Kathy Harget

Kathy Harget sold her car and has been living an auto-free life for 5 1/2 years, using bike, public transit and Zipcar to get around. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun / July 27, 2011)

Kathy Harget can afford a car. In fact, she used to own one.

But the 39-year-old Hampden woman decided those wheels were a luxury she could do without. She sold her vehicle and has been car-less ever since — relying on a combination of bicycling, walking, public transit, friends' cars and short-term car-sharing through Zipcars.

"I didn't know how long I would last, but it's been six years, and I have every intention of continuing to live a car-free life," she said.

Harget is among about 43,000 Baltimore workers 16 or older without a car in the household, according to the U.S. census. While many of them have little choice in the matter because of low incomes, others have decided that even an affordable car is an unnecessary expense.

While Baltimore lacks the world-class public transit system that makes a car-free life a relative breeze in such cities as New York and Washington, changes in the past few years have made it easier to live and work here without wheels. That includes the launch of the free Charm City Circulator bus system in January 2010, the spread of Zipcars from college campuses to the community last summer and an increasingly bicycle-friendly stance on the part of city transportation officials.

For the most part, Baltimoreans who are car-free by choice say their motivation is part economic, part philosophical.

A big part of Harget's decision to go car-free was her desire to have a "low-carbon life" that includes shopping at public markets for locally produced foods. She said about 75 percent of her local travel is by bike — putting her in the 0.5 percent of Baltimoreans who make that their primary means of commuting. For other trips, she takes the No. 27 bus and uses a Zipcar two or three times a month.

"I try to look at all aspects of the way we live our lives and try to live in the most low-impact ways," she said.

But Harget also has been saving a bundle on car payments, insurance, parking fees and maintenance. She tracked transportation costs rigorously for her first six months without a car and found that her spending had been cut by 50 percent.

Saving money was the No. 1 reason that Chris Merriam of Remington decided to sell his car two years ago. He figures he's saving about $4,000 a year — and avoiding a lot of frustration.

"I do not miss owning a car at all," he said. "Selling it was one of the best decisions I ever made, and really it changed my life for the better."

Merriam, 29, grew up in a very car-oriented section of Towson. But as he was starting graduate studies at Morgan State University in 2009, he decided that doing without a car would be "quite educational."

One thing he's learned is that being car-free doesn't cramp his style.

"Very rarely does my social life suffer," Merriam said, adding that most of his friends and favorite activities are within two miles of his home. "If something is farther out, I'll generally know someone who's driving, or I just won't go. Zipcar is a good ace in the hole, but it gets pretty pricey after a couple of hours."

Merriam commutes to his job in Washington by MARC train. For local travel, he relies on bicycle, Maryland Transit Administration buses and the occasional cab. He'll use a Zipcar for heavy shopping at Target or Ace hardware. To visit his parents in Towson, he takes a No. 3 bus, and they pick him up at a bus stop.

All in all, he says, "it's completely worth the fairly insignificant trade-off in mobility."

Paul Cavalieri, another car-free Baltimorean, has a much shorter commute than Merriam. He works at the Race Pace bike shop off Key Highway in Federal Hill and lives directly behind the shop, putting him among the roughly 18,000 city residents who walk to their jobs.

Around town, his primary means of travel is — naturally — bicycle. He said that for routine trips to the grocery store a few times a week, there's no problem fitting a couple of bags into his bike rack.

Cavalieri, 30, grew up in the car-dependent suburbs of Raleigh, N.C., but became used to getting around by bike as a student in Boulder, Colo. "It's a great way to get exercise, and it's a great way to see the area," he said.

Cavalieri's household isn't 100 percent car-free because his fiancee is a vehicle owner. He's confident they could get along without owning a vehicle, though they would occasionally need to borrow a vehicle or rent one from a provider such as Zipcar.