The costs of cars outweighed the benefits for these carless Philadelphians

The costs of cars outweighed the benefits for these carless Philadelphians

Dajé Walker’s Hyundai Elantra was stolen from a parking lot in Brewerytown in July, only to be found a week later on the side of a local highway.

The car Walker had been driving for three years was “in shambles,” Walker said, and the insurance company deemed it a total loss.

“I had that existential crisis moment where I was like, ‘Do I need a car or do I want a car?'” she said.

At the same time, Walker, 28, took a new, completely remote job as a project manager. The news sealed her decision: She took the nearly $15,000 insurance payout, putting some of the money into savings and using the rest to move from Brewerytown to Old City, and never looked back.

She no longer has to fork out $300 a month for her car payment and another $100 for insurance. When she recently moved to Old Town, she didn’t have to worry about securing a convenient and safe parking spot, which can cost at least $250 a month in private lots.

The benefits of Walker’s new lifestyle aren’t just financial, they’re mental and physical as well.

“My car, it was a complete crutch,” Walker said. “Now that I’m forced to walk, I’m seeing more of the city than before.”

It feels like she’s “seeing the sun more often” with regular jaunts to judo class, fitness in town and social gatherings, she added. For longer outings that require taking the bus, “it’s more time for me to be zen or read a book on the way there.”

After a nationwide surge in car purchases at the height of the pandemic, there are signs that some Philadelphians like Walker have made the decision to ditch their cars in recent years, bucking larger trends.

In 2022, more than 638,000 passenger vehicles were registered in the city, about 24,000 fewer cars than were registered here the year before, according to the latest state data. This represents a 3.6% drop in registered vehicles during a period when the city’s population fell by 1.4%, the largest one-year decline in 45 years.

The latest registration data was captured before the price of car ownership skyrocketed.

» READ MORE: Philly has biggest jump in average cost of car insurance in country in 2024

In 2023, drivers who owned a new car paid an average of more than $12,000 a year, an increase of more than 13% from last year, according to AAA, which accounted for the costs of car payments, gas, maintenance and insurance.

In the past year, car insurance premiums nationally have far outpaced inflation, rising an average of 20%. Residents in the Philadelphia area told The Inquirer last month that they have recently been quoted rates up to 100% higher than what they were paying before. A recent Bankrate report found that Philadelphia-area residents paid an average of $4,753 a year, and the region saw the largest increase of the 26 major metro areas last year in terms of average costs of comprehensive coverage.

What do you gain by going without a car?

So far across the country, the rising cost of car ownership “doesn’t seem to affect whether people are buying or what people are buying,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate. “A much longer-term trend is that American consumers have increasingly moved away from smaller compact vehicles to larger SUVs and trucks.”

Meanwhile, Philadelphia consistently ranks among metro areas with the lowest car ownership and is recognized as one of the best cities to live without a car (though historically not all neighborhoods have the same access to public transportation).

Some residents like Walker also cited a psychological cost to car ownership in the city. Even before she became one of the tens of thousands of residents whose cars were stolen last year, she was constantly worried about her car. And residents who choose to park on the street — which is free in some areas and $35 a year in others — may have a hard time finding an open spot depending on the neighborhood and the time of day they’re coming home.

Of course, the ease of driving and parking in the city is all relative.

“Philly is really hard to have a car,” said Pascale Questel, 30, a copywriter who moved to Brewerytown from Florida three years ago. Every time she walks her dog, she checks her Honda, which she parks in the driveway, and her Hyundai Elantra was stolen last year.

Last year, Leo Walsh, 31, of West Philadelphia, sold his Subaru Forester, a car he said he felt had become “an extension of me.” He had even lived out of it for three months on a single road trip.

He suddenly realized he was using the car with the slightest discomfort, including trips to Trader Joe’s a few miles away or on rainy days when he didn’t feel like biking or walking in a stroller.

He didn’t end up getting cash for his car — it was a 2004 and needed work — but he’s saving on insurance, gas and maintenance. And there’s also an “immeasurable” benefit: How it feels every day to see the faces of passers-by as you cycle past them, or to end your journey by thanking a conductor instead of closing the car door alone.

“I’ve fallen more in love with the city now, just riding my bike and getting to know all the streets,” said Walsh, who works for Jawnt, a technology company that provides transit benefits to some city employers. “You just don’t get that in a car. You’re in your own little bubble.”

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