Why I Walk: Some Thoughts on a Car-Free Lifestyle

by J.D. Roth

Since returning from Ecuador in early September, Kim and I have both been focused on fitness. She’s doing Jenny Craig and hitting the gym; I’m doing Atkins and walking all over creation. We’re both down about ten pounds in two months. Yay!

It feels great to be walking again. When I decided to lose weight in 2010, walking and Crossfit were the cornerstones of my fitness plan. (With them, I lost fifty pounds in eighteen months.) After my divorce, I rented an apartment in northeast Portland from which I could walk to everything. I loved it. I loved it so much that when I decided to buy a new home, I looked specifically for locations with a high walkscore.

But when I allowed my life to be subsumed by the Get Rich Slowly course last spring, I stopped exercising. As part of that, I forgot to walk. I got in the habit of driving even the half mile to the grocery store. For six months, I was sedentary, and my body showed it. Over the past two months, though, I’ve re-discovered the joys of walking.

First thing in the morning, I roll out of bed and take a long walk. I walk to “run” errands during the day. I walk to the grocery store. I walk to restaurants. I walk for exercise. I walk for fun. Kathleen and I even conduct business meetings while walking.

True story! Right now, I’m outlining this article about walking during a two-mile stroll to the gym. I’ll write more during my two-mile stroll home.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that sometimes it’s possible to forego the car for longish jaunts into downtown Portland. The center of the city is five miles from our condo. It takes about twenty minutes to drive that distance (counting time for parking). If I take the Springwater Corridor, I can bike downtown in 25 minutes or walk the distance in 85. Not bad.

So, I walked six miles to meet Kim before the final Portland Timbers match. And although I drove to meet her and Sahra for drinks before last Friday’s Jason Mraz concert, we left my Mini at Lloyd Center overnight. The next morning, I hoofed it exactly five miles to retrieve the car. (Believe it or not, I’ve found that walking can be an excellent cure for a hangover.)

If I were to become adept at Portland’s plentiful public transportation, I’d never have to drive downtown.

Because I’ve been walking and biking (and riding my motorcycle) so much lately, I’ve actually begun toying with the idea of selling my Mini. As much as I love the car, I just don’t use it that often. It’s very easy to imagine a car-free lifestyle.

Actually, I suspect that most folks — especially young folks — could profit from experimenting with carlessness. I don’t mean profit in strictly a financial sense, either — although your bank account would certainly benefit — but in myriad other ways as well: physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and more.

From a personal-finance perspective, automobiles are mostly money pits. The Consumer Expenditure Survey from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that vehicles are the second-largest expense for the average American family, making up about 17% of the typical budget.

According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), the average new vehicle cost 60.8 cents per mile to operate in 2013; that includes fuel, maintenance, registration, insurance, depreciation, and the cost of buying the vehicle (with finance charges). AAA figures the average driver spends just over $9,000 per year on her automobile.

But, as I said, going car-free offers other benefits. Here are a few of the reasons I prefer to walk:

When I suggest that more people ought to test-drive a car-free lifestyle (heh), I meet a lot of objections. I’ll admit there are folks for whom biking and busing and walking don’t make a lot of sense. If you live in rural Alaska, you probably need a car.

Often, however, the objections amount to little more than laziness: “I don’t want to put forth the effort and won’t even try.” People are quick to point out why biking or walking or public transit wouldn’t work for their situation, but fail to acknowledge that there are plenty of people in similar circumstances who do make it work. Mostly it’s a matter of will.

To truly go car-free — or to build your life around biking, busing, and walking — may require some forethought and drastic changes, but it’s almost certainly possible.

Note: Interested in car-free living but don’t know how to start? Mr. Money Mustache just issued a challenge: “Can you go car-free this weekend?” he asks. Can you? Give it a shot!

When you begin walking, it can seem like a hassle. It takes so long to get where you’re going! Soon, however, you learn to love the slower pace. How much time does it take? Both less and more than you’d think. Less time because it generally doesn’t take much longer than driving, especially over short distances. But more time in that people tend to grossly overestimate how quickly they walk.

Because I’m a nerd, I keep close tabs on how long it takes me to get to common destinations. This helps me to know when it makes sense to walk and when driving is a viable option. For instance:

When you figure in the fitness benefits, it almost always makes sense for me to walk to nearby destinations. Yes, biking can be quicker, but it’s also more of a hassle. I don’t do it often. (Biking makes more sense when I’m going downtown. It’s an hour quicker each way than walking, so the “overhead” of getting the bike out is worth it — especially since biking downtown doesn’t take much longer than driving.)

How fast do people walk? Non-walkers often believe that a good walking pace is four or five miles per hour. I wish. Over the past five years, I’ve logged thousands of miles by stopwatch and spreadsheet. My average pace hovers around seventeen minutes per mile (or 3.5 miles per hour). When hard-pressed, I can crank out fifteen-minute miles. (Once at Crossfit, Kyra paced a group of us to walk a 42-minute 5k — 13.5-minute miles. That was insane. I’d much rather run that distance in 25 minutes than walk it in 42.) If I’m on a groggy early-morning walk, I might amble through slug-like nineteen-minute miles. I feel like my seventeen-minute pace is pretty average — and might be a bit brisk over long distances.

According to my trusty pedometer, I’ve averaged 13,182 steps per day during the month of October. Because I know that the length of my stride yields almost exactly one mile per 2000 steps, I figure I’m walking about 6.5 miles per day. (Some days I walk twelve miles. Some days I walk zero. Most days, I walk five or six.)

Kim and I aren’t ready to go completely car-free. Her work office is 6.5 miles from home. She’s biked before, but it was a bother. The streets were busy, and it was tough to carry everything she needed. If her office were three miles away, or close to the nearby multi-use trail, she’d be more open to the idea. But for now, she prefers to drive.

Meanwhile, I still need want a car for a handful of errands. My orthodontist is twenty miles away, for instance. Also, my mother is in an assisted-living facility halfway between here and Salem. And what about Costco?

But you know what? My braces will come off in a couple of months. After that, I ought to be able to structure my long trips so that I can either take my motorcycle or borrow Kim’s car. Maybe I really could sell my Mini. We’ll see.

Updated: 30 October 2014

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
Copyright © 1994 - 2022 by J.D. Roth