Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Resolutions Part III: No Stumbling Block

In the past two posts, I've talked about tackling your new-years resolutions using the Floss-A-Tooth method, but not every resolution can be tackled by simply developing one new habit. What if you want to spend less money or become less dependent on your car? The Talmud interprets the commandment not to "place a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14) broadly, insisting that we not provide someone with the means to do wrong when we know that they cannot resist the temptation. I'd like to suggest we go even broader and include ourselves in this injunction as well.

If you want to create change in your life, you'll have to get good at identifying and removing your own stumbling blocks. In essence, you want to make it hard to do what you wish to avoid and easy to do what you want. Being carfree provides me with tons of examples of this in my own life. If exercise required me to go to the gym, it would never happen. Never. But lucky for me, it is hard for me to get through the day without at least a little exercise -- after all, I have to walk or bike anywhere I want to go.

Anything that you want more of in your life should be almost impossible to avoid. Anything you don't want in your life should be easy to avoid so that you are not tempted. Want to use your car less often? You could try parking it far away, loaning it to friends regularly, or keeping the tank at a quarter full (making your car easy to avoid). At the same time you can get your bike tuned (and keep oil on hand), research all the spots within easy walking distance where you can run your errands, and get a bus and/or subway pass (making walking and biking easy to do).

Want to spend less money? Don't go in stores except when absolutely necessary. They only want to sell you crap that you don't need. Consider carrying and spending only cash (which seems a lot less like "play money" than a credit or debit card). Discover your gazingus pins and then avoid gazingus pin stores like the plague. Don't watch TV or read mainstream advertising-driven magazines. Find a carfree route to work, practice it for a little while, and then sell your car. Trade in your cellphone for a prepaid (or get rid of it entirely). Cancel your broadband since the internet is both wasting your time and selling you things (hypocrisy alert: we are on the verge of getting non-dialup internet at home for the first time).

What do you want to change in the year to come? Once you know what you want, make a list of ways you can remove your stumbling blocks, making it easy to take positive steps and hard to backslide. Whatever you do, don't rely on willpower, which I'm pretty sure is just a myth.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Resolutions Part II: Expanding the Floss-A-Tooth Method

In part one, I confessed my poor oral hygiene and described how I finally started brushing my teeth daily using a method I call "Floss-A-Tooth." But the method didn't get its name until I used it a second time to start a tooth-flossing habit. Here's how it went:
  • Phase One: For a couple of weeks all I did was to pull of a length of floss out every evening. Sometimes this was hard because I felt wasteful, so I only pulled off a small bit.
  • Phase Two: I flossed just one tooth each evening. I had to stay at this phase for quite some time, about 3 or 4 weeks. 
  • Phase Three: I flossed a few teeth, a few more, and a few more, until I was doing the whole mouth.
  • Safety-Net: I floss in the evening. If it’s late and I’m tired I probably won’t floss much. In extreme circumstances I'll just do one tooth. But I still at least floss a tooth and the habit stays put.
In the last seven years, I’ve found the Floss-A-Tooth Method applicable in many other areas of my life. Its usefulness boils down to the fact that when we see a goal we want we tend to rush towards it too fast. For instance, Dorea used to have a thesis-writing support group. Each week, people would come in feeling guilty and demoralized. They’d think about all they needed to get done and how quickly it needed to be finished. They’d beat themselves up for all the time they’d wasted in the past week. So they’d set absurd goals for themselves. People who weren’t succeeding in writing anything would claim they were going to write for two hours each day, or get fifteen pages written in the next week. Dorea became quite an excellent counselor in the Floss-A-Tooth method, encouraging people to set their bar lower and lower until finally it was low enough that they couldn't avoid stepping over it.

The key to using Floss-A-Tooth successfully is to decide what you want to do and then find the smallest possible unit that represents progress but that you can't whine about. If you want to eat more vegetables, how about having one baby carrot with dinner? If you want to save money, do you think you could put a quarter in a piggy bank each day (or even just a dime)? And if you want to run the Boston marathon, you might start by just putting your jogging outfit.

