Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When you really need a car

Purists out there will cringe, but I find that sometimes I really need a car. It happens less and less as time goes on because our lives are increasingly integrated with the community within a mile of our home, but it still does happen sometimes. In the winter I don't always want to tackle a huge grocery shopping trip on my bike. We sometimes need to purchase items that are too large to fit on our bikes. We sometimes need to get to the hospital quickly.

So if you are carfree or are considering being carfree, you might want to know if there will be a car out there should you need one. There are four main avenues for finding a car for occasional use:
  1. Rent a car. A rental car can be a good option for taking a vacation or when you will need to use a car over multiple days. In our city (Cambridge MA), it is easy to bike or take public transit to a number of car rental agencies. You can shop for the best rates online, but keep in mind that taxes and other fees may apply, so read the fine print. In particular, you'll want to think about the issue of insurance. If you don't already have a car, you won't be covered by any insurance, and car rental insurance can really add to your daily costs. Some credit cards will cover you if you rent the car with their card; call your credit card company to ask about their policy. A good summary of insurance options can be found in this MSNBC article.
  2. Use a car sharing service. Car sharing services allow you to rent a car for a very short period of time. You can find a list of car sharing services on Wikipedia. Generally you pay an annual fee to subscribe to the service and an hourly fee to have the use of a car. You make a reservation online and then pick up the car and return it to the same permanent parking space. Membership in a car sharing service means that you can have a car available almost any time you want it. Here in Cambridge, we sometimes use Zipcar.
  3. Borrow a car (or share a car informally with friends). It can be great to borrow friends' cars from time to time. It is cheaper (and friendlier) than a formal car sharing service. If you are going to borrow your friends' cars, it is a good idea to set some parameters ahead of time (How often can you borrow the car? For how long? How much do you contribute for gas/repairs?) and then to check in periodically to make sure your friends are still comfortable with the relationship. Borrowing a car is a great way to build community and to avoid having to have your own car!
  4. Use a taxi. Taxis are expensive but they can be a simple way to get from one place to another!
As Bus Chick pointed out, the worst part about using a car when you are a parent is having to use a car seat. Whenever possible we try to do car trips without a kid (for instance, baby R has only been in a car on the way home from the hospital), but sometimes car trips with kids in tow are unavoidable. Here are our tips for each for handling car seats in each of the options above:
  1. Rental Cars. From what we hear, you don't want to take up a car rental company on any offer to include a car seat. Either the car seat won't be available, will be broken, or will be a substandard/outdated seat. Better to bring your own if possible. If it is not possible, look for tips from Delicious Baby. Rental cars should all be equipped with latch systems which helps when getting car seats in and out. Also, keep in mind that the laws about child seats vary by state (for instance, Massachusetts requires that children up to age eight be restrained in a car seat or booster seat). You should check the laws any time you are traveling to a different state.
  2. Car sharing. Most cars from a car sharing services will be newer and thus equipped with latch systems for car seats. Zipcar at least does not provide car seats and I haven't heard of any other car sharing services providing them.
  3. Borrowing a car. If you borrow from a friend with kids, you may get lucky and be able to borrow a car with a seat already installed. If your friend does not have a car seat installed, you'll need to know if the car has a latch system. If it does not, you'll have to use a seatbelt to secure the seat which means getting intimate with your car seat manual.
  4. Taxicabs. Taxi cab drivers often get crabby when they have to wait for you to install a seat. We had a driver tell us just to hold our infant on a lap and hold the car seat as well rather than installing it (we installed the seat anyway). In Massachusetts and some other states, children are not required to be in car seats in a taxi. You'll have to decide how important a car seat in a cab is to you, particularly as your child gets older. If you want to have your toddler ride with a seatbelt, there are tips here. That same site gives the advice that "Many parents find it helpful to ask the driver to start the meter immediately and also to hand him a dollar right away (just factor this into the tip at the end) – this might show him that you respect his time and pacify him as you take the minute to install the baby's car seat." I advice you read the whole advice section from the car seat lady to help you make the best decision.
Also, I can't recommend it because I haven't tried it, but the Travel Vest certainly seems like a great idea. It's a more portable option for when kids are the right age for a booster seat. If anyone has tried it, please let us know in the comments!


inkandpen said...

We are enthusiastic zipcar users, and have been stewing on this problem for when the kid comes. Thanks for the rundown of options!

Bus Chick said...

My experience with rental-car car seats (admittedly only one—on a trip to a funeral in Alabama) was awful. My daughter was only seven months old at the time, and I didn’t feel at all comfortable having her ride in the piece of junk they passed off as an “infant” seat. I’m sure that some companies are better than others, though.

The life vest thing seems like an interesting idea. Our daughter is a long way from being big enough to use it, but it’s nice to know it’s an option.

P.S. - I love having a community of car-free parents to share ideas with!

Bus Chick said...

I have another question that’s (sort of) related to this post. You mentioned that you’re using a car less and less frequently as you start to do more of your business in the neighborhood. We’ve gotten pretty good at that as well. We’ve also gotten pretty good at using transit for almost every conceivable need. (I still wish that we were better about using bikes, but I can’t get over my fear of riding in traffic. Working on it.)

The biggest driver (pun intended) of car use for us is visiting friends. My family lives in the city, and so do most of my old friends. I, do, however, have one or two close friends who live outside of bus range; my husband has several. (They, like him, are mostly transplants from Detroit. Unlike him, they all decided to move to huge houses in the suburbs and exerbs).

I like to reciprocate visits to friends and not always have them come to us, but renting a car just to go sit in a girlfriend’s living room is not something I’m going to go every week—or, for that matter, every month. Most of my husband’s friends have kids, and they are forever having baby showers and birthday parties and Super Bowl parties and et cetera. Sometimes we can take the bus to these events, but these are two-transfer rides with long wait times and infrequent service. Not a good use of time. Many times, we cannot take the bus to these events and so either have to rent a car or skip the trip.

We’re making new friends in our neighborhood, but that doesn’t really eliminate the need for us to visit old ones. If anything, it just adds to our “friend visit” obligations.

So, after all that, my question is: Do any other car-free parents have this problem, and if so how do you handle it?

Anonymous said...

Regarding taxicabs - in Cambridge, at least, drivers are required by law to give you five minutes to get yourself in and seated before they start the meter. We are dreading the move to a convertible seat, but with the infant bucket seat I could easily get the baby into a cab in five minutes or less.

truck rental said...

This article is amazing! And the tip about the baby-seat is very useful, we just got ourselves a brand new baby :) and would love to go visit the grand parents in a rental car soon :)