Ask the Man Who Doesn't Own One

Critic, journalist, and city dweller, JOHN KEATSdecided that operating a car cost him more than it was worth, and here he tells how he moved about when he no longer had one. Mr. Keats is the author of THE CRACK IN THE PICTURE WINDOW,an account of the construction industry, and THE INSOLENT CHARIOTS,a scrutiny of American automobiles.


AUTOMOBILES, like women, can be fun, but they are expensive. Since I sold the family hag to the knacker, I have not only enjoyed the bachelor’s irresponsible freedom but have also become the richer by more than $1000 a year. Moreover, instead of one car, I now have a dozen. On hot summer days, I use the convertible to drive to the shore. When taking guests to the theater, I tell the chauffeur when the limousine will be required. For camping trips, the station wagon is most useful. For parties in suburbia, one of the new compacts usually meets the need; but if my wife and I take another couple with us, we use one of the larger sedans. Meanwhile, I change no tires, put on no chains. Someone does this for me, free of charge. Frozen gas lines, insurance premiums, license tags, state inspections, antifreeze, grease jobs, oil, gasoline, car washings, garage bills, battery checks, and front-end adjustments are but dimly remembered nightmares of the past. I now enjoy happy motoring, and not the least of my driving pleasure is the thought that money is piling up in the bank. In brief, I rent.

At this point, it must be said that renting is not for everyone. Simple arithmetic shows that owning an automobile can be economically absurd, but no man can experience the joy of not owning an automobile unless he can fill a bill of three particulars. First, he must live in a city adequately served by various rapid, convenient means of transportation; second, he must be tough-minded about automobiles; and third, he must be willing to deny himself nothing.

The first point is almost self-evident. Some 65,000 towns in the United States have no public transportation facilities, and their well-being is predicated on the use of private automobiles. Then there is suburbia, where a man’s need to own at least one car is apparent. Finally, not all cities, nor even all city neighborhoods, arc well enough served by alternate means of transportation to make not owning a car worthwhile.

Moreover, if a man does live in an area where taxis, trains, buses, and rented cars are easily had, he is still not ready for non-ownership unless he is willing to regard the automobile merely as an expensive, two-ton mechanical wheelchair that has no excuse for existence unless he is sitting in it, going somewhere. Sports-car addicts, antiquecar buffs, and conspicuous consumers get as much sheer pleasure out of owning an automobile as other men derive from showing Rhodesian Ridgebacks or collecting matchbook covers. Some men imagine that there are appreciable differences among the standard brands of American automobiles and regard their purchase of any particular one as an evidence of wisdom. There is no way to convince such people that all of our standard automobiles are almost exactly alike in all important respects except price, although even the automobile dealers will privately admit that this is the case.

Still other men are perfectly willing to pay any amount of money for convenience, although they may well not get it. For instance, many a man locked in a line of commuter traffic nevertheless refuses to think of himself as taking part in public transportation, although he sits in a chair in a line of cars just as if he were sitting in a chair on an inbound train. The difference between him and the train rider is that he has to contend with the traffic, while the passenger idly reads the morning paper and arrives in the city sooner. Convenience, worth, and value are therefore all relative terms, but one thing is clear: it is impossible for a man to live without a motorcar if an automobile means anything more to him than a pile of metal that has no importance when not in actual use.

In the last analysis, everything turns on the matter of use. The real question is not whether to drive a car, but when to drive one. For instance, a man would be an ass to drive between Philadelphia and New York City, because the trains run every hour during the day, travel faster than anyone can drive while staying out of jail, and are far less expensive than the cost of motoring. Figuring the cost of turnpike and Hudson tube tolls, and a conservative operating cost of 10 cents a mile, the cost of driving round trip from Philadelphia to New York is $21.40. The round-trip train fare is $8.60.

Obviously, the only time it is economical to drive is when a man is carrying passengers for whose train fare he would otherwise be responsible. If I were to take my wife and three children to Manhattan by the least expensive means, I would rent a car and save $21.60 on the price of the train tickets. To consider the cost per passenger mile may sound like haggling, but I prefer to regard it as being practical. An automobile is the most expensive means of transportation known to man when it contains only the driver — as it usually does.

