I Own a Car, After Almost 17 Years Without One

Back in 2007, a year after I moved to Seattle, I crunched the numbers and made the rational decision to sell my car. I just used the same spreadsheet to revisit that decision, coming to the conclusion that the time was right to buy a new, to me, car. I went electric; my new ride is a 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV, the smallest electric car I can get in the U.S. that gets at least 200 miles on a full charge. So far, I like it.

I still drove during most of my nearly 17-year hiatus of car non-ownership, using any carsharing or rental service I could find. They’ve been convenient, but if I need them a lot, they are a burden on both my time and my wallet. Most recently, I’ve been using Gig Car Share, operated by AAA, which rents Toyota Priuses by the minute, hour, or day. The service has been good and generally reliable; at any hour of the day, I can expect to have a car available within a 20-minute walk of my home. Gig offers a fair amount of incentives to get started or as occasional discounts, but recently, their rates have shot up. For example, Gig can rent me a Prius for about $20 an hour during the week or $25 an hour during the weekend, with daily caps that kick in after about 5 or 6 hours of use. By contrast, in 2007, I was paying only about $8 an hour for many Flexcar (now Zipcar) vehicles; Zipcar now charges $15 to $20 an hour, plus a $90 annual fee that is no longer subject to corporate discounts. It’s much cheaper to rent a car for days at a time from a traditional car rental company, like Avis, or from a private owner using Getaround or Turo. These rentals require me to pick up a car that might be miles away from my home, and I might be held liable for any damage, whether I caused it or not. I had planned to rent a car from a Getaround owner about a mile to my north, until I cancelled the reservation because I bought a car. Getaround had asked me to take at least 12 photos of a car before I started driving it, as a risk mitigation for either me or the driver; it’s not clear who benefits. A relationship with a carsharing or car rental service is one-sided: I need a car more than the car owner needs me.

The costs of owning a car have changed a lot since 2007. Back then, I lived in an apartment building that charged for parking, but now, I live in a house that has off-street parking just for me. Maintenance for my old gas-powered car was a drag on my time and, somewhat, on my finances, but electric cars don’t require the same oil changes or other periodic tune-ups that internal combustion engines need. Washington has some of the most expensive gas prices of any state and among the cheapest and cleanest electricity grids. Even in the more distant reaches of the state, charging stations are frequent, and a 10% to 80% charge would cost me about $20 or less at most commercial stations. Getting an insurance policy was a little expensive after over a decade without one, but as a low-risk driver of a low-risk car, the cost wasn’t too bad.

Selling my car made me very provincial. With no easy way to get around the city, particularly on weekends, I stayed close to home most of the time. The pandemic made this more extreme for me: I didn’t drive at all in 2020 or 2022, and I did only one drive in 2021. Last year, after a long pandemic-era hiatus from driving, I conquered my fear of driving on Interstate 5 and started venturing out of town on my own again. I’m now compiling a list of road trips I’d like to take, including loops around the Olympic and Cascade mountains, a trip to the Washington or Oregon coast, visiting Crater Lake, and seeing the gorgeous hills of the Palouse. Despite being a six-year-old car with a three-year-old battery in it, my Bolt has a range of about 240 miles. That should get me a pretty good distance from Seattle before I need to recharge and stretch my legs for a while.

I joke that I’m a “bad urbanist” for owning a car after going for so long without one. I’ve talked to a few of my fellow cycling, pedestrian, and transit advocate friends, and even they concede that there are far too many amazing places in our region that are only accessible with a car. In addition, it’s great to be able to transport something heavy or bulky without having to rent a car or lean on a friend for help. Car ownership is an expensive commitment device, but it’s also what my coworkers would call a “two-way door”. If I decide that the Bolt isn’t for me, I’m sure someone else could use a small and practical electric car. For now, I’m excited to get out and see the beautiful Pacific Northwest.