To own a car or not own a car: what are the alternatives?

Just a few years ago, if you needed to drive anywhere at all, you owned a car. It was that simple. Fast-forward to 2019, however, and there are some newer options that might be alternatives to owning a car.

If you’ve ever considered whether you really need one, and how to get around without a car, here’s a look at some of your alternatives—and the pros and cons of each.

  1. Traditional car ownership

This is the most obvious one, of course—simply owning a car. Included in this category are financing and leasing, where you don’t technically own the car, but you have full-time possession of it, and need to pay for all the regular costs that go along with owning a car.

The obvious advantage here is always having a car available when you need it; it’s there all the time, any time, without any planning ahead.

Being able to have the things you need in it, all the time, are also added conveniences of owning a car—things like sports equipment or gym clothes you might keep in the trunk, your child’s car seat, or a pet seat cover or netting, etc.

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Still the only way to always have a car ready whenever you need it. (image source: tischerauto.com)

There’s also—for many people—a certain pride and identity that comes with owning a car. A lot of us bond with our rides, and find a lot of self expression in the make, model, color, and options we choose.

Some of the cons to owning a car are:

  • Investment: whether it’s one big payment, or monthly lease or financing payments, owning a car requires a significant commitment, financially.
  • Insurance: if you own a car, you of course have to insure it—so there’s another recurring payment you have to make.
  • Fuel costs. This can be a huge expense, that can be avoided with some, not all, of the alternatives to car ownership.
  • Maintenance and repair costs. Oil changes, new tires, and any repairs you might need, are up to you. (Unless you have a car still covered under the manufacturer’s warranty, or purchase an extended warranty—in that case, most problems will be covered. (Though you’ll still be on the hook for regular maintenance and things like wiper blades and tires.)
  • License fees: Another annual cost.
  • Parking: you have to have someplace to keep your car, which for a lot of people might mean another added cost, or hassle, if you need to pay for a parking spot, or if street parking isn’t readily available where you live.
  • Depreciation: unless it’s an extremely rare and collectible specimen, basically any car you buy is going to be worth progressively less than what you paid for it over time.

       2. Carshare programs

There are a number of car share programs, like Getaround and Turo, in most cities now, and they can provide options for you to use a car when you need one, either hourly or on a longer-term basis. The way most of them work is that you sign up via an app, and then whenever you need a car for a couple of hours, or a few days, you can search based on your needs.

This is nice because you don’t have the ownership expenses of things like maintenance, parking, and insurance. But some of the drawbacks can be significant:

  • There can be sticky disputes with the car share company and/or the owner over damage to the car; when many different people are renting a car, it can be hard to know who’s responsible for damage—especially things that aren’t immediately apparent upon inspection. (If you search reviews, you’ll find a lot of people who’ describe bad experiences with this.)
  • There sometimes aren’t a lot of car sharing options in areas outside of major cities.
  • These services often aren’t as cheap as the initially appear. (Renting a car for one hour at $8.32 looks like a great deal… but when you go to check out, you see it’s actually $18.32, with booking and license fees.)
  • Even if a lot of cars are available in your area, they aren’t necessarily available when you want them. Especially if you need a pet-friendly car, or a particular type (e.g. an all-wheel-drive SUV for a trip to the mountains) for a number of days.
  • You’re likely not going to find the car you need within walking distance. So you’ll have to get a ride to go pick it up, or have the owner deliver it to you, at an extra cost.
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App-based ride share companies operate in most cities. (photo source: Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge)

     3. Ride share companies

Ride share options like Uber and Lyft are readily available in a lot of places now. They can be attractive because you don’t need to plan more than a few minutes in advance, and you don’t have to worry about driving, buying gas, or finding parking when you get to where you’re going.

While the element of letting someone else worry about driving and navigating, and getting dropped off at the doorstep of your destination is convenient,

Some of the disadvantages of ride share vs owning a car or car sharing programs are:

  • Privacy. Since you’ve got a driver with you, the experience is different from having your own car. You can’t necessarily be alone with your thoughts (if you have a chatty driver), and if you have a friend or significant other with you, there’s going to be someone else there who can hear your conversation. This might not always matter, but it’s something to consider. (If nothing else, Uber or Lyft may not be the ideal option for, say, a first date.)
  • Surge pricing and availability. In many cities, there are rideshare cars available within a few minutes. But in some situations—like a large event with many people leaving at one time, or a rainy day—you may have trouble getting a ride quickly. And this scarcity often results in the dreaded “surge pricing,” in which fees can be several times the normal rate. So what’s typically a $10 or $12 ride may suddenly be $30-40; a lot less affordable.
  • Cancellations. This can be a fairly common problem; I’ve had numerous occasions where two or three drivers cancel before they picked me up. Usually it seems to be when I’m trying to go to a destination or in a direction that has a lot of traffic. When that happens, there’s no option except to rebook, wait for another driver, and hope they don’t cancel. It can be nerve-wracking if you don’t have a lot of extra time before you need to get where you’re going!
  • Expensive. Even without surge pricing, you definitely pay a premium for rideshare services. If you’re using  it multiple times a week, the cost adds up fast.

Obviously there are other options, like public transit, biking, and renting electric scooters. But for actually traveling by car, whether you or a ride share driver is doing the driving, the main categories are owning a car, or ride share, or car sharing programs.

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Electric scooters are one of the many new-school options in modern app-based transit. (image source: scoot.co)

They each have their own set of advantages and disadvantages as compared to owning a car. But the bottom line is that if you need a car with any regularity at all, the option that makes the most sense is owning a car. The other options are either not easily enough available to make them a practical option, or are expensive to the point where they really aren’t a viable alternative.

One compromise that may work for a lot of car owners is to combine car ownership and car sharing—if you don’t need your car every day, you can rent it out on a car share service like Getaround or Turo. That way, you have a car at your disposal, but it can bring in some money instead of just sitting on the days you don’t drive it, and help pay for itself.

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