What City Life Is Like Without a Car
Two years ago, after several years of exclusively riding motorcycles, I made the decision to buy a car. I didn’t buy just any car, though, I bought one of the greatest cars ever made – a 1999 BMW 540i with a six-speed manual transmission and the M-Sport suspension package. The M5 from that era (designated the E39) is more famous thanks to its 400 horsepower V8, but BMW’s dirty little secret is that the 540i with the right options offered about 80% of what you got in the M5. The M5 is also less reliable, more expensive to maintain, and costs considerably more than the 540i.
Intellectually, I knew my BMW was going to be a great car, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would fall in love with it. The amount of torque that was always available was intoxicating, and it was somehow good at everything. In the mountains, I could chase down dedicated sports cars, but I could also comfortably road trip to the beach with four people in it and average 28 miles per gallon. Honestly, there isn’t a car in BMW’s current lineup that I would rather have instead.
Like all good things in life, though, my BMW ownership eventually had to come to an end. My girlfriend took a job in Boston, and I made the difficult decision to follow her. Sadly, that meant parting ways with my beloved car. The city is no place for a future classic, and considering how good Boston’s public transportation system is, keeping my car didn’t really make sense.
It also freed up enough cash to allow me to buy an engagement ring and propose a few months later. In a sense, you could say she’s wearing my BMW on her finger.
As a car guy, though, going car-less also made for an interesting experiment. What would it be like to love cars, write about them professionally, and not own one? Six months later, I’d say I’ve learned a lot.
Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned is that I really don’t miss driving in most situations. Commuting isn’t fun, traffic jams aren’t fun, hunting for parking isn’t fun, and driving at 25 miles per hour down pothole-riddled streets isn’t fun. There are still some occasions where driving is still more convenient, but most of the time, taking public transportation makes it easier to get places that are too far away to walk.
Since I work from home though, I don’t receive near as large a benefit as my now-fiancée does. She walks to the train station and then takes the commuter rail to work. Not counting the nightmare that would be trying to find parking every morning, taking the train saves her probably 45 minutes each way. That translates into a lot more time at home, a better work-life balance, and less mental wear-and-tear during the work week.
Coming from the metro Atlanta area, it’s hard to understand how people there are so committed to making sure public transportation is never improved that they’re willing to sacrifice two or three hours out of each day to make a commute in their cars. Expanding public transportation doesn’t mean they’d all have to get rid of their cars, but driving in rush hour traffic is absolutely miserable. Who would voluntarily choose that option when riding a train to work is so much faster and less stressful?
It’s also great to be able to walk most places. In less than ten minutes, I can walk to anything from a coffee shop to a liquor store, the post office, and a park. Even places that are further away than that are still pretty accessible. When I had a car, it was easy to drive short distances by default, but I’ve found that I enjoy walking more than I thought I would. When you walk to dinner, you’re also free to drink that extra beer without worrying about having to drive later.
Despite generally enjoying living without my own personal car, I definitely haven’t lost my love of cars. In fact, if anything, it’s intensified. Anytime I get a test car to review, instead of having to use it for basic transportation, I can focus on enjoying the experience. It may be more difficult to find good driving roads in New England, but I can take an evening and just go for a drive. On the weekend, I can head out on a day trip if I choose. Then again, if I don’t want to drive anywhere that weekend, I don’t have to. It’s entirely up to me.
Ultimately, spending six months not owning a car confirmed what I already believed – that if you take most of the aggravating, dull, and frustrating parts out of driving a car, it makes the entire experience that much more enjoyable. As we look towards the future of automobiles, I fully expect more people to make changes to their lives to make getting to work and around town easier, but it’s going to be a long time before there’s a true replacement for taking an enjoyable drive in a truly great car.
In a few years, could I see myself buying a car again? Absolutely. I have no idea what it would be or when I would buy it, but my time in Boston certainly hasn’t turned me against the automobile. You’re just going to have an incredibly hard time convincing me to go back to sitting in traffic jams and wasting large chunks of my day on an unnecessary commute.