Each semester I ask my students at the University of Maine to write about their relationships with cars. One option I give them is to go without a car for a week and report on the experience. Another is to tally the true total cost of their vehicle over the time they’ve owned it.
The responses reveal a range of commitment to the car. On average, I’ll have about 18 car owners in a class of 21 undergraduates. Many have owned a car since they were sixteen. A few come from vehicle-enthusiast households, with six or seven cars in the driveway. And some come from cities and haven’t owned a car in their lives.
The assignment also gives me a glimpse into the lifestyle of today’s university student. I’ve noted previously that students seem to travel home on weekends more than they did in my college years, and that more of them seem to own cars. I have a scattering of non-traditional students, older adults squeezing college classes into schedules defined by work, kids, or both. Most of them have cars.
But many of my students live in off-campus housing developments less than a mile from campus, and a surprising number of them use their cars to get back and forth, often several times a day, without a second thought. I’ve lost track of the number essays in which a student describes a routine of driving to a morning class, driving home to hang out in the middle of the day, driving back to campus for an afternoon class, driving to the gym to work out, driving home to change, then driving to a friend’s house for the evening.
They typically note that much of this is doable without a car, but that it requires a bit of advance planning – a valuable lesson for any college student.
I can’t remember doing any of that in college. I lived in off-campus houses, but I rode my bicycle or walked to school. Only a few of us had cars. We hung out on campus during the day, even on weekends. Only the athletes on teams went to the gym to work out. The rest of us got our exercise playing softball and ultimate Frisbee, and taking long walks in the neighborhood. Many of us had jobs off-campus, but few of us drove to them.
This may come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog, but the only time I drove as an undergraduate was at work. My off-campus job was as a school bus driver for the public schools in Beloit, Wisconsin. The bus yard was four miles from campus. In the winter I carpooled; in warmer weather I rode my bike. I’d drive in the morning, spend a few hours in class, drive in the afternoon, study in the evening, and still have energy to party with my friends at night. Those were the days.
My students think it’s normal that four people live together with four separate cars parked outside. The Black Bear Express Bus stops at their apartment complex every half hour, from 7 in the morning to 10:30 at night. Yet they navigate their daily lives in their cars, and then complain about the inconvenience of campus parking.
To their credit, the students who took up the car-free week challenge reported getting more done, feeling more energized, and keeping more money. Many wrote that the experiment had changed their outlook on the habitual use of cars.
Those who took the other challenge were surprised to learn the full cost of their car habit. Everyone knows about student loans, but cars keep college kids broke, too.
When I gave up owning cars in 2007, I discovered that I not only felt better, but I had a lot more money at the end of the month. I thought: Someone ought to write a book about how to do this.
Turns out someone had. Chris Balish published How To Live Well Without Owning a Car with Ten Speed Press in 2006. The book is a guide to freeing yourself from the tentacles of car ownership. Among other things, Balish provides a worksheet of all the expenses associated with car ownership. It runs four pages, from the mundane to the occasional and accidental. Things like parking tickets, car washes, in-car phone and music accessories, tools, towing fees – all must be factored in.
My students are surprised to learn that the average annual cost of owning a car is around $9,000. That’s a lot of ramen noodles.