Living car-free in the Bay Area
- Published Sunday, January 7, 2007, by the Oakland Tribune
Living car free
OK, so you may not want to give up your car, but here in the Bay
Area, you can sure use it a lot less
By Chad Jones
Time to come out of the closet -- or maybe I should say garage.
I've lived in the Bay Area for more than 16 years, and I don't own
I had one when I moved here, but within a couple of months, the
expense -- not to mention the traffic and the parking hassles --
overwhelmed me, and I quickly sold the four-wheeled beast.
Since then, it's been me and BART and CalTrain and AC Transit and
Golden Gate Transit and, when absolutely necessary, the neighborhood
car rental place.
Living car free is not, unfortunately, for everyone. If you have kids
to cart around or a job that requires a major commute, chances are
you have to keep driving.
But for many residents of the Bay Area, there's simply no excuse for
not using public transportation more. Or carpooling more. Or riding
your bike or walking whenever possible.
As we slip into this new year, maybe it's time to make a resolution
that is larger than yourself. Sure, you could exercise more and eat
better. Boring. Or you could make a real difference and drive less.
That helps your neighbors and the planet.
I don't think there's anyone within a large radius of where you are
right now who would disagree with the notion that there are simply
too many cars on the road here, in this exceptionally lovely corner
of the world we call home.
It is possible -- and I can testify to this -- to live well without
owning a car.
If you don't believe me, ask Chris Balish, 39, author of "How to Live
Well Without Owning a Car" <http://www.livecarfree.com>, published
last fall by Berkeley's Ten Speed Press.
About four years ago, before Balish wrote the book, he was an award-
winning TV personality in the Midwest and host of the daytime talk
show "Show Me St. Louis." He was successful and had the $36,000 SUV
to show for it.
He drove everywhere: to the gym, to the grocery store, to the dry
cleaner and -- at least twice a week -- to the gas station.
When the fuel bills started to get out of hand, Balish decided to
sell the SUV and buy a more fuel-efficient car. But he sold the SUV
much more quickly than he had anticipated and found himself, almost
accidentally, without a car.
"When I watched my car being driven away, I had a huge panic attack,"
Balish says. "I thought, 'What am I going to do without a car? I'm
going to starve to death because I won't be able to get to the
grocery store. I'll end up a hermit who doesn't ever see his friends,
and I'll die in my apartment alone.'"
Then Balish calmed down and looked at things logistically. He rode
public transit for the first time and found it to be reliable and
efficient and -- bonus! -- he could read the entire morning newspaper
on his way to work.
"This image people have of the bus being for poor people is
ridiculous," Balish says. "Everybody rides the bus, especially in the
last year when gas prices skyrocketed. You see everybody on the bus,
including bankers and lawyers. There are people who think the bus is
dirty or unsafe, but I can show you statistics that reveal mass
transit is 80 times safer than riding in a car. If you're scared
about being accosted on a bus, why aren't you just as scared of being
killed in a fiery car crash?"
As he got into this whole living car-free thing, Balish found there
were certain errands he could take care of online -- like ordering
stamps, banking, renting DVDs or getting groceries delivered -- and
then something really amazing happened.
"My social life actually improved after I got rid of my car," Balish
says. "When I had a car and needed something, I jumped in the car
alone, shopped alone, drove home alone. But without a car, those same
kinds of errands became group activities. I ended up spending more
time with my friends, not less."
The biggest shock of all, however, was on Balish's wallet.
Without the monthly expenses of owning a car -- most notably gas,
maintenance and monthly car and insurance payments -- his bank
account was $800 fatter than usual.
Driving to work, working to drive
The financial impact of living car free is something Balish
emphasizes heavily in his book.
He notes that the day you buy a car, it loses 20 percent of its value
and continues to depreciate by 10 to 15 percent each year you own it.
Then you have to pay back the money you borrowed to buy the car plus
interest and pay for continued maintenance and gas.
"Most Americans are blowing all their money on cars," Balish says.
"And if they're like me, they don't even realize the extent of the
Living without a car, Balish began to see how buying a car and owning
a car are two different expenses. He was directed to
<http://www.edmunds.com>, which calculates what's called the True
Cost to Own (TCO) figure for specific years and makes of cars that
takes into account depreciation, financing, insurance, taxes and
fees, fuel, maintenance and repairs.
In the book, Balish uses a 2005 Ford Explorer XLS as an example.
The sticker price is about $22,132, but the TCO over five years is
actually more than $44,000. Another example he gives is for a used
2001 Toyota Camry LE V6, purchased for $12,251. The TCO is $26,411.
"Before I realized the full financial gain of not owning a car,"
Balish says, "I would feel the lure of car ownership beckon every
time I saw a sexy sports car on the road or in a commercial. For
most of my life, I've seen 30 car commercials a day. They add up and
definitely affect your psyche. It was tough to get through that first
month -- I'm an American! I have to have a car! -- but then I saw the
savings, and I got over that pretty quickly."
Balish says he is living debt-free now and saves about 50 percent of
A conscious choice
Balish may have fallen into a car-free lifestyle by accident, but he
stayed that way by choice.
Last spring, Balish moved from Missouri to Los Angeles to pursue
greater adventures in television. And yes, Balish is living car
free in L.A., the center of the car-owning, car-loving universe.
"Before I moved, I looked at a number of different communities
because I knew there were certain things I wanted walkable access to,
and I knew I needed good bus line access to get me places I knew I
might have auditions."
Balish settled on Santa Monica and began making the rounds to find
a job and promote his book.
