Car Free Tempe Baby

Father and son biking past the Tempe Center for the Arts
Father and son biking past the Tempe Center for the Arts. Credit: Lauren McPhillips

Getting started

When I first learned that we were moving to Tempe, Arizona I figured we’d take our car along with us. We’d be moving there at the start of August, when temperatures could easily break 120 F. I’d done a fair amount of non-car travel in my past, but we’d have our 8 month old baby with us in this harsh desert, so of course we’d have to have a car, right?

I started having second thoughts once I realized that it would almost cost more than our car was worth to tow it across the country. Sure, my wife could have driven it with our newborn while I drove the moving truck, but a multi-thousand mile trip with a new baby where each of us had to drive every single mile in two separate vehicles seemed like a pretty hellish idea. In the end we decided to ditch the car in NY and try out life car free in AZ. We figured we could always buy another car in Tempe if we needed one. After 4 months living here car free I think it’s safe to say that even in this hot environment a car just isn’t needed. Here’s how we’re doing it and how much it’s saving us.

How to live in the desert without a car

The key to an easy car free life is finding a house that is close to the places you need to visit regularly. The majority of trips are to and from work so the first criteria when looking for where to live is to create a short work commute. For parents the next most visited spots are probably school/daycare. For the non-breeders it is probably the grocery store, unless you’re an outlier who manages to buy a whole month’s worth of food with a single Costco run or eats out every meal. If you can find a home close to these places, and anywhere else you go often, it’ll make living without a car easy.

Over a few months we searched numerous websites, and even got some help from a realtor, but in the end Zillow had the rental house we were looking for. It was around a mile from work, a mile from a grocery store and just a couple blocks from a park and a daycare. The compact nature of Tempe made this easier here than it could be in many other cities, but living close in isn’t as financially impossible as many think. Every mile your house is closer to work increases your home purchasing power by $15,900. Living just 10 miles closer to work lets you buy a house that costs $159,000 more and end up spending the same amount each year, so it makes sense to look hard for a close place! The math gets even better if you can completely get rid of your car. We’re renting here so the numbers are a little different, and I’ll get into them in a bit, but first more about how it actually works.

Tempe is incredibly flat and has bike lanes and trails all over the place. With the dry weather, biking is quite literally a breeze as rain and snow are nearly unheard of. In the heat of summer that breeze feels a bit more like a blow drier being shot at your face, but on the upside it’s so dry that your sweat evaporates almost instantly. Living so close to the places we regularly visit means that most of our bike rides are five minutes or less, so even in the heat it’s doable. For groceries I have four options based on how much I’m getting.

  1. Small: Walk there with my boy in his stroller
  2. Medium: Bike there with panniers
  3. Large: Bike there with a custom trailer
  4. Huge: Take Uber or Zipcar

What about the baby?

I’m able to take my boy along in all of these because I have a baby seat mounted on my bike handlebars and a baby seat for the car options. I expect that lugging the car seat around the grocery store would be a bit annoying so Zipcar is probably easier than Uber, but so far I haven’t had to get anything bigger than my bike trailer. The trailer is custom but that doesn’t mean it’s fancy. Essentially it’s an old kid carrier stripped to the frame with a 50 gallon Rubbermaid bin taped onto it (I’ll have to do another post on how I built it some day). It’s normally a bit overkill but there are times when you really need to get more than 40 lbs of groceries in a single trip (like when the store is selling a 20 lb box of broccoli for just 12 bucks, and you also need a 25 lb bag of rice along with all your normal items).

Of course there are places that you have to go other than the grocery store. I’ve had to take my boy to a few doctor’s appointments and Uber has made this really easy and cheap. Tempe has some amazing free buses that we’ve taken down to the library, and there’s a light rail that has taken us into downtown Phoenix. The final coup de grâce is that you can rent a car from Enterprise over the weekends for just $10/day! The fine print says this ends in May 2017, but maybe they’ll renew it. Till then it’s let us take some fun weekend trips to nearby cities like Prescott and Sedona for super cheap.

How much does all this cost?

Gas $4,348.71
Repairs $3,997.14
Insurance $2,002.52
Depreciation $6,785.00
DMV/Taxes $1,004.20
Lost Invest Income $2,672.77
TOTAL $20,810.34

Like I said before, living car free actually saves us money. Here I’ll throw out some real world numbers to show you how it all works. First, the table to the right shows how much my car cost me. I pulled all the car related costs out of Mint for the 4.5 years I owned the car. I bought the car in cash so I didn’t have to add interest lost to a car loan, but you do lose out on investment income when you buy in cash. I expected I could have made 7% each year if I’d put that same cash into an index fund (I only did simple interest, not compound, cause I’m lazy like that). I’ll admit that an annual 7% return is a fairly high expectation but VTI has actually grown over 80% total over the last 5 years, so in the real world it’s an underestimate. The car itself was a used Versa and I was surprised at the high cost of repairs and depreciation, but I guess that’s what road salt in upstate NY gets you. In the end it cost $4.6k/year or $385/month. Every. Single. Month.

