Car-Free by Choice

When I move to Arlington,Virginia next week I will be car-free... "by choice"! (cue dramatic and scary music). A few people have already commented on my decision to be car-free "by choice" so I want to really dig into what this actually means.

(from Flickr user superciliousness)

On the surface, it's simple. Being car-free "by choice" means that, given my income, I could probably afford to buy, license, fuel, maintain, park, and insure my own vehicle; but I'm not anyway.

The reality is much less cut-and-dry. As fellow blogger Patrick occasionally points out over at Walkable DFW, there are two ways of thinking about this question, and both depend entirely on context.

On the one hand, a person could say something like, "I sold my car and now I have lots of extra money and I can afford an awesome uptown/downtown apartment. Awesome!" Or, on the flip side, a person could say, "I can't afford an uptown/downtown apartment, they are very expensive. So I found a place out in the suburbs, but it's OK, since I own a car I can drive to all the places I need to go anyway."

In both instances, the question of "affordability" is raised. In the first case, the person can't afford to own a car but has a great apartment in a great walkable location. In the second case, the person can't afford a sweet apartment, but has a car. Both of these people have made some sort of sacrifice; but it's typically the guy with the sweet apartment and no car that people pity. He is the guy who is seen as car-free "by choice" for some sort of ideological reason; even if the reason is highly practical.

The cookie-cutter advice I've gotten from "financial planning professionals" is that you shouldn't spend more than 33% of your after-tax income on housing. That means that if I hypothetically earn $40,000 per year, after tax I might have about $30,000 and the max I should spend on rent per month is $825. In a city like Arlington or Washington, this isn't enough to get you a place in most of the desirable neighborhoods. But it's also misleading, because it assumes I'm also paying to own a car. If I'm not, then I have a decent chunk of change left-over. Why shouldn't I spend that on housing?

The way we should think about this question is to determine a person's combined housing + transportation costs and then say that maybe they shouldn't spend more than 45% of after-tax income on that basket. When that's the case, I can afford to spend a lot more on housing so long as I can keep my transportation costs to a minimum. In fact, that's exactly what I plan to do. Why is that so crazy?


    On May 24, 2010 Anonymous said...

    Actually, I've heard it's common advice that if you don't have a car and/or can make the argument that living in a certain location enables you to spend less on transportation, the recommended maximum percentage of your income to spend on housing is more like 50%.

    On May 28, 2010 Anonymous said...

    While this is a fine choice for you, and the world would often be better if people recognized choices as choices....

    You are not really "car free". You are just not personally buying one. The police, fire department, food transport, utility crews, and so forth who all make your apartments habitable will all use "cars" of one kind or another.

    This does NOT reduce the merit of your choice - just don't have any illusions about it. It's efficient and cheap and those are GOOD. What's more, walking and riding are good for your health. (Both are also cheap.)