A Year Without a Car

On March 1, 2008 I sold my Nissan Micra in Aberdeen, Scotland and hopped a plane to Amsterdam to take up a new position. I have not owned a car since that time. A while back someone asked what that experience has been like, and suggested I write a story on it. So here it is.

While in Europe

It is really a tale of two continents. In large parts of Europe, one can get along reasonably well without a car. In the past year, I have worked at my company’s Accoya factory in the Netherlands most of the time. I fly in to Amsterdam, and there is a train station right in the airport. I catch a direct, 1 hour and 15 minute train to the Arnhem Central Train Station. From there, it’s a 15-minute cab ride to my apartment. (If you want to argue that my international flights more than offset any fuel savings from biking to work, you won’t get any argument from me. But in this economy, you do what you have to).

I secured an apartment that is only about half a mile from work, and I adopted the common Dutch habit of riding my bike to work. I certainly don’t feel safe all of the time with cars whizzing past me, and at times it has been an inconvenience, but the vast majority of the time the bike suits me just fine.

As for the inconvenience, if I want to go out to eat, I am around a mile from the nearest restaurant. When visitors come over to the factory to visit, I often find myself riding the bike in the dark, to a restaurant that may be 3 miles from my apartment. That may seem like a piece of cake, but I have done it in the snow, in freezing rain, and with a fierce wind in my face. It would certainly be more convenient to hop in a car and go.

The worst inconvenience to date was when I had a bad cold, and my secretary made me a doctor’s appointment on short notice. I hopped on my bike and rode a mile and a half in a freezing downpour. I could have probably bothered someone to take me, but I really try to be as low-maintenance as possible.

I do have other options, and I utilize them. There is a bus stop near my apartment, and I use it quite a lot. During the day the bus comes frequently, but later in the evening it only runs once an hour, and then stops altogether at about 10 p.m. (Incidentally, I learned one night while waiting for a bus at 10 that’s when the prostitutes come out and take over the bus stops).

For trips of intermediate length, a cab is another option I utilize from time to time. When I fly home, I have to catch a train at 6 a.m. That’s always a cab ride to the station. If I want to travel to another major European city, the train connections are superb. However, if you want to venture out into the countryside, it may be more difficult. My son wants me to take him to Normandy this summer, and that’s almost impossible to do without a car because the major points of interest are scattered over several miles, and there aren’t easy train connections to my knowledge. So this summer I expect to rent a car in Europe for the first time.

Meanwhile, Back in Texas

But as I said, it is a tale of two continents. When I fly back to Texas, it is hard to do without a car. I fly into the airport, and the first thing I have to do is catch a cab for the 35-mile drive to my house.

I bought a house 25 miles from my Dallas office, because 1). I hate cities, so I chose a house in the country; 2). I knew I wasn’t going to have to spend that much time in the office. 3). Because the housing bubble was imploding, I got a builder’s foreclosure for about half the appraised price. If I had to make that commute every day, I would have sucked it up and bought a house closer to the office, preferably close to some kind of public transportation. From where I live, public transportation isn’t an option, so I rent a compact car when I have to be in the office, or borrow my wife’s car if the kids are out of school.

How long can I keep this up? To be honest, I never thought I could keep it up for over a year. My initial assignment involved several straight months in the Netherlands, and I thought I would have to buy a car when I returned. But every time I do a cost benefit analysis, I can never justify it when I only need it one or two weeks a month. I have no registration fees or maintenance to pay, and I don’t have to keep insurance on it, because my insurance company covers me for a car rental at no extra cost. In the past six months, I have spent a total of $825 on car rentals. I don’t think a car purchase makes economic sense until I find myself spending 3-4 times this amount over a six month period. Given my current work arrangements, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Besides, I like the idea of living without a car. I will continue to put it off as long as possible, even if it occasionally means riding my bike to the doctor in the freezing rain.