Coming up next: the real key to making resolutions work -- stacking the deck in your own favor.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Resolutions Part I: the “Floss-a-Tooth” Method

A few days ago, I was listening to a discussion on NPR about new year's resolutions. A psychologist was on the show talking about making and keeping resolutions; something like 40-50% of those of us who make resolutions are able to stick with them. The guest also gave tips about how to stick with resolutions, such as getting support from friends or family. His tips got me thinking about my own techniques for changing habits and solving problems. I have systems for everything, including cultivating or changing habits. The first method I’ll describe today works well for habits that you want to start. The second I’ll describe in a later post has some applicability to developing a greener lifestyle and reducing car usage.

True Oral Hygiene Confessions

Some time ago, it had been ten years since I had been to a dentist. I regularly went for weeks (yes, weeks) without brushing my teeth. My oral hygiene was pathetic and I have the cavities to show for it (although I managed to avoid a root canal by the skin of my teeth). I had been trying for some time to improve the situation. I had made resolutions, put notes on the mirror, and scolded myself. Intermittently, I seem to have become convinced that the reason for my failure was that my oral hygiene system wasn't complicated enough, so I would go out and purchase plaque rinses, tablets for detecting plaque, special toothpicks, and fancy toothbrushes. Each new thing was exciting. I loved opening the packages, reading the directions, and dreaming about getting a special tooth-brushing award from a dentist. But aside from providing fodder for my overactive imagination, each new gimmick or plan failed after my initial enthusiasm diminished.

About seven years ago I finally hit on a method that allowed me to become a regular brusher. I was able to apply the method to other areas of my life as well. Here’s how the method worked for tooth-brushing.
  • Phase One: For a week or two, I put toothpaste on my toothbrush and stuck it in my mouth every night. That was it. I started with just the evening and just with this small and, frankly, stupid task. This is the heart of the method: to make the goal small enough that I couldn’t put up any resistance. How hard is it to put toothpaste on a toothbrush? It only takes one second! I stayed in this phase until the routine was well established and I no longer felt any resistance.
  • Phase Two: In this phase I did just a little bit of brushing (perhaps 30 seconds) in the evenings only. With the groundwork from the first phase, this was fairly easy; I was already used to loading up the toothbrush and sticking it in my mouth. I did this for another couple of weeks. At some point I decided to add a morning brushing time as well, and I started back at phase one with that habit. The important thing is not pushing too hard, staying just under the threshold of resistance, and doing it every day.
  • Phase Three. During this phase I worked my way up to 2-3 minutes of brushing morning and evening. I made my increases small, and if I met resistance or skipped a night, I backed up to where I was more comfortable.
  • Safety-Net: One of the things that often derailed my oral hygiene efforts in the past was handling “falling off the wagon.” For instance, suppose you are trying to brush your teeth every night, but one night you come home late and just want to fall into bed. The trouble is that if you do that, you’ll be more likely to skip the next night and pretty soon you will have fallen right out of the habit. If you are sorely tempted to skip your good habit just this one time, instead fall back to phase one. If I am tempted to skip brushing, I instead just put toothpaste on my toothbrush and stick it in my mouth. Then I can keep up my commitment and momentum, even under extreme circumstances. If even doing that seems too much to bear, I just go and hold my toothbrush, anything so that I can tell myself the next day that I still have the habit.
You are probably curious about one thing -- why do I call this the "Floss-A-Tooth" Method? A professor of mine once told me that if you use a technique just once, then it is a trick, but if you use it twice, it’s a tool. The “Floss a Tooth Method” became a tool, and got its name, upon its second use. I'll describe that in the next post along with some ways to extend and expand the method.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


