A Citizen’s Guide to Not Driving

Hat tip to Doug Masson, as I expand on The Citizen’s Guide to Indiana to include transportation.

I learned recently that the average Indianapolis resident devotes about 30% of their income to transportation. I don’t remember where I saw that, but it’s one of those things that sticks in the part of my brain that is my Indiana Almanac.

30%! If you make the average salary of $47,000 a year, that’s $14,000 a year. Just to get around. It costs you $14,000 a year just to get to work so you can make money to afford the car you drive to work.

Granted, that average is no doubt inflated by people actually buying cars within a given year. Let’s be more realistic. Let’s say you already have a car and the average car payment is about $250 a month. That’s $3,000 a year. Let’s imagine it costs you $30 to fill up your car with gas and you fill up three times a month – that’s another $90, or about $1,080 a year (that is, if you never go anywhere really far away).

Your insurance probably costs about $1,000 a year, if you’re good. Since most people are young, have a ticket or accident, that should probably be higher. But $1,000 is a nice round number I’m comfortable with using.

Let’s be generous with your oil changes and say you get your oil changed every 5,000 miles. That’s about four oil changes a year, based on the average driver’s 12,000 annual mileage. At $30 per oil change, that’s another $120 a year. Let’s also be generous and pretend you don’t have any maintenance problems in a year. Your battery’s fine, your wipers are great, you don’t ever need a drop of antifreeze or wiper fluid and nothing makes any funny noises and you don’t lock your keys inside your car. That’s all highly unlikely, of course, because if you take your car for routine tune-ups like you’re supposed to, you’re out another few hundred (or several hundred) dollars a year for that.

That said, you probably spend about, drum roll please…$5,230 a year on a car, or $435 a month. That’s $14.50 a day, whether you drive or not. Keeping with our example, that’s about 11% of the average $47,000 income. If you make $30,000 a year, you’re spending 17.5% of your income. Your numbers may be lower if you own your own car with no payments, but if you do, it may well be because your car is older and you’ve paid it off (or it was just cheaper). That said, it’ll have more maintenance problems that can unexpectedly be very expensive, very quickly.

That’s ridiculous. If you have to pay to park a lot, add in even more. I know folks who work in Downtown Indy that pay $40 a month just to park.

Again, that’s ridiculous.

Personally, I pay about $13 a day for my 2003 Toyota Rav 4. My number is a little lower than average because I don’t drive much anymore and I don’t spend a lot on gas or oil changes as a result. Regardless, I hate my car. I hate cars, period. I’ve never looked at a car and thought, “Oh man, I wish I had that car.” I’ve never seen someone else’s car and felt jealous or envious, I’ve never lusted after a car, I’ve never wanted a car. It’s just some thing that I needed to have in order to get places. It was like paying rent or eating. It’s just something you have to have.

And then one day this summer I thought, “I’d like to take up cycling.” It’s rare that I get a wild notion to just go do something, so when I do, I know I’m probably prepared to go all-in. This is no exception.

I’ve clocked 400 miles since the beginning of August on my bike, a 2010 Giant Cypress Hybrid. It’s great and cost me $300 at the time and I’ve since added a slew of accessories to it, bringing the total expense up to about $450 (or, you know, one real month of owning a car). This weekend, I decided to upgrade for speed, because I realized now that I really, really like to go fast. Now I have have a 2011 Jamis Satellite Sport. It’s also great … in fact, it’s even greater. It cost $700 retail, or about a month and a half of the real cost of a car.

Here are some things I think you should know about riding a bicycle in Indianapolis (or anywhere, really):

  • You’d think you’d get tired by the time you arrived somewhere, but you don’t. You have to get the right bike, a stock model at Wal-Mart won’t do. Most cheap bikes are mountain bikes and they are designed to do just what they sound like: climb mountains. I’ve never seen a mountain in Indiana, so don’t use those. They’ll wear you out quickly. My hybrid bike (a cross between a road [for speed] and comfort bike [for, well, comfort while riding]) wore me out once or twice when I first started, and that was only to go a few miles. But within two weeks, easily, I was able to go 40-50 miles a day without the slightest tinge of pain in my legs.
  • You’d think you’d be all sweaty and miserable in the heat, but you don’t. In fact, when you get going on a smooth surface or downhill, the breeze is quite nice.
  • You’d think you’d freeze in the cold, but you don’t. Once you get started, your body is your own furnace. I usually struggle to dress comfortably in the cold because I’m actually too warm.

