Car free in DC

Washington, DC is seeing fewer cars these days, at least on a per-person basis:

Car registrations in the District have hovered around 275,000 over the last decade, according to D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles Director Lucinda Babers, even as the city’s population ballooned by more than 40,000 people in that time.

Experts say two forces are driving the change. There are more ways to get around the city without a car, and the down economy has everyone looking for ways to cut costs, like getting rid of that second vehicle.

As new residents of the DC area, my wife and I are part of this trend (though our location in the suburbs a few miles beyond the District’s boundary line means that we’re technically not part of this cited statistic).  There are indeed plenty of ways to get around the metro area without owning a car.  My wife’s office is a 10-minute bus ride away from our apartment (it would be 8 minutes by car), and I work mostly from home.  It’s hard to imagine that paying ~$600/month (i.e., conservatively, $200 car payment and/or maintenance, $200 insurance for two, $200 gas) vs. ~$60 for her bus fares is worth the extra 4 minutes a day.

To be sure, we are fortunate to have such great transit options available for our work (short bus ride and telecommuting, respectively).  But what really makes our situation workable is that we can (and do) still use cars quite often.  For short weekly trips (e.g., grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, etc.), we use Zipcar (~$10/hour all inclusive, including rental, insurance, and gas).  For more special occasions (e.g., weekend getaways), we hire a vehicle from a traditional rental car company (e.g., Hertz, Budget, Enterprise).

Moreover, not owning a car has had a surprising, unforeseen side effect:  I actually like driving again.  I used to commute 1.5 hours/day through the Chicago suburbs, and I detested driving.  Now, I drive a handful of times throughout each month, and every drive feels like I’m zooming through car-commercial-world, fused with the open road.

All in all, our monthly transportation budget is considerably more than the $60 “minimum” needed for my wife’s bus commute.  It is also far less than the $600/month it would cost us to own (and use) our own car.  And there are plenty of intangible benefits of not sitting in traffic every day.  Down economy or not, it doesn’t always make sense to own a car.