This is 30: On going car free

People go car free for many reasons –– climate, savings, lifestyle. For Chris Balish, Metro’s Director of Internal Communications, the decision was accidental. Read on to learn how trading in his SUV led to a book contract and a new career.  

By Chris Balish

Car-free living –– an experiment that paid off.

I’m living proof that even hard-core car lovers can change their ways and go car free – to the enormous benefit of their bank account, their health and their quality of life.  

Before I moved to the Los Angeles area, I was living in St. Louis and working full-time as a TV news anchor for KSDK, the local NBC affiliate. 

Back then I was driving a shiny new Toyota Sequoia with a big V8 engine and enough seats to fit all my friends. It was expensive, but I thought my status as a TV news anchorman necessitated an impressive ride and a flashy image. So I paid the price. 

I was addicted to my car. I drove about 15,000 miles a year. I drove to work, to the supermarket, to the big box stores, to the dry cleaner, to the gym, and about twice a week to the gas station. Whenever I needed anything, I just hopped in the SUV and sped my way there. 

But every time gas prices shot up, I felt acute pain in my wallet. The huge V8 engine in the Sequoia guzzled fuel so fast I thought there must be a leak in the gas tank (there wasn’t). I decided to sell the SUV and downsize to something smaller and more fuel efficient. I was astonished when the very first person who came to look at my Sequoia purchased it on the spot.  

For the first time in my adult life, I was without a car. I was terrified!  

How would I get to work? 

How would I get to the store? 

Would I die of starvation?  

What would become of me? 

I got on the computer and typed the words “public transit” and “St. Louis” into Google. The first website that came up was I clicked and landed at the home page of the mass transit system for the greater St. Louis area.  

That Sunday, I went for a trial run to see if I could get to work on the St. Louis Metro. Sure enough, it was simple, easy, convenient, air-conditioned, clean, safe, and on time. Plus, I brought a book with me and read it during the trip.  

Over the next few weeks, I rode the metro to work every day.  

Secretly, I was enjoying this car free experiment. But I told all my friends I was still shopping for a car. Truth is, every time I saw a TV commercial showing a sexy sports car zooming down a deserted highway, I felt the lure of car ownership beckon. 

When I got my next bank statement, however, my entire outlook on cars changed. My balance was $800 higher than I had expected.  

Sure enough, that $800 was the same amount I had been spending on my car every month. I discovered a universal truth: every car – from luxury sedans to subcompacts, new or used – comes bundled with dozens and dozens of different expenses that siphon cash from your wallet faster than you can say “late fee.”  

I was saving a lot of money just by going car free. I began to invest. I became debt-free. I also noticed I had more free time. I found it easier to relax. I was sleeping better. I had lost 15 pounds because I had so much free time, I learned to cook healthy meals at home, and I rarely ever ate fast food. I made new friends on my commute. And I was getting work done during my commute. 

With so many advantages to not owning a car, I kept postponing the purchase of a new one. Until one day I realized, I don’t want to own another car.  

Balish at his new gig.

I began reaching out to other car-free people and saw that they were loving it as much as I was. I decided to write a book about how to live without a car to inspire others to save money and help save the planet. I spent six months writing every night after work, and my book was published by Ten Speed Press in 2006. I spent the next year promoting the book and car-free living on news media such as NBC’s Today show, NPR Morning Edition, Newsweek, Forbes, and The New York Times. 

Years later, I was thrilled when the opportunity came up to work for Metro because I am a true believer in public transportation. I walked into the interview with a copy of my book in my hand. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Looking for tips on living your best life without a car? Grab a copy of Chris’s book here! 

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5 replies

  1. Surprising this forum allows for political comments. Only one so far though. 🙂

  2. I went car-free back in 2006 when I turned in my ’86 Pontiac T-1000 (a Chevette with a Pontiac nameplate) to the California Vehicle Retirement Program for $1,000 (is that still a thing?) for all the reasons Chris Balish relates: reducing my climate and air pollution, shredding the cost of transportation, getting more exercise — but also because with severe osteoarthritis driving my (more efficient) stick-shift (or any) car, and just getting into and out of an automotive vehicle (some too low, some too high), just hurt too damn much. Lucky my full-time work days ended around then too.
    The growing stress and danger of driving in America also pushed me out of driving, as I contended in my little car with the impatient, fast, aggressive drivers of the increasingly oversized guzzlers — most of them pickups, largely enabled by the mostly-Republican 1990s carve-outs from fuel efficiency standards, viz. Senator Jesse Helms’s (R) “Pickup Protection Amendment.” (Btw, check out high-vehicle “optic flow.”)
    Reading, writing, thinking, and (more often as the years passed:) editing my digital IP whilst in transit (in transit!) is another great benefit of going car-free.
    Older Metro patrons like me pay a measly 35 cents off-peak and 75 cents on-peak to cover some major miles — making car-free the equivalent of a free-car!
    Another reason to go car-free, if you’re the public-spirited environmentally-concerned creative type (ahem, like me) is the opportunity to observe public transportation from within, and come up with some good ideas (which I have, and have shared) on ways to improve and promote this essential component of the civilizational challenge of halving climate emissions by circa 2030 — which at this summer’s end will lie just 76 months hence. There are a lot of people who are not using public transportation in L.A. and across this country whose locality, physicality, and life circumstances enable them to do so but haven’t realized it yet; they need to get on board! Herein a new Spirit of ’76? (Not the gas stations!)

  3. Okay, before I proceed. Yes I will agree, for those with family/kids, public transit especially in the USA is just unsafe, unreliable and just all out difficult to make a reality. Mind you, with my friends in Japan who have a family, they drive almost full time with the exception of meeting friends in the city. Yes, public transit and family responsibilities is a universal complication and there is nothing wrong with that. For those purposes, a car is a much more superior option and no one should be knocking anyone for that.

    Now with that being said, LOL!!! You know it’s a first world problem when someone is single, no kids or dependents that require and somehow gets anxiety for leaving the car behind even though elsewhere it’s a part of everyday life.

    However considering the drug/homeless problem that has plagued the system, I will say that anxiety and fear is very well justified.

  4. Millions of people cannot physically do this. Lucky you, turning it into a government job.

  5. When you have dependents to care for, kids and/or elderly, when you have endless tasks regularly, with multiple destinations to have to go to on the same day, all of these on top of working full-time, it is impossible to rely on public transit in LA.

    If you live solo, and the above does not apply to you, then of course you can do car free.