Since going car free over four months ago I’ve spent just over $325 total on transport! The vast majority of this was paying for car rentals and gas to travel to other cities for fun. A full $80 of that was due to me being lazy and waiting to the last second to book my Enterprise car rental and being told that they were all out of the $10/day deal cars. If I just stayed local and explored Tempe and Phoenix more instead, then the costs would be under $100 total for four months. Even with our superfluous trips we’re still spending just over $80/month on transport and thus saving over $300/month.

If we rented a similar house 10-20 miles further away and had to have a car we would probably only save $200/month so we’re netting $100/month in savings. We’re saving a lot more than just money though. Even though bikes are much slower than cars on a highway, by living so close we spend much less time commuting than most people. Every minute we spend commuting by foot or by bike is a minute spent exercising, and seriously, we could all use some extra minutes spent exercising, right?

The bike stuff I have certainly costs money, but compared to a car it’s next to nothing. My bike is an 80’s Cannondale I got off of Craigslist for $300. The Bobike baby seat on the front was just $70 new on Amazon (the same manufacturer makes another one that costs $170, but the less expensive version is so good I don’t know why anyone would pay the extra hundred). The bike trailer I put together for under $100 and the panniers cost just a bit over $100 (they seem to go on sale at REI every year, so if you’re decided on Ortliebs just check there regularly). I’ve had all of these things for 4-5 years now and they’ve required only basic maintenance which costs well under $100 per year. I expect that they’ll keep lasting for another decade or more, and that if I needed to I could resell all of them for more than half of what I paid for them. The few times I’ve resold bikes I bought on Craigslist I actually got more for them than I’d originally paid so I don’t consider them depreciating assets like cars.

On your mark, get set…

Living without a car definitely makes you organize your life differently. I can certainly ride 10-15 miles to go do something cool, but I’m going to think about how much I really want to do it first. Some view this as an issue, but I think it helps me live a more purposeful life where I avoid driving around to stuff I don’t really want to be doing. The unique features of Tempe also make it easier to live car free here than in many other places. But it’s not perfect either; it is in the middle of the desert, after all. Still, I see our roads clogged with cars every day, and every house in my neighborhood has one or more in the driveway. I’m sure those car owners aren’t thinking how much easier, healthier and cheaper their lives could be without cars, but I hope you do now. It might take some baby steps before you’re ready to go all in, but if this inspires you to make a change, I’d love to hear about it.

Matt Herndon
Environmental Blogger at Rampant Discourse
Earnest pragmatist. Non-theist ascetic. Data aficionado. Amicable skeptic. Matt is a new father who's spent too much time debating whether the plastic box his spinach came in is the perfect first birthday present for his baby, or just a good one.

This article has 4 Comments

    1. Glad to hear you’re thinking about it Selena. Biking is the sort of thing you can start small with easily and work your way up to totally ditching the car (which is what saves you big money). Good luck!

  1. I ride to work every day. That being said, I can’t ever imagine not having a car. There’s just too many instances of things I want to do that are more than 50 miles away. If I didn’t have a car, I’d have a hard time snowboarding, or dirt-biking, or going to friends’ houses, or camping, or going to the beach, etc. I like renting cars for those circumstances: but since these things happen as often as they do, it seems crazy to be renting a car every month (or so).

    I don’t think totally ditching the car would really save me very much money either. If I hardly use it, then the gas and repair prices drop. Also, I think some insurance companies will let you only pay when you drive: this is uncommon but can save a lot on insurance. Depreciation is also something that asymptotically decreases.

    On the other hand, some day I might go from a two car family, to a one car family. You’ve convinced me to consider it.

    1. Great to hear that you bike to work and might someday consider dropping a car! It took me years to get to a point where I felt comfortable being totally car free. As for long trips, that is one of the ways going car free has improved my life. I am forced to look for activities that are much more local. Like now instead of a long trip I go to a nearby park or library or meet and make friends with my actual neighbors. I’m trying to experience everything and meet everyone within 5 miles of my house before I go way further afield. That being said there are times when the need to travel long distance really hits and the Enterprise Rental car deal makes them easy to handle. I spend 30 bucks to rent a car over a weekend and use it to drive up to Prescott, down to Tucson, etc. You could do that every single weekend and spend only $120/month plus gas, excluding gas my used Versa cost over $300 per month. This deal won’t last forever, but even if it costs $100 to rent a car for a weekend you’ll win out if you rent 3 weekends or less on your average month. The payout of not owning gets even higher if you have a more expensive car than a used Versa. I’d suggest trying to not use one of your cars for a whole month. Like tape over the door or something. If you can make it a month without it then you can sell it and start saving big bucks.

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