Communal Cars

Remember the broken-finger-tire-changing story I shared a few weeks ago? Well as I mentioned, the body of the car, a little Fiat 500e, was pried open in an attempt to free Olive’s finger. After I returned from Alt Summit, we filed a claim with our car insurance to have the bodywork repaired.

Though the car runs fine, the damage to the exterior was extensive enough that our insurance carrier determined it was a total loss. Which means we’ve had some car decisions to make. And oh my goodness I can not believe how much I dislike making car decisions. Choosing a car is a pain. Purchasing a car is a pain. Dealing with maintenance is a pain. Renting a car if yours is in the shop is a pain. Anything to do with the DMV is a pain. Getting rid of a car is a pain.

In an attempt to make some of the issues less of a pain, we’ve looked into all sorts of different car options. We’ve tried leasing. We’ve tried car loans. We’ve bought cars outright with cash. We’ve used big car dealers, and small used car dealers. We’ve bought cars from private owners. We’ve even imported a vehicle from overseas.

I’ve concluded that I just find the whole thing pretty painful no matter what. There are predictions that Generation Z (my kids) will be the last generation to learn how to drive, and that car ownership will become a hobby. And I’m over here like (fist pump!) let’s make it happen!! Sounds great to me.

Maybe it’s because of where we live, but the math of car ownership doesn’t always add up. At the beginning of the semester, Ralph was considering getting a car. He added up a down payment, a monthly payment, insurance, oil changes and regular maintenance, unexpected repairs, gas, parking (which is expensive here if you can even find it), tolls, and parking tickets. Then he averaged it out by month, compared it to his monthly Uber use, and concluded it’s more affordable to keep using Uber. Isn’t that crazy? And of course, all of those things Ralph added up — the maintenance, getting gas, etc. — take time and brain space as well as money.

But, even though using a car service offers some awesome conveniences (like door-to-door drop-off instead of finding parking), it doesn’t offer the same independence as owning your own car. Longer trips — even from here to San Jose or Santa Cruz — can feel out of bounds, and car rentals aren’t typically an option until age 25. So using Uber works for most of what he needs, but not everything.

I know I’m not the only one that has issues with cars. There are lots of people trying to disrupt the current car ownership and car buying situation. Zipcars are shared cars and have been around for many years now. Car2Go is a newer version of shared cars seems to be a good solution for running errands — though it’s only available in a few cities. Turo is described as the Airbnb of cars. It lets you rent a car from your neighbors instead of a car rental company. (If you own a car that mostly sits in your driveway, Turo says you can rent it out approximately 9 days each month and it will cover your car payment.) Most recently, I looked into Canvas and Fair — they both work for drivers 21 or older.

Canvas is connected to Ford. You subscribe to the service for like $50 per month, and choose a short subscription, say 3 months, or a longer subscription of up to a year. And then choose your car for an additional monthly payment — the nicer the car, the more expensive the monthly payment. And you can switch out the car if you don’t like it. The monthly payment includes insurance and all maintenance. (Though gas, and tolls, and parking are still up to you.) And once you choose the car it gets delivered right to your house.

Fair is focused on short-term leases of used-but-reliable cars that you can return whenever you want to or need to — no 3-year or 5-year commitments. They handle everything on the app and it only takes a few clicks to make arrangements — it’s totally paperless. The inventory is narrowed way down for you, so there are only fairly new cars with low miles available, and all car brands are included. They cover roadside assistance and routine maintenance and you can add-on insurance through the app or provide your own. They also have a whole program for people who don’t own cars but want to drive for Uber.

Our 8-seater commercial van (a Mercedes Metris) has about 1 more year left on our lease. Once we hand it in, I think we might try Canvas or Fair for our next car. And I think if Ralph decides he really does need a car, that these services would be a good fit; a way to test out the realities of car ownership without a long term commitment.

In the meantime, our insurance just cut us a check for the loss of our Fiat, and our plan is to buy a replacement Fiat with the money. We love the 500e — it’s little, easy to drive and park, cute, and totally electric. I’m going to find one on Autotrader and see if I can do the whole purchase via email. We’ll see how it goes.

