Last week my son got invited to a friend’s birthday, way up to the north of Seattle. This would have taken half an hour by car, but we don’t own one, so the ride was 1h30 by bus. In total, we spent 3 hours in public transportation to get to a 2 hours event.
Some of the parents at the birthday party are people we know very well, and they asked me if I came all the way up here by bus. They looked worried, you know, that face you make when you assume somebody has gone through a lot of pain. “It was quite a trip, but it was fun”, I replied.
Later on in the day I was watching an early stand up from Louis CK, where he stated that everybody in this country is poor. I don’t remember the exact quote (it was hilarious as always, though), but it went along the lines of “people would not be riding the bus if they were rich”.
As I was lying in bed, watching the show, it got me to think about that afternoon with my son. Not owning a car has always been a thing I’ve been pretty proud of for many reasons, but recently with a 3rd kid in the picture, it’s been a challenge on many aspects.
Sure, we can Uber once in a while when it’s really needed, but my wife has recently been making the point that owning a car would help us do more spontaneous things on the weekend. She remembers fondly some weekends spent camping with her family as a kid. It’s true that when you don’t have a car, that kind of thing requires a bit more planning (you pretty much have to rent something ahead of time), and leaves less room for spontaneity.
I’ve discussed my wife’s point of view with some friends in Tokyo and with my parents. My friends, who have 3 kids and live in Yokohama, confirmed my personal experience so far: “Car ownership is becoming a thing around Tokyo, but frankly it’s expensive and you’ll never know where to park. We’ve had no issues with 3 kids and without a car”. My parents’ point: “maybe [your wife] remembers those weekends as being spontaneous, but I can guarantee you that with 3 small kids, that spontaneity is just how it appeared to her. I’m pretty sure her parents had to plan things ahead of time. We owned a card, and I don’t remember any weekend with you 4 being spontaneous. Whether you own a car or not is not relevant, there’s some preparation involved.”
I guess what we’re seeing on our side is that the fact that we have to rent a car when we want to go out for the weekend is one additional obstacle we have to overcome if we want to go somewhere. Add to this that I’m exhausted most of the time (I’ll blame the job on this one), and my motivation to organize anything on weekends is pretty much zero. This leaves my wife all the burden of organizing stuff, and she’s done it a few times (she’s done a great job at it every time), but she’s probably not seeing the enthusiasm one would expect, from me or the kids, when we go to these weekends. Again, not necessarily related to the car, but the lack of a car adds up to my lack of motivation, I guess.
But I kind of digress. So there I was, sitting on my bed, watching Louis CK, and thinking of our afternoon on the bus. Was that a bad afternoon just because of a longer time on the road? Absolutely not! We got to sit at the back of the bus (my son loves that), enjoy the scenery of a neighborhood we had not seen before, and got to chat and relax. From my perspective, I got to spend 3 hours of quality time with my son, on a sunny day, chatting and enjoying time. Had we owned a car, there would have been 1 hour of me driving and not talking much to him, and then the 2 hours we would have “gained” from this would most likely have been spent at home, watching him and his sister fight over some random piece of plastic (they call these things “toys”).
Setting aside the insane financial benefit (my son doesn’t pay for the bus yet, and my ticket is entirely paid for by my company, so we ride free) for one moment, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I got to spend more time with my son, it was overall some enjoyable and relaxing time, and my wife got to spend some quieter time with less kids at home for 5 hours. It wasn’t a perfect day, but it was really close.
Back to Louis CK’s statements: I don’t know how many wealthy people like me ride the bus, but surely I can’t be the only one in this country to see the obvious financial benefits of doing so. Sure, some people will claim that there is an opportunity cost to spending more time in transportation, but that’s assuming you would have used that time to do something (financially) productive anyway. For me, Saturday and Sunday are days I (mostly) spend with my kids and during which I’d feel bad trying to work on my side gig. So I do not see any opportunity loss here.
When I ride the bus, lately, I love to watch what kind of people ride with me. I like to analyze if some of the people on board are stealth-wealthy people like me. For sure, there’s a large portion of young people, people who appear to be close to the poverty line (or those who are way past below that line, look very visibly homeless, and make up an excuse to not pay for the ride), and another part (especially on weekdays mornings) of regular 9-to-5 workers; but again, I’m surely not the only person to understand that public transportation is a very cost-effective to move around.
Looking back at our numbers, my family of 4 (now 5) spent a total of $285 in transportation costs last year. This includes $0 in insurance costs for the car we don’t own, $0 in vehicle cost, $0 in gas, and $0 in parking. (excluding a trip to Canada, though, in which the bus and train tickets have been counted in our “travel” category). We’re saving $9’000 a year on transportation compared to the average American household.
Recently a couple of friends have chosen to move to Europe. As part of their move, they had to cancel their leased car, and, although I did not follow the math carefully, the husband explained to me that he will be losing $9’000 in the process (compared to what they would have paid in total if they had kept the lease going on for more years, then buy the car). And he was really annoyed about it, telling me he would try to get that cost paid by his new company as part of the relocation expenses. I said nothing, I was just baffled internally when he revealed to me that the car’s cost on the market was roughly $45’000. That’s more than the entirety of material possessions my family owns. This family makes good money, more than we do, and are moving to an even better salary with this relocation, so I’m not worried for them. But to me it didn’t make sense to be angry at the $9’000 loss, when the bad financial decision had happened way before that: to get such an expensive car in the first place. What would have made sense would have been to buy a much cheaper car to begin with. I’m sure a family of 5 doesn’t need a $45’000 car.
That’s the problem I keep having with cars: none of the anecdotal evidence I see around me are convincing me that it could ever be a good purchase.
On the non financial impact of not owning a car: I mentioned poor people and young people riding the bus. I think the bus is also a strong way to experience the diversity of a city. My work is full of white collars, and does not represent the average population of the city. If I were to commute by car, I would probably live in my own bubble, being given close to no opportunity to see the real world. Somehow, I find our bus rides with my son also have some educational values. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but I feel much less “afraid” walking around in the city now, than I was a while ago. Some people look terrifying to me*, and from their physical appearance you could be worried they’d kill you for a dollar. It helps tremendously to experience this regularly enough and understand that most people just try to get by and do not want to cause any trouble to other folks. People are in general nice, independently of what they look like :). Not that there are never any issues on the bus, but those are also a good reminder of the privilege my family and I are in. When I was initially looking at a place to stay in Seattle, many people recommended some fancy neighborhoods. One guy, however, told me he lived way up north of Seattle, in a much less privileged place. He told me: “it’s an important choice to make, if you want to meet and understand real people”. The bus rides fall in the same bucket in my opinion.
I’m sure we’ll have a discussion sooner than later about buying a car, once we move back to Japan. But for now, I’m still not sure I’d see any benefit to owning a car.
* I lived my childhood in the countryside of France in a village of 3000 people, then went to engineering school, and later moved to Tokyo, once of the safest cities in the world. My parents have tried to show me the real world throughout my childhood, but it’s clear to me that I’ve spent most of my life in extremely secure and privileged environments. Some neighborhoods of Seattle were terrifying to my wife and me when we first moved to the US, and to me that’s because I constantly believe that I’ve rarely experienced the “real” world. I’m also an introvert which doesn’t help.