I've decided to go carless in Detroit — and it's liberating

Randy Essex
Detroit Free Press
La Roja the Prius looks lonely on a Warren car lot, where her owners sold her into an unknown future.

Can you go motorless in the Motor City? By choice?

My wife and I, as downtown Detroit residents, are about to find out.

This wouldn’t work for everyone and it would have been extremely difficult just a few years ago, but for the growing number of empty nesters and pre-nesters living downtown, it’s becoming possible.

The notion isn’t radical. Many residents of cities such as New York and San Francisco have never had a car. But the auto industry born here a bit over a century ago made Detroit very autocentric and ultimately made Americans all think we needed to own vehicles.

Today, though, Detroit automakers recognize shifting demographics as people move back to cities and more Americans, particularly millennials, don’t want the cost and other burdens of vehicle ownership. An auto communications pro made the case to me this month that using only new vehicle sales to gauge the industry’s health will be an increasingly antiquated metric.

As a few examples, General Motors has expanded its Maven car-sharing program in a dozen cities. Ford offers Chariot commuting service in a few major cities. Both have partnerships with Lyft. Autonomous vehicle research gravitates toward shared rides rather than personal ownership. 

Read more:

GM's Maven matches millennials with car-sharing

Mark Fields: Why Ford's Chariot purchase made sense

When auto insurance cost for Detroit residents is beyond ridiculous, when Michigan roads threaten to cause hundreds of dollars worth of damage every time you drive and as parking costs downtown escalate, why own a car if there are adequate alternatives?

During my first stint at the Free Press and living downtown, from 2006-11, my wife, Angye, and I discovered that we didn’t need two cars. Since April 2006, we’ve been a one-car couple.

It’s worked fine, even during the 3½ years we lived in sparsely populated western Colorado, where a good bus system runs from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and a fabulous trail makes bicycle commuting a dream.

La Roja the Prius, Randy Essex's last car, suffered some bumps in life, the worst being when she was rear-ended in snow at the Continental Divide in Colorado.

We’ve had to be creative sometimes, but the bottom line of pulling away from America’s car culture a little bit has amounted to trading convenience for monetary and space savings. We didn’t expect this, but we also gained some togetherness. We simply spend more time together and talk a bit more.

Now, we are living downtown again, facing rent, parking and insurance rates much higher than six years ago.

After several weeks of testing alternative modes of transportation, from the People Mover and QLINE to Maven, ZipCar and Uber, we sold our only car a few days ago. Adding up the car payment, insurance and parking, we’ll save about $900 a month, not including gas and maintenance. Our alternative transportation costs will be much less.

Even the Motor City has changed enough to make this doable. With Whole Foods open and the QLINE operating, it’s easy to make a grocery run. My walk to work is a third of a mile. Even in the worst weather, it’ll be fine.

If we need to go to the suburbs to shop or visit friends, options include Uber or GM’s Maven at as little as $7 an hour. You can’t take a Maven to Canada, where Angye and I see a chiropractor and massage therapist, but we can take ZipCar for less than $12 an hour.

The biggest deficiency is a handy way to get to the airport, but carfare will be offset by not having to pay for parking.

This step does require some mental adjustment. 

To be sure, I’ve loved cars. My first car, bought with earnings from working when I was 14 and 15, was a 1963 Chevy Impala SS, which was 11 years old when I got my driver’s license. It was black, with the Impala logo on the speaker in the center of the back seat.

When I wrecked that sweet ride, I bought a ’66 Chevelle SS with a 396-cubic-inch engine. I remember my dad just shaking his head when he opened the hood.

Gas prices and college costs left me without a car for my freshman and sophomore years, and since then, I’ve gravitated toward the best fuel economy I could get. Our last two cars were Priuses. (Quick: What’s the plural of Prius? Answer: Whole Foods parking lot.)

Just for the Detroit record, I also owned a '74 AMC Hornet when I started my professional career. It was red once, but the paint was oxidized to a sort of Pepto-Bismol pink.

As a dad, I drove a ’95 Ford Escort wagon for eight years, till my son turned 16. It was, in so many ways, the perfect car for living in Des Moines, Iowa. And the airbags worked perfectly when my boy wrecked it a few months after getting his driver’s license, just as I had done with my Impala. Rite of passage.

Anyway, after owning 13 vehicles through the years, I feel a sense of liberation — not unlike when I first got my driver's license. 

Randy Essex oversees auto coverage, among other duties, at the Free Press. Follow him @randyessex; contact him at