So far, I can't really say pregnancy + being car-free + toddler + winter is my favorite combination ever. Here's my bullet point highlights (actually, mostly whines) so far:
  • If we owned a car right now, you'd better believe I would be driving it everywhere.
  • As a result, if we owned a car right now, I would be getting exactly zero exercise. Right now I walk at least 40 minutes a day in small chunks, even going out of my way to walk as little as possible on the days I feel really bad.
  • It is quite challenging to get around with H, especially with snow. Last year, our solution when sidewalks were impassible was to carry H in our back carrier and wear yak trax for the ice. This year, Angela can still do that, though not very quickly and not without tired shoulders, but it's good enough for getting to daycare. But my back is iffy enough already that I really can't carry H much anymore, so I'm restricted by her walking radius when home with her. She's a pretty good walker for 2 1/2, but that amounts to about a five block radius, if she's very motivated, and still she'll probably want a lift some of the way home. Fortunately we have friends in a 5 block radius, but still, I'm feeling a little trapped and already aching for spring.
  • I miss biking. I suppose walking is fine for exercise, but when I bike I feel free. Walking...I just feel slow.
  • Commuting by T, while perfect for a back-up option, is more troublesome when you do it every day. The red line has been plagued by delays lately. When I biked more, I could let the delays roll off much more easily, and sort of scoffed at people who constantly whined about the T. After all, we have decent transport and plenty of cities don't. But on my third hour plus long commute in less than a week, a commute that should take 30 minutes, I was definitely starting to feel the frustration.
Now that I've gotten some energy back just clearing first trimester, I'm hoping my attitude will turn around a bit. Obviously, we're thrilled to have number two on the way, and I'm committed to working through the logistics as needed, but pre-pregnancy I felt primarily pride and freedom about our car-free life. These days, I confess to sometimes feeling a little jealous of the dry drivers who can go wherever they want. Of course, they still have to wrestle their kid into the carseat and dig their car out of the snow, so maybe not that jealous.

Friday, December 19, 2008

No digging out

On days like today (with snow falling at a steady clip), I extra love not having a car. No car to shovel out or move to a rare legal parking space. Being carfree really lessens the pre-snow anxiety and the post-snow grief. Day care is closed today, so I just walked down to a local café and soon I’ll walk back home, no muss no commuting fuss. During last December’s storm, it was a pain to walk back home through the snow, but not that much of a pain, especially when I had friends and coworkers that were stuck in traffic for hours (I could have taken the T to Alewife, but I was worried that Russel Field might not be plowed).

I also love it that everyone becomes car free on a day with heavy snow. We all tend to stick close to home and chat with neighbors as we dig out. It's cosy. Happy snow, everyone!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Our slow recovery and a request of car drivers

Our household is slowly recovering from a terrible cold/sinus/cough thing. The toddler that brought this plague down upon us got over it a few weeks ago, but Dorea and I are still having some sinus trouble. Dorea is also showing some signs of getting over the first trimester blues. She's got a little more energy and does a little less puking.

The weather in Boston has been terrible over the last few days, which leads to my request of car drivers everywhere. If you are driving in the rain on a street with a sidewalk, please slow down when you go through puddles and lakes on the side of the road. When I'm out walking in the rain, the last thing I need is a huge wave of water coming up at me from under your wheels. I know that weather can be frustrating to drive it, but you are dry and warm in your car and I am cold and wet, and if you soak my pants and coat it's going to make me very crabby. Did I mention that I have a cold that could turn into pneumonia at any moment? Have a heart!

Also I find a new weblog today, Car Free Lifestyle, that even has a youtube video advertising being car free.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Car-free toddler development

Upon arrival home last night, Angela reported the following conversation with H earlier in the evening:

H: Where Mama?
A: Mama is taking the train home.
H: Mama on the train?
A: Yep.
H: Mama go to Alewife?
A: Yep.

It's not in any of the books, but I believe this is a major developmental milestone. Our two-year-old knows our subway stop. It warms a car-free mother's heart.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanks to our friends with cars.

Things have been a bit rough around our digs these last few weeks. I'm operating at maybe 1/2 capacity due to some serious and stubborn morning sickness. We've all been knocked down by a vicious case of viral bronchitis that seems to have taken the whole neighborhood by storm, and taken all of our sleep and energy along with it.

Cold weather + bronchitis = No biking for Angela = No easy groceries for us.