On an unrelated footnote, the 2009 EIA Energy Conference takes place on April 7th and 8th. The conference is free, so feel free to drop by if you are in the area. There are a number of topics that look interesting, including the following two plenary talks:

Energy and the Macroeconomy – William D. Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics, Yale University

Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World – John W. Rowe, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation

There are also a number of panel sessions, including:

The Future for Transport Demand

What’s Ahead for Natural Gas Markets?

Meeting the Growing Demand for Liquids

Financial Markets and Short-Term Energy Prices

Investing in Oil and Natural Gas – Opportunities and Barriers

I have been asked to participate on the panel Energy and the Media. The other panelists are Steven Mufson from the Washington Post and Eric Pooley from Harvard University (who was also former managing editor at Fortune). Mufson is the main energy reporter for the Post, and I think he does a good job of reporting the important stories. I have read a lot of his work, and have spoken to him on at least one occasion. Then there’s me, the energy blogger. Please humor me and let’s not play the game “Which One is not Like the Others?” 🙂

Here’s where I could use some assistance. I have a general idea of the themes I would like to explore. Namely, I want to discuss the amount of energy misinformation, which I think stems from some reporters really not having the background to know when they are being misled. We as a nation have a low energy IQ, and that creeps into many of the stories in the media. The TDP fiasco is a perfect example. Had the reporters dug a bit more and been more critical, it would have been another possibly interesting next generation fuel experiment, instead of something that ultimately had a lot of taxpayer money thrown at it.

But what else? What other themes should be examined on a panel entitled Energy and the Media?

32 thoughts on “A Year Without a Car”

  1. Have you tried EasyCar ? I did about 2 years in England without owning or leasing a car. When I needed one I picked up an EasyCar. I could rent for as little as 8 GBP per day depending on how much in advance and how long I booked.

    You will need a car to visit Normandy, but it is well worth the trip.

    There are places, even in cities like Dallas where you could live without a car. Oddly enough, although I think I could do it in suburban Katy, TX (other than work and church) but for my teenagers, who would think I had gone utterly mad. I often ride my bike to the store (1 mile) or to the auto mechanics (3 miles).

  2. “I certainly don’t feel safe all of the time with cars whizzing past me, and at times it has been an inconvenience, but the vast majority of the time the bike suits me just fine.”

    From my experience in the Netherlands, they have a completely separate infrastructure of bike paths for fiets forenzen and one has to rarely share a road with cars. Isn’t that true in Arnhem?

  3. “That may seem like a piece of cake, but I have done it in the snow, in freezing rain, and with a fierce wind in my face.”

    You must not be as tough as those hearty Dutchmen (and women). I’ve seen 70 year old grannies riding their bikes in the rain near Haarlem and Delft. You must not be eating enough Stroopwaffles.

  4. You will need a car to visit Normandy, but it is well worth the trip.

    King, I have never heard of EasyCar. Thanks for the tip.

    As far as Normandy, we went twice when we were living in Germany, but my oldest son is fast becoming a WWII buff. He was too young the last time we were there to remember.

    Cheers, RR

  5. From my experience in the Netherlands, they have a completely separate infrastructure of bike paths for fiets forenzen and one has to rarely share a road with cars. Isn’t that true in Arnhem?

    They have marked bike paths, but they are right next to the road on my path to work. If someone lost concentration for a second and swerved right by just 3 feet, they would be in the bike path.

    There are lots of locations where the bike paths are completely away from the roads, it’s just that my path to work isn’t one of them.

    I’ve seen 70 year old grannies riding their bikes in the rain near Haarlem and Delft.

    Funny story. There is another American working there with me, and he told me that one day he was huffing and puffing as he was trying to get over a bridge. He heard the “ding-ding” behind him, and then a young woman whizzed by him on a bike with a baby on board.

    You are correct; there are 70-year-olds on bikes all over the place. the Dutch appear to be a very hearty people.

    Cheers, RR

  6. which I think stems from some reporters really not having the background to know when they are being misled.