One fun thing: While the Fiat has been in the shop being evaluated, our insurance provided us with a rental car. And the car happens to be a handsome blue Mini Cooper Convertible. We’ve had it for a week now and it’s so delightful! Oakland has had some very sunny days (another one is coming tomorrow), and the whole family gets such a kick out of opening the top. In fact, June’s new favorite thing is to be picked up from school with the top down — I’m pretty sure she’s convinced there is nothing cooler. But I keep laughing because anytime I drive it with the top down I feel like I’m driving a mid-life crisis. Hah!

I told Ben Blair that I have no desire to own a convertible — I don’t think we’d actually have the top down much. But it’s been such an enjoyable novelty that I requested we rent one once a year or so just for fun.

Your turn. What’s your take on car predictions? Do you think your kids will learn to drive? Do you have good public transit where you live and don’t really need a car? Have you ever tried a car-sharing service like Zipcars or Turo or Car2Go? Do you find decisions about cars to be painful, or do you enjoy that kind of thing? (My Dad loved buying cars — he was so good at helping me think through car decisions, and made a hobby of finding good deals on cars. I’m missing him this week.) How would you feel if most cars were communal shared cars? And it was rare to own your own car? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

34 thoughts on “Communal Cars”

  1. I’m in the it’s-a-hassle camp with you, Gabrielle. I never had my name on a title until I got married and we purchased a new car as a couple; that is, I made it to age 29 borrowing vehicles from my parents when necessary, and biking/busing my way around town. I live in a city with really good public transportation (yay, Portland, OR!) but we’re also in the middle of loads of great natural areas and I’m not inclined to take a rental on a muddy logging road to get to a hiking trail, or to the mountain to ski in questionable road conditions. I don’t foresee going carless (especially now that I have kids), but we did buy a hybrid gas-electric and in five years or so when we replace my wife’s old car, hopefully fully electric vehicles will be more broadly available.

  2. I’m currently car shopping and so I completely understand the appeal of going car-less. But as someone who has spent the majority of her life living in rural areas, it’s just not going to happen out here. For the 20% of Americans who don’t live in urban areas there are no viable options. That said, I spend about 1/4 of my time working in the city, and I’m happy to leave my car at the train station and switch to public transportation/Uber. But at home, I don’t even have a convenience store within walking sill or biking distance! We don’t have any public transportation, not even rideshare options (everything is so spread out, that really Uber isn’t viable for the driver or the customer).

    If or when the majority of Americans don’t have a drivers license anymore, there will be so much of the country that will become inaccessible. You mentioned the inconvenience (or even unavailability depending on age ) of rental car options, and of course if you have no other need to have a license then renting for a road trip to the middle of nowhere isn’t going to be an option. The most popular spots of course have or will have transportation options, but there are so many amazing parts of this country that will become inaccessible if we do away with regular car ownership and that seems sad. But at the same time…if I lived somewhere more Urban, I would strongly consider doing away with owning a car, so I understand the appeal.

  3. There are lots of Get-in-go cars (GIG) in our Berkeley neighborhood–I’m considering doing that for our next car. And our current car we got from–an easy way to get a used car (not that old, and better than dealing with salesmen or Craigslist). Thanks for listing a few more options I hadn’t heard of yet!

  4. I’ve just had to buy a new bench top mixer, and that I found incredibly painful! But buying a car has never been that tough for us. We’ve owned 4 over about 18 years as our primary car, and two others that were really just for my husband’s commute. (We’ve been a one car family the bulk of those years though, and we are again now. He cycles every day again.)
    We’ve known what features we wanted, mostly had a specific car in mind, what we were prepared to pay, we’ve never wanted a loan/interest payments on a depreciating asset, and then we’ve always bought second hand (because that fits the budget-we get a newer car than the one we’re replacing but way cheaper because cars lose value). I already know the next kind of car I want (to suit our growing kids and our around town driving combined with long distance travel every year), but we’re a good few years off needing to upgrade.
    After a really frustrating week of trying to find the features I need in a mixer, accounting for reviews that contradict each other, and knowing I want to own that mixer longer than any car (one mixer in the last 17 years!) I’d choose car buying over this process any day!!

