Temporarily car-free in Nashville, Tennessee

So for the past month, after the car accident I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been car-free here in Nashville.

Living in a city that makes only the barest of nods to public transportation, I’d always assumed that being without a car would be a terrible hardship, even though I already rely on my bicycle for most neighborhood trips. Some of my fears turned out to be true and others, not as much. Here’s how a few of my preconceptions ended up playing out in reality.

I’d be limited on what I could do and where I could go.
True, but not to the extent that I had feared. I was able to bum a ride to events that were really important, or take a bus. I also tried out the bike/bus combo for the first time—overcoming my fear that my bike would fall off the rack at the front—and was amazed at how easy it was. That said, with an increased awareness of the energy and time expenditures to get somewhere, I found myself choosing to spend time (and money) in my own neighborhood more often.

My social life would suffer.
The past month has been quieter for me—but having to get most everywhere by bike has made me respect my human limitations and not push myself to do things when I feel sick or tired like I usually do. Surprisingly, being forced to slow down has been more relaxing than frustrating.

I’d be unable to see out-of-town family and friends.
Sadly, true—I missed out on seeing some good friends of mine a couple of weekends ago. (The Greyhound to my hometown takes about 7 hours, vs. 4 hours in the car, which means that taking it for a weekend is impractical. Rental cars are pretty pricey for a weekend.) This continues to be one of the biggest reasons for me to keep a car.

I won’t be able to do everyday things—shop for groceries, etc.
Again, sort of true. My local grocery is close but has crap (aka zero) bike parking, so it’s kind of a pain. I have tagged along with friends to the store a couple of times, which was nice when it came to buying milk, etc. I also found myself buying things at odd places that were for whatever reason more convenient (I’ve never bought milk at Walgreens before! Or butter from the Dollar General.). Random shopping trips just didn’t happen. I would say that was a good thing since I saved some money, but I’m pretty sure I made up for it by buying stuff online. There were some errands I put off while I didn’t have a car, like going to the bank, but then again I do that anyway.

More to come on the response from others, and my own feelings about the experience, but this post is getting pretty long. I know there are others in mid-sized cities, and others here in Nashville, who don’t drive. What has your experience been like? What were your fears about being without a car and how did you deal with them?

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30 thoughts on “Temporarily car-free in Nashville, Tennessee

  1. Darren Alff says:

    Interesting stuff. I’ve been car-free myself for the past few years and it is something that takes a little getting used to. With winter fast approaching, I’m wondering how that will affect you there in Nashville. Do you get snow or ice in the winters? Cause here in Utah where I am, there will be snow everywhere and I am usually the only one out on my bike during the winter months. I’m pretty used it it and actually find it fun at times, but sometimes I certainly do miss having a car – especially in the winter.

    • Trisha says:

      It doesn’t get too bad in Nashville, although last year we had a lot of snow and ice (for us). I am generally the only cyclist out in winter, but we’ve had a big surge in cycling numbers over the past year or two. It will be interesting to see if there are more this year.

    • Trisha says:

      It doesn’t get too bad in Nashville, although last year we had a lot of snow and ice (for us). I am generally the only cyclist out in winter, but we’ve had a big surge in cycling numbers over the past year or two. It will be interesting to see if there are more this year.

  2. Kristin says:

    I think the whole rental-cars-are-more-expensive thing might not QUITE be true. I don’t have a car; my bf has a very old truck that cannot make long trips, so we rent one. For the amount he spends on gas and insurance in about two moths, we can rent a car for three days. I bet it’d come out to be about the same on an annual basis – renting a car a few times per year versus having one year-round. Being on the west coast, we have the added benefit of Amtrak trains, which can get us to a lot of places in a really comfortable, cheap and stress-free way. For me, anything beats being in a car!

    • Matthew says:

      Kristin is right on — just grab the Edmunds.com true cost calculator and you see pretty quickly that even a 5-year old car, bought used, costs about $5k per year to own once you do insurance, fuel, repairs, license, etc. That’s a lot of weekend rentals.

      • LC says:

        I’d agree on that too. The UK’s car rentals are actually getting better at offering good deals for week end or holiday hire etc. However even with ‘normal’ prices, car rental is not as expensive as owning a car all year round.