    There is also the specific framing issue of media reports. One I’ve seen called ‘the phony balance presentation’. I watched a youtube clip of Standford’s Schneider who explicitly discusses the dynamic.


  7. I admire RR’s pursuit of the car-less life, but I fear it sends the wrong message about consservation–that deprivation, even danger, is required.
    Bikes are great for sunny days, and by all means use them! But in inclement weather, a high mpg car, or PHEV, is warranted. Scooters are another option.
    Too often greenie-weenies (and I am one) make the mistake of trying to convince others that sacrifice is necessary to obtain conservation and a cleaner planet.
    People are not into sacrifice. We must constantly tell people of the advantages of conservation, higher living standrds, cleaner air, better national security, even higher property values (for urban dwellers).
    RR: Learn to love cities. The greenest thing people can do is to urbanize, and despoil less countryside, and live more efficiently.

  8. “or borrow my wife’s car”

    I can actually recall a time very few families had more than one car even when times were good. My my way of thinking, RR owns a car.

    “The greenest thing people can do is to urbanize, and despoil less countryside, and live more efficiently.”

    Define green Benny! What do you mean by efficiently?

    I number of years ago I got invited for dinner by a school teacher just out of college. I was the only person at the dinner party who was not a teacher. It became apparent that the reason I was there was so I could mend my ways since I was an evil power plant worker. This naive young lady thought protecting the environment consisted of putting a bicycle on the roof of her car and driving to the mountains. My idea of protecting the environment was checking the water chemistry to make sure that the water that left the power plant was cleaner than it cam in.

    All the older teachers were watching with amusement as the evening continues. They had all been to my place in the ‘country’ many times for pot lucks with my coworkers. Finally when the Sierra Club magazine was waved in front of my face one too many times, I got up and brought the garbage can and set on the coffee table. “You do not mind if I recycle, do you?”

    It is not where you live but how you live. Enjoy riding bike because it is fun.

  9. I checked EasyCar. No outlets in the Netherlands. That is strange because they are big everywhere else in Europe.

    We have lots of bike paths where I live too. Miles and miles of them, but for recreation not transportation! In many places the bike trails lack a bridge or stretch of paving that could turn them into commuter paths. Sometimes the trails just end without warning. But for a mile or two of connecting trails it could be used for commuting.

    I live 15 miles from the office. Just a bit too far to bike every day.

  10. We as a nation have a low energy IQ, and that creeps into many of the stories in the media. The TDP fiasco is a perfect example.
    You are confusing two different issues IMHO, RR. Energy IQ seems to be a PR exercise by Big Oil: see you people are too dumb to be telling us what to do. You can’t really be expecting Joe Sixpack to know all the stuff that goes into Big Oil’s Energy IQ.

    Preventing the TDP fiasco would require people to understand that no technology can escape the Laws of Thermodynamics. Understanding basic mass and energy balances would also help. As well as the difference between a pilot plant and a full scale unit. We’re talking about a basic proficiency in math and science.

    I also think that an unfortunate byproduct of technological advances (especially computers) is that people tend to think technology can perform magic.

    For example: I once watched a family member unpack an ice cream maker, and put it to use. ‘Hang on’, I said, ‘how is this going to cool the ingredients?’ ‘It cools it electricly!’ I was told, with a rolling of the eyes. Two problems: 1. A belief in the magic of electricity. 2. A lack of understanding of how the refridgerator works. The family member later learned that a part of the ice cream maker had to spend ~24 hours in the freezer.

    Example #2 (even more worrying): I once failed to convince a collegue (Ph D civil engineer) that a cooling cycle can have a COP of ~3. To him it was creating energy. I guess Mr. Ph. D. didn’t get the difference between that and using energy to move energy. If you can’t convince a Ph D civil engineer, how are you going to explain it to Joe Sixpack?

    You must not be eating enough Stroopwaffles.
    That would be Stroopwaffels (like you say it). Unlike the way English-speakers do it.

