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How to Go Car-less/Car-free in the USA
(Or, at least, use a car less)

credits and disclaimer

Going car-less in the USA is easier said than done. Unlike in Germany or the Netherlands, mass transit is not plentiful nor well-integrated into most big cities in the USA, and bike lanes are rare. Unlike those and other countries, or when going by car, when going by mass transit you often can't spontaneously decide to go somewhere and just throw on a few things and do it. Taking mass transit or relying on a bicycle for commuting and most travel in the USA means a lot of planning and preparation. 

If you are in great shape, have a great deal of savings so that you can move and live where you need to in order to rely on a bicycle or mass transit only, or primarily, it might be easy for you to go car-free - but that's not the profile of most Americans.

It's not always realistic to live entirely car-free in the USA; you might need to, instead, pursue a lifestyle where you don't have to drive to work or school, but still own a car, for trips not easily reached by mass transit or car. Or you might need to join a program by a car rental company so that you can rent a car when you need such a few times a month.

It's not impossible to go car-free or to make your primary mode of transportation mass transit, walking or bike riding in the USA, but just be prepared for a lot of work to make it happen.

My advice here is based on not having daily access to a car since 2001, for eight years in Germany and since 2009 in the USA, as well as traveling to more than 30 countries in that time and rarely renting a car during my travels. I have deep experience using buses and trains for most of my transportation, and some experience relying on a bicycle, both in Germany and in the small town where I live outside of Portland, Oregon.

Note: I'm not going to talk about riding horses, nor about car ride-sharing (I consider Lift and Uber as taxis and will discuss them later), car-pooling, car sharing or bike sharing as viable ways to commute. I'm not talking about horses because cities are not safe places to ride horses and it's really hard to find parking for a horse. I'm not talking about car-pooling or car sharing because I've yet to find a viable program, one that you can count on year-to-year, or that you can count on even if you change jobs. I'm not talking about bike sharing because that might work for tourists, but not for commuters. 

Where you live

You are going to have to live somewhere that has designated bike lanes and/or direct bus lines between where you live and where you work. How long are you really willing to travel by bicycle and/or bus or train to work?

The difference between 20 minutes and 60 minutes on a bus or train is a lot more than 40 minutes! Unless you can read on a bus or train (I can't), or have hundreds of hours of podcasts you really, really want to listen to, most of your time on a bus or train will feel like time wasted. Plus, if you have to change between buses or trains as a part of your commute, it could add 30, even 60 minutes to your commute one way. You want to choose a home that creates a bus route that keeps transfers to a minimum- or wouldn't require you to do such at all. The web site for your local mass transit program will have details on express trains and buses with frequent service.

As for using a bike for a commute, remember that even the hardiest riders have days when they cannot ride, either because of their health, or the weather, or a bike breakdown. What will your alternative be for those days?

That's why your first step in deciding to go car-free, or use your car less, is in choosing where you live. 

Bike commuting

Bike commuting on surface streets only, without bike lanes, for several minutes every day will, eventually, get you into a wreck. It will probably happen in the Winter, between when Daylight Savings Time ends and when it begins the following year, because you will be riding your bicycle in the dark: someone will not see you and hit you or run you off the road. Having designated bike lanes as a part of your commute will greatly reduce your chances of a wreck. Again: it's a matter of choosing where you live if you want to be able to bike safely to and from work or school.

You will need clothes for bike commuting. They have to either be clothes you can also wear in the work place or clothes that will keep you protected against the elements. In Germany, I just wore what I was going to work in that day, including skirts. But my bike commute to work was less than a mile, and if the weather was really bad, I walked, wearing a heavy coat and boots I couldn't on a bicycle.

Wear a helmet. Wear a helmet. PLEASE WEAR A HELMET.

You will also need bike luggage to carry your change of clothes, work materials, lap top, etc.

Invest in a reflective vest (and wear it!), and put reflectors all over your bicycle, including luggage. I have lights in the spokes of my bike, and I turn them on when I ride at bicycle, so I can be seen from the side, not just from the front. When I am decked out for night riding, my husband says he can see more than when I ride in the day, per all my reflective gear and lights.

You will need a safe place to park your bike at work or at classes. A U-Lock isn't enough, at least not in Portland; park your bike outside and, eventually, it's going to be stolen. You need an inside place for your bicycle, and it still needs to be locked.

Your bike will probably have to be ultra light, for carrying up steps, up on to the front rack of a bus, etc.

If you want to combine biking and mass transit, great, but note that

  • you will need to have the kind of bicycle you can hang within the small spaces within a train car or on the front of the bus, with other bikes, and the upper body strength to do it
  • you may have to wait for two or three buses or trains, or more, before there's room for your bike

Consider taking a class in bike maintenance basics. You'll be glad you did when you are on the side of a road with a flat tire.

