Friday, April 15, 2011

How I Became a Transit Geek and Simplified My Freelancing Expenses

Possibly the last new car I'll ever own.
Spring break has arrived. Not only is it the beginning of a week that will be spent finding ways to entertain the kids, it's the one-year anniversary of the Bausers becoming a single car household. A year ago, we were packing up the station wagon to head out on a cross country, family-visiting adventure, when a neighbor's friend showed up and offered me $300 for my car. This wasn't a totally out-of-the-blue event. The buyer and I had discussed a potential sale several weeks prior, but up until that moment, I hadn't committed to parting with my ten-year-old VW Jetta. Seizing the opportunity, I accepted the personal check, hurriedly retrieved my tape cassette adapter and EZPass, and watched him drive away in the first new car I'd ever owned. Just like that, we were a one-car family.

A lot of people think I'm crazy. How can you possibly live in suburban New Jersey, have two working parents, one kid in school, another in preschool and get by with only one car? Surely this self-imposed exile is the result of surging gas prices and economic distress? I won't deny that economics influenced our decision to rebut the statistics showing American's owning an average of 2.28 cars per household with 35% owning three or more vehicles. While the potential savings did play a part, a number of other factors also came into play.

Long on character, short on parking.
A couple of years ago we made the decision to move into Princeton Borough for its great public schools, world-class university, and thriving downtown. Proximity to Princeton had been one of the main reasons we decided to move to New Jersey and we'd always regretted not buying our first home in the borough. We had three "musts" for our new dwelling. It had to be close enough to walk to town, it had to have more than one bathroom, and it had to have a driveway. Well, in a town of less than two square miles, you don't have a lot of buying options (at least in our price range) and we ended up settling for just one of our three primary criteria. Location.

Walking to school.
We purchased half of a 100+ year-old double on Bank Street. It's in a charming little historic nook of downtown Princeton, one block from the town square and one block from the university. You can indeed walk to just about anywhere for anything. The schools, the post-office, coffee shops, restaurants, pharmacy, and groceries are all within walking distance. It's hard to imagine a more walkable town that isn't a major metropolitan area.

Riding Tiger Transit
Princeton also has amazing mass transit options. An NJ Transit rail station that connects to the Northeast Corridor Line sits less than a half mile from my door. It can get you to New York, all around New Jersey, to the airport, the SEPTA lines in Philly, and onto an Amtrak train, which can get you to almost any major city on the east coast and beyond. We also have multiple NJ Transit bus routes, private bus lines, free campus shuttles open to the public, and when all else fails we have taxis.

So you can see, we were primed for the one car lifestyle from day one, yet we clung to our second vehicle for more than a year. What finally made us take the plunge?

Parking was a problem. Our new downtown abode had no driveway so we were limited to street parking. Other than the inconvenience of looking for a spot, it's not that big of hassle. Well, other than the fact that Princeton has a "no overnight street parking" ordinance. You get a ticket if you leave a car parked on the street for more than an hour between 2AM and 6AM. I don't know why they have this ordinance. I suspect it has something to do with keeping the college students from parking cars all over town. "Surely residents are exempt from this tyranny?" you ask. Sort of. You can get an overnight parking permit for the street you live on if you don't have a driveway, but you can only get one per household. So the wagon got a street permit and we rented a space for the Jetta in the parking garage behind our house. Problem solved for just $165/month.

Then the parking garage was condemned and I didn't have a place to park my car anymore. None of the other garages in town had spaces available. I could get a municipal parking lot permit, but this would only be for overnight parking, so I'd still have to find somewhere to park my car between 9AM and 6PM. Since I work from home most days, this was going to be a major inconvenience. For three months, I paid my neighbor $75/month to let me keep the car in the alley between our houses, but this was technically illegal, and hard on the car because I had to jump the curb to get into the alley. To top if off, the Jetta failed its state inspection and was going to need over a thousand dollars in repairs to in order to get a new sticker. I was now seriously considering this one car thing, when the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.

Join Zipcar and get $25 in free driving!
Join Zipcar and get
$25 in free driving!
I discovered that Princeton had Zipcars. Zipcar is a car sharing service that lets you use cars by the hour or by the day. They have locations in a number of major cities and college towns. Two Zipcars lived in the municipal parking garage a minute's walk from my house. I signed up for a membership. Now I had access to a car on the occasions I needed one and didn't have to worry about where to park.

The best part of being a Zipster (other than not owning a car) is that you don't have to pay for insurance, vehicle maintenance, or even gas (every Zipcar has a gas card inside that you use to fill up the tank). That said, Zipping definitely wouldn't work for someone who needed to drive to an office every day (Zipcars cost about $8/hr or $60/day) or go on long trips (you only get 180 free miles per day). You also need to plan ahead because getting a car on the spur of the moment can be tough. You have to reserve your cars whenever possible. For a home-based worker such as myself who plans most of his trips far in advance, it works well. On the days it doesn't, Lauren's office is only a few miles from home, so I can take her to and from work and keep the car.

It's also greatly simplified my business expenses. Gone are the paper mileage logs I would buy every January and promptly banish to the bottom of my glove box. Zipcar gives me a mileage report on each individual rental. For clients that pay my mileage it acts as a receipt, and on the occasions when the mileage reimbursement would be more than the actual rental fee, I charge my client the lesser of the two amounts, so it saves them money too. Also gone is the hassle of trying to keep track of the personal and business use of my vehicle. When I rent a Zipcar for work, I just make a note in the system at the time I reserve.

Ticket home.
Funny thing is that even though I rely on my Zipcars, I find myself using it only when absolutely necessary. I've enjoyed learning the train schedules, finding all the bus stops, and figuring out how to connect the transit dots to get where I need to go. I also bought a bike for my longer trips across town. Being more transit savvy has also made me more likely to use mass transit away from home. Last year I went to Pittsburgh for two days and spent a total of about $25 on transportation, most of which was a Super Shuttle to the airport on the day of my return because I didn't feel like walking to the bus stop. (If you ever fly into Pittsburgh, the 28X Airport Flyer bus is awesome, fast, and cheap.)

So that's my story. What about you? Would you ditch one or both cars if you could? Have you already?