"I had an interview with NPR, got online, looked up the bus route,
printed out a PDF of the map and found that the bus dropped me of
eight-tenths of a mile from my destination. I rode my bike the rest
of the way," Balish says.
Unless he's going someplace specifically to talk about his book and
his chosen lifestyle, Balish says people assume that if you show up
someplace looking put together, you drove there.
"If they don't ask, I don't bring it up," he says. "If they do ask,
I admit I'm car free in L.A. If they ask how I'd get to work, I tell
them, 'I wrote the book on it.'"
Even Balish's family has given in to his car-free thinking. Balish's
mom and dad are retired and living in Connecticut. Up until a few
years ago, they had two cars on a fixed income.
"I convinced them they were wasting $700 to $800 a month," Balish
says. "And my mom's response was, 'But we've always had two cars.'
I sat them down and walked them through the costs. They had no idea
what owning a car really costs. So now they have one car, and with
the money they're saving, they visit their grandchildren and go on
As an energetic bachelor, Balish zips around on his bike and buses
and belongs to a car-sharing group that he uses about once a month
for heavy-duty errands (like shopping at Costco).
For a working parent, especially one with small children, living car
free is a much trickier proposition -- but not an impossible one.
"When I have kids, I'm totally doing it car free," Balish says. "The
thing about living car free is this: if you've owned and used cars
all your life, you rely on them every day. To live without a car
requires lifestyle re-engineering. You have to purposely plan where
you live and how you're going to get around."
Balish plans to get married and have kids, and he promises a 100
percent effort at living car-free.
"If you plan in advance what amenities are required for kids --
pediatrician's office, hospital, schools and all that -- and choose
to live where all that's accessible, living car free is a very
While being interviewed on a radio call-in show recently, Balish
encountered an angry caller who said, "You ought to have your head
examined. You can't live in this country without a car."
Balish laughs at the memory and says he responded with something
along the lines of: "Car-free living is not for everybody, but for
tens of millions of Americans who have a more enlightened view, it
is very realistic. I'm not out to convert anybody. But there is a
better way. Think about it this way: if more people go car free,
there's less traffic, more parking, fewer traffic hassles and
cheaper insurance. It seems to me car owners should be behind this
Now to you
Like Balish, I ride public transit -- BART and buses mostly --
every day, and I can tell you that we live in an area blessed with
efficient ways to get around. No, it's not perfect, and yes it can
be frustrating, but there are plenty of us living here without cars,
and we get to where we need to be.
Maybe 2007 won't be the year you go car free, but Balish suggests
you might try going car lite.
Map out a public transit route to work and use it once or twice a
week. Ride your bike to accomplish errands on a beautiful day and
you get a twofer: exercise and failure to pollute.
Next time you and your friends or family go to San Francisco, take
BART or Caltrans and avoid high bridge tolls, parking meters and
Balish says if he can live car free, anyone can.
"I'm a normal, mainstream, average-Joe guy. I found a better way to
live. People can replicate what I've done and improve their lives
dramatically. Luck has nothing to do with it. I deliberately planned
my life to facilitate a car-free lifestyle. The biggest obstacle for
other people is getting over that 'There's no way I can do it'
hurdle, but you can get over it, you really can."
Planning a car-free lifestyle
Living car free
TO BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY toward a car-free lifestyle, here are some
resources that might come in handy:
* Read the first two chapters of Chris Balish's "How to Live Well
Without Owning a Car" ($12.95, Ten Speed Press) at
* Plan your Bay Area transit routes at http://www.transitinfo.org by
entering a starting place and a destination. The site plans out your
most efficient route and links you to any relevant sites.
* For BART information, visit http://www.bart.gov or (510) 465-2278
(Oakland/Berkeley/Orinda); (415) 989-2278 (San Francisco/Daly City);
(650) 992-2278 (South San Francisco/San Bruno/San Mateo); (925) 676-
(510) 441-2278 (Hayward/San Leandro/Fremont/Union
City/Dublin/Pleasanton); (510) 236-2278 (Richmond/El Cerrito).
* AC Transit in the East Bay: http://www.actransit.org or 817-1717
* SamTrans on the Peninsula: http://www.samtrans.org or (800) 660-
* Caltrain from San Jose to San Francisco: http://www.caltrain.com
or (800) 660-4287
* Golden Gate Transit in the North Bay (including ferries):
http://goldengate.org or (415) 921-5858.
* MUNI in San Francisco: http://www.sfmuni.com or (415) 673-6864.
* Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in the South Bay:
http://www.vta.org or (800) 894-9908.
* On the phone or online, 5-1-1 or 511.org provides complete and
continuously updated information on Bay Area transit.
* Bay Area car-sharing groups include: Flexcar,
http://www.flexcar.com or (408) 996-FLEX; and City Car Share,
http://www.citycarshare.org or (415) 995-8588.
* Other sites that might be helpful include: Commuter Choice,
a government and business partnership designed to help with
commuting challenges, <http://www.commuterchoice.com/sanfrancisco>;
Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for cycling,
walking and environmentally sensible transportation,
<http://www.transalt.org>; Bicycle Commuter, a guide to practical
biking in the Bay area, <http://www.bicyclecommuter.com>; and
Craigslist, <http://www.craigslist.org>, which offers classifieds
seeking and offering commuter ride share opportunities.
E-mail Chad Jones at cjones@... or call (925) 416-4853.
[BATN: See also:
Americans shift slightly away from driving toward transit
Contra Costa Times writer tries going car-less for a week
Letter: Carless living way to go; how to encourage less driving
Mountain View family trades cars for bikes, enjoys life more
Carless in Sacramento (by choice)
Poll: America's love affair with cars is skidding