So we'd like to give a big thank you to our friends with cars, the friends who hardly ever drive them and insist we can borrow whenever we need. Thank you Cindy and David for the grocery trip last weekend (and the food you brought us yesterday), and thank you Sue and Tracy for offering us the car so we can get to Market Basket this afternoon. We love not that we almost never have to drive, but also love that we have generous friends and neighbors who help us out in a pinch when it turns out we need to. Thank you.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Being frugal

Part of the reason that Dorea and I decided to become permanently car free is that we are cheapskates. I’ve always been a tightwad, but I wasn’t always good at budgeting and controlling impulse purchases. Dorea was always good at budgeting, but not as good at penny-pinching. We became big fans of Amy Dacyczyn (if only she had a blog!) when I brought a copy of the Complete Tightwad Gazette home from the library maybe six years ago. Together, we became tightwad blackbelts.

When Dorea and I got engaged, almost six years ago, I had debt in credit cards and student loans that totaled around $40,000. Dorea had a few thousand in student loan debt. We paid off the last of all that debt in the spring of this year. We would have had it paid off even earlier, but we used some savings to put a down payment on a condo re-do the ceiling.

For a long time we were frugal because we had to be. We were both grad students and I was trying to take whittle down a huge debt so that Dorea wouldn’t feel like she was marrying a ne’er-do-well. Then we were a young family with a child to support and only one of us out of graduate school. Then we were both employed but were trying to re-establish our emergency fund after buying a house. And then we were scrimping and saving and putting all of our free cash towards the expenses of getting pregnant as a lesbian couple.

But now we are coasting along and we are starting to lose our frugal edge. We bring in more than we spend without having to try as hard anymore. This is in large part due to the fact that we live in a very small condo (650 square feet) and don’t have a car. But over the past couple of months many of our expenses have gone up:
  • Transportation: We bought a fancy new bicycle, and Dorea doesn’t ride at the moment (at the insistence of her acupuncturist who was instrumental in helping us get pregnant) so we spend more money on public transportation.
  • Food: We’re inching closer and closer to keeping kosher, and right now buy all kosher ingredients for food we cook at home. This means that we spend more for some items. Dorea has been feeling very sick, so we are buying a lot of special foods to keep her happy. And I have been having a lot of stomach problems so we’re buying special foods to keep my tummy happy. That all adds up to about $90-$100 a week, even shopping at the Market Basket.
  • Time-savers and treats: Dorea and I are both feeling tired and overworked and generally put-upon. As a result, we’re instituted a take-out and movie night at our house. The movie comes from the library so it’s free, but our takeout usually costs $20-30, which is a sore blow for former tightwad blackbelts. We’re also spending more of our money at coffee shops, and buying more things like paper plates. Oh, and we’re using paper diapers instead of cloth at nighttime. Oh the shame!!
Now we are starting to feel nervous. We would like to re-do the kitchen in our condo and put in hardwood floors. We’d like to head into our first year as a family of four feeling financially fit and fabulous. We’d like to stop some of our bad habits, while still taking care of ourselves and realizing our limitations. So I've been trying to soak up some inspiration. The Simple Dollar and Almost Frugal are both great for that. And maybe it's time to crack open the Tightwad Gazette in and dig back into Your Money or Your Life. Someday we may have the energy to be frugal once more!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Earning our plural.

Savvy readers may have been wondering about a few things. Why is the title of our blog plural when we only have one kid? Why hasn't Dorea been riding her bike? Why did we make a sappy post about walking H home from the hospital when that was a long time ago? What's up with the two-kid bicycle seat? (10 points to the anonymous commenter)

It's true. If all goes well, we will be a family of four this summer. I (Dorea) am pregnant with our second, due mid-June.

Thus far, I do find pregnancy is cramping my car-free style a bit, mostly since I'm not riding the fabulous xtracycle I obsessed over for so long, and have to spend a lot more time waiting for the T and the bus. But I figure if we can survive and thrive during pregnancy+toddler, and later baby+toddler without a car, we will have truly proven it is possible to be happily car-free with kids, at least little ones.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Self-reliant Living

My mother recently gave us a stack of Mother Earth News from this past year and it has been having funny effects on me. On the one hand, I am lusting after the whole back-to-the-earth lifestyle found in the pages of Mother Earth. On the other hand, my life couldn’t be farther from the life of a homesteader and I like it that way.

