This weekend marks the second anniversary of ditching my wheels and making my way around town by other means. I never would've imagined I'd do this. Even back in college in Ann Arbor, I drove a car even when I didn't need one. Others got around fine on foot, but dammit I had a car, and I was gonna use it. Parking was scarce throughout town, but thanks to one "Grateful" Ted, who parked his Taurus SHO in his dorm's loading zone for most of his freshman year, we were shown the light. After being schooled in the ways of "parking theory," the belief that you could get away with parking illegally if it was so blatantly illegal that the metermaids would never even think to look there, I parked on sidewalks, in loading zones, and in construction areas for the next three years.
I easily racked up over a thousand dollars in parking tickets, but also got away with parking 5 feet from the door to some of my classes on nose-hair-freezing Michigan winter days more than a few times. It truly was an idiotic endeavor though. I spent all that time trying to beat the system, even so far as monitoring my car from the classroom as it was parked in a fifteen minute zone outside. I would actually get up in the middle of class, walk out, get in my car, drive around until after the guy came back, and then re-park there. Sure, I missed some lecture notes, but priorities were priorities.
It was early on that Ted realized that his theory on not getting parking tickets would work even better if he just stopped going to class altogether. As a result, he didn't get to carry the experiment to its ultimate conclusion, as my other roommate Hunter and I did, and missed out on knowing not only the names of every metermaid in the city, but also what they looked like and which cars they drove (Hunter actually had one tail him as he drove around town). But it was always the challenge that I liked, to beat a system that I thought was unfair (there were no free spots anywhere for students to park on the engineering campus, even though there was plenty of space).
After college, I moved directly to Seattle, and continued to rely completely on cars to get around. But after years of dealing with Seattle's horrible drivers and even worse traffic, I realized a new challenge awaited, one that would actually save me money and didn't require me to continually violate the law.
At the time, I figured it would save me about $4000-$5000 a year not to have a car, even factoring in Flexcar and the occasional cab ride (today, with gas prices as high as they are, it might even be more). I already lived in an apartment with good bus access at the time I made the decision, and actually planned a home-buying purchase on that requirement as well. Now, I have a one bus commute from North Seattle to my job in Redmond, and I'm also within walking distance to buses that go downtown, to Key Arena, and to the University of Washington. Theher kept her car of course, but because I'm a crazy horn-using, lane-changing, east coast driver, she doesn't let me drive it. But it does help me that she has one.
I wanted to give some advice for how anybody can do this, but in reality, I know not everyone can. It greatly depends on where you live. In Seattle, there are plenty of resources to allow you to ditch the wheels, stop paying for insurance and gas, and stop getting angry at the jackasses who shave and/or put on makeup as they drive 40 mph in the passing lane of I-5.
Bus service in Seattle extends out to a pretty wide area, but doesn't get to every suburban neighborhood. Within Seattle, however, there are very few parts of the city that aren't served by Metro. In fact, if I'm downtown, there are 4 different buses I can take to get back to my home in Maple Leaf, and they all run well into the evening.
King County's Metro Online website has some other cool tools to help you if you decide to start taking buses around town. One is a trip planner. Put in any two locations and a time, and the page will show you which buses to take. Another is the Tracker, which gives you either a text-based or map-based update on where a bus currently is along its route. Ideally, at some point, having these technologies interact with a cell phone would be perfect, but I'm not sure how close that is to reality here (although I know other cities have that already).
There are some downsides to the bus, of course. It can get stuck in the same traffic as the cars, and you'll occasionally find yourself in interesting conversations with people who are convinced that they knew you in prison. But in the end, if you're going to be stuck in traffic, it's nice to be able to read a book or take a nap.
Flexcar is car-sharing program that is currently in 6 cities (Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Washington, and Portland). When I joined, a lifetime membership was $25. Now that it's become much more popular, it's now a yearly rate of $40 per year. Either way, it's still well worth it if it can keep you from having to incur all the expenses of actually owning your own car. The way it works is that you can reserve a car for a certain time slot, and you pick up and drop off the car at its permanent location. You can pay a monthly rate if you know you'll need cars for a certain number of hours per month, or you can just pay individually. There's no extra fee for insurance, and you use a gas card inside the vehicle if you have to fill up the tank. And if you get a speeding ticket in one, make sure you hire a lawyer to take care of it. Flexcar can revoke your membership if you end up with multiple tickets on your record.
So to all the whiners out there who don't like Washington State's new gas tax, put a sock in it. If you don't like paying the gas tax that much, get off your ass and figure out ways to drive less. Either stop being part of the problem, or stop complaining about the solutions. If you like living in areas that buses don't go to, don't complain about having to pay more money to sustain that sprawl. It didn't come for free, and it will never be free to properly maintain what we have.