With my two bikes for different purposes, equipped with racks and bags so I can carry stuff, I do most all of my errands on my bike. I go to the library to drop off books or pickup more, I go to the gym, I go to meet friends, I go out to eat or see a movie, all on my bike.

My bike burns fat and saves me money. My car makes me fat and costs me money. The differences are pretty striking. Since this August, I’ve never felt leaner, healthier and better. Nothing is more satisfying to me than cycling past a long line of cars at a stop sign or behind some slow vehicle. My new road bike can easily ride at 20 MPH, often faster depending on the conditions. It’s not unthinkable that I could do 30 MPH in spots.

That said, I’m to a point where I want to sell my Rav 4. I hate having it, so why have it? I want to go bike-only. To me, that sounds incredibly hard, so I’m doing an experiment to see how long I can go without driving. Just leave the car in the garage (it has only a quarter tank of gas in it anyway) and see how long I can go.

Here are my worries going bike-only, and some solutions I’ve thought about:

  • What happens if I get sick and need to go somewhere, like the store? Do I want to ride with a flu to go to the store? No, but the easy solution is to stock up early. That, and as an avid user of PeaPod (use that link for $10 off your first order and I get $10, too), this problem takes care of itself.
  • What happens if I have to get to a meeting or someplace really quickly? The more I think about this, the more I realize this rarely happens. And if it does, I’m probably going Downtown. In which case, I can bike there in about 25 minutes. It takes me 20 by car, and that doesn’t include the time to park, pay the meter and walk where I’m going. The bike takes me right to the front door and I can park it practically anywhere.
  • What happens if I have to travel really far — like down to my hometown in Salem? This could happen, and is my biggest concern, because I go to Salem with some regularity. The solution: just rent a car for that day. It costs $35 to rent a car one day; I spend that on owning my own car in just three days, whether I use it or not. Enterprise rentals will bring the car to my house, so I don’t even have to ride to the rental shop.
  • What if I have to go someplace far, RIGHT NOW? What if my dad calls me at 3 am and tells me my grandma is sick and I need to come down right away? Well, I can’t get a rental at 3 a.m., so I haven’t figured out what I’d do. Honestly, I suspect this is a fringe example and if it did happen, I’d figure it out. Maybe I’d ask a friend for help or something. I honestly don’t know.
  • Do you really want to ride in the winter? In Indianapolis? My attitude about this might change, but for now, I’m partially thinking I won’t mind it. I can layer up pretty good and assuming it’s not icy outside, I think I can be okay. We’ll see. Then again, if it snows a lot or is icy out, I don’t drive either.
  • What happens if it rains? Well, rain is annoying, but, put on a coat or something. Do what people do when they have to venture out into the rain for any length of time. You just dress for it and carry on. Grow a pair for cryin’ out loud.

Some other interesting things I’ve noticed include mass transit issues. IndyGo doesn’t even strike me as a viable option. I have every reason to believe, based on their own trip calculator at IndyGo.net that if I wanted to leave my house and go to Castelton, say to that new Container Store, it’d take me 2 hours by bus. Google Maps (and my own math) tells me I can get there in 1 hour, 28 minutes by bike. Our bus system in Indianapolis is so earth-shatteringly poor that it takes 30 minutes longer by bus to go what is 1:28 minutes north of here by bike. In a car, it’s about 25 minutes. So I’m adding two hours to commute back and forth — consider a two-hour long trip to the gym built-in and you’ve capitalized on your time and you didn’t pollute or spend any money to boot. And you can save $14.99 a month on gym fees.

While a better mass transit system in Indy would be a real boon, it’s not absolutely critical, I don’t think, for me now to try and go car-less. Granted, I’d love a better system. I don’t look down on the bus because it’s the bus, or because of any stigmas; it’s just a horribly inefficient system and I wish it was better. Even if you don’t want to bike everywhere, just think of the savings it can provide for a lot of people not to have to devote 30% or even 10% or 20% of their incomes to something so…hum drum.

Seriously, when’s the last time you had a really invigorating experience driving your car? When you were so thrilled and happy to be in it you didn’t want the ride to stop? Probably never. I actually have that problem every time I take my bike out. Going 25 MPH with nothing between you and the road but a small rubber tire and your own foot is pretty exciting.

I’m going to go as along as I can without driving and I’ll blog when the moment strikes in case someone else out there is searching for an adequate guide on what to do, and what not to do. I think I can do it, and if it works out, I’ll sell my car as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

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Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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