Getting Rid Of Your Car Could Make You Happier

According to a new paper published in Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, getting rid of your car might actually improve your sense of subjective well-being. The paper, written by sustainability researcher and doctoral candidate Ann-Kathrin Hess, studies two potential outcomes of what researchers refer to as “car shedding,” that is, well, ditching your car. It’s not as simple as “having a car” vs. “not,” though, because cars are a kind of economic signifier, and a tool that can help people access things they need. But the study does complicate the refrain of, “not owning a car is privilege,” which contrasts with the economic reality of cars being, well, really, really expensive.

2009-honda-fit-car-sov-automobile-southwest-detroit
The author’s 2009 Honda Fit, with teenage angst racing wheels and matching pleather seat covers, mismatched headlights, a blower that only worked on the highest speed, and a reliable inline-four that was, sadly, no match for the contaminated gasoline from the gas station on the west side. RIP, friend.
First: what is subjective well-being?

It’s perhaps fairly intuitive, but most assessments of mental health and happiness are matters of the subject’s own perception. Ever taken a Beck’s Depression Inventory? (I have!) It’s scored by the patient, not by the doctor. As much as we want to blame brain chemistry– or capitalism, for that matter, or not having enough bucks in the bank account- for impeding our own happiness, a lot of it is actually subjective.

Obviously, it’s important to distinguish “I feel happy even though I shouldn’t necessarily be” from “I’m objectively in good shape and that’s reflected in my perception.” There are, to be clear, plenty of really, really miserable people who own a Porsche Taycan. To address this, Hess has distinguished “affordability car shedding” from “voluntary car shedding.” In other words, did you ditch your car because you absolutely had to from an economic standpoint, or because you wanted to?

This is a bit complicated: 

On one hand, car ownership and usage contributes to SWB as they facilitate activities and are also items fulfilling symbolic or self-image purposes. On the other hand, zero-car households develop alternative strategies for being mobile and for participating in activities, e.g., by using alternative transportation modes, or by choosing the proximity of everyday activities.

This will no doubt confound the hard-liner NUMTOTs who think that “fulfilling symbolic or self-image purposes” is some sort of neoliberal hogwash. But whether I’m in rural Maine, where there is zero public transit, or Detroit, where the public transit is abject, it can be useful to be able to throw all of my stuff in the trunk of the car and just go, as opposed to having to plan a lengthy trip on three buses with 45-minute waits for transfers that will take three hours for a 20-minute car trip. While that’s an extreme example, it is worth adding that the best answers to the transportation question involve figuring out how to reduce car reliance for most trips, not figuring out how to supplant 100% of all cars forever. These are not the packing up my car and driving off into the woods trips– these are the daily commuter trips and the people who drive 0.5mi to the grocery store when they are able to walk or bike or take a bus. But I digress.

“But Europe Is So Dense! It Can Never Work In Americaland!”

Hess’s study looks mostly at Europe. Should these lessons translate across the Atlantic? Public transit proponents in North America face resistance in the form of some common refrain that the continent’s population density is too low to make public transit make sense. Cars, these naysayers argue, are the only mode of transportation that makes sense! Look, I’m not one of those radical leftist planners. I ain’t about to tell you that you gotta ditch your car tomorrow. I don’t own a car, but I do share one! Having one car for two people makes a ton more sense than having two cars for two people. This is increasingly true in the era of WfH, and it’s obviously more true in areas with higher population densities.

How high? Or must it be wealthy areas, too? Hess finds that:

residents of car-free housing developments in Switzerland and Germany have a very particular profile: highly educated, ethical or altruistic values, mostly families, and living voluntarily without a car.

This supports the idea that there is a major economic factor involved. So she discovers:

“…compared to involuntary zero-car households, voluntary carless households live in denser neighborhoods with better public transportation coverage and have a higher household income, a higher percentage in employment, better education, and fewer children. Involuntary carless households travel less frequently, their trips are longer and take more time, they walk/bike less, and they depend more on public transportation compared to voluntary carless households.”

Now, this might not be quite as intuitive. Why should the involuntary car-free households walk or bike less? Is it an infrastructure problem? This question is beyond the scope of the study, but it’s one we should be thinking about as cities become denser but also wealthier, while many inner-ring suburbs become poorer.

Cars Can Be Fun. But They Shouldn’t Be Mandatory For Economic Mobility.

Notable: Voluntary car shedders usually figure out a non-car alternative for getting to work. But they sometimes struggle with the frustration of limited mobility for discretionary travel. I recall a chat with a Former Romantic Affiliate when we were trying to figure out where to live, and she said she’d much rather have to commute to work than commute to fun. This is roughly parallel. We view the commute as a necessity, but many of us can figure out something to occupy our brainspace for the 10 or 20 or more hours a week spent commuting if we don’t have to spend that same amount of time commuting to, say, our favorite restaurants, our kids’ schools, or our parks. It seems to me to be largely an issue of how the workday is blocked into a solid, eight-hour chunk, while discretionary activities (shopping or fun) can be a five minute errand or a six hour trip into the hinterlands.

Cars And The Bucks: Voluntarily giving up your car can improve your subjective well-being. Having to give up your car without robust alternatives? Not so much.

This is really a suggestion that the solutions to car dependency have to be multifaceted. So much we already know. Hess cites several examples of policy measures that can address the issue, plus private sector involvement (like car sharing). Apropos of my whole “we can fix everything with a carbon tax,” this study suggests that perhaps we can’t. Creating alternatives to the car is an important thing, obviously. And we now have some additional evidence that it might well make you happier! But getting there requires us to develop and cleverly deliver a comprehensive set of tools to the people who otherwise might be left behind.

You can read the paper by Ann-Kathrin Hess on car shedding here. This article is part of an ongoing series on infrastructure and mobility.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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