I’ve lived entirely or mostly car free since 2003. Over the years I’ve learned a few things, including that living in Portland car free is not actually very difficult, and you don’t have to sacrifice much. You’ll also save thousands of dollars a year. You can then spend those dollars on something more entertaining, useful, or inspiring than oil changes, gasoline, parking, and care repairs. And believe it or not, a bike is not necessary! Below are some of my tips to car free living in Portland:
Choose Your Neighborhood Wisely
By Walkscore standards Downtown, the Pearl District, and Old Town/Chinatown are the most walkable neighborhoods in Portland. They are also close to a multitude of transit options. But there are plenty of neighborhoods outside the central core that are quite livable without a car. Bike and bus routes go almost everywhere, and many neighborhoods have all the amenities within walking distance. Some of the cheapest places to buy or rent a house in Portland are in areas that are far from walkable. The money you save on rent or mortgage payments may offset the money you have to spend on transportation, but if you do the math you’ll probably find out it doesn’t. Take into account commute time too, and the higher rent or higher mortgage you pay may be more than offset by the transportation savings.
We have one of the better transit systems in the country, and it can be easy to use (here are some tips). TriMet maintains a very well designed website, which makes it easy to find schedules and routes, and track buses and trains in real time. There are tons of applications available that do everything from locating stops and predicting arrival times, to alerting you when you’re nearing your destination.
The bus doesn’t go everywhere, schedules don’t always match your needs; sometimes a car is the only practical transportation method. Taxis are an option, especially for those who can’t or refuse to drive. But Zipcars are cheaper, and usually more convenient (especially if you live in one of those walkable neighborhoods – that’s where most of the Zipcars are). It’s easy to sign up, and easy to use (the process is more like checking out a library book than renting a car). I’ve never used Zipcar more than twice in a year, but I maintain my membership because sometimes you just need to go places that only cars can take you.
You Don’t Need a Bike to Live Car Free
A bicycle does give you a wider car free range than hoofing it allows, but if you choose your neighborhood wisely you won’t need to bother with rain pants, fenders, bike locks, and flat tires on a daily basis. I have a bike that spends most of its time collecting dust, but on a pleasant summer day I have been known to go for a ride. Kudos to those who love their bikes and use them daily, but I think it bears repeating that you don’t have to ride a bike to be car free.
Getting out of town
I found the transition to being car free much easier than I expected (one of the reasons I sold my car is that I never drove the damn thing; I walked and rode the bus everywhere already; why was I making car payments and paying insurance for something I never used!?). But then the summers would roll around, and I’d wistfully recall day trips to the coast, camping in the mountains, hikes in the Gorge. For me, getting out of town was the biggest sacrifice of living car free.
But you do have options.
Many other regional transit agencies connect with TriMet, so you can reach big chunks of the state that way too (for pennies). I blogged about this a few years ago: A Car free jaunt from Portland.
Zipcar can work for day trips, or even weekend camping trips. For longer trips rent a car from a traditional car rental agency, check Craigslist for shared rides, or carpool with friends.
John J. says
I’m pretty much in the same boat, though I keep my motorcycles because I like them 🙂
We don’t live completely car free, but we buy super cheap cars for cash to use for getting groceries, errands, stuff that takes too long on the bus, etc. No car payment, low insurance, and if a repair looks expensive you donate it and buy another.
We commute using trimet or bikes, fire up the Hyundai once or twice a week.
PROTIP: If you hardly use your car, your insurance agency might be able to save you money by classifying it as an RV. Keep it under “x” miles, save money.
Also, for long/weekend trips I recommend Budget. Super cheap, free miles, and vacation are so much better when you know that if the car breaks it’s someone else’s problem.
John J – The RV insurance tip is a good one! When I last owned a car I was able to get a discount because I drove fewer than 7500 miles a year, but I felt I deserved a much lower discount since my actual miles/year was in the hundreds.
I was totally car free until about a year and half ago. Then my car-owning girlfriend and I moved in together. Now I get the best of both worlds: I can be self righteous about not owning a car, and get rides for free! 😉
How do you transport your dog around or take trips with them if you don’t have a car? That’s one of the more pressing reasons we drive. Are there alternatives to traveling with your dog without using a car?
Nedra – I’m sure there are some cargo bike owners who transport their dog(s) that way. Most of the time the dogs stay home though, so most of the time you don’t need the car!
I have a question. I am coming to Portland to visit my sister, and am trying to determine how to get from the airport (PDX) to a zipcar location. I see a general map for TriMet, but nothing that matches up with streets. Do you know of a zipcar location on the TriMet red line? Thanks!
Emily – If you take the Red Line from the Airport to downtown Portland, there are plenty of Zipcar locations there. If you get off at the Pioneer Square North stop, you’re at between Broadway and 6th Avenue, on SW Morrison.
(You can zoom in to where you can see street names on the TriMet Interactive Map: http://ride.trimet.org/?tool=routes)
Michael, Portland Afoot says
Okay, at some point Portland Afoot is going to get a page with a similar mission to this one, but let me take a crack at this one here:
If you’re waiting for a bus but do not want to do so at your current stop (because of people nearby, for example, or because it’s raining and there’s no shelter at your stop) do not walk toward the next stop in the direction of your destination. Walk toward the next stop in the *opposite* direction. Three reasons:
* You’ll arrive at your destination at the same time either way. It’s the same bus, wherever you catch it.
* Walking toward the bus means longer time on the bus once you board. Would you rather spend your time at a bus stop, craning your neck to see if the bus is coming yet, or on your bus, reading and waiting for your stop to be announced? Obviously it’s better to maximize on-the-bus time.
* And most importantly: When you’re walking toward the bus, you will see if it’s coming and know in advance whether you’ve got to sprint for the nearest stop.
Finally (OCD bonus points for this one) here’s an extra fourth reason: Walking from a stop without a shelter to one with a shelter is actually likely to get you where you’re going very slightly sooner. Because TriMet places its shelters based on the popularity of a given stop, you were probably the only person waiting at the shelter-less bus stop, but you probably won’t be the only person waiting at the nearest stop with a shelter. If you get on at the shelter stop, you’ll be eliminating one stop from your bus’s run.
Heatherly O says
Would love to see a link to some of the new “bike friendly” rental options going up in the city! Especially ones so close to transit like The Milano on NE Multnomah.