        I am aware that I live in a city, so being car free might be easier than in a more rural location, however we’ve been car free for 5 years, relying on our bikes mostly together with buses and trains for longer distances.

        A while ago I did some calcs (can’t remember what website I used, sorry!) of the money saved by not owning a car. I took an averagely priced second hand car, a number of years and added all the cost of petrol, tax, services and repairs, as well as insurance. I calculated that I approximately save £1500 a year by not owning a car (bear in mind petrol is a whole lot more expensive than in the US), no way we would spend that much on car hire.

        But what I have enjoyed most of not owning a car is indeed the stress of when it goes wrong! Gone are the days of panic when the engine was making funny noises, of worringly waiting for the phone call from the mechanic telling me how much the MOT and service came to (usually never than £150) etc.

        Now if my bike needs some TLC, I am spending at most £50 a year for servicing etc.

        I know not owning a car is not possible for everyone, but my initial worries (very similar to yours Trisha) of not owning a car soon dissipated by becoming used to, as well as enjoying being car free :D

        • Trisha says:

          I’ll check that out. My car is paid off and insurance/registration costs are pretty low. (Renting a car to go home for Thanksgiving, for example, would cost more than the annual registration on my car.) Mechanics in the family mean that maintenance isn’t as much of a concern for me. I’m sure that if I didn’t have a car I would save some money but I’d be surprised if it were as much as $5K/year. In this particular instance, the rental was definitely too expensive since I DO still have the cost of a car in my budget.

          I do think having to pay per use is a good way of being more conscious of the expenses related to having a car. I should think of it that way even with my own car to keep the real cost of a trip in mind.

  3. Songbirdy says:

    Regarding the no parking for bikes… I (and the hubby and kids too) just take a vehicle spot. Typically when I’m grocery shopping when we are no vehicle (which was half a year the first time) we have a trailer with us so it seems to scare off drivers from trying to couch the spot.

    We have gone over 9 months without a vehicle in Canada (snow!) and it was okay. The fact that family is distant is the hardest part. The other main frustration was dealing with our friends reactions. Not trying to be cruel, at times they wouldn’t tell us about things ‘because they were afraid we’d not be able to get there.” Or we’d get invited out and they’d insist on picking us up. We’d be as insistent that we cycle.

    We had several offers of vehicles, which we turned down at first but eventually knowing we were coming up on the coldest part of the year we did accept another vehicle. Immediately people stopped offering rides, which was ironic as we continued to bike!

    My fear was what we’d do when sick, and that I’d even be able to live car free. When sick… we still managed to cycle and it didn’t feel impossible. I’m sure if it had we’d use the taxi or the bus. And yes, we lived fairly normally car free. In fact, like you we enjoyed the relaxed pace.

    • Trisha says:

      When you park in a spot, how do you lock up? That’s the problem at my local grocery. No place to lock up! Except a bench near the door, where someone is almost always taking their smoke break. Kind of awkward.

      I had the same concerns about getting sick. Will be talking about that more in the next post.

  4. aem2 says:

    I heard once you should buy the car for what you’re going to need 90% of the time and rent for the rest. I agree with Kristin: the cost of renting a car for a few weekends a year might be more cost effective than owning a car for the entire year, if that’s your main use of the car. Plus you don’t have the hassle of worrying about the car the rest of the year.

    Also, I see that Nashville has a (teeny-tiny) car share. Have you tried that yet? They can be really useful for infrequent errands.

  5. aem2 says:

    I heard once you should buy the car for what you’re going to need 90% of the time and rent for the rest. I agree with Kristin: the cost of renting a car for a few weekends a year might be more cost effective than owning a car for the entire year, if that’s your main use of the car. Plus you don’t have the hassle of worrying about the car the rest of the year.

    Also, I see that Nashville has a (teeny-tiny) car share. Have you tried that yet? They can be really useful for infrequent errands.

  6. Illiniwu says:

    i’ve never owned a car so here are the things i feel like i’m missing out on:
    -trips to the suburbs are impossible unless someone is picking me up. even if it’s by a metra station or pace bus line, good luck crossing the street to get to your destination!
    -no road trips.
    -if people make plans with you last minute, it takes me 2-3x more time to get there.