Moreover, at all times that the thing is not in motion, it sits quietly rotting at the curb, running up the bill that represents the cost of aging. When a city man first rids himself of his car, he is likely to think of how much he will save by going nowhere he cannot walk. With masochistic happiness, he jams himself into cheap, crowded buses instead of sensibly hailing expensive taxicabs. This is false economy and defeats the whole purpose of not owning a car. Care must be taken to ensure that non-ownership increases, rather than decreases, the standard of living, if a genuine sense of freedom is to ensue. The rule is, use the most practical, comfortable, and convenient means of transportation to go wherever need or whim commands; if a taxi represents the best way to ply between points A and B, then hail a cab. It is perfectly possible to splurge and save.

IN THESE matters, I speak from an experience that began when my station wagon developed a fatal case of cylinder pox. I was grousing to myself about the necessity for buying a new one when a ghostly voice asked, “Why?”

“Because you can’t live in the automobile age without an automobile,” I muttered to myself.

Then I remembered a fragment of conversation. A friend had said that one of the reasons he had moved back to the city from the suburbs was to save $2000 a year by getting rid of his two cars, and I began to wonder how much it was costing me to keep my car. The family ledgers showed that I had paid $2604.50 cash for the thing five years earlier. The wagon was now worth precisely $50 as junk, unless I repaired it. If I put the necessary $300 into a new engine, the car would bring $350, at most, as a trade-in, less than that on the used-car market. Depreciation over the last five years had therefore been $520.90 a year. During the twelve months past, I had spent $545 for gasoline and $285.33 for insurance premiums, license fees, repairs, grease, and oil. Unfortunately, I had no record of parking, toll bridge, and turnpike fees, but a conservative estimate for the sake of arriving at a round number was $10.

Thus, I estimated it had cost me $1361.23 to own and operate the station wagon in Philadelphia for the year just ended. Checking through accounts dating to the car’s purchase, I found it had cost at least $6295.57 to own the car for five years, an average cost of $1259.11 per year.

On the other hand, I had driven the thing 60,000 miles, and could therefore consider the cost of ownership to be 10.49 cents per mile, which did not seem an exorbitant price to pay for both transportation and convenience I went wearily off to bed thinking that my friend must have said that he spent $2000 a year to keep two cars.

Yet, it was hard to dismiss the notion that a $2600 car could wind up costing a man $6300 at the end of five years, and the following morning I started poking into automotive statistics. It turned out that the national average annual cost of owning and operating a $2300 automobile was exactly 10.49 cents per mile. The annual average cost of owning a $2400 automobile in Philadelphia was $1215; in New York the figure was $500 higher; in Chicago the cost was more than $1900 a year; and in Los Angeles the average man was spending nearly $2000 to keep up his car, although he probably had no idea where his money was going. Other statistics were even more interesting. A Chicago businessman reported savings of $1000 a year from selling his car and taking taxis and renting cars instead. His bill came to $900 for transportation, and he had used cabs daily and had rented cars on sixteen occasions, in addition to renting one for a two-week vacation. In New York City, a man who reported an annual owning cost of $1771 discovered that non-owning saved him $551 a year, even though he had rented a car every day at hourly rates.

At this point, I began to think there might have been something in what my friend was saying. But I was not yet ready to tell the repairman what to do about my station wagon. I first made up a deliberate exaggeration of my family’s need for mobility. It included 1000 taxi rides at $1 each; 100 days of auto rentals at a rate of $10 a day and 10 cents a mile for 50 miles each day; 3650 trips on the commuter train to center city; and five round trips to Canada in a rented car, just for good measure. This was a five-year figure, and the cost of all this hypothetical transportation totaled $380 less than we had actually paid to run our car. Whereupon I put down my pencil, went to the nearest telephone, and told the repairman where he could shove that new engine.

During the next earless days, I went through the stage of sneering happily at the sound of wheels spinning helplessly on ice, of laughing at the gasoline and automobile advertisements, of feeling smug as I looked down from the commuter train on the line of beetles creeping along what is lugubriously called the Expressway. But all this was whistling in the dark, because not having a car was proving to be far more inconvenient than I had imagined it would. There were times when the rental agency said, Sorry, we don’t have a car for you today. There were times when the trains ran late, when I couldn’t get a cab, when buses seemed to run only in the rain. At such times it was difficult to remember when the family car had been laid up for repairs, or stuck in hot traffic with its radiator boiling over, or the hours I spent lying in the slush, fitting on chains. It was not until the end of the first carless year that I was able to understand that the inconvenience of owning a car balanced — at least, for me — the inconvenience of not owning one.

