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.
People like Harget, Merriam and Cavalieri have enabled Zipcar to grow from 40 vehicles stationed around the city and nearby college campuses last summer to 100 a year later.
Regional general manager Ellice Perez said business in Baltimore is "really going well" since the company launched an off-campus service to match its presence at several local colleges in June 2010.
According to Zipcar, a recent survey showed that 18 percent of its Baltimore members — which it calls "Zipsters" — have sold their cars since joining the service. It said 46 percent have avoided buying a car.
Zipcar positions vehicles in parking lots and on-street spaces around the city. Some of the street spaces are reserved for Zipcar under an exclusive agreement with the city. Users can go online to determine where cars are available and make reservations.
Rates for members, who pay an annual fee and an enrollment charge, are as low as $7.25 an hour, depending on the vehicle's gas mileage. Gas and insurance costs are included, and there is a gas card in each vehicle that lets members fill up at Zipcar's expense. Renters are required to leave the gas tank at least a quarter-full.
So far, Zipcar services are concentrated in downtown, at campuses and in some of the city's trendier neighborhoods such as Federal Hill, Canton and Charles Village. Vast swaths of the city and surrounding counties remain virgin territory for short-term car-sharing services, but Perez said Zipcar plans to expand to meet demand.
The Zipcar fleet ranges from small hybrids such as the Toyota Prius to light pickup trucks suitable for hauling. Perez said the company uses only vehicles that get at least 28 miles per gallon.
From the city administration's point of view, Baltimore can only gain from car-sharing programs.
Tiffany James, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Parking Authority, said Zipcar has completed one year of a three-year contract. When the contract expires in 2013, the city can extend it or open it up to competition. Until then, she said, there's nothing precluding rival companies from entering the market and using private lots.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said recently that Zipcar's expansion has helped limit the number of cars in the city.
"We've shown that by working together, the city and Zipcar can make a positive impact on city life for our residents and businesses," she said in a prepared statement. "Fewer cars on the streets means less competition for limited parking spaces. It means fewer vehicles in rush hour traffic. And it means less pollution in the air."
For now, Zipcar has a near-monopoly on short-term, community-based vehicle rentals. But that could change. Rental giant Hertz has launched a car-sharing business, Hertz on Demand, which advertises cheaper rates and no fees. So far, according to its website, the only local Hertz on Demand site is at the University of Maryland campus in downtown Baltimore
According to Hertz, there are no current plans to expand beyond the campus, but Tony Green, university transportation demand management coordinator, said the three cars stationed there are getting plenty of use. Within the next few months, Green said, he expects to launch a pilot program in which students in the professional schools will use Hertz cars for off-campus clinical work.
Green was just about to go into an orientation session, and he planned to tell incoming students they may not need cars. "One of our pitches to them is you really don't need a car here," he said. "We have cars available."
Also helping to reduce the demand for individually owned cars is the Charm City Circulator. That's how Amy Hollomon, 27 — who sold her car two years ago — commutes to her Federal Hill office from the home she shares in Station North with her similarly car-less fiance.
"I was spending money I could be saving and using for other things," she said. "Parking was always a challenge if you didn't have a reserved spot."
Hollomon figures she and her fiance save about $400 a month by going car-free.
When Hollomon's not getting around on the Circulator, she uses MTA buses and light rail. About two or three times a month, she and her 34-year-old fiance, Brian Rogers, rent a Zipcar to do some shopping or visit family in Pennsylvania or Southern Maryland.
Hollomon said doing without a car took some getting used to.
"At first I was a little nervous about it, but it just takes a little extra planning on our part," she said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Chris Merriam's name. The Sun regrets the error.