I just finished reading an article on simple living in a city (“Simple Ideas for Sustainable Living” from Dec 07/Jan 08). The article itself got me thinking about my own choices in urban living, but I was really most struck by the ad at the back of the article to share your stories of the “self-reliant life.” Is it possible for a life in the city to be “self-reliant?” Would I even want a self-reliant life?

Living in the city we cannot be self-reliant. My family relies on city and state services throughout each day. We have city water, city sewer, and city garbage and recycling pickup. We use public transportation. We have no yard at all (our greenspace is a strip a couple of feet wide on two sides of our house), so we can’t grow vast amounts of produce on our land or raise livestock. We live in a small 3-unit condo building, so creating our own electricity is complicated by the amount of coordination that would be needed.

On the other hand, we share resources to an extent that would not be possible in suburban or rural areas. Most obviously, almost all of our rides in vehicles are shared. The bus and subway systems allow us to share rides with the whole greater Boston area (and we share the use of a car through the Zipcar network). We live on a short private drive and share a number of things with our neighbors. In the summertime we share our neighbor’s bike trailer (which was passed onto them from another neighbor). H has received a number of hand-me-down toys and clothes through our neighbors. In the winter our neighbor with a snow blower makes a dent in all the snow. This Halloween we gathered with our neighbors at the end of our drive to share some cider and give out candy together. We share green space with our whole neighborhood in a park that is a social hub for families with young children in the summer months. We share produce with other city residents through our CSA and local farmers’ markets.

In terms of sustainable living, it is hard for me to imagine that I could be more sustainable in a rural area than I can be right here. I don’t own a car. I live in a 650 square foot condo with two other people. I don’t waste energy mowing a lawn. I don’t have many excess possessions simply because I don’t have space for them. I work less than a mile from my home and most of my transportation is done self-reliantly by foot or bicycle.

On the other hand, living in the city costs us quite a lot. We pay $1500 in our mortgage and condo fees each month, which represents over half of my own take-home pay. We pay $225 each week for our daughter to be in part-time daycare. We pay $10 per hour on the rare occasions that we actually need a car. We also pay the price in terms of our lack of connection to nature. I can’t remember the last time I saw stars. I rarely find myself in quiet woods. The animals I interact with the most are dogs and squirrels and mosquitoes.

Despite my happiness with the city lifestyle, I think you can sense my defensiveness and my desire to continue to lighten my footprint on the earth and increase my sustainability. So what more can I do, aside from moving to a hippy commune? I’ve thought of some things that I might do to increase my sustainability even here in the city, but I have to decide what I have the time and energy for.
  • Growing food. We have an under-utilized and very sunny porch on the front of our house. It is an unheated space but tends to get quite warm during the day even in the winter due to the sun exposure. We’d like to clear out this space and use it for growing some food in containers in the winter. We also do have a very small strip of land around two sides of the house, but it is entirely in shade. Still, perhaps we could do some container plants there that would do well in shade. One problem I have is that when I look at books or websites devoted to urban agriculture all of the projects seem too large for our space and too difficult. So if you have ideas for me, please leave a comment. I’d like to find some baby steps I could take on the path to growing more food.
  • Composting. Our neighbors are experimenting with composting right now, and we may be able to share their composting bin some day in the future (or we could start our own compost bin). We already reuse many of our vegetable scraps in creating broth.
  • Eating more locally throughout the year. We have a CSA during the summer months, and if we were to can or freeze more of this food we could eat it throughout the year. We did some canning with some friends this year and it was fun – I’d like to do more.
  • Spending more time in the outdoor areas in Cambridge and the surrounding areas. We don’t have many natural areas, but we do have some and I don’t visit them nearly often enough. I’ll put that on my list for next summer.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My friends are your friends and your friends are my....

