No matter how car-dependent a town seems, there are always people who live there without owning their own cars. If you are evaluating whether to buy or bring a car to grad school, seek the counsel of first-year international students. Many are not able to buy cars when they first arrive in the US, and by talking with a few students you can see whether the no-car lifestyle is attractive to you in terms of where you would need to live and shop. Even if you own a car, you can minimize your ongoing expenses by commuting by another method and using your car infrequently.
One of the advantages of living with a roommate who attends your university or in a housing complex with many students is that you have great potential carpooling companions. You might be the primary driver or split the driving evenly if you own a car, or you could suggest a carpooling arrangement to a neighbor who shares your schedule. A periodic or informal arrangement will help you spend less on gas and a formalized commitment can result in you paying for less gas and only a fraction of a parking permit. Carpooling can also be easily be combined with any of the below methods, such as hitching an occasional ride when the weather is bad. With carpooling, you have most of the conveniences of driving, such as a fast commute and being protected from the elements, but you will have to take one or more other people’s schedules into account.
Depending on your city and the length of your commute, using public transport for your commute might be a viable option. Look into whether your university offers discounted rail or bus passes for its students and whether buying a bulk pass will be cheaper than individual fares. Your university bus system may pick up for near/on-campus transportation where the public transportation leaves off. One of the advantages to public transport is that you may be able to work while riding the train or bus, but a common drawback is a longer commute. Be careful that your cost for using public transit does not grow larger than the ownership of an inexpensive car, if your primary reason for using this method is cost savings.
Biking or walking to work is likely to be a wonderful synergy of physical exercise, sustainable living, and frugality, but also depends heavily on the bike- and pedestrian-friendliness of your city and university. You must carefully choose where you live to make walking feasible and examine the routes to your university before committing to biking. Don’t forget to have a plan for any changes you may want to make to your commute after dark or in adverse weather conditions. Biking for your commute will require a monetary investment in a bicycle and appropriate clothing and there will be some ongoing maintenance costs, but these are virtually always much lower than the comparable cost for a car.
Depending on the nature of your research and the disposition of your advisor, working from home some of the time may be an option. The money that you end up not spending on commuting costs is likely to be slightly offset by increased power usage at home. Even if you have the option to work from home, you may find that working at your university is advantageous for productivity or social reasons, but you should try out both options to see what works best for you and how much less money you spend when you work remotely.