  11. I think what Benny was implying with his urbanize-to-be-green is that living in a walkable urban enivornment where you don’t *have* to own a car (and can perhaps take public transit to work) and where residences tend to be smaller vs. living in a mcmansion in suburia sprawlville- is more efficient.

    I fully admit to not knowing the details of the energy efficiency of how food and other goods are brought to cities. Although I imagine with the way global trade has developed it can’t be much worse.

  12. Also- most major american cities have a service called zipcar that makes living without a car much more convenient.

  13. Kit P-
    Urban living is more green, as it requires less resources to maintain, per capita.
    Rural lifestyles require subsidized roads, power lines, phone connections, and health care services. Even fire and police services–you can bet those few homes in brush areas of California are not paying for their full share of fire services. In addition, the feds pour hundreds of billions annually into rural areas through the Dept of Ag. and other programs. Far from being rugged individualists, rural Americans are the most-subsidized peoples on earth.
    I myself love the rural lifestyle, and someday will become a farmer in rural Thailand. However, there are dirt roads where I will live, and no subsidies for crops. Power is by generator, gas is by propane tank, and septic tank etc.
    But I also love cities. I think what is bad about US cities is not urbanization, but the lack of civilization. Crime, squalor, pollution make people dislike cities. But rather than abandon our cities, we should make them better.
    If the Peak Oilers are right, we might not have a choice. At $6 a gallon, rural living becomes less economic, even though subsidized.

  14. Well mafiosa how do you define green? If it is define green as living in a concrete cesspool with poor air quality, too may people, too many cars, and too much crime; as green you are welcome too it.

    At my mcmansion in suburia sprawlville the ratio of big trees to cars is 20:1. However, if you measure efficiency as quality of life divided buy energy use I suspect I am way ahead.

    The assumption of urban life using less energy is neither validated or valid.

    Try this. Drive your compact car from a big city on the east coat to one on the west coast while trying to pass through as many hick towns as you can. Yes there is a few cesspools that rival the cesspools of Europe but what you will find is mostly modest homes where the children can safely walk to school. When you live in Hicksville, Ohio the joys of being on a but stuck in traffic are unknown.

  15. RR, this is my first comment on any of your posts, so let me immediately say that yours’ is a terrific blog, one of three energy sites on my daily reading list. Thank you!

    With regard to your query about issues to discuss on the media panel, my comment is that the issues of EROEI and scale are central to analyzing the value of any energy technology and the media are virtually always terminally short on both. We need much less of the ‘gee whiz, we can make energy from waves in ten different ways’ reporting and more ‘big deal, all the practically harvestable wave energy in the US amounts to no more than 1/10th of its current consumption, and to get that energy we would have to feed half of it back into the wave infrastructure to maintain it’ type.

    On a related note, since such vast segments of our activities rely on large energy inputs, I have come to think of price as a rough gauge of EROEI as the latter is so fiendishly difficult to determine while the former strikes me as a reasonable cost estimate of the cumulative energy required for manufacture. In other words, if PV panels for my roof cost $20K then I think of that as roughly $20K worth of energy input — of course the vast majority of this is not direct energy (e.g., power consumption at the PV factory) but rather indirect (e.g., energy used to prospect, mine and deliver Si, etc., etc.). I would be very interested to know what you and others here think of this generalization. Is it mostly true, are there cases where it is very grossly untrue (e.g., price gouging by suppliers due to market shortages, etc.)? Are there important past or present exceptions to this rule and if so how do we recognize exceptions in the future?

    Thanks again for your great work!

  16. Kit P:

    Quality of life is subjective. I like living in a city- obviously you don’t. I don’t think that has anything to do with energy efficiency…

    I measure that by the amount of energy used per person.

    But you go ahead and keep making stuff up.