I've recently started noticing a place where our lifestyle doesn't completely mesh with the rest of the world, and it leads to some social awkwardness. This problem tends to show up when we meet new folks, who seem like they might be the kind of people we'd like to know, but then we find out where they live (say, in the burbs, accessible only by an hours commuter rail ride, if that), and we realize it's just not going to happen. We might manage to arrange one or two T-accessible meetups, but then then invites to their parties come...parties that theoretically we could get to...but it doesn't quite seem worth all of the work to get there...maybe because it would mean driving a zipcar on shabbat (we really would rather not do that), or dragging H on a hideously long train ride and having to beg a ride back into town way after bedtime. And besides, if we go, then we'll keep having to go. If we solidify a friendship with someone in the suburbs, we'll have to keep finding ways to get to the suburbs, or keep making excuses for why we can't get there.

I find that these days I just really don't want to put much time or energy into relationships with people who are far away, using our car-free definition of far. In fact, if I'm being honest, we only actually put energy into relationships with people who are walking distance away, even though we have good intentions of keeping up with our friends, say, a bus or bike-ride away.

From our end, in many ways this is just fine. We have plenty of wonderful friends in walking distance. Our social life is not drastically damaged by a fairly tight geographic boundary on friendship, but it does lead to awkwardness when navigating new friendships or even trying to maintain old ones. Much of the awkwardness is that while our practical friendship radius might be a couple of miles, most people who use cars regularly have a much wider friendship radius, maybe 5-10, or even 20 miles depending on their location, so we may be within their reasonable geographic circle, but they aren't within ours. I hate to see potentially good friendships wither away because we turned down one too many invitations, and sometimes wonder if a more honest approach might be better. On the other hand, we do have a few surprisingly good and valuable friendships that seem to be successfully maintained two or three meetings a year and the occasional e-mail, and we wouldn't have those if we just dismissed them out of hand immediately based on geography.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Where did you get that fabulous license plate?

We've gotten several inquiries about where our wonderful plate on the xtracycle came from. I take full credit for the snarky catch phrase, and ordered a custom plate from:


The motorcycle plate fits the Xtracycle perfectly (we used cable ties).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Introducing our new xtracycle kid seat!

We've written before about our problems with the peapod seat for the xtracycle, that primarily stemmed from incompatibility with the our small bike frame frame (Angela is 5' 1"....what can you do?).

Then, a generous offer from Rob Hanson on the rootsradicals yahoo group solved all of our problems. Rob custom built us this snap deck kid seat and it is a beauty (the paint job is ours!). The seat is solid, and will clearly give us many years of use. H loves her new seat and couldn't wait to try it out. We are beyond thrilled to own the second such seat in existence.

Bike seat in early stages of painting.

And I tell you. This seat stops traffic. It's unveiling was at the annual Somerville Honk Fest parade from Davis Square to Harvard Square. The whole family in the parade!The seat, along with our bike's new custom license plate got lots of admiring looks and inquiries (Rob--we're passing on your cards!). We enjoyed riding along in the parade with the Cambridge Green Streets Initiative and the Katz-Christy Family, another Cambridge car-free family (the kind with big kids) who also happen to all be able to walk on stilts (?!?). We also found ourselves in a whole gang of xtracycles at some point. Very enjoyable. Biking in the parade -- note the stroller strapped on the Xtracycle.

Rob is open to being contacted about similar seats and you can reach him here. You can also take a look at Rob's own set up here.

[In addition to being proud owners of our lovely new seat, we also have almost a full quart each of blue, yellow and lime green super non-toxic exterior paint. If anyone local has need of it, let us know.]

Friday, October 10, 2008

Car-Free Grandma

Angela asked an interesting question the other day.

"When Grandma (Angela's mom) moved here from Florida 6 months ago, would it have been better for us (from a purely selfish perspective) if she had kept her car?"

Keep in mind, we're talking from a purely selfish perspective, i.e. pretend she completely funds the car/insurance, deals with the parking and maintenance, and we have access to a car for occasional outings or big shopping trips. Maybe we would "generously" put in for gas.

