Chicago Without a Car: Do the Math

“I’m getting rid of my car!” exclaimed my exasperated friend Martin, who found that his decision to keep an auto in Chicago was, after all, imprudent. I resisted the urge to begin my smug I-told-you-so dance. He had finally thought about his needs and his expenses and weighed them against the significant cost and hassle of owning a vehicle in a congested large city. Most people could live in Chicago without a car, but the American ownership mentality and the desire to stay in a bubble of personal space is what keeps hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans behind the wheel – and (in my view) behind the times.

While I could go on and on about how car-free living helps the Chicago environment by reducing emissions and how it allows public transit to become more effective and community-oriented, I have to face facts: most people are only interested in what benefits them directly and personally. And that’s usually expressed in terms of money.

So, let’s do the math on Chicago without a car. Since everyone’s auto expenses are not the same, here are three different scenarios:

Chicago Without a Car, Scenario 1: Abby

Abby is making a monthly payment of $310 on her new Honda Civic, and her insurance averages out to about $110 a month. Although she parks for free at home in Bucktown, she pays about $25 a month for city meters and the occasional special event lot. Her mean monthly gas tab comes to around $100, and although she doesn’t pay for routine maintenance thanks to a warranty, she washes car her every two weeks at $8 a pop. Average Monthly Car Cost = 310 + 110 + 25 + 100 + 16 = $561.

Chicago Without a Car, Scenario 2: Bart

Bart owns an older Jeep Cherokee – an outright hand-me-down gift from his sister with a KBB value of $2400. Because he lives in the dense Lakeview neighborhood, Bart has to pay $120 a month for a parking space in his apartment building. He rarely has to pay for city parking, but he does drive a lot. That means his gas tab is upwards of $170 a month. Because the vehicle is older, he also forks over an average of $70 a month for maintenance and upkeep but only $65 for insurance. Average Monthly Car Cost = 120 + 170 + 70 + 65 = $425.

Chicago Without a Car, Scenario 3: Chad

Chad lives in Lincoln Park and drives a used Jetta he bought from his neighbor, Trixie. He took out a private loan for $7000 and is paying paying the bank around $195 a month. The reason he couldn’t afford a more expensive car is that he pays $150 a month to park in his high-rise’s garage and has a poor driving record, making his monthly insurance cost around $140. He only spends $70 a month on gas, but parts for the non-warrantied VW are pricey, so average monthly maintenance, including oil changes and washing, is $80. Average Monthly Car Cost = 195 + 150 + 140 + 70 + 80 = $635.

Each of these people has a different situation, but Abby, Bart, and Chad all spend between $400 and $650 a month in order to keep and use their vehicle in the city.

Chicago Without a Car: Math for the Car-Free

A 30-day pass for unlimited riding on CTA trains and buses is $75. Metra commuter trains are also available for around $3 a ride, so that’s a possibility for the occasional suburban trip – maybe $6 a month). On those occasions when a taxi is preferable to the CTA, there’s plenty of cash left in the wallet for fares. To be generous, let’s imagine taking five $15 cab rides in a month for a total of $120 – if even necessary. And of course, I always point out that walking is free. Average Monthly Cost for Chicago Without a Car: 75 + 6 + 75 = $156.

That’s less than 40% of the cheapest scenario above, and it even includes a cab allowance. With those savings, once could even afford to rent a car on occasion, take even more frequent cabs, or participate in a car sharing service and still save money while reducing congestion and hassle. Although walking and taking public transit has its drawbacks, car ownership isn’t a rosy, carefree experience either. Think about the annoyances of car maintenance, gridlocked traffic, tense driving, parking space hunting, auto-related bills, and the other headaches of owning a car in a crowded city like Chicago. Public transit is solid (though not perfect) here, cabs are plentiful, and most of the desirable neighborhoods are pedestrian-friendly. If the environmental and community-oriented arguments don’t get you, I certainly hope the financial one will. Do the math, and do Chicago without a car.

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