When the three-year, 36,000-mile lease on my 2014 Honda Civic was about to expire in March of 2017, it was for a vehicle that spent most of that time sitting on the street in front of my home in Hyde Park. I drove it well short of 20,000 miles, and if not for some long-distance car trips to Miami, Valdosta, Tallahassee, Birmingham and Gainesville I took just because it felt wasteful not to use the mileage I paid for, it might not have even cracked five digits.
It was the first new car I ever had, and I wasn’t even using it. My grandfather, a used car dealer, preached to me from birth that new cars “were a waste of damn money.” His indoctrination worked: the new car smell didn’t appeal to me the way it did to people that read Jalopnik. My Civic was fine, but about the same as the older BMW 328i that preceded it, and the Chrysler Sebring convertible before.
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, finished high school in Orlando, and after graduating from USF I’ve lived in Las Vegas, San Diego, Dover, Delaware, and a tiny town in south Georgia. I’ve always had a car. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs as a kid, there was no way one could rely on public transit alone. Before I could drive, I used to take a city bus to the “El” to the subway in South Philadelphia to go to Phillies games, but even in a slice of the Northeast Corridor there wasn’t anything close to a transit solution in the Delaware County suburbs.
When I turned in my lease, I was working from home in a South Tampa duplex within shouting distance of Bern's Steak House. We pay too much rent, but I love the neighborhood and its walkability. I’m a few blocks from Hyde Park Village, and even less to SoHo and all the wonderful restaurants and shopping. We’ve got two extra-fancy supermarkets now (the gelato bar at the Winn-Dixie on Swann is great, but the world’s last Publix Greenwise remains an institution), and because it doubles as Tampa’s biggest bar district, there’s always plenty of Uber and Lyft drivers awaiting their next fare.
So I wondered, in a city with one of the worst public transit systems of any major market in the first world, could I actually live without a car? Since Tampa has ridesharing now, could it be cheaper, not to mention better for the world around me, to be vehicle-free? What about the health and lifestyle benefits? Could I actually make this work? In Tampa??
On March 27th of last year, I turned in the keys to the Civic and figured I’d give the carless life a 30-day test run. If it made my life drastically worse, I’d just go buy a car.
I just crossed the one-year threshold, and though my circumstances have changed in terms of work, still not having a car has hardly been a crisis. I’ve begun to think about car shopping, but I saved more money than I thought, and I feel better, healthier, and more connected to my hometown. I also can’t believe how easy it has been.
Full disclosure: I embody some of the horrible stereotypes of a single South Tampa resident without children. I own infinite combinations of shorts and sandals. There are three and only three acceptable answers for breakfast: Goody Goody, Daily Eats, and Pinky's. My two biggest neighborhood complaints are that you can’t buy a season pass to every Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park Saturday festival, and that Fresh Kitchen doesn’t have an app. (Why do they want me waiting in line for 15 minutes twice a week?) All I need is a dog and some hair gel that creates volume, and I’m ready for my closeup, Glossy Boutique Publication In My Mailbox.
I absolutely love my neighborhood, and not having a car has made me come to love it even more. So how’d I do it? Here’s what I've needed to go sans vehicle south of Kennedy:
* Get a bike. After lots of browsing, I bought a lightweight, single-speed bike with garish purple rims off Craigslist. It’s reliable, easy to maintain, and the guys at Flying Fish Bikes on MacDill do a fine job when I need something repaired. From where I am it’s actually faster to pedal to a lot of eateries and supermarkets after factoring in traffic and parking. Consider the calories burned as a bonus.
* Rental cars are cheap in Tampa, so use them. I had some friends in town for a wedding in Orlando, so I rented a car for a couple days with a total cost under $45. USF Baseball played in their conference tournament in Clearwater, potentially a five-day affair depending on wins and losses, so I checked out a car for a few days. Some car rental places will even pick you up and drop you off before and after the rental, and pro tip: American Express appears to have the best secondary insurance for rentals of most major credit cards.
* One thing I haven’t used is ZipCar, due to a customer service nightmare I had trying to register for the service. The cars are available for rent for $7 per hour from the University of Tampa campus, but my experience made an airline seem consumer friendly. They lost a customer.
* Amazon Prime isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. If you’re even considering the car-free life, you need this. I’ve had bike pumps, flip-flops, skin cream, garlic salt, and cold brew coffee makers all delivered in a day or less. And though you rarely need anything in an emergency, Prime Now is a lifesaver when you do. They got me a replacement iPhone charger in just two hours after I lost mine the day before a flight.
* There’s an app for that, so use it. Before I go to the Starbucks on Howard, I order ahead so it’s waiting for me when I get off the bike. Same for Panera, Dunkin’ Donuts, and lots of other soulless corporate chains. I love to shop local, and am always looking to support businesses based in my city… but they gotta get an app and let me order ahead! I see you, Shula Burger! Nowait ensures my table at Goody Goody, OpenTable works at Pane Rustica and Datz... when you're pedaling places, these things matter.