  5. I didn’t have a car until I was 34. First I was a college student, relying on feet and bike, then I lived in an intentional community in Northern Ireland, again with my bike, plus good public transport, then I moved back to this country at age 28, and biked again, because I couldn’t afford both a car and an apartment. I live in northern Indiana, and biking through those brutal winters of the mid-1980s was no fun at all–at one point I had a 4-mile commute. Got hit by an idiot doing 40mph on glare ice. And I did a lot of imposing on people with cars when I had anything to haul that wouldn’t fit on a bike.
    I still commute 3 miles each way to work–but only 7/8 months of the year when the weather’s decent. Where I would find living without a car unmanageable is transporting my dogs. They go lots of places to train and show, and the very limited public transport options we have out here in flyover country don’t allow dogs. Shared cars wouldn’t work at this point, since I need crate space for good-sized dogs for their safety in an accident.
    Yes, they would behave loose in the back seat. I behave, too, but I still wear my seat belt–and dogs are at as much risk from air bags as small children. I do have a small car–a Honda Fit–but, it is a car nonetheless.
    I can see the cities going car-less, and I hope they do, but not all that space in the middle.

  6. Unfortunately, standard zoning laws in most places still mandate building places where cars are a requirement – it’s nice that Uber, etc., are an option for the middle class, but it would be even nicer if those who can’t afford to belong to the middle class could get to work on foot or by bus, etc. Maybe someday!

  7. I just wish we had really good public transit and inexpensive high speed trains between states, cities, etc. I would happily never drive. The “freedom” that comes with owning a car also comes with seemingly endless expenses and finding parking in a city is a pain (or very very expensive). Also, street parking often comes with parking tickets if you’re a few minutes late or misread times/signs.

    My car got hit while parked on the street recently (which also led to insurance declaring a total loss, even though it still ran fine, and not offering what I felt would be a reasonable enough amount of money to purchase a comparable car), so then ended up keeping the car and paying out of pocket for only the most necessary repairs instead. And then paying for off street parking to avoid having the situation potentially repeat itself.

    One other thing, though, that I’ve been noticing as I’ve recently been filling out job applications- many jobs, at least in my field, require or at least prefer candidates to have a car, even in situations where you wouldn’t necessarily need it to perform your job. What a difficult barrier for so many people!

  8. I can’t imagine not having my own car here in Idaho where public transit is almost non-existent. I can see Canvas or Fair being a decent option, but we currently have both of our cars paid off, so it doesn’t make sense right now to do something else.
    We have used Turo several times now when we have flown out of town but need to get around once we’re there. I love it! It’s far cheaper than typical rental places and the cars have always been just what we need.

  9. “I feel like I’m driving a midlife crisis” Lol. Too good!

    Not having to own a car was one of my top favorite aspects of living in NYC. Subsequently, having to own a car is one of my least favorite aspects of my current location.

  10. Timely post. About to separate and move to an apartment. Was expecting to give up my car in the next few years as it is 13 years old. But if I need to add parking to my monthly costs it might just be too much. I bike a lot for about 8 months of the year and can walk many places but walking is time consuming. Winter is brutal in Ottawa but driving in winter is not fun either. I might not be spending hours shoveling a driveway, but street parked cars still need shoveling out. Public transit is not great here either for a capital city. Giving up the car will be giving up some freedom but also giving up a lot of head aches. Hard decisions.

  11. Donna R. Morgan

    Did you have the option to receive less for your damaged car while taking possession of the car under a salvaged title? A salvaged title allows you to take your time and repair the damage. Once the damage is repaired and a new inspection is performed, a visit to the DMV for their
    opinion. If the opinion is favorable, a regular title is issued. Once new title in hand, a new car tag is issued.