    On the other hand, most people are pretty nice about it. They’ll wait longer for me to get there, offer me rides.

  7. Anonymous says:

    When there is no bike parking, I assume that means it is OK to bring my bike inside with me and I CONFIRM it with the first employee I meet inside. I always follow up with a letter nowadays. Never been turned down yet…

  8. Karen says:

    Flagstaff is small and if it weren’t for the winter snow and icy roads that come with it, we could easily go car-free. Our goals is to be car-free but that won’t be until we are able to leave here. If public transit came into our neighborhood we could probably do it as well. I believe the final barrier is simply that even where we live people who rides bikes exclusively, especially women, are considered kooky and maybe not quite grownup.

  9. […] of LGRAB, very recently wrote an interesting post of being forced to live without her car for a short period and she evaluated the pros and cons that she […]

  10. upnorthdoug says:

    My experience is similar to yours. I always tell people that being car-free shrinks the size of your world and slows down the pace of your life. I end up prioritizing what’s important to me more often than when I had my truck (9 years car-free). I rent cars from the local airport car rental agencies for long weekend trips and vacation travel. It’s not practical to rent all the time, but is definitely cheaper to rent for big trips than to have a car sitting around waiting to be used that requires insurance and maintenance.

  11. Lauren Taylor says:

    i managed to be car-free too for about 2 weeks… i think i told you this, but my engine blew up in my s10 :( so sad. so i bought a monthly bus pass & biked around in good weather. it wasn’t too bad! the lack of grocery shopping & laundry really killed me… i had someone drive me to the grocery store for my big shopping trip, and that made it easier to get on the bike & pick up a few things after work as i needed them. the worst was when i blew a tire and i didn’t have a spare tube – no time to get to the bike shop (with the bus schedule being what it is) and i couldn’t ride my bike out there! the only thing i hated about riding the bus was when they ran ahead of schedule & i’d miss it. was late to work a handful of times for that reason!

    anyway, i ended up buying a truck because i found one for about half it’s actual worth & i can pay it off when an interest-free loan, so i jumped on that deal. i’m still riding my bike when it’s nice, but i like having the choice. as a side note, i’m not using my bus pass & it’s still good until october 21st… do you want it? i’ll drive it to you :)

    • Trisha says:

      Oh, laundry. Yes, that would be a horrible pain if you had to go to the laundromat by bike or bus.

      I have my car back but might take you up on that bus pass. It seems like East Nashville would be a more difficult area to be car-free in than my neighborhood, so I’m glad you found some new wheels.

  12. Carolyn I. says:

    You might not be able to do a road trip, but you can tour the country by bicycle. ;) I did that this Summer, it’s nice being able to get around on bike, you see more then you would in a car. Granted, it takes much longer time to get around, so you need lots of time off to do a big trip.

  13. Scott says:

    I owned cars for over 30 years and thought long and hard about going car free. Chris Balish’s “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car: Save Money, Breathe Easier, and Get More Mileage Out of Life” finally pushed me over the edge, and I haven’t missed owning a car since the day I sold my midlife-crisis car. In Seattle, the combination of public transit and a folding bike let me do almost everything I once did with a car. For those rare occasions when I need to haul around something more than I can carry on a bike, Zipcar gets me there.

  14. Mtkupp says:

    I went car-free just about a year ago. I figured if I could make it through the first N. Wisconsin winter, the rest would be a piece of cake :) As for rental cars. 3 seasons of the year Enterprise offers a weekend rate of $9.99/day (300 mi limit) . I end up renting a vehicle 4-5 times a year, either to go visit friends or attend bike tours. Going car free has been positive so far.

  15. Bruce says:

    I tend to buy a lot of food at Trader Joe’s (there is one in Nashville (3909 Hillsboro Pike wherever that is) and at Target. The Trader Joe’s has been good about letting me park my bike by the Captain’s desk when I forgot my lock once, and I lock my bike to the cart corrals at Target. The Topeak trunk bag (their biggest one) has built-in panniers that fold out and zip closed. It carries a fair amount of stuff, making my bike back heavy (it’s a road bike, the only bike I have) as it will carry at least 20 pounds.

