It’s not always easy. Like any decision, there are trade-offs; but as gas prices continue to rise, the choice I made nearly a year ago to live (almost) entirely car-free is looking better every day.
I moved to Long Beach last June and, for the first few months, drove a 10-year-old Mazda I had bought from my parents for $5,000. I also bought an electric bike for a fifth of that price with my federal stimulus check, thinking I’d just ride it for fun every once in a while. After a couple of months, and more than a couple parking tickets, I was getting fed up. I found myself barely driving anywhere, riding my e-bike to the grocery store, shops and restaurants, even on Target runs. By the fall, I’d decided: I was going to sell my car back to my parents and commit to living car-free as much as possible.
The clearest benefit of this decision: saving money.
In California, the average monthly payment for a used car was $389; add in other costs including gas ($242.25/month average in California), insurance ($153.82 per month average), and repairs ($32.12 per month), and the average California car owner pays $817.19 every month for their car. Even if you’ve paid off your auto loan, the operation costs are close to $500 per month; with median income just over $31,000 a year, this means the average Californian spends about one-fifth of their income on cars.
I was not the average California driver, however; my car was paid off, my commute is only about 2.5 miles, and most grocery stores and other destinations are in a similar range. Still, I was filling up my 15-gallon tank about once a month, and at $4.89 a gallon, that’s $73.35 in gas. Add on insurance at $45 and I was looking at $118.35 a month going into my car, and that’s without the usual-monthly $60 street-sweeping parking ticket.
By comparison, my e-bike (also paid off) doesn’t require insurance, maintenance is minimal (I’ve paid less than $100 to fix flats and replace the brake pads since I bought the bike) and costs just a few cents to recharge. At $0.248 per kilowatt hour, the 500Wh RadPower Mission e-bike battery costs 12 cents for a full charge, so even if I charge it three times a week, the monthly cost for power is $1.50.
Quick math shows I’m saving $116 every month on transportation; in about 10 months I’ll pay for my bike with the money I save. As cars, gas, and insurance all get more expensive and my bottom line stays the same, I’ll save even more. If it sounds like I’m bragging, I am (a little bit). I understand not everybody can live the car-free life, and many people live too far from their work to forgo driving entirely, but many more people could choose to replace a lot of car trips with a quick and easy e-bike ride.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t drawbacks, of course. If I want to go to San Diego to visit family, I have to catch a ride from a friend or a $40 rideshare to get to Anaheim Station and get on the train. The only transit connections are a two-hour bus ride or a trip north to Union Station on the Blue line (now called the A line). It’s similarly painful to get to the airport; I can catch a ride that takes 20 minutes or take two trains and a shuttle on an hour-plus long trip. But the few times I’ve done that doesn’t come close to making me want to buy a car.
For my everyday commute, I’m lucky enough to work for the Long Beach Post on Ocean Boulevard in Downtown, a 2.5-mile ride from my Belmont Heights apartment. But, in my job search last year, I was limited by my e-bike’s range and, more importantly, the built environment. Job opportunities in LA or Orange County were essentially out of the picture, and even places theoretically within my range can be difficult to reach. In the city, the biggest obstacle to using my bike isn’t time or speed, but simply how likely I am to get hit by a driver on my ride.
Coastal communities like Belmont Heights in Long Beach might be the only places in LA County (arguably America’s worst metro area for biking) where it’s safe and convenient to ride a bike everywhere. From my place, there are three grocery stores within about a mile, the beach bike path takes me to the Pike and Downtown or Belmont Shore, and there are enough residential streets with low speed limits that I feel safe riding my e-bike just about anywhere—but that’s not true for the rest of the city.
I don’t feel safe on my bike essentially anywhere north of Anaheim Street—including Lakewood and Signal Hill—because it is unsafe: There are stretches with narrow or even no sidewalks, or with painted-on bike lanes on arterial roads, where bike riders have to mix with car traffic to get where they want to go. You won’t see me, or anybody else, doing anything but driving in these places.
So, while I’m limited to mainly the coastal zone on my bike, everybody who lives outside of these neighborhoods has no choice. In the part of America where it’s 70 degrees and sunny 300 days a year, we’ve mandated car use as a policy choice. If the city truly wants to be a bike-friendly city, and help ease the cost burden of commuting, it needs to enact policies to make it easier for people to make the same choice as I did.
Jake Gotta, the Long Beach Post’s Instagram and TikTok correspondent, wrote this column for National Bike Month. Follow the Post on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter for Jake’s daily rundowns of local headlines, plus deeper dives into urban design, mobility and—occasionally—karaoke.