After nearly two decades with two cars, it starts with a forced shift to being a one-car family. Then it continues as sudden stimulus for an experiment: 60 days living and working in Seattle with two people, two jobs and said one car.
This isn’t speculation. It began when Volkswagen bought back my NOx-ious diesel Golf on December 21, 2016.
What was it like, day by day?
Wed, 21 Dec, 5:00 pm: Day 0
For more than four years, I kept it washed on the outside and vacuumed and uncluttered on the inside. It had no door dings, thanks to an obsessive parking regimen that had me finding spaces on the edges of lots, far away from building entries – a fact my Fitbit loved, and my spouse did not.
But now my 2012 VW Golf TDI 4-door hatchback, with a mere 16,586 miles on its urban-dwelling self, was parked in the service entry of Carter Volkswagen in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. For the last time. All because of one critical attribute that had drawn me to it, and been its downfall: “diesel.”
The origin behind what had been my first – and only – VW purchase disappointment went back to September 2015. Up to that point, I’d loved my purchase. I liked its fuel efficiency (32 mpg city, 44 freeway, in my real-life driving). I loved its sporty handling and how “torquey” it was, to use my sports-car-loving son’s terminology. I had done something my cheap nature would have never normally allowed when I purchased it: I went for the navigation package, with the moonroof. (I suspect it was because I figured that if I was ever going to have an automotive love interest for my mid-life crisis, time was running short.)
It drove well, it handled well, and was a delight to own. Until September 2015.
That’s when the news broke that my Golf had been cheating on me, and the planet. Its fuel efficiency and sportiness were all due to illegal emissions control software that, when the car sensed it was not being tested for emissions, turned itself off and spewed up to 40 times the legally allowable amount of NOx (nitrous oxide) into the atmosphere. If that weren’t bad enough, NOx was considered a trigger for asthma. As a child, I’d been a serious asthmatic, enduring dual injections each week and multiple hospital stays due to breathing problems.
The sporty love of my mid-life, in my mind, was just revealed to have conspired to kill my childhood self.
I’d followed the case closely and, when in October 2016 the court agreed to the buyback settlement, I jumped on it. I had already registered with the online portal in November 2015 for affected owners, getting a $1,000 goodwill kit ($500 in a VISA debit card to spend anyway I wanted, and a $500 dealer debit card to spend on service). Now I went back to the portal and, sequentially, filled out all of the required paperwork, all online. I even got two documents notarized, and uploaded them along with copies of my legal ID, the car’s title, registration, and more. At each step, faceless and nameless VW settlement humans (presumably) behind the scenes evaluated the application and allowed me to move to the next step. It was as painless as a legal process could be.
So here I sat at Carter VW, getting ready to sell the car back to Volkswagen. I could have opted to wait until some kind of a technological fix to its diesel dumping was approved, but VW’s own documents stated there was no guarantee it would ever happen or what it would mean to performance and fuel efficiency; it might be late 2017 or 2018 if it did happen. In the meantime, selling the car to anyone else would be a challenge and I still was killing my childhood self with every mile.
So, with all keys in hand and original floor mats in the car, I went inside.
The VW settlement rep, it turns out, didn’t work for the dealership. He was a contractor for Volkswagen, one of presumably hundreds deployed across the U.S. specifically to handle the buybacks at a rate he estimated of eight per day, per dealership. And he was busy. Like others, I’d made my appointment two weeks in advance.
The entire buyback process, in person, after all of the online submissions and paperwork, was equally painless. Fifteen minutes later, I had an emailed receipt and a promise the buyback money would be transferred into my checking account in three business days.
I asked him what would happen to my sporty Golf. “I don’t know,” he said. VW might keep those that were in good shape, like mine, he speculated, and repair them when a fix was available for resale. It might part-out the ones in bad shape (including those that people were purposely damaging before re-selling them back to VW in frustration, cars he said Volkswagen now was telling its buyback officers to refuse).
But he didn’t even know where the cars were being parked and stored after they left the Carter lot. They were, like inconvenient remnants of the Soviet era, for all intents and purposes “disappeared.”
Now off to an early dinner at Palisade, a favorite restaurant, to toast the memory of cute, sporty Golf.
Thu, 22 Dec 2016
Day one without a car. My wife, Dee Dee, and I had agreed to try life with just her car, a 2011 Toyota Prius, for two months to see if we really needed two cars. We suspected we did not need two. She now worked in Bellevue and took buses each day from Magnolia, a big change from when she worked in Federal Way. I worked out of a home office and, a few months earlier, stopped driving to the airport for business travel and started relying on Wingz and Lyft.