  12. I’ve always owned my car, but as I’m getting close to needing to replace mine (I’ve had it for 12 years), I’m seriously looking at Fair as an alternative to car buying. It’s a little scary to me, but it gives me more flexibility to move in and out of cars that I don’t have now.

  13. If I lived in a City I would definitely not own a car. We used to live in a mid size city and I biked everywhere, took the bus, Uber’d etc. We had one car, three kids, and we had no issues.

    But I currently live in a small town about a 30 minute drive from any major city and it would be impossible to live here without a car. Both my husband and I commute to work 30+ minutes in opposite directions–so two cars are necessary. Not to mention all the driving we do to take kids to soccer practice, music lessons, etc. We have no public transportation available here, no taxis, not even Uber unless it’s a weekend night!

    I cannot imagine that the infrastructure in this huge country will every be established enough to allow its more rural residents the ability to live without a car. I wish we had a public transit system like Europe, but it’s seems like we can’t even maintain the roads and bridges we have now.

  14. I don’t foresee public transportation or shared vehicles being a viable option unless you live and work somewhere very urban. It’s very difficult in suburban and rural areas. Living in the suburbs I’ve always had a car and love the freedom to go wherever and whenever I want. As for that cute Mini convertible, I highly recommend renting something fun whenever possible. My husband and I always get a convertible when we fly. It’s very fun to explore a new area with the top off. The sights, sounds, and smells are amazing in a convertible. I must admit I hate the wind blown hair, but I’m on vacation so it doesn’t really matter!

  15. This was very informative for me because my husband and I are currently a single car family (with four busy kids) and trying to decide what to do about a second car. Did you sign up for Fair? My husband was a little alarmed with the app asking for both his drivers license and SSN.

  16. We live in an urban suburban area where we can walk to stores and activities and that has decent transit and plenty of ride share and spot car rental options. When faced with ‘having’ to get a new car a few years ago due to the VW Diesel scandal, we almost decided to go without, but in the end decided that the car was needed for my husband’s then job. I’m glad we have the option of the car in the garage, but with a job change for my husband, we walk most places these days. We’ve adjusted our insurance to reflect the lower expected mileage, but I’m convinced that this may be the last car that we actually own. Time will tell.

  17. How is Olive’s finger?? How is Maude’s Foot?

    As an attorney, but one that doesn’t sue people, I’m a trusts and estates attorney, I seriously think you should review the facts of this case with a good, reputable personal injury attorney that has represented people in product liability cases.

    Just googling Fiat500e and you see countless stories of tire issues on this model and lack of necessary materials to properly jack the car! How can that be??

    Fiat has a duty to put a safe vehicle into the stream of commerce.

    Short recap of product liability law as a whole automotive manufacturers have responsibility in a case where injury resulted in the defective manufacture of a vehicle; or if the defective design of a vehicle led to injury; or that, even if the vehicle was designed and manufactured flawlessly, its manufacturer failed adequately to warn of a hazard incident to its use, and this failure to warn caused the injury of which the person complains.

    In my short review this lousy designed tire (ie how often have you had flats) and an entirely inadequate, ie non existent tire changing system, rises to level of negligence on the part of fiat. They didn’t include a jack, causing people to have to use one that may be improper. For that matter I’d be looking st the jack company and tire company too.

    Point is if people don’t hold companies responsible then companies, to save money, will cut corners like selling a vehicle with a known tire issue and no jack system.

  18. Not related to your particular situation, per se, but I have noticed that “kids these days” (I’m 40) are in much less of a hurry to drive than we were when I was turning 16. I grew up in a very rural area and everyone I remember just jumped at the chance to drive as soon as they could. It meant freedom, and getting to see your friends! No more waiting on mom to get off the landline and take you somewhere.

    I suppose my kids will feel so much more connected than I ever did, once they finally get a smart phone. What’s the point of hurrying to get your license when you can be in touch with your friends all of the time anyway?

