Modern Family: Four (Wheels) is Enough

Living among us in Baristaville are more than a few families leading happy, fulfilling lives… with one car. With the incentive of green benefits — both a reduced carbon footprint and cost savings – it can be done, especially in towns peppered with bus stops and train stations. The three most important factors are, of course, location, location, location. Flexibility and resourcefulness help, too.

My family moved to Montclair last summer, with two children, a dog, and two cars. We rented a house a block from a train station in Upper Montclair and soon noticed our second car sat in the driveway Monday through Friday and was driven only occasionally on the weekends. When six months later we bought a house a block from the Watchung Avenue train station, and the lease on our second car was running out, we decided to make a go of one car living. My husband commutes into Manhattan and rarely gets behind the wheel on weekdays.

The weekends require some slight juggling, but the biggest hurdle we’ve had so far was a Sunday morning when my daughter needed to be two towns away and my son had a birthday party a mile and a half from our house. The result? My son and I dressed for the weather (it was still cold) and endured the trials of a delightful walk. My husband and daughter picked us up at the end of the party two hours later. Had it been, say, pouring rain, we likely could have asked for a ride from someone also attending the party or—gasp—called a cab.

Cora and Adam Licht, of Maplewood, have had only one car for the last two years. Around the time that Cora decided to stay at home full-time with their three children, one of their cars was totaled in an accident. This accelerated their realization that with only one of them working outside the house, the second car was a luxury (Adam commutes by train and has a 10-minute walk to the station). The upkeep and insurance on their second car was upward of $5,000 a year, which they are now happy to put directly into their annual family vacation, more than worth the effort “of being more coordinated in our weekend driving,” said Adam.

In two years, the Lichts have had to rent a car twice. They spent about $150 total. When it comes to making do with one car, “the borderline of luxury and must-have is a matter of perspective,” he said.

The best-case scenario for living with one car is when one or both partners can walk to public transportation for the work commute, leaving only the weekends when two people even have the opportunity to get behind the wheel. But without the right location, it doesn’t always work.

When Aviva Patz and Tripp Reynolds first moved to Montclair seven years ago, they lived in Upper Montclair and both commuted into Manhattan. They had no need for a second car, and on weekends, “it made us very efficient running errands,” said Patz. But four years later, they moved across town, a mile from the closest train station, and Patz began working from home. She would often drive Tripp to and from the station, but with the arrival of one and then two daughters into the mix, it became more difficult. “If he had a late meeting, the kids would be asleep, so I sometimes had a neighbor stay at the house while I ran out to pick him up from the train,” she recalled. As soon as they got off the waitlist for a station parking permit, they became a two-car family.

The age and number of children in a family also affects the ease of one-car living. With two or more children, each with their own roster of friends and activities, things can get tricky. Anne-Sophie Roure and Steve McClendon live in Montclair and have three boys, ages 5, 7, and 9 (pictured above with Roure). They live across the street from a train station and Steve commutes into the City. They choose the boys’ activities carefully, so their one car can keep up with the logistics after school and on weekends. Roure often signs them up for sports, for example, with a friend with whom they can carpool if needed. An added hurdle to life with one car, Roure works part-time and has several evening commitments a week. “I need the car those nights, so the boys can’t have anything they have to be driven to,” she explained.

The couple recently looked into adding a second car, but the economics of it underscored that even with their scheduling dance, it’s worth sticking to one vehicle for now. Recently McClendon’s bi-weekly poker game fell on a night when his wife was at work. He left the kids with a sitter and got there on foot.

With so many residents moving here from New York City, having even one car is often one more than they’ve had before. Many narrow their house hunt to locales that will support a one-car lifestyle.

Yifat Susskind and Max Boehnel moved to Montclair in 2003 from Brooklyn, where they did not have a car. They chose a house two blocks from downtown Bloomfield Avenue, enabling them to easily walk to everything from the grocery store to the movie theater to their two children’s schools. A second car has never been discussed. In fact, at one point, they spent a few months with no car at all and were surprised how easily they got by. Occasionally, they borrowed a car from friends who have two.

“The funny thing was,” recalled Susskind, “other people were horrified that we didn’t have a car. I would watch the information sink in and see the person struggling to reassess our family, which appears typically middle class/professional, and yet, no car?”

They went back to being a one-car family, but within town they still get most places on foot or by bicycle.

For my family, it’s only been two and a half months, but so far so good. And my oldest child won’t have her driver’s license for about eight years. I’m told that can be a real game changer.

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  1. We’ve only had one car, and while one of our decision-making team (not me) wants a second car, I’m using my veto power for now. We may upgrade to a roomier model since two car-seats makes it very difficult to add a third adult or child to our excursions.