On the rare days she needed to drive to work, I’d see if a bus (a few routes ran near our home) or Lyft would work. Or simply walking.
Of course, now we were into the holidays and that sort of put the test period on hold. We’d see, and evaluate.
Fri, 23 Dec 2016
Earlier than expected, $25,816.73 appeared in my checking account from Volkswagen, via Chase electronic transfer. Considering that the Golf had cost me $28,757.51, it had set me back less than $1K a year to have use of a new VW Golf. Not counting insurance and fuel (maintenance had been covered under VW’s new car maintenance agreement).
The actual resale value of the Golf at the time I sold it back, according to Kelly Blue Book, was about $15,000 if in both excellent condition and purchased by a private party. VW had frozen the value at the September 2015 price, before the news of the diesel deception broke, at $19,025, and thrown in nearly $6,800 for what it called “compensation” and what I called “pain and suffering.” Not to mention the $1,000 in goodwill bucks.
All told, financially, it was a fair deal. If a sad one.
Doing more math, going forward Dee Dee and I estimated we’d save about $2,000 a year in insurance, fuel, and scheduled maintenance if we stuck with only one car.
Tue, 27 Dec 2016
First real-world one-car test: Getting to the Straight No Chaser concert at the Paramount. Dee Dee takes the bus from work in Bellevue. I drive her car from Magnolia and park. Meet downtown. Easy.
Thinking the reverse would have been straightforward, too (me taking bus from home, her driving from work). This is the one-car best-case scenario.
Tue, 3 Jan 2017
Second real-world one-car test: aborted. Dee Dee had an evening meeting in Bellevue and would have needed the car all day and night. I would have been car-less for heading to the gym for my workout.
But the previous Thursday, both of us came down with the severe cold going around Dee Dee’s office. She stayed home, so did the Prius, and so did my gym bag as two of the three of us recovered.
Wed, 4 Jan 2017
Hair cut at Fisherman’s Terminal this afternoon. Car is here, but weather — although near freezing — is semi-sunny. I decide to pretend I am car-less, do the one-way walk in 30 minutes and don’t freeze solid, in both directions. Except for my nose hair, that is.
Thu, 12 Jan 2017
Three weeks later, and still no serious glitches. Yes, I had to reschedule an upcoming haircut when I realized I’d accidentally and automatically scheduled it the same day Dee Dee needed the Prius for both morning and evening meetings (and I didn’t want to count on good weather again, or spend on Lyft if I didn’t need to). But a one-car-to-rule-them-all philosophy was working fine, so far.
Still … today I signed up for ReachNow‘s BMW/Mini per-minute local car rentals. It looks like Car2Go, but with vehicles suitable for someone of normal height. ReachNow was still waiving the $39 registration fee, so why not? I download the app, create an account, upload a photo of my driver’s license (both sides), and feel empowered. Just in case.
It reminds me, coincidentally, of the VW settlement paperwork process.
Sat, 14 Jan 2017
Drive Dee Dee to her Ballard hair stylist. Sit in the waiting area. Writing this journal.
Sun, 15 Jan 2017
It’s become clear that weekends are not going to be an issue.
We have always tended to run errands together on the weekends. And any social activities tend to involve both of us. The rare occasion where one of us has to go somewhere on our own on a Saturday or Sunday (say, Dee Dee to a brunch with siblings, or me to rummage through our storage unit), the other usually stays at home.
This crosses my mind as we drive to the Seattle Symphony to hear Megan Hilty do show tunes.
Weekends are not a good test of our one-car experiment.
Tue, 17 Jan 2017
Holy crap. It’s pouring. Today would not have been a good day to a) take the bus or b) wait outside for Lyft or Uber, just to get to the gym in Ballard to work out. Prius rules.
Wed, 18 Jan 2017
I’m realizing that I’m still glancing at service stations looking for diesel prices. I need to stop doing that.
Thu, 19 Jan 2017
Dee Dee has an evening meeting. No car for me today. Stuck at home.
And it’s been raining since yesterday morning, to the point where my third-floor home office below the fourth-floor deck now has a ceiling leak.
Good thing last time it rained I’d stopped by Ace Hardware and picked up a tarp and tape, to replenish my emergency home maintenance supplies.
Otherwise, today would have featured either a mad dash to a nearby ReachNow car, or a call to Lyft, or a wet Metro bus ride just so I could get to a hardware store. I hadn’t factored in unplanned-but-critical trips in my one-car calculus.
So it’s a damn good thing I have a garage with two tarps, Gorilla tape, and two buckets so I can put plastic on the upper deck and buckets in my home office (to the simultaneous consternation and fascination of my cat) until a contractor can stop by on Friday morning.