Meanwhile, a change came over the family, for not having a car led us to make choices, instead of sliding along the paths of least resistance. The rule to deny ourselves nothing was predicated on two questions: is this trip necessary, and how do we get there? Driving to the shore, for example, had never been a matter for second thought when we had the station wagon. But now we paused. Was going to the shore what we most wanted to do? If so, we hired a car and went. When we did, we enjoyed the sea in a way we had never enjoyed it when we took going to the beach for granted. If we did not go, it was only because we had discovered something else we would rather do. In cither event, we added something to what we did — the quality of conscious choice.

We also began to walk. When we had a car, it had not occurred to us that most of our daily business could be carried out much more rapidly and far more conveniently on foot than by automobile. My wife, for instance, had always taken the car to the supermarket, although the supermarket is little more than a block away. She had imagined it was quicker, which was not the case. She imagined it was easier to load the grub into the back seat and drive it home than to push it home in a shopping cart. That, too. was a wrong idea. At rush hours, I found I could walk from office to train far more rapidly than any taxi could push through the traffic. The children had always walked to school, six blocks away.

I had wondered how we had managed to roll up 12,000 miles a year, and now I knew; we had used the car for innumerable short hauls around the city, in the course of daily living, and this was one reason for the burned-out engine. For, as any mechanic will testify, start-and-stop city traffic takes more out of a car than the equivalent number of turnpike miles. I will not pretend that walking is always great fun, or that it is always convenient or practical. But if you walk when it is convenient and take a cab when it isn’t, you cover the same ground just as efficaciously as if you traveled those miles in your car. And it is far less expensive.

We turned to an auto rental agency whenever it made good sense to drive. Once, when the need arose, we became a two-car family, and I assure you it is a far better thing to operate two cars for a day than to own two cars for a year. Moreover, it is a distinct advantage to be able to rent the type of automobile suited to the need, rather than have to make one automobile serve all needs. The crucial advantage in renting, however, is that you pay for transportation only when you are actually being transported. High as rental cost is, it is still far cheaper to pay for an automobile when you use one than it is to own an automobile that is sometimes in motion but is often parked.

These advantages are apparent to an increasing number of city residents, as the rental agencies’ books show. One large rental corporation reports that residential renting is the fastest-growing area of its business. It is not referring to those who, arriving in town by plane, thereupon rent a car in the city. It refers to rentals within city neighborhoods to city residents. Before World War II such rentals were virtually nonexistent. Today they total more than $4 million a year in this one company alone, and the growth curve leads the company to predict that the figure will reach $20 million by 1965. Looking at the curve, one corporate executive exclaimed, “We may be on the verge of a revolution in urban living!”

“Revolution” is doubtless a strong word, but the trend to non-ownership of automobiles is so marked that Detroit manufacturers are now competing for fleet sales to car-leasing agencies. This is not something the manufacturers like to discuss in public, although some Detroit executives privately predict the day will come when no one will own the car he drives. Even now, they say, most of the cars on the highway are not privately owned. They are rented cars, or company cars, or fleet cars leased by companies, or unpaid-for automobiles that still belong to finance companies. Leasing plans have appeared whereby dealers rent new cars to customers on a yearly basis. In return for a monthly sum, the dealer pays all costs of maintenance, including gas and oil. At the end of the year, the old car is turned in and the client leases a new one.

Simple arithmetic, rather than considerations of status, led me into the paths of non-ownership. I was therefore surprised to hear a man say, “The guy with more status than anybody is the guy who can afford not to have a car.” There is no reason why this should even be imagined. My anticipated saving of $380 over five years was actually in error. I had expected it to be wrong because I had deliberately exaggerated our transportation needs, but not until the end of the first year did I realize how wildly I had exaggerated them. The cost of public transportation and rented cars came to $216.20. Possibly we did not indulge ourselves enough. In any event, the first year of being without a car saved me precisely $1145.03 over what it had cost to own my station wagon the year before, without any loss of necessary mobility.

It would be unfair to maintain that all was peaches and cream, however, or to suggest that all city neighborhoods are as filled with goods and services within easy walking distance as our own. There are plenty of Philadelphia neighborhoods that are fairly remote from a variety of means of transportation, and fairly remote from shopping centers as well. In such neighborhoods, ownership of an automobile is as necessary as it is in suburbia. And certainly, it was often inconvenient for me to be without a car, although the $1145.03 in the bank more than compensated for the inconvenience. Another man, of course, might enjoy fussing over his automobile and think it well worthwhile to pay an additional thousand dollars a year to have his private car always ready at his door.

I suppose value is always in the eye of the beholder, but I haven’t the time to pursue that philosophical notion here. I must run off to see a travel agent. He is going to tell me how far $1145.03 will go toward a winter vacation in Jamaica.