* I use Android Pay so I don’t have to carry my wallet and phone on the bike, though I have one of those stick-on holders on the back of the case for a backup credit card and ID.
* Coast Bike Share is Tampa’s version of the bikeshare program, which is great for one-way trips, and they have an excellent app in SoBi that also works in other markets. The biggest issue with the program is the quality of the bikes themselves, and a lot of times you can’t even tell what your ride is going to be like until you start: will your seat randomly lower a few inches when you go over a curb? Will second gear actually, you know, exist? The condition varies greatly, and half the time the buttons on the back of the bike don’t work. I got an RFID card to unlock the bikes… but it can still take forever to enter my PIN number. This should be great, but frankly it needs work.
* Everyone delivers now! And it’s not just restaurants. Postmates will go to CVS or Best Buy if you ask. Instacart will bring your Publix order. And think about it: how often do you need to buy something that’s not at one of those stores? I took an Uber to buy clothes, but services like FiveFour and Trunk Club are even changing that too.
* There’s also other ways to get around. The Downtowner Tampa Free Ride Service will take you from Ashley Street to Channelside and everywhere in between. Coast Bikes are great if you’re going one-way and meeting other transportation at your destination. And the alternatives to ridesharing will keep growing as the city does.
Did I save money? Yes, and way more than I thought. My lease and insurance ran about $450 a month, plus gas and oil changes. Before I took a job in Downtown Tampa in November, I spent an average of $121 a month on ridesharing, and $18 a month beyond menu pricing on deliveries and tips (thanks UberEats & Postmates coupons!). I also rented two cars for a total of $154, so it was just $189 a month to be car-free. Feel free to add in the $8.33 a month for Amazon Prime, but I had that already.
Since I started working downtown, that’s gone up to about $284 a month as some cold temperatures and rushed mornings have kept me from biking to work as much as I’d like. There’s also the problem of having no office shower, which means you take a leisurely pace to work, or your cubicle could become a no-go zone for co-workers the rest of the day. Having some sort of locker and shower at work would make this much easier, but The Attic Cafe on the fourth floor of our new offices almost makes up for it.
But what I didn’t expect is how much I’ve enjoyed the intangible benefits. Biking everywhere has been a delight and a great way to warm up before a workout. Do I really want that calzone at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday? I refuse to waste money on delivery for just me at that hour... so I can order and go pick it up, or I can realize that I don’t really need it, and my waistline absolutely doesn’t. If I’m willing to make that effort I must really want it, but at least I somewhat earned it.
Drinking and driving? Deadly. Having a couple beers at Irish 31 - Hyde Park Village and walking or cycling over the sidewalks home? Delightful. And considering I pedal like I’m racing for the yellow jersey basically everywhere, it’s a miracle I made it until February 18th before finally falling off the bike on the Tampa Riverwalk. Nothing was broken, but my back and wrist kept me out of the saddle for a few weeks, which added to the ridesharing bill. Also: ouch.
But the cinder-filled streets around South Tampa haven’t claimed me yet, or even the overhanging trees on the sidewalks that are clearly illegal and in need of a trim. City of Tampa code enforcement could do a lot of good by making sure the sidewalks are cycle-accessible in all areas.
I also feel far more connected with my neighborhood. When you’re pedaling by instead of driving, you notice that it’s Trivia Night somewhere and you can text your friends to have them join you on a weeknight. You might have blown right past that popsicle shop in Hyde Park Village in a car, but I discovered The Hyppo Tampa and its deliciousness by riding near it. And the menu specials on the chalkboards jump out at you to try something new and wonderful.
It’s not perfect. I tend to drink bottled water, and it’s a pain lugging a case home on the handlebars. I’ve learned to stock up on all bulk beverages when I do have access to a car. I also can't bike to work meetings either, because businesspeople don't take a sweaty mess seriously.
When I was working from home I also edited TheDailyStampede.com, a blog covering the USF Bulls, and that meant several back-and-forth trips to campus each week during football season. A rideshare to Fowler Avenue and back runs about $33 round-trip, which was prohibitive. But if not for that small glitch exclusive to me, I don’t think I would have needed a car anytime soon.
So yes, even in the transit nightmare that is Tampa, I have loved living without a car. You do have to think slightly ahead, as you don’t realize how much of a portable storage unit your vehicle is until you don’t have one, but with some very minimal planning, it’s actually been pretty incredible.
But as a permanent solution? That I’m just not sure. It’s about to get hot again, and I’ll be working downtown all this summer. I’d love to keep doing this, but it’s just going to depend on how I feel with the commute in the heat.