    I think a lot of what goes into the decision is what a family is already used to and how many conflicting activities children have.

  2. We have one car (car, not SUV, not VAN…). It can be challenging to coordinate, especially on weekends. We try to carpool when one kid needs to go in one direction and the other the opposite way. We rent a car maybe once every year or so when things get complicated. A lot cheaper than having a second car and second car insurance.
    And since in NJ kids can’t get their license until they turn 17, there is only a short time that they are home and driving.

  3. If you’ve got a family with children who have activities, and can’t afford two cars, you’re screwed. You live in SUBURBIA! How constraining on weekends, especially for working couples. “You can’t go to yoga class because my anger management class meets at the same time…” Seems like more rationalization at work here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of fuel efficiency, but no one is giving out merit badges for martyrdom. Give me a Subaru wagon anytime, but trying to shoehorn a family of normal sized adults and children into some of these micro mobiles is better suited for circus acts, 50’s era college pranks, or vacationing Europeans in Fiat Bambinos. People aren’t stupid either. There are only so many times that you can impose on someone else to drive your kids to soccer, kind of like the parents who view playdates as a babysitting service. Don’t think that anyone is buying the line that you’re saving the earth either, if you’ve got a Toyota Scion parked in front of a five bedroom victorian with no furniture in it.

  4. wow, deadeye…Clearly you need that anger management class 🙂
    I’ve always returned the favor when others have driven my kids places. Don’t make assumptions. And my normal sized family fits fine in a normal sized car. We can even fit a friend in back.

  5. It’s possible to live quite well in Mtc without a car at all. It’s just a matter of devoting more time in your day to getting around. Roy the Renaissance Man used to walk the 7 miles to Willowbrook and back.

  6. Is Roy the jaunty looking fellow in colonial garb and a tri-cornered hat sometimes seen in Upper Montclair?

  7. It’s Roy the Revolutionary Man and my husband saw him get on a bus last weekend.

  8. I see him all the time, Georgette. He is my doubles partner in tennis. He’s got a killer drop volley, but his serve isn’t worth a crap–his hat gets in the way.

  9. We downshifted to one car last summer, and it’s worked out fine for us. I saved a lot of money, and when I explained to my kids what I was planning to do, they were all for it, and help out by coordinating schedules. We also have a convenient-to-everything location, which is important.

  10. 2 cars is great. This is NJ. We drive and LOVE our cars. We have two, but three if you include the PowerWheels Jeep!

    2 adults who work, with neither able to commute? How do you do it with jus one?

    Not for me. I like my freedom!

  11. We have 7 cars. Well, it goes like this:

    My wife has a Jeep Cherokee Limited 4X4. That is hers.
    I have a Lincoln Town Car “LIMITED – EDITION” For shopping
    and schleping, it’s the Jeep. For wintertime, it’s the Jeep.
    Otherwise it’s the Lincoln when going out with other couples
    and for long(er) rides, or cruises.]
    Our 25 Y.O. bought his own car. It’s a Lexus IS-250 All Wheel Drive Sedan
    (I don’t like it! ~ Ya bump your head every time you enter. (Oddly, not when getting out! (??) The seats cannot compare to the Town Car.
    The trunk lid looks huge, open it up and the trunk is small.
    The other 4 cars are show cars, and only pretty much go to car shows.
    Ultra cheap insuranve, since they are limited to 500 miles a year
    A McLaren, a Mustang, a Mercury Capri High Performance machine.
    Come to the Bloomfield car shows on Wednesday eves (6 to 9). I am always there.
    We could never do with 1 or 2 cars. Besides, I like cars !!

  12. We’ve lived in Montclair for 31 years, raised three kids here and never had two cars. It never seemed to present a huge problem….having two cars seemed like it would be wasteful since public transit is so good around here.

  13. Sandy, you should write your own article entitled “Modern Family: 28 (Wheels) is (almost) Enough.”

  14. Our son works. He needs a car to get to work. oft times he works very late, as late as 11 PM

    With the severe winters (such as the past one) WE NEED A 4-WHEEL DRIVE – so we buy the original, a JEEP. The wife is 5 foot one inch and likes the elevated seating posistion they offer. If taken care of, a Jeep will last an easy 15 years. I bought the Lincoln for comfort and those long over the road trips. My 4 “Show Cars” all travel under 175 miles per year.
    We are not depleating the fuel reserves!

  15. We’re over the limit Roo. I just tallied up eleven bicycles in our family, including one tricycle and one that I ran over with my car and been meaning to repair for the past few years.

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