  17. Roger Davis-

    I have long contended that the price mechanism is more worthy than a computed EROEI.
    Take a palm oil plantations. Presently, they are selling palm fronds to make mdf. That is displacing some wood, etc. You could try to make a contorted EROEI calculation, or you could look at the palm oil plantation as a whole, and ask if it makes money (they do).
    It should be noted that ethanol would collapse in a day without subsidies.

  18. “Quality of life is subjective.”

    You are correct mafiosa. Subjective? Is that not a big city word for making stuff up. Of course that is my objection to your line of logic. You guys make up stuff and then call me names when I make up stuff on what I consider much more rational criteria.

    “I measure that by the amount of energy used per person.”

    That sir is a very object criteria. Good for you, now we can measure something. Being more sophisticated than mafiosa, not only would I measure the amount of energy I would evaluate the environmental impact. Wait for it!! Done, if you live in the US and are reason about the amount of energy use, the environmental impact of the amount of energy is not significant. We have learned a lot about producing energy and protecting the environment since the 70s.

    That mean you choose the life style you want guilt free. Pick you sand box and enjoy.

    Benny points out the exception. In some cities in California, the lifestyle and many automobiles results in impact on air quality. I was one of the people who lived in a rural area but since my job was in a rural area I would have to drive to the city if that is where I wanted to live. I restored that land by removing invasive plants which reduced natural fire hazard. The rural road that I used was there for the city folks to go skiing.

    Just for the record, I do like cities. If the speaker of the house gives me her house and pays the property taxes the rest of my life, I will move to Frisco and take Bart.

  19. “We as a nation have a low energy IQ”

    That is one way to put it — except that nations don't have IQs, individuals do.

    The problem is not lack of intelligence, the problem is lack of education.

    The basic fact is that too many individuals are poorly educated, and that especially applies to the self-satisfied graduates of what are notionally our finer colleges. The elite educational system force feeds its victims with megadoses of political correctness, but is light on mathematics, physics & logic.

    The end result is that Big Media could not find the kind of person that you would like to see as an energy reporter, even if they tried.

    Bring up the topic of education, Robert. The question will probably die an embarrasing death — which will only reinforce the point.

  20. I don’t see educating the press and general population in the technologies of energy as the key driver here. I think we just need more emphasis on common sense and diligence on the part of the media. An editor should demand the same research standards in his reporting staff in preparing an energy piece that he requires from them in, say, some populist cause of the month.

    As an example, one popular fable we’ve all heard is the appeal to the declining number of refineries as evidence for product price manipulation. It doesn’t take a science degree to trash this assumption. Why does the journalist not do the research with the same zeal he might have for, say, stem cell legislation? Why do editors not insist on this? One reason may be, as has been suggested here, that they don’t know the technology… but they should know what questions to ask and where to find data. It seems to me that a good journalist should always be challenging his conclusions, rather than making stories (or careers) out of them.

    So one point I would make is to ask more of the media in terms of its basic assumptions on the industry and its general lack of supporting research. An editor should be asking his staff to know the difference between an assumption and a defensible fact. Intelligent people should not simply assume that price gouging is going on, and then proceed to explain who’s doing it and how.

    The media should also do a better job at managing energy expectations. High oil prices last year and campaign promises have created an impression that a pollution free, carbon free environment is just around the corner. It’s now only a matter of dissing Big Oil and getting on with the research. We need a more cold headed perspective on alternative energy technologies in terms of costs, time frames, and technical hurdles.

    Finally, how about in depth feature stories? When prices are high, generally the papers carry interviews of angry consumers, quote a few analysts, and then add some spice in the form of “balance” provided by fringe groups, who of course chalk it all up to a few evil CEO’s. I often see well researched feature stories on a variety of topics, but have never seen one where the journalists (in widely read publications) really tried to impartially research the energy industry. Maybe they would still end up with negative commentary. Fine, if they can defend it with data and logic.