    Just an observation. My parents figured out how to help the four of us kids buy cars when we started driving; now I wonder if my kids will hope for the same thing, or not care much at all?

  19. We are a family of 4 living in Montreal Canada and we do not own a car. We got rid of our card when we were pregnant with our first child. We are part of a car sharing program called Communauto which has many locations where we can reserve and have access to a fleet of cars. We have been members for 13 years. When we don’t want to take a Communauto or none are available, we take public transit, ride bikes or walk. We also live in a very walk-able community where everything we need is very close. People always ask how I do my grocery shopping. There are a few stores that deliver but the one I use charges me $3 for online ordering/sending a person to pick out all of food and prepare the order and and other $3.50 to bring it all to my door. We would never go back to back to owning a car.

  20. I live in a midwest college town and public transportation (buses) exists but is not feasible for our family. The bus runs to my neighborhood once per hour but not past 7pm or on weekends. We can walk to our elementary school but that’s it. No stores, libraries, etc within walking distance. There would be no way to get my kids to soccer, gymnastics etc. Our van needs to be replaced soon and we’re not looking forward to adding a car payment but that’s what we’ll have to do. It really is a big expense.

  21. Living in rural upstate New York, having a car is pretty much a necessity. There is NO public transportation (well, besides school buses, but those only service kids living out of town), many amenities are at least 30-45 minutes away (or further), and taxis/Uber don’t exist at all. I’d LOVE to not have to drive. When I lived in Moldova, I was impressed by the amount of public transportation, even connecting really small villages to the capital. Although the transportation is a bit unreliable, not particularly comfortable (especially in the summer because there is no air conditioning), I appreciated being able to travel without driving. Where I live now (where I grew up), we have to drive 45 minutes to the nearest Aldi’s or Walmart and an hour to go to Target/most clothing stores/craft stores. It’s at least two hours to the nearest airport (all small) or a 4+ hour drive to New York City for a larger international airport.

    Teenagers here still are eager to get their license and many drive to school (especially those living out of town that want to participate in after-school activities or sports since there are no buses after those). I was one of the first of my friends to get my license and was lucky to have a family car I could use often. But if I could go without a car easily (without sacrificing convenience) I would.

  22. I feel a million years from going carless because I have 3 kids, a baby to a seven year old, and they all use carseats. It makes me not want to fly anywhere for a vacation, because how would we get around once there, or do we wrangle 3 kids plus luggage plus the carseats? We’ve had Ubers reject us for lack of carseat for a toddler (I get it!), but that just meant we had to walk with said toddler from a wedding ceremony to the reception through a cold downpour. Car ownership is expensive and burdensome, but it’s not too easy for a family with little kids to get around any other way.

    1. Just FYI, most car companies will rent you carseats. It does add insult to injury, but sometimes we’ve been able to talk our way out of the car seat rental fee. It has made the difference for us to be able to travel with our kid.

  23. I identify with so many of these issues. My grown up children were/are TOTALLY uninterested in getting their drivers licenses. My son (24) lives in Paris where he saw me spend years not owning a car. We have a home in the country now, and I REALLY want him to get his license so that he can drive himself to go fetch his friends from the train station or run an errand or take a turn when we do a long trip. Hahahaha! I fear it will never happen. My older daughter left France to go study in the states, and took more than four years to do it. She owned a car (!) and still did not make the time to pass her exam!

    I still spend a lot of time in Paris every month and I adore not having a car while there. In the country it is absolutely not an option to be car-less. I take the train whenever it is possible, but often we go to off the beaten path spots with no public transportation.

  24. Try shopping online either through dealership websites or sites such as Cars Direct.

    We’ve done both. Once you’ve determined the car you want, research it’s price and then contact several dealers via their sites and request their prices. Tell them they are competing with others and to give you their best price. When you’ve received all of their responses, take the best one and send a second email to those offering a higher price and ask them to beat the lowest price offer. Keep going until you get the lowest possible price.

    I hate going into car dealerships and being subjected to their process. My method puts me in charge.

