Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Car-less and Carefree

I've mentioned here before that Rachel and I are currently without a car. When other people learn this, the typical reaction is one of sympathy, which is exactly what we feel for those who are stuck with their car(s). Let it be known that we do not despise, look down upon, or otherwise hate car drivers. In other words, we aren't the carfree types that make for exciting blogs! We realize that we are fortunate to have an opportunity to make a decision about owning a car. We have no kids, are in good health, live in a walkable/bikeable community, and have commutes to work of 2 miles or less. Still, I'm convinced that many others in similar circumstances don't even realize "no car" is an option, and a huge number would enjoy using cars a little less. So, an important observation for the interested...

Now three months into our second go-round living carfree, we've learned to approach things a little differently. The first time around we followed the obvious route of trying to replace the car with bikes. Over time, we learned that, while a fun exercise, we benefit more from replacing car culture with bike culture. To anyone who is interested or curious about using a car less, this subtle distinction is worth considering.

Two years ago, we were in full car replacement mode. We had had it with cars and were out to prove we could do everything by bike. We stacked the odds against ourselves by starting this rebellion in the middle of winter. I remember my first act of rebellion. Hands freezing, I heaved the bike and BOB-trailer out of the snow drift and rode headlong into blowing snow. It was about 20 degrees out, and the bike lane was covered with a layer of crusty snow, sand, and ice. I bought 70 pounds of groceries (the trailer's stated limit) and loaded them into the enormous drybag on the trailer. By the time I loaded, my hands were numb. I soon found the trailer didn't handle very well at capacity, and I had to stop a time or too when the wobbling turned my frame into a rolling tuning fork. I got home exhausted, cold and still had the onerous task of unloading 2 weeks worth of groceries.

I thought about that ride as I rode to the store yesterday in the first snow of the year. I pedaled a bike with a small basket on the back. The snow felt wonderful as it brushed my face and coated my wool mittens. On back streets and untracked snow I rode two miles to the co-op. A few intersections broke me out of my trance, but only momentarily. I could be wrong, but it sure looked like those faces behind scraped glass weren't having much fun. On the back streets, I waved to two other cyclers either commuting or out shopping. One had to interrupt catching snowflakes on her tongue to say "hello."

Arriving at the store, I parked under a covered awning by the entrance and looked over my list. From experience, I knew it would more or less just fill a single grocery bag. Either Rachel or I make these trips 2-3 times per week, unless we find excuses for more (ice-cream, brownie mix, etc). We supplement these with walks to the bakery for bread once a week, where we can sit and eat free slices and talk.

That sounds like a lot of trips to the store, but each one is extremely pleasant. Bi-weekly trips in the car were decidedly unpleasant for us. Cars and the infrastructure for them just aren't well suited to frequent short trips. And, a "one-bag" trip to the store is wholly unlike a four bag trip. I am not a shopper, but I really enjoy these trips. I had a pleasant ride home on a bike that just felt like a bike and even looped around to see the northern mountains with fresh snow.

The less we try to replace the car and instead replace the culture that goes along with it, the more we find we are gaining instead of fighting not to give up. There's nothing wrong with pushing the limits of the bicycle, but it isn't necessary to decreasing car use. Much like wearing bike specific clothing isn't wrong, but neither is it necessary to ride a bike. I worry that the "feats of strength" and rebel image of many utility cyclists put off newcomers in the same way that lycra does.

If it seems like "making do" with less car, the problem may just be one of approach. Instead of trying to beat the car, play a different game now and then.


Anonymous Sam_S said...

Lovely reading! I linked to you from

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I followed from there . . . Nice post. I enjoyed others as well.

6:19 AM  
Blogger scott said...

Sounds like you're making it work well--good point about approaching it differently.

[excuse mode] Charlottesville has shipped almost all of its grocery stores, and all of the ones that meet our needs, to the car-only periphery. It's worse for the bus-dependent; the bus stops are unsheltered and often stuck out at the far side of a parking lot.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Yes, I can't emphasize enough how much infrastructure matters. Not so much facilities for bikes, but just infrastructure that's not against bikes. And, Scott makes an excellent point. I've seen this "car-only periphery" in Charlottesville and elsewhere, and I would not have fun riding there for groceries!

By being carfree, we have somewhat limited ourselves to nice towns. Pity us!

7:10 PM  
Blogger Kent Peterson said...

Right on. As I'm fond of saying "I'm not anti-car, I'm pro-bike." Here's a little car-free story for you.

Christine and I have lived car-free for years, part of a general simplification. While the kids were young, Christine was a full-time mom and I worked in the software biz. A few years ago, when I started working in the bike business and the kids were ages 15 and 18, Christine figured it was time for her to re-enter the paid-work world. But she figured she lacked current, useful job skills. "Mostly, I walk everywhere and I buy groceries every day," she said.

And then she went out and nailed a job interview.

Her new job?

She's a shopper for Safeway.com

People order groceries online, those orders end up with her and she shops. She walks up and down the aisles of our local Safeway, filling up a giant shopping cart as she goes. The computer generates lists and she shops for half a dozen customers at a time. She and her coworkers fill up a Safeway truck and a driver delivers the groceries to them.

She still walks everywhere and buys groceries everyday. We still get along fine without owning cars ourselves. And my wife, her coworkers and that Safeway.com truck might be helping a few people realize that they don't have to drive to the store.

Keep 'em rolling,


7:48 AM  

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