Costs and Planning for a Car-Lite Family of Four

No Virtue Required: Car-Lite Family Transportation Is Less Expensive, Faster, and More Flexible than Car-Encumbered Transportation

In his recent post, my co-blogger Don writes about “the virtue in choosing the right [transportation] tool for the job”. I realized that my own family makes regular use of five, count ’em FIVE transportation options: walking; bicycling; busing; driving various CarShare and rental vehicles; and (in dwindling amounts) driving my wife’s tiny red Mini. Yesterday epitomized our highly flexible family transportation: we criss-crossed Ithaca together and separately and then at the end of the day we all landed together on our couch like the opening sequence of a Simpson’s episode.

I also realized that my family’s transportation methods do not require any sort of virtue other than doing what’s sensible. A brief analysis of our vehicles and our route, below, shows that using car-lite transportation methods made our errand-running significantly faster and less expensive than car-heavy transportation. Our travels yesterday made me realize something else I take for granted: we’re able to travel together when we want to but we can just as easily travel separately too. A car forces you to all go the same place at the same time. Believe me, car-lite is not about making sacrifices. Its about making the leap to better family transportation. Care to try it yourself? In the fall I’d like to offer car-lite workshops at the Friends Bike Clinic in Ithaca. If you don’t live in Ithaca, check out these online resources.

Our Vehicles of Choice

Our Route

Step 1: In the morning we obediently headed out to our workplaces. My wife (red) walked one mile to work at Cornell University. At this point I can hear y’all thinking “Gosh its too bad I live too far from work to walk. You are so lucky.” Luck had nothing to do with it. It’s no accident that my wife can walk to work. When we were buying a house in Ithaca 15 years ago we got out a map and placed a compass point on her office. We drew a one-mile radius around her office and only considered houses within that radius. I (green) walked three feet from my bedroom to my office. I have very intentionally shaped my career as a web designer so that I can work at home. Lastly my daughter (orange) took the bus 2 miles to school and my son (purple)  walked 1.7 miles to school.


Step 2. In the afternoon I biked to Cornell to help my wife with a web design project. I took our folding bike. Although it is one mile straight uphill, my bike has an electric motor that helped carry me to my destination without sweating and in less than seven minutes. Driving and walking from the parking lot would have taken me 20 minutes and cost $3. After a productive meeting my wife and I walked a few blocks to a CarShare car. We put the folding bike in the back of the CarShare car and then drove to my son’s high school to watch him perform in a student debate.


Step 3. I needed to leave the debate early, so I unfolded my bike and headed home. At home I loaded up my electric cargo bike with over 100 lbs. of tools for a bike repair clinic I am putting on at Ithaca College. In the meantime my wife and son used the CarShare car to pick up my daughter from a babysitting gig. Then they all went out to a restaurant.


Step 4. My wife dropped off the kids and the CarShare car and then walked a few blocks home. I biked down South Hill from Ithaca College and we all met at home.

How do our travels on this day compare to those of a hypothetical (but all too common) family that travels solely by car? Here’s a quick cost analysis. My car-lite family spends about $40/month on CarShare and $400/month on our Mini. (Since we drive less than 7,500 miles a year and we lease the Mini, our costs are less than average.) Owning and operating our electric bikes costs us an additional $50/month. My daughter’s bus pass costs an additional $7/month. My son’s and my wife’s walking doesn’t cost anything. Total: $497/month.

How do the costs add up for the car-encumbered family? First of all they would need two cars, one for each parent, to achieve the same goals. Typical car ownership and operating costs for two cars is $1,200 a month, and perhaps more if you account for various cascading hidden costs such as the need to buy a house with a two-car garage and the need to live farther from town to accommodate such a house and the commute time needed to live farther from town etc. Secondly, my wife would need to park on campus, which can cost as much as $65 a month. I would need to drive my kids to school. Driving them would take about an hour out of every workday which I value at $20/hour, so that adds up to $400/month. Lastly, every time they drove to Cornell and parked there it would cost them $3, so five trips would cost $15/month. Total: $1680/month. Ouch. Over three times as much money.

Here’s a quick speed analysis. People may assume that driving is always faster, but traveling by bike and on foot can often be faster over distances of a mile or two. Motorists get stuck in traffic, they can’t always take direct routes, and they have to find and walk from parking rather than traveling door-to-door. For example our neighborhood has a pedestrian bridge that allows my wife a direct route to work; motorists have to go a half mile around the creek to get across. And the main parking lot on campus is actually farther from her office than our house. To be fair, my car-lite family does have to wait for buses and travel a few blocks to and from the CarShare cars. We also have to suffer through such stresses as experiencing the weather and nature and having to exercise. Then again, aren’t nature and exercise the very sorts of things the car-encumbered family needs to seek out by driving to the park or driving to the gym? We’ve found transportation happiness and I wish the same happiness for everyone.