    1. Cindy, this is what we do! You have everything in writing and you’ve been working with multiple people, so if you show up and they renege on the deal, you can just move on to the next best price and not have to start over. Plus at the end, once they’ve gotten the price down, they will start throwing in extras – warranties, upgraded rims, XM for a year, that sort of thing. We create a specific car buying Google acct and phone number that transcribes all messages to text and do the whole thing that way. It’s not perfect, but waaaaay better! The only thing is that you have to know exactly the car you want so you are getting apples-to-apples price comparisons.

  25. Living in Michigan, and in the Detroit metro area, I can’t fathom cars going away. We have limited public transportation, though a bit more has come to the city of Detroit. I would love to go down to one car, like when my boys were little but now with one having a job, two different schools, and sports, it’s just not feasible. It was hard driving my husband to work at 5:30 am to have the car for the day, which meant getting my sons up. Once my oldest started kindergarten, we went back to two cars.

    I wish my town, which is the capital of our county had more options for shopping that were bikeable or even walkable but even the farmers market is on the outskirts. How fortunate you are to have the option to have so many public transport options.

    I was looking at the Canvas option, which is not available in Michigan and quite honestly it never will be. The prices are sooo high, even considering insurance and maintenance for the vehicles available. We pay a lot for auto insurance here in Michigan, not sure what it’s like in California.

    I just wish we had more extensive bike paths and more public transport other than bussing in our metro area.

    Good luck on finding a car that works for you.

  26. OMG! I loved this post!
    I can’t wait to get more content about your family. How is Oscar doing. Is he already graduating eighth grade soon. I bet his and Betty’s grades are Amazing. Thank you for your posts!

  27. I’ve never held a driver’s license, and it doesn’t really bother me. When I’m home, I’m right in between two bus interchanges; my university campus (within walking distance) offers a free hourly shuttle to the main campus, and I can walk virtually anywhere I need to be on a regular basis. (At my parents’, I have to rely on getting lifts, because public transport is so awful, and we live away from everything. Uber is both expensive and makes me uncomfortable, so I cannot comment on it as a service.)

    I personally believe that keeping a car in my city is inefficient (parking is expensive and a nightmare – I have no rights to the parking at my building), plus I believe that public transport in cities is the way of the future, and we have to start committing to and investing in it. However, I also understand that my transport choices are a reflection of my location and socio-economic status; in different areas, public transport is ridiculously awful, and it’s not a viable and consistent option for commuting.

    When I get the all-clear for my vision, I will get my drivers license just in case, and if I move to a different area, I would definitely consider one of the car rental services rather than the financial and mental commitment of owning/renting a car.

  28. I think this might happen in urban environments (one of my roommates in 1999 didn’t learn to drive until she was in college) but I don’t see this happening in rural areas. I grew up near lots of farmland and many of my friends drove tractors and other things for work. Also, for this Uber/lyft environment to work, someone has got to drive those cars.

    1. I’d also like to add that I live in the Boston metro area and would love to take public transit but I have to be at work before 6:30 and the train near me doesn’t leave early enough for me to use public transit. For these things to work out, public transit needs to be available early morning I late night which it’s not many places. Many of our support staff can’t use public transit as they have to be there even before I do!

  29. It’s funny that you would use the term midlife crisis about the MINI. That exactly what I call my MINI. I have four kids 16 and up. Two have their licenses and two don’t. My eldest didn’t get his until he was 20. He wasn’t interested and frankly didn’t have time to go through the classes that reduce the insurance costs in California. We live in San Diego and Uber or Lyft are very convenient. Unless you have a gig and need to haul amps, guitars, etc. which is what necessitated his finally getting a license while in college.
    Another reason I think kids are waiting or not interested in that license right upon turning 16 is all of the restrictions. I’m speaking mainly of California. It’s ridiculous and confusing although I agree with the research behind the restrictions. My nieces and nephews in Florida don’t have those and as soon as they can get behind the wheel they are on it.

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