5 Ways to Ditch Your Car and Save Money on Transportation

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

When it comes to your budget, a car can be sinkhole. Insurance, gas, repairs — the dollars add up. All in all, owning and operating a car costs the average person just under $9,000 a year, according to AAA. Many people wish they could cut those expenses, yet see cars as an unavoidable expense. But that knee-jerk thinking about the necessity of driving could be costing you big time.

The U.S. is a car-centric society. Eighty-six percent of Americans drive to work, according to U.S. Census data. (In comparison, just 53% of people in transit-loving Europe use a car as their primary way of getting around, according to research by the European Commission). While getting behind the wheel may be the most common way of getting from point A to point B, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to cut down on your driving, or in some cases, ditch the wheels altogether. As concern about the environmental impact of driving grows (cars and trucks alone account for one-fifth of global warming emissions in the U.S., claims the Union of Concerned Scientists) and more people eschew the suburbs for denser urban centers, going without a car is no longer a lifestyle choice that makes you stand out.

With increasing numbers of people look to get out from behind the wheel, the options for a car-free lifestyle are rapidly expanding. From car-sharing programs to good-old-fashioned foot power, there are numerous ways to save money by parking your personal wheels and embracing alternative ways of getting around.

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1. Take public transit

Catching the bus or hopping on the subway can translate into big cost savings — more than $770 a month for the average person, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). More people are taking note of the potential savings. Transit ridership in the U.S. was up 37% from 1995 to 2013, according to data from APTA, and Americans took more than 10 billion trips on public transit in 2013 alone.

Public transit ridership in the U.S. has grown even as gas prices have fallen and the economy has improved since the end of the recession. The number of people using buses, subway, commuter rail and trolleys to get around has increased not only in major metropolises with robust transit systems like New York and Washington, D.C., but also in smaller cities like Yuma, Ariz., Ann Arbor, Mich., and Indianapolis, Ind. To respond to growing demand and address congestion issues cities like Los Angeles and Seattle are expanding their rail systems, which should make public transit a more practical option for greater number of people.

“Now gas is averaging well under $4 a gallon, the economy is coming back and people are riding transit in record numbers,” APTA President Michel Melaniphy told The New York Times. “We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people are moving about their communities.”

In addition to the cost savings that can come with riding public transit, living near rail and bus lines can sometimes bring more subtle financial benefits. Research by Thomas Garrett, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that a home’s value increased by nearly $140 for every 10 feet closer it was to one of St. Louis’s MetroLink stations, for example.

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2. Join a car share

For people who long to do away with the hassle and expense of owning a vehicle, but still sometimes need to get behind the wheel, there’s car-sharing. The concept is simple: You register with a car sharing service, which then provides you access to a fleet of vehicles. It’s similar to traditional car rental, but more flexible. You can pick up a car in your neighborhood and rent for short periods of time — a few minutes or an hour, if that’s all you need. The car-sharing company covers fuel, insurance, and registration.

Each car-sharing program works a bit differently. ZipCar requires that you pick up and return the car to a designated home location. Car2Go (which operates in 15 cities in the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Europe), scatters cars around the city and encourages one-way trips. Pricing structures also vary but are typically under $10 an hour — you’ll pay $8.75 an hour for a ZipCar in Milwaukee, Wisc. or $7.50 an hour with City Car Share, a non-profit service in the Bay Area.

The big question, of course, is whether car-sharing will save you money. The answer: It depends. For people who don’t need to use a car every day but want to take the occasional trip, car-sharing might be cheaper than owning a car or relying on taxis or services like Uber or Lyft. But it probably won’t work as a replacement for your daily commute.

If you’re trying to determine how much you might save with car sharing, some services have online calculators that can help you estimate costs, including ZipCar and Enterprise Car Share.

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3. Explore bike sharing

Like car sharing, bike sharing increases your options for getting around without having to take on the expense of owning and maintaining another vehicle. In recent years, bike shares have launched in New York (Citibike), Chicago (Divvy Bikes), San Diego (DecoBike), and other U.S. cities. Pricing structures vary, but most offer a variety of options, from daily or hourly fees designed for tourists to unlimited-ride annual memberships.

Committed bikers will likely find that investing in their own ride makes more economic sense than joining a bike share. But for those who only want to ride occasionally, have no safe space to store a bike or are new to biking, a bike share can be a solution. In Chicago, for example, an annual Divvy Bike membership costs $75 and gives you unlimited 30-minute rides. In comparison, an unlimited-ride 30-day CTA pass, good for trips on area buses and subways, costs $100, making bike sharing an affordable add-on for those who primarily rely on public transit but may want to sometimes cycle around town.

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4. Telecommute

Does working in your pajamas sound like a dream? It’s the reality for an increasing number of workers. The number of people telecommuting at least some of the time grew 80% from 2005 to 2012, according to Global Workplace Analytics. A big reason for the increase may be cost savings, both for employees and employers. Workers with an at-home office can cut commuting costs, childcare expenses and other work-related expenses, which Global Workplace Analytics says adds up to between $2,000 and $7,000 a year in savings. Employers save big too: In 2009, networking company Cisco estimated that allowing employees to telecommute saved it $277 million annually.

Some workers, however, could find that there’s a hidden cost to telecommuting: “Employees who work remotely may end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office — even if they work just as hard and just as long,” wrote researchers Kimberly Elsbach and Daniel Cable in the MIT Sloan Management Review.

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5. Walk

One of the best ways to save money by driving less is also one of the easiest to embrace: walking. It costs an average of 59.2 cents a mile to operate a car, assuming you drive 15,000 miles per year, according to AAA. Even if you cut just 15 miles from your weekly driving routine and walk instead, you’ll save just under $9 a week, or about $460 per year.

Walking also comes with some significant health benefits, including maintaining a healthy weight, improved mood, stronger bones, and reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Regular physical activity like walking can also help you avoid expensive-to-treat chronic conditions, potentially saving you thousands of dollars in health care costs over your lifetime. Obesity alone may add $2,826 to your annual medical expenses, per a study by researchers at Cornell University and Lehigh University. Taking a stroll may even make you more creative, say researchers at Stanford University. What better excuse do you need to hang up the car keys?

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