And remember: you will be expected to ride FAST. Other bicyclists will be angry if you are not going as fast as them. I once heard a woman steadfastly say she would NEVER get over on the road for a car that was unhappy at her speed, and 30 minutes later, tell me that, when I'm on my bike, I should always pull over and let faster bikers such as herself pass. You either have to learn to go really fast or grow a thick skin and not be bothered by the insults that will be hurled your way by other bicyclists for your slow speed.

By Mass Transit

If you want to choose buses or light rail as your primary transportation for work or school, then you will want to live along a frequent service line or or a line that goes within walking distance of both your home and work place. Official mass transit web sites will note which bus lines are frequent service.

As I noted earlier, if you have to change between buses or trains as a part of your commute, it could add 30, even 60 minutes to your commute one way. You want to choose a home that creates a bus route that keeps transfers to a minimum - or wouldn't require you to do such at all. 

If the bus does not run into the night, you will need to think about what you will do if you have to work late: how will you get home if there are no buses? Have a plan for this BEFORE you are faced with.

You will have to have exact change. Even if the system also uses electronic tickets, know that these sometimes fail, the network goes down, etc. Stay safe - have exact change for at least a one-way trip.

You also have to think about your clothes. You have to watch where you are going to sit and walk, to make sure you keep your clothes clean for the work place. Even in summer, I wear a very light, long, wispy jacket over my clothes, in case I sit in something on the bus or something gets thrown up from a passing bus.

As for shoes: remember that, very often, you will be standing on the bus or train, perhaps for the entire trip.


If you are going to walk more than two blocks as a part of your work commute - even to and from from the bus - invest in a reflective vest (and wear it!), and put reflectors on your backpack. And keep your footwear in mind: you want something comfortable and durable, or you want to wear athletic shoes and carry your work shoes with you (or keep them in your work desk). 

Getting to places other than work or daily classes

You will need to get groceries . If you are going to rely on the bus for such trips, invest in a shopping cart that stands tall and will be allowed on a bus, and plan for frequent trips, rather than going just once a week.

You will need to go to doctors and the dentist. That means you will have to choose providers you can get to by bus or bicycle - or you will have to pay a taxi, or Lyft or Uber, to get there and back. 

You will want to go to concerts or the movies or festivals. A 60 minute one-way trip by bus may not sound like all that much to deal with in order to see a beloved performer, but once you do it, you may find yourself not going out as much. Also, remember that you probably cannot take a backpack into a concert venue.

Tools and Accessories

You need a great backpack or messenger bag, one that is relatively rain proof and can't easily be opened by someone next to you on a bus or train.

You need a fantastic phone and durable case for such, and you want a device that can hold a lot of apps. Apps I think are essential for a commuter:

  • Google maps (or something similar)
  • Lyft and/or Uber (or something similar)
  • Weather
  • Local mass transit app (if available); this can be a route planner app, probably one that is official from your local mass transit program, and a separate ticket purchase app, which may be outsourced
  • Local news apps that can tell you about traffic problems
  • Twitter (and know what keywords are used by local mass transit users; here in PDX, it's #trimet); this will help you to be able to share urgent info with fellow commuters and find such urgent info yourself

If you are a bike commuter, you may want a smartphone app that tracks and records your rides - distance, speed and other metrics.

Also for bike commuters: there may be an app to help you plan a bike route in your particular city. It may let you choose between direct routes and safer routes. These apps are coming and going frequently, so I won't even try to list such here - you can find them on Google or Bing.

For bus and train commuters, you may want to download several podcasts to listen to during your commute, rather than trying to live stream programs. If you are one of those lucky souls who can read in a bus or train, download some books as well: Project Gutenberg has free ebooks.

I carry a cheap transistor radio with me as well, because I don't have a great data plan and I really like listening to the local NPR station when I'm riding the bus.

You want two sets of terrific ear phones, because one WILL break.

Note: I do not listen to music nor the radio when on my bicycle. My safety is just too important.

Carry tissues and a cloth handkerchief or bandana, to clean up big spills, wipe your face or clothes, etc.

If you are bike commuting, you need some basic tools for your bike. You need a bike pump, and you will need to carry this in your backpack - it will be stolen if you leave it on your bike.

Car rentals, taxis, etc.

As I said earlier, you absolutely should have either the Lyft or Uber app on your phone, and know how to use them. Many taxis also have apps now - look for such in your area and have them downloaded on your phone.

Many car rental companies also have membership programs that are free to join and will give you significant savings in renting a car. I joined Enterprise, because there is an office just 20 minutes from me by bus. For the price of a Lyft ride to downtown Portland, I can rent a car for 24 hours.


Have the non-emergency phone numbers for local police and county sheriff in your phone's contacts. Not every situation is appropriate to call 911. You will need these numbers to report the theft of your (or someone else's) bike, wallet or purse, or something suspicious but not life-threatening that you see.

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2017 by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved. No part of this material can be reproduced in print or in electronic form without express written permission by Jayne Cravens.


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2010-17 by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved. No part of this material can be reproduced in print or in electronic form without express written permission by Jayne Cravens.

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