This year, my work study job is leading campus tours for prospective students visiting for admissions interviews. One question that I consistently get is, “Should I bring a car to Chicago?” As easy as the question sounds, I have such a hard time answering it, and here is why.
I own a car that I still make payments on, but I don’t even keep it with me in Chicago. That sounds stupid, right? Well, it is not that simple. It’s part of my “Let’s be creative with money while I’m in optometry school” plan. I’ve always had a vehicle in high school and undergrad. In college, I was that person who took four or five carless people for weekly grocery store runs. At the time, I remember thinking, “How do they live without a car?” In the four years between graduating from college and entering ICO, I was working and I acquired an awesome Honda Civic coupe (I call her Miss Galaxy, after her color, galaxy grey). In addition to getting a fantastic 33 miles per gallon, I now also had a car loan. On top of the loan payments that my student self couldn’t afford, there are additional expenses that go along with maintaining a car. My creative plan involved keeping the Civic with my Milwaukee-based fiancé, who drives a Ford F-150 (14 MPG). To save some money on gas while visiting me down in Chicago–we’re talking almost 200 miles of driving every other week–he drives Miss Galaxy. With the gas money he saves by driving my car for these visits, as well as routine driving in Milwaukee, he contributes extra money to my car payment–meaning he pretty much pays for the car that I can’t afford. And, I’m able to access my car for those few times each quarter when it’s necessary, and have it available when it’s time to go out to externship sites during fourth year rotations.
When my fiancé recently traveled to the East Coast for an extended work trip, he asked me if I wanted the car back full-time for a month. I’ve missed the freedom and flexibility a car can provide so I jumped on the opportunity. I ran a mini-experiment on how much more I would love or hate my life in Chicago when I’ve got a car versus my normal life without one.
Week 1: Four-wheel Joy
The first day I had the car, I woke up in the morning and realized that I could have a sit-down, 10-minute breakfast in place of the time that I usually spend waiting for the bus to get to school. So I did. It was great. I drove to school from my South Loop studio apartment and it took me four minutes. Four minutes! I think I passed at least two or three buses that I would have potentially taken. As the week went on I picked up some secret parking tricks, like learning that meter payment ends at 6 p.m. on the street next to my apartment building, whereas it doesn’t end until 9 p.m. on the street in front of the building. I went to school in the morning and got home around 6 p.m. to park for free overnight. Based on the first week’s experience, I started wondering why I didn’t keep my car in Chicago, when it saves me so much time to do everything.
Week 2: Paranoid Much?
When I’m paranoid, which is not very often, I am unbearable. I was paranoid the second week of having my car, because we finally got our first big snow storm. The City of Chicago is notorious for towing cars off the street when there’s more than a certain amount of accumulation. While towing most often happens in neighborhoods on the North Side (Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Bucktown, etc.), it can also occur on some side streets downtown and on the South Side. I remember sitting in clinic one day eavesdropping on a third year student’s conversation. She’d just had her car towed in the morning and had to pay $150 cash to get it out. The moral of the story was that even though this could happen to her two or three times a year ($450 annually), it was still cheaper than paying an extra $200 per month for an indoor parking spot in her apartment complex ($2,400 annually). Something really interesting to think about.
After spending about two hours searching for a sense of security, I decided that there was no way I would take my chances on having the car towed overnight–$150 and time to retrieve the car at an impound were two things that I did not have to spare. I ended up consulting our awesome security staff and got access to park my car in the ICO garage during the night of the heaviest snowfall. Students who drive a car every day of the year are encouraged to purchase garage access. It ends up being about $2 a day when you pay for the whole year’s worth (which is the only option). If you have a guest visiting you at the Residential Complex, they can get permission from security to park their cars safely in the garage free-of-charge for the duration of their stay.
Week 3: Parking Ticket Scare
Even after the snow had melted, I wasn’t out of the woods as a Chicago driver. Leaving for school at 8 a.m. and staying until 6 p.m. to avoid paying for the meter on the street got really old really fast. By the third week, I started to drive home around 3 or 4 p.m. and utilized the parking meter services ($2 per hour). Paying $6 to come home a little earlier did not sit well with me, but it was nice to have the option. One day, after pulling another all-nighter for the 8 a.m. Ocular Disease exam, I decided enough was enough. I came home at noon and went straight to bed, as I always did following an all-nighter when I lived in the RC. The only problem was that I can only pay for three hours of parking at the meter. When I woke up from my “quick” nap, I was already 17 minutes into being parked illegally. I grabbed my wallet and ran out of my building to where the car was parked to find a parking attendant writing a ticket two cars behind mine. Parking tickets range from $60 to $100 depending on the violation. To think that I was two seconds away from saying good-bye to $60 was scary and something that I did not want to experience ever again.
Week 4: Good-bye Miss Galaxy… It’s Been Real
Having Miss Galaxy for a month was so much fun but also extremely stressful. As part of my experiment, I cancelled my CTA pass ($100 per month) and purposely stayed away from public transportation for the whole month to compare my costs after paying parking meters, tickets if there were any, and gas expenses. Driving the car back and forth from school is convenient and such a time-saver, but only if there’s reliable parking at both school and home. A typical rental spot goes for $150 to $200 per month, and the school parking garage will cost approximately $650 per year. My monthly expenses–without any parking tickets, fortunately–were around $120. So, without considering car payments and insurance and parking spot rentals, and just taking into account gas and meters, it’s still more expensive to drive than to rely on public transportation. When my fiancé returned from the East Coast to pick up the car and drive back to Milwaukee, I acted sad but I was really thinking “Thank god, finally.”
So there it is: my four-week experience with a car in the middle of Chicago winter!
PROS: saves time; convenience for school commuting and grocery shopping; easier to attend off-campus events (volunteering, vision screenings, local conferences); the occasional trip to the suburbs to check out a new coffee shop or study place is possible
CONS: cost of living increases; headaches (broken windows, stolen car parts); finding parking; possibility of parking or traffic tickets; paying for expensive Chicago gas; dealing with Chicago traffic