IMAGE: FORMER CAR OWNER CARRYING HIS BIKE
Don Heupel  /  AP
Former car owner Bruce Wilbur carries his bicycle down the second floor fire-escape outside the apartment complex where he lives in Rochester, N.Y.
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updated 9/8/2006 12:21:41 PM ET 2006-09-08T16:21:41

Six years ago, Bruce Wilbur did what most Americans wouldn’t dream of: he got rid of his car. And his minivan, too.

He started taking the bus to work — not a common sight in Rochester, N.Y. — and loved the switch. More recently, he’s been biking to work.

Getting rid of the car gave him his sanity back, the 49-year-old Web designer said, and saved him a lot of money too.

As a driver, “I tended to be prone to road rage,” Wilbur said. “It was nice to arrive at one’s destination without feeling all tense and angry.”

He’s not quite sure what to do in winter, which can be snowy and cold in Rochester. If slush makes biking unsafe, he may go back to riding the bus now and then.

Car-free commuting is common in large cities with extensive public transportation, or in famously bicycle-friendly cities like Portland, Ore., but the surge in gasoline prices is making people across the country wonder if they can get to work without a car.

A survey by the Pew Research Center in June found 55 percent of drivers said they had cut back on driving in response to high gas prices.

However, making shorter trips or letting the car stand in the driveway isn’t a very good way of saving money. The real savings come when you get rid of the car altogether.

Cars a cash hole
In 2004, U.S. households spent an average of $650 a month on transportation, of which only a fifth was gasoline and motor oil, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rest was mainly the cost of the car, insurance and repairs. Only $37 was spent on public transportation, which includes air travel.

“What the high price of gasoline has done is it’s shone a spotlight on how expensive the cars are,” said Chris Balish, a TV journalist and author of the just published book “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car.”

Balish, 39, said he’s saved about $850 a month by giving up his SUV three years ago.

“It was a big, eight-seater SUV and I was the only person in it most of the time. It was ridiculous, now that I look back on it,” Balish said, speaking by cell phone from a bus in Los Angeles that was taking him to a job interview.

“When I moved to St. Louis, everybody said ‘You absolutely have to have a car in St. Louis,’ and I found that not to be true,” Balish said. “Then I moved to L.A., and everybody said ‘You really have to have a car in L.A.’ And I found that not to be true either.”

Los Angeles is full of walkable neighborhoods, he says. When he needs to get around, he loads his bike on a bus. It takes more time to get places, but he finds riding more pleasant than driving, and he can get work done on the bus.

Family converts driveway for fun
Kelly Rohlfs, an engineer in the relatively bike-friendly Mountain View, Calif., figures her family saved about $1,400 a month by getting rid of its BMW. Instead, they ride buses and bike to work. They got more space too: they converted part of the driveway into a dog run and put a pingpong table on another part.

“It’s been surprisingly easy” being car-free for a year, she said. “We also noticed things we didn’t anticipate. Our lives slowed down ... not having a car, we’re not out running errands all the time.”

That means planning ahead for purchases. Recently, she and her husband were figuring out how to use trains and bikes to get 62 pounds of tile from a store. The solution: two backpacks. They also have a bike trailer for hauling groceries and things like a new door from the hardware store.

Rohlfs, 42, feels their social lives have gotten better too, since they car pool with friends to get to places and events, like a recent wedding.

“I think people in the United States drive solo to places instead of car pooling ... They say it’s for freedom, but I really think we just hesitate to ask people to join us,” Rohlfs said.

Drawback: Going on dates
But there are also social downsides to going car-free. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 23-year-old Andy Becker is happy going most places on his bicycle, but getting a date has proved hard.

“It just seems (women) aren’t as excited about the fact that I don’t own a car, and don’t want to own a car, as I am,” Becker wrote on Bikeforums.net, asking other bikers for advice.

Last year’s hit movie “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” probably didn’t help: its titular character tooled around everywhere on a very sensible-looking bike.

“Unfortunately cars have become a symbol of success, dependability, and status in America and that’s something that I can’t stop, obviously,” Becker wrote.

For him, going car-free “just kind of happened” three years ago.

“At first I wasn’t very happy about it, but over time, I’ve gotten where I don’t want to have one,” he said.

The savings loom largest among the reasons given by those who’ve gone car-free, but they have a host of others: reducing stress, protecting the environment and reducing the country’s dependency on foreign oil.

So who’s it for? Well, it certainly helps to live close to a transit stop. There may be one closer than you think, though — most drivers just don’t look for transit stops and have no idea where they are, Balish said.

Other tips from Balish:

  • Go car-free for a week first, and see if you like it.
  • Use the Internet to figure out mass transit, find car pools and order things for delivery.
  • Use car-sharing companies like Zipcar and Flexcar to rent a car when you really need one. Or take a cab.
  • Giving up the car is easiest if you don’t have young kids, but with some ingenuity and planning, even that can be done.

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