    So even if there isn’t official bike parking, maybe you can improvise. As for out of town friends, look through the journals of Crazguyonabike.com and consider a Salsa Vaya.

    • LGRAB says:

      Yes, Trader Joe’s in Nashville DOES have a bike rack. But it’s further than my local grocery and is in a high-traffic area, so I don’t go there very often (by car or bike). I’m afraid to lock my bike to cart corrals because I worry that someone will hit it.

  16. Dave says:

    I’m coming in a bit late on this (I’ve had it starred in my reader since you posted it, but things have been a bit crazy over here)… but here goes.

    This echoes a lot of things we’ve noticed after selling our car. Prior to selling it, we had moved to a great neighborhood where everything we need is very close, and after selling it, we basically just stay in our neighborhood as well, except for very specific things that we do on occasion. We really haven’t felt this to be limiting or claustrophobic for us, it feels good to be economical with our movement, and I’ve loved that now walking or riding bikes places with my wife means extra built-in time in our day to just hang out.

    We already had an admittedly small social life, so that wasn’t a problem for us – we have a few good friends we spend time with, and we swap between them coming to us, and us to them, so it doesn’t involve all that much travel for us.

    The out-of-town travel is really where a car becomes very useful, particularly if you’re on a time crunch. Thankfully everyone we really want to see is at least in the Portland area, so we don’t have any really long trips like that to another city, or if we do, it’s for vacation and we’ve taken time off for it. I suppose the expense for the rental car kind of depends on the situation – if you don’t own a car and aren’t paying for gas and insurance regularly, renting a car to go out of town for a weekend occasionally probably isn’t so bad, but when it’s in addition to owning and paying for a car on a regular basis, it is expensive.

    Everyday errands are another way we’re kind of lucky with our neighborhood – we have two grocery stores with small, but adequate amounts of bike parking, within less than a mile of our apartment, a credit union we can use to deposit/withdraw within half a mile, tons of restaurants within a mile, a huge used CD/Vinyl store within half a mile, even our ND/MD Doctor is within a mile of our place. I do have about an 8-mile round-trip to go pick up our fresh milk/eggs each week, but that’s do-able.

    We have Zipcar as well, which really helps when we need to go more in the range of 10-15 miles, but not out of the city (a rare occasion), and we don’t have time to take a bus (also a rare occasion).

    Most people we know personally just give a reaction like “oh, that’s great that you’re able to live without a car!”

    It’s funny, when we went to the coast via Greyhound, when we were checking into the hotel, the receptionist asked us to fill out our license plate number and such, and we said “oh, we don’t have a car” – and she just kind of looked at us blankly like “uh, I’m not sure what to do now, that’s never happened before.”

    It’s also funny, as we’ve been helping my wife’s little sister and her friend move to Portland for college, and we’re getting them into an apartment and whatnot, and neither of them even have a driver’s license, much less a car, but inevitably, we go look at apartments for the two of them, and they ask “so, will you have one or two cars?” – and again, when they say they don’t drive, they just kind of get the “oh, I’m not sure what to do now” look for a few seconds, and then “oh, well, there are bus routes near here too.”

    Even in Portland, the culture at large has a long way to go before the idea of not owning a car is anything but shocking, even though there is a not insignificant percentage of the population that doesn’t own a car – I think most people still feel that the only people who don’t own cars are those who can’t afford them (and by that, they mean the people who both don’t make enough, and can’t get enough credit to buy one anyway, since almost everyone buys them on credit – which basically means the ‘socially disenfranchised’).

    Sorry, that turned out a lot longer than I meant it to :)

  17. […] the option of a car for getting around, I was soon reminded of the lesson I learned when I went car-free for a short time last fall: It’s not really that big of a deal. So far I’ve walked to the grocery store, […]

  18. Karen says:

    Flagstaff is small and if it weren’t for the winter snow and icy roads that come with it, we could easily go car-free. Our goals is to be car-free but that won’t be until we are able to leave here. If public transit came into our neighborhood we could probably do it as well. I believe the final barrier is simply that even where we live people who rides bikes exclusively, especially women, are considered kooky and maybe not quite grownup.

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