cars: love 'em, leave 'em, or rent 'em?

Matthew Arnison
January 2002

Sometimes it can seem like you can be an avid bike rider, or you can have a car, but not both.

After all, if you spend all that time and money (about $5000 a year on average - see CHOICE Magazine) keeping a car running (washing, parking, rego, insurance, repayments, depreciation, petrol, maintennance) it seems silly to use your bike too much because then you're wasting your motor money.

You could get rid of your car, yet there are certain things you can't do without driving one: trips into the bush, visits to friends and family who live a long way from the train line, carting really heavy stuff.

Short of waiting patiently for a more comprehensive range of sustainable trasport options, there is another choice, as I discovered after commuting to work by bicycle for a few years.

For me having a car was part of growing up in Sydney. But I found I was using my car less and less, especially after I got some nice big bike panniers to fit the shopping in, and some good wet weather gear. My four wheeled friend would just sit alone outside my house, watching with resignation as I spent more and more time on a beast with two wheels.

Unused for a week or more at a time, my car still cried out for regular injections of money. Given that I used it so rarely, I was finding that looking after it was a real drag.

Then one day I rented a car as part of an interstate trip for work. When I got home I realised I had a new option. I could sell my car, and yet still drive now and then. I could rent one!

For about $70 (including petrol) you can rent a nice new hatchback from a local rental chain, drive it around for the day, and drop it off the next morning. Even if you rent once a fortnight, that's still only $1750 a year. A big saving in your transport budget compared with $5000 a year for owning one. You could splash out on the odd cab fare, and still save money overall.

It takes a little extra time to go pick up and drop off the car, but then the rental firm does wash the car, buy replacement ones, handle rego and insurance and maintennace - which is a big relief - so overall you save time by not having to do those things.

If you ask nicely, the rental staff will let you put your bike in their shed for when you come back. Sometimes I find there's another bike there already, so it seems I'm not the only one cycling to the car rental firm!

If you're heading off for a week or more, the price per day can drop by half, so it's worth going a bit further to pick the car up if you can get a better deal.

There are some hidden bonuses to this crafty scheme. Because you don't have a car waiting outside, it's much easier to find creative alternatives to those unnecessary little car trips. Such short excursions are a big contributor to pollution levels, and besides, you usually spend half your time looking for somewhere to park!

Using a new car also cuts down on petrol and exhaust, and because you're sharing it with other renters, rather than tying up a parking spot for your very own, that frees up more space in the city for non-car things.

The main gotcha is insurance. If you have a smash, the excess is pretty steep (and I don't think damage to a third party car is covered at all if it's your fault) - after the hail storms it went up over $2000. You can drop it down by paying about $15 a day extra.

Other tricks: the insurance is void while you drive on dirt roads (renting a 4WD costs 2-3 times as much), and it's more expensive to rent if you're under 25.

It's been a few years now since I sold my car and started renting, and it seems to work pretty well. I don't need to worry about car hassles at all most of the time (well apart from getting hit by one when I'm on my pushbike), and when I do drive it seems so much more fun!

So now I own a bike, rent a car, and I love them both - in moderation!

As published in Australian Cyclist, p 16, May-June 2002.

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