  21. Kit P.-
    Medium density fibreboard. It is one of several products that come out of palm oil plantations. Including palm wine! You can also incinerate and generate power from excess biomass, in addition to collecting copious amounts of palm oil.
    You could make complicated but ultimately suspect EROEI calculations for all of this and more, but I would rather drink palm wine and count the money in the sunshine. Before Westernization, farmworkers worked topless, too bad those days are over. Still, not so bad.
    I enjoy your posts Kit P.

  22. I think the whole flying business makes the car issue moot. Its like having a lecture on healthy living by someone who is a chain smoker, or someone who quite smoking but started drinking.

    I’d rather hear about people who did leave the big cities, kept their cars or bought smaller one, reduced their car use and went on to live and work into smaller towns where they could follow a more sustainable lifestyle.

  23. I’d like to hear more about your telecommuting. I feel that is where Americans could revolutionize their energy usage.

    Current management philosphies don’t work very well with telecommuting. Some companies are really changing the way they manage people and embracing telecommuting. What is being done and what can be done to maximize the use of telecommuting?


  24. You need to factor in total energy, not just commuting expenses. It could be that living in San Diego with a car is much better energywise than living in Buffalo without one.

    Which U.S. Cities demand less energy

    I have been comparing our energy usage in suburban Houston to my wife's cousin in suburban Connecticut. He commutes to work on the train. Given similar lifestyles, we use less energy.

    BTW – I ran the numbers on the KoK hybrid. (Ford Ranger truck & $10,000 of XOM stock = a Toyota Pious). 2008 was dismal. The 111 shares of XOM I bought on May 14 only managed to buy me about 40 gallons of gas at 2008 prices, raising my MPG to a pathetic 27 MPG. And the shares are worth about 25% less.

    But 2009 has turned things around. In Q1 2009 my hybrid bought me 27 gallons of gas, raising my MPG to over 40 MPG. Take that Pious owners!

  25. Benny leaned something about palm and you might be surprised that wallboard factories are springing up next to coal plants as a byproduct of new pollution controls. There are many examples of co-products in the energy industry.

    LCA is the best way to evaluate environmental impact. Location is very important. There is no point comparing corn in Indiana to sugar cane in Brazil to palm oil. It is about doing what you do better.

    EROEI is at best one dimensional.

  26. Congratulations on your car-free year. I don’t want to get too touchy-feely about it but I’m sure you have discovered many of the advantages of bicycling for transportation that go along with the inconveniences. Economy, exercise, adventure, feeling the sun and the wind, living life, little things like that.

    The air travel does not cancel out the bike transportation. The flights would go even if you never bought a ticket.


  27. The flights would go even if you never bought a ticket.

    Well, yeah, one person changing habits doesn’t amount to much. But if many people decide not to buy tickets, (such as happens in this bad economy,) flights get cancelled.

  28. HI Robert – Regards your conference topics – give me a shout. I run a company that has been making automotive overdrives to save fuel for 29yrs http://www.gearvendors.com . The politics of fuel taxes (feds have not raised since 1993), how green company like ours is self sufficient but the government unknowingly hurts us while creating some new plan.

  29. hi!
    i live in the netherlands too, 5yrs now, and try to avoid as much as possible using the car, even lately (new job for 6months) that i have to travel 130km per day. The train connection is pretty good and at least i can use the time to read or other stuff…

    Easy car i never heard about it, but i often use greenwheels.nl it is very useful for a couple of hours, you pay per 15′. if you need a car for a day/weekend then the normal rent is better.

    If you travel to another city you can also use ovfiets, you pick a bike in any station for less 3euros per day… But, of course these options are only useful if you’re staying for more than a year, for me is good to know i have all these options.

    The last study i read said that it is only worth to have a car in NL if you travel more than 8000km per year, since i don’t plan to drive the randstad every day, this is clearly my situation…

    Unfortunately, for many people in NL it is still a matter of status using the car to go to work, even if they only have to cycle 30’… I totally understand the need of a car, but if you work regularly from 9-5 you may consider doing better… Just to say that not all dutch people are that keen on being green, although the possiblities here are many…


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