In New York City, going car-less is the norm, but in Utah County, it’s a lot less common. One Provo family, though, has been proving it’s very possible — with a little bit of planning.
Karen and Joe Spencer have been carless for almost six years now. While some might think it’s environmental, or some sort of statement, for the Spencer family, it was purely financial. In late 2009, the family was living in Provo, where Joe Spencer had an internship while working as an adjunct faculty member. Money was very tight, and as Christmas approached, they came to a point where they had to decide to fix their one car or pay the rent.
“We also just found out I was pregnant with our fourth child, and the car didn’t have room for another car seat. So we sold it and paid the rent,” Karen Spencer said on a mild, sunny May afternoon.
After doing a little research, they found Joe Spencer could get where he needed by bus, and Karen Spencer and her three little children could walk to most errands.
“It went fine. We had to be creative, and we got a double stroller, and we learned to go to the grocery store more often and get smaller loads,” Karen Spencer said. “But shorter trips more often isn’t a bad thing with little kids.”
During that first winter, they were only six blocks from the Smith’s Food and Drug in Provo, and only a half block from a good park. It was a bit harder to get together with family and friends, but it worked.
Then Joe Spencer was accepted to a graduate degree program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Spencers wondered if, again for the sake of finances, they could continue to be auto-less.
“It took hours and hours of research, but Google Maps was my friend. With its ‘Nearby’ search, I finally found the one spot in Albuquerque that had a bus stop, a grocery store and a church building, all within a mile,” Karen Spencer said.
Karen Spencer had just started homeschooling her oldest before the move, so the family continued doing so. Without the car payment, insurance and upkeep for a family vehicle, she was able to remain home with the children while Joe Spencer attended school and worked. Karen Spencer and her kids could travel on the bus system there very cheaply, especially because kids rode free.
“For us, it was about having more time together as a family. To have a car, my husband would have needed another job, or I would have needed to work,” Karen Spencer said.
The family lived auto-less for almost five years in New Mexico until her husband finished schooling. He now has a job at Brigham Young University, and the family has grown to five children ages three to 12. Before the move back to Provo in May 2015, Karen Spencer again took to Google Maps to find a place within a mile of campus, two grocery stores, the library, multiple parks, and as a bonus — only half a mile from the Provo Recreation Center and Pool.
The Spencers have been full-time pedestrians since 2010, and see it as a lifestyle that has many benefits that, for them, outweigh the disadvantages. First and foremost is the lack of financial stress the family has enjoyed. In addition, with all the walking — and more recently — biking she and her kids do each week, Karen Spencer feels healthier. Her kids are also very healthy and rarely sick.
“It’s also, for my kids, a lifestyle. We’ve set up a pattern for them of healthy habits, but also looking for creative solutions. We’ve had many times where we had to sit down as a family and problem solve how to get from point A to point B. And usually we always find some way to accomplish it,” Karen Spencer said. “My kids love Frontrunner and Trax. They’d much rather be on the train for an hour than stuck in a car.”
Of course, there are downsides to walking and biking everywhere. During nasty days of winter, the family sticks close to home, or if necessary, they bundle up, grab umbrellas and brave the cold. Karen Spencer will acknowledge there are limitations on where they can go as a family conveniently, and their lifestyle does limit some social opportunities.
In fact, the biggest negative is her desire not to inconvenience other family and friends, arranging meeting times or trade-offs for rides to inconvenient locations. Also, in the past few months, as temperatures have warmed up, she’s gotten curious looks from strangers as she rides her cargo bike (an extra long bike with a huge bucket straddling the back tire) leading her gaggle of biking children. She’s even had strangers taking video and pictures of her family as they go riding by.
Now the family is at another turning point, as their income will make it possible to be car owners again this fall. But while money may no longer be the reason they are sans vehicle, they are still not excited to go back to that lifestyle. They plan to test out Uber and short car rental options before they commit to a vehicle.
“Even if we do get a car, we still want to remain car-less for everyday, day-to-day things,” Karen Spencer said.
Karen Spencer praises the county’s bus system for its convenience — more so than New Mexico. But she is frustrated that the price is often steep, since she has to pay for her kids as well. Even so, she also feels like there are many families like hers, especially in Provo, that could easily opt to be vehicle-less if they need to for financial reasons.
“You just have to realize it’s possible,” she said.