It seems that (?:Life|The (?:Universe|World|Gods)|God) want[s] me to obtain a private motor vehicle for transportation, and will not be satisfied until I have done so. I give in. I'm going to start looking at cars. [Apologies for the mixed-usage here; it made sense to me when I was writing it.]
Any suggestions for affordable, fuel efficient, maneuverable, reliable, maintainable, quiet vehicles would be appreciated. (I'm pretty sure I want a small car, probably a hatchback. Probably used. I'll definitely consider hybrids if they've become reasonable on the used market. I've concluded that road noise is pretty important to me, as I'd like to be able to listen to music/books on disc/talk podcasts without hurting my ears. I already know that I have a strong preference for manual transmission if the car needs a transmission.)
The most obvious factor contributing to this decision is the commute. Without it I might be able to convince myself that renting cars for the weekend whenever I want to go somewhere spontaneously is more cost-effective than car ownership. However, my walk/train/train/walk commute is more of a nightmare than I'd planned. It takes a bit in excess of an hour and a half to go each way, of which just a little bit less than 44 minutes is occupied in a single continuous train ride, and a good 20-30 minutes is spent walking in whatever the weather happens to be. This commute could be drastically improved by purchasing a folding bicycle and taking it with me on the train (full bicycles not permitted on the tiny portion of my trip which is in the commute direction during rush hour), turning that last bit of walking into a bicycle ride. However, having now tested it out, the drive is somewhere in the 30-45 minute range. I observe that this amount of time is approximately equal to the amount of my commute spent not sitting in one place on a train where I could do something useful. This means that getting a car gives me approximately the same amount of "wasted" time (either driving, or walking/transferring trains/bicycling), and converts almost an hour and a half of sitting on a train time into the same amount of completely free time. A significant gain.
The other part has to do with my trip to D.C. for New Year's. As you probably know, I love going to visit friends, and I value the ability to go do it on little to no notice. While D.C. is actually one of the few cities in range for a spontaneous trip without a car (Chinatown Bus via NYC, or possibly plane if there's a suitable replacement for independenceAir?), driving down there reminded me just how valuable it is to have car access for this sort of thing. With a car, destinations which would require significant planning (like Poughkeepsie and Ithaca) become a lot more available, cities like D.C. and Baltimore probably become easier to get to, and places like New Haven, Westchester, and New Jersey become much less of a hassle for spur-of-the-moment trips.
The bottom line is that I've tried the car free lifestyle, and I can do it, and even be happy while doing so. However, with my friends flung far and wide as they are, a car is a very useful tool to improving my quality of life. Plus it'll make my current commute much more pleasant. The part of me which sometimes thinks that way is inclined to wonder if I was denied those other jobs I applied to in order to force me to get the car (which would have been optional with their lesser commute) so I could have it to improve my non-work happiness...