Fri, 20 Jan 2017: Day 30
Half way through the one-car experiment. So far, so good.
As we did the night the Golf was bought back a month ago, we go to Palisade to celebrate. But only the first seating, prix fixe menu. After all, part of the reason for this experiment was also to see if we could save money.
Sun, 22 Jan 2017
Stopped by Carter Subaru in Ballard, just to take a look at the new Impreza 5-door, either the Premium or the Limited editions, since those non-base models have seat heaters (which Dee Dee misses deeply from the Golf) and a moonroof (ditto for tall me). Plus, Subaru has a new global platform for the Impreza, and we liked Dee Dee’s old Impreza Outback Sport that she owned before her current Prius.
Our cunning plan remains to see how we’re doing in another month, and if we can still get by with one car, sell the Prius (five years old, estimated resale value about $10K) and replace it with one new car for both of us, that mythical one car to rule them all.
The new Impreza feels sportier than the old one. Actually similar to my Golf, but not sure if that’s wishful thinking. We hopped into a Forester (too big, as it’s developed a gland problem over the years since I owned one), and a Crosstrek (on old Impreza platform, not the new one, so doesn’t feel as sporty, even though it’s higher-up than the new Impreza; plus, it gets crappier gas mileage).
We’ll see how things are going in another 30 days. But it may be Impreza 5-door time. And between the Prius resale value plus the Golf buy-back, we could be significant cash ahead.
Thu, 26 Jan 2017
First major glitch in counting on the bus.
Dee Dee was coming home from a work meeting in downtown Seattle this afternoon that wrapped up before 5pm. But … after waiting for a half hour … no buses. Twitter picks up the tale:
Not true. My wife walked from 3rd & Union up to Bell. Still no NB buses. Crowds. Were drivers not following reroute?
— Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) January 27, 2017
I finally give up, hop in the Prius, and drive the quick ten minutes to pick her up. By that point, she’d reached 2nd and Denny. And KC Metro was still tweeting that all was fine north of Union. Clueless.
I mean, if you can’t trust what you read on Twitter….
Sun, 29 Jan 2017
Success with the bus-instead-of-a-car routine. Friday night, I took the bus downtown to meet Dee Dee for an early evening Seattle Symphony performance, and we both took a bus back. Sunday afternoon, we took the bus to-and-from Cinerama to catch (car-infested) La La Land at the Cinerama. Nearly door-to-door service in both cases … if you time it right.
Pro tip: If you are running a quick errand and using an Orca card, as long as you get back on the bus within two hours of starting your trip, your return fare is free (or, apparently, an extra 25 cents if it crosses into a peak time). Not bad, and way cheaper than finding parking downtown for the same two hours.
Tue, 31 Jan 2017
First business trip since I began this experiment. Took Wingz to the airport with the driver who tends to accept my trips first. Can’t help but recall that it was the very first time I used Wingz, instead of my own car, to get to the airport that started me thinking about the process of automotive subtraction — looking at every way I could reduce reliance on a car for day-to-day needs.
It wasn’t the VW Golf buyback that began this process. It provided a timely trigger.
I expect I won’t have much to enter in the next two weeks, since this week’s Tuesday-Friday trip to Mobile, Alabama is immediately followed by a Monday-Friday trip to Las Vegas (not for fun). Weekends are always handled.
Mon, 6 Feb 2017
Sorry. Wrong phrasing: “Aaaaaaaaak! Snow day!”
Overnight, somewhat unexpected from forecasts of just a few days earlier, 3-4″ of snow fell in Magnolia. (It wasn’t the 14″ in the National Weather Service reported in Graham, but hey, we’re city dwellers. It only takes a tenth of much of anything natural, compared to country dwellers, to freak us out.)
No problem, I thought. I have a 4:40pm flight to Las Vegas for work (really, work). I have a Wingz driver picking me up at 2:10pm. Plenty of time for the snow to subside, and plenty of time for me to arrive before my flight, even in bad traffic.
Then the first text came from my regular Wingz driver. She lived in a rural area. She was snowed in. She had to cancel. She even sent a photo.
But, she assured me, Wingz central was finding me a new driver.
A couple of hours later, I got an email that another driver had picked up my ride. I even checked the Wingz app and it was confirmed. I texted him, but didn’t hear back. So I checked the app again, an hour later. It was back to “Pending Driver.”
Hmmm. I emailed Wingz central and received a note saying that, though I had two drivers confirmed and two canceled, they were still trying to find me someone. I suggested that perhaps they be as proactive notifying passengers of driver cancellations as they were of trumpeting driver acceptances. I was told development would take it under advisement.
