March 16, 2015
One of the biggest obstacles to a job search in the United States today is the lack of a car. Only some of the country’s cities have good public transportation systems, and many rural areas are not served by public transit. Yet I was able to work and support myself until age 32 without a car. Here’s how I did it and some tips to consider if you venture into the workforce sans auto.
I got my first job when I was 15 at a summer amusement park. The company ran a bus service from my high school, and the route passed just a few miles from my parent’s house, which was in a remote area. One of my parents was usually able to drop me off and pick me up at the bus stop. Luckily my mother worked at a general store across from the bus stop, so she could wait for me, or I could go to work with her and wait until the bus came. Somehow we managed to make it work six days a week.
In college I lived on campus and worked at a dining hall. Walking to work was the same as walking to eat. At the end of each school year I would catch a ride for the five-hour drive south to Cape Cod, where I rented an apartment and worked in a sandwich shop. When I first moved there I looked specifically for jobs close to where I lived, and there were plenty of places looking to hire service help for the busy summer season. This was before the Internet. I found my job by going door-to-door and speaking to business owners. The bike ride to work was a pleasure, except on rainy days.
After college I moved to Boulder, Colorado, where I managed to make life work with only a bike. I temped a lot, and many businesses were outside of town. I would sometimes ride 20-30 minutes to an employer’s site. I was an avid runner and was probably in the best shape of my life. Winter was another story.
One winter I was lucky enough to have a job that was only a five-minute walk from my home. Another winter I tried riding the half hour to work in zero degree weather and ended up with frostbite, which had permanent consequences. My hands now have such poor circulation that they turn blue and go numb when it’s below 65 degrees. They also go numb in grocery stores after handling produce. If you live in a cold climate, find a job where you can take a bus or get a ride to work in the winter.
Moving to San Francisco opened up my job opportunities significantly. I chose to live in a neighborhood with access to public transportation. I had no problem finding a job downtown and worked for several different companies that were in or close to downtown.
In 2004 I was laid off from Levi Strauss. After several months of searching, the best job opportunity I found was at a company 25 miles south of San Francisco with no public transit option. I was so excited about this job that I decided I would find a way to make it work. I rented or borrowed cars to get to each of the three rounds of interviewing. Once I accepted the offer a friend who had a car but took public transit to work offered to let me use hers until I got one of my own. During the first week on the job I test drove cars every evening after work and made my purchase on that Friday night. Since I had a job and enough saved for a small down payment, it was easy to get a loan.
After 10 years of car ownership I can’t imagine how I did it all without one. It took a lot of ingenuity, planning and asking for help.
Here are some things you can do:
- Narrow your company targets. Look at bus maps, and use Google Maps to find businesses near bus routes that are convenient for you. Look for job listings at those companies and try to network your way in.
- Educate yourself before you apply. Look up the address of every company you apply to and calculate bus or bike commute times. Is it worth the trade-off a long commute for the opportunity?
- Look for bike routes and showers. If you’re a cyclist, find out which companies are on bike-friendly routes, and ask if there’s a shower on site.
- Rely on your community. Talk to your neighbors, and find out where they work. You might be able to find a job at a neighbor’s company or in the vicinity. Offer to contribute by paying for half of the gas in exchange for carpooling.
- Know your commute costs. In some cities you can buy a monthly transit pass. In others, you pay by the ride, and some rides can turn out to be costly. See if potential employers subsidize public transit.
- Look for employer-provided transit. Many companies in the Bay Area now have shuttles that run from the city of San Francisco to their Silicon Valley campuses. Others provide shuttles from transit stations. Read employer websites, and use your network to find out about companies with these options.