In short: Yes, it is possible to live without a car. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I used to think that this was a legitimate question. The world is so much bigger than I once realized.
Where we lived in the United States, the public transportation infrastructure was, to be generous, abysmal. Add to that the relaxed approach to infill of most city planners and you’re left with a situation in which owning a car is almost a necessity. I rode my bike or took the bus to work, but we needed a car to get to church, to visit family or to do the grocery shopping.
That’s how it seemed at the time, anyway. And to be fair, we weren’t alone in that assumption. Consider that more than 90 percent of Americans drive to work, for example, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. Similar numbers come from a Pew Research Center study of car ownership, which reports that 88 percent of American households claim to own a car. This puts the United States second in the world in car ownership, one percentage point behind Italy.
However, having lived outside our home country for a few years, we’ve come to realize that car ownership needn’t be a given. Here’s why.
Most cities and countries outside the U.S. were not built for driving
Many alluring cities weren’t designed for car use on the level we see it today. In these cities, you wouldn’t want to drive even if you had the wheels. The deliciously twisty cobbles of Guanajuato or Dubrovnik, the neighborhoods that cling to the hills of Athens, the walled Renaissance city of Lucca, the enchanting labyrinths that are Venice and Mostar — all are better savored on foot. Driving in other cities can be rather unpalatable because of severe measures adopted to discourage car use and preserve the cultural treasure of their old towns. Pisa and Florence, for example, use ZTLs (restricted traffic zones) to limit driving in the city center to residents only, catching out many unsuspecting visitors with hefty fines.
The United States, most of which was built up in the age of the automobile, is a different story.
“Medieval cities weren’t planned on grids, but American cities were because they were planned for the motor car,” says former architect David Galbraith in an interview with Inverse. “And they were planned to expand very quickly, and that meant there had to be a certain modularity to it.”
Of course, in U.S. cities such as New York, populations have risen to the point that even the gridded patterns of city blocks couldn’t save the cities for cars. Thankfully, those cities have understood that great public transportation is one way to keep people moving.
In larger cities, cars are a major drawback
When we lived in Budapest, we had friends who lived on the outskirts of the city, about an hour away by bus. To get there, we’d walk to a bus station, take the bus to a subway station, take the subway to another bus station, and take the bus to their house. Alternately, we could walk to a tram stop, take the tram to a bus station, and take the bus to their house. It took a while, and there were a lot of moving parts involved. On several occasions the trip crept past an hour as we missed connections or got off at the wrong stop.
The funny thing is, when they came to visit our apartment in the heart of the city, the trip took even longer — and they have a car. Sure, it only took them half an hour to drive from their house to the block we lived on, but finding parking in the area was a nightmare. They’d spend another 15 minutes or more driving around to find a spot and then 15 minutes on top of that walking from their parking spot to our house. (And, of course, they’d have to pay for the privilege of parking.)
Some cities that predate cars make the best places to live
The relatively young age of the United States means that many of its cities were designed around roads. In much of Europe, conversely, cities grew organically over time, with one bit glommed onto another as the population grew. In a fascinating discussion of city design, Galbraith, the former architect, argues that Medieval towns in Europe may be terrible for public transportation and utility infrastructure, but they are wonderful for human interaction.
In densely populated, hilly quarters in which houses spill over each other, much of what you need for daily living — groceries, sundries, even clothes — can be found within little shops tucked into buildings here and there.
Walking as a means of getting from place to place, of carrying your groceries home, of making your way to work meetings, or even of casual enjoyment, is a way of life in much of the world. It just took moving overseas for us to figure that out.
No friends means nobody to visit
While it’s not entirely truthful to say we’ve had no friends while living abroad — or that we haven’t wished we’d owned a car on occasion — the point is that to move overseas is to entirely (and I mean entirely) rearrange the way you conduct your daily life.
When you move abroad, odds are you won’t have family nearby. You also won’t have friends to visit (not at first, anyway, especially if you’re introverts like us) or events to attend. All of which is to say that there won’t be anyone else telling you where to be and when. And since that means you can choose where you go, it also means you can choose how you get there.
Take the next step: How your family can get by without a car
First, this is much easier done in some places than others, so do a little research about where you’re moving abroad (or where you might like to move). A metro (subway) system helps immensely in big cities; in other places a tram or bus network might be sufficient for getting around. Before writing off taxis, Uber or Lyft as too expensive, reconsider. Local wages might be such that this form of public transportation could be quite an affordable alternative to car ownership.
Remember that if most people in a place get by without a car, you probably can, too. In Budapest, for example, people shop more frequently, bringing their groceries home in small loads each day. Larger items like packs of toilet paper have built-in handles for carrying. If you have a big family and even daily grocery runs would leave you feeling like a pack animal, look into grocery delivery. That’s saved our backs in Budapest (where Tesco supermarket delivery is incredibly efficient) and Puerto Vallarta (where Wal-Mart, La Comer, Costco and others have delivery programs) for just a few extra dollars per order.
Without a car, you will have to carry everything you need with you — which, particularly with little kids involved, can seem like half the house. If this is your situation, I have one word for you: backpack. Backpack diaper bag, backpack purse, backpacks on the kids. The kids will love having charge of their own diversions and snacks. Just be sure to institute a very firm “NO setting this down ANYWHERE; give it to Mommy or Daddy” rule so your child’s bag of prized possessions doesn’t end up on a tram on the other side of town … without you.
Along with carrying your stuff, you may have to carry your kids. In many places, strollers aren’t a viable option — either because sidewalks are too bumpy, or too narrow, or too, well, not there. In that case, consider a baby carrier. We got many good years out of the classic Ergo carrier until our babies weren’t babies anymore (*tear*). If your kids are over the carrying age but they’re not yet pavement warriors, take heart. They will get into shape with regular walking, and the physical exercise can only do them good. Who doesn’t love to tire out their kids now and again? Early bedtime, anyone?
And let’s not forget to let our minds roll over the benefits of one other side-effect of not owning a car — no car seats! Hip hip … hurray! Hip hip … hurray! Hip hip … hur-ray! No messing with harnesses, no installing and re-reinstalling, no cleaning the dang thing. Also, no shouting at the back seat to pipe down, no one kicking your seat, no one kicking his sister, no one doing a whole lot of things you’re powerless to stop while driving and everyone full-well knows it.