if we need another car, we’ll have to get it, but for now I can be happy with the knowledge that my emissions are about what they were in Chicago.

What about you? Do you have fewer cars than average in your family? How do you get around, and does not having a car make you feel isolated?