I gave up and canceled my request for a Wingz ride from my end.
With just one car, and Dee Dee needing it for meetings during the week I was to travel, my options were limited. (She had stayed home to work that day because Bellevue snow was even worse than Seattle’s.) I could try to catch a bus to downtown, if I could ever decipher Metro’s Byzantine snow re-routes and emergency routes, and then take Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail to the airport (it was running smoothly). I could ask Dee Dee to drop me downtown at a Link station. I could take Lyft downtown and spare Dee Dee the driving hazard and catch Link. Or I could take Lyft all the way to the airport.
A quick check of Twitter found lots of people complaining about surge pricing from Uber and Lyft that ran 2x and 3x the normal rate. Even though my company would pay for it, there is a reason an Alaska Airlines boarding pass once printed my confirmation code as CHEAPO.
I thought I’d check Lyft. Fortunately, morning rush hour was over. Lyft was only charging a 25% premium in my neighborhood. And by the time I was ready to leave – a half hour later – it was back to normal pricing.
My Lyft driver was pleasant and said he lived near the airport (his wife turned out to be a flight attendant). Most of his morning fares had been people leaving the airport because their flights had been canceled.
I was fortunate. I made it to the airport and my flight, unlike those unfortunate others, left within 15 minutes of its scheduled time.
But having one car became almost more of a challenge today than it needed to be, since we didn’t have a spare we could simply drive, and leave, at the airport.
Wed, 15 Feb 2017
Tons of rain yesterday and today. Good thing Dee Dee didn’t need the car for work, since I wanted to go to the gym to work out both days.
I’m pretty sure without a car, and with the weather, I would have forgone the bus or Lyft and found a rationalization to stay home. Maybe even with daytime TV, fuzzy slippers, and chocolate bon-bons.
(And what about Valentine’s Day yesterday, you may ask? I’d stocked up on good champagne and had purchased premium carrot cupcakes from Whole Foods after working out. Being prepared is always critical.)
Sat, 18 Feb 2017
So, uh, car dealers have finally figured out how to screw up Internet buying, as I’ve discovered over the past week.
Our plan, to recap, as we close in on the two-month mark of one-car-ness, is to consider buying a new car to replace the remaining five-year-old Toyota Prius and stick with just one car. We’d settled on a Subaru Impreza 5-door with a Premium or Limited trim level. No, it’s not a hybrid or electric, but it gets great gas mileage, and the all-wheel-drive is important in inclement weather on our neighborhood’s steep hills.
In the past, I’ve gone to Consumer Reports and generated a new car report to get an idea of what a good price range would be. There was the option, after getting that good price range, of getting offers from up to three nearby dealers. I clicked okay.
I hadn’t recalled that I would have no say in selecting which dealers would make offers. Mistake.
Within five minutes last Saturday night, my phone was ringing. “I see you want to buy a car,” the sales piranha exuded. “Please let me know what make and model you want.” Wait. Hadn’t I specified that already online? I glanced up. My email inbox was rapidly filling with likewise clueless “offers” from dealers, spewing whatever they had to sell, not what I had asked to buy. After I disposed of that call, the phone rang again from another dealership. It was close to 9pm. I was a bit less polite this time in detaching the fangs before they could sink in too deeply.
What made it worse was that not a single one of the three that responded was a dealership I would ever do business with. They were largely, to my mind, bottom-feeders who preyed on the desperate with “no down payment” (and huge interest and fees) promotions.
This was a far cry from my first Internet buying experience for my Subaru Forester at the turn of the century: Quick, polite email response, exact offer amount on a car close to what I wanted, and a quick follow up. (That said, the later Prius buying experience didn’t go quite as well, did it, Toyota of Seattle?)
This latest experience was much worse. Car dealers have really learned to game the web. I should have expected that.
So, armed with the Consumer Reports price range and a subsequent more detailed (and free) report on MSRP and dealer invoice from Kelly Blue Book’s website, I went directly to my preferred Subaru dealer’s website, Carter, and submitted a request. Silence all weekend. By Monday afternoon, I figured something had gone wrong, so I submitted my request again. Finally, after a bit of confusing back-and-forth, I actually got a firm price for a couple of different acceptable options. I was on my way to replacing the Prius.
I wanted to party like it was 1999.
Sun, 19 Feb 2017: Day 60
TL; DR version of all of the above? Yes. The one-car experiment is a success. The VW emissions software scandal forced us to re-think our automatic reliance on the one-car-per-person model, and better leverage new alternatives (Lyft, Wingz) and old (bus). Time to head to Palisade again to celebrate a final time. And schedule that test drive of the Impreza to replace the Prius as our one car to rule them all.