Even with this hypothetical most lazy and cheap possible version of a car, we came to the conclusion that we are happy she became car free when she moved here. At first blush, this seems silly, after all, wouldn't such a situation mean we could have the perks of car-ownership without the costs? Our trip to Drumlin Farm would have been much easier if we hadn't had to worry about train schedules, and we could easily get to more fun weekend outings if Grandma had a car. We need to get some lumber at Home Depot this weekend, and we wouldn't have to get a zipcar. But would Grandma have an apartment in the middle of Davis Square, a mere 15 minute walk from our house, if she had a car? Nope. Parking there is awful. She would more likely be out in Arlington, and we'd have to hop the 77 bus to see her...which would mean she'd either need to come to us more or we'd see her less often. We wouldn't be able to easily drop by each other's houses or make last minute dinner or babysitting plans as easily. Also, as our hypothetical use of Grandma's car increased, which it would inevitably, we'd start to feel guilty, and ultimately probably end up splitting the cost and hassles. I mean, we're not total jerks, and if we were using the car eventually we'd put in, so it wouldn't be so free anymore. And there would be that awful car tension, over finances, parking tickets, needed repairs, even if it was vicariously. So even selfishly, we're glad Grandma doesn't have a car.

Less selfishly, we're glad to have a car-free Grandma because we like Grandma to save money (she claims she spends much less in Boston than Florida, who would have thought it possible?), we like watching her feel joyfully smug about being extra-environmental (she works in land conservation, so this is a nice perk), and we get to talk pros and cons of the lifestyle with one of "our own." I suppose we also like that we get to take a little bit of credit for bringing someone into the car-free fold...do we get a toaster?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Train trip to Drumlin Farm

On Sunday, we made a train trip with Grandma (aka "Baba") to the Drumlin Farm Fall Festival just West of here in Lincoln, MA. Prior to going to the farm, H insisted that there would be "Horses and cows and sheep and turtles and crabs closing their eyes under the water." Perhaps she was unduly influenced by our trip to the aquarium in Woods Hole...to our surprise there did indeed turn out to be turtles at the farm (as part of a wildlife show), but alas, no crabs.

The chickens were a big hit, as were the sheep and the hayride. We'll likely be making the trip to Lincoln again, as it is easier to get to by transit than either of the two small zoos in the Boston area: Franklin park (long walk or bus from the orange line, takes at least 1 1/2 hours to get there from Cambridge) or Stone Zoo (lovely and fairly close, but inaccessible by transit).
Drumlin Farm is about a 15 minute walk from Lincoln Station on the Fitchburg commuter rail line that runs through Porter Square (the ride from Porter was about 30 minutes). Walking directions are here. We found the walk pleasant, except for the last block where there was no sidewalk, and we needed to walk through a field of long wet grass...but I suppose the point was to get out into nature so us city-folks shouldn't complain too much...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hospitals, Birth & Carseats

Angela and I were just remembering coming home from H's birth, over two years ago.

We were at a hospital about four blocks from our house. They wouldn't let us leave with the baby unless we put her into one of those infant carseats (or "baby buckets" as we call them around here). We hadn't even brought a seat to the hospital and had to send a friend to get one.

We gathered up our things, strapped in the kid (our buckling job was carefully checked by one of the nurses), and hobbled slowly outside.

I grabbed a cab, put an exhausted Angela, who had just finished a long and grueling labor, inside with a friend who had come to help us home. I briefly considered strapping the seat into the non-LATCH equipped cab, and then thought better of it, took the kid out, and chucked the empty carseat in the cab. I carefully held our brand new daughter, swaddled in my arms, and walked the four blocks home.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Friendship, Cars, and Carfree Families

Josh Hart has done research in the UK on the impact of traffic on community life. His research shows that on streets with heavy traffic, residents have dramatically fewer friends in their neighborhood and their sense of what neighborhood space belongs to them is greatly decreased. It would be great to see similar research focused on children. It is much more difficult for children to leave their neighborhood (since they often require adult supervision and can't get into a car and drive away), so I wonder how heavy traffic flow impacts a child's quality of life and friendship networks.

Last week this piece in the Boston Globe focused on Cambridge's own Janie Katz-Christy and other local families who are living car free. My favorite quote from the piece is from Melissa Glenn Haber in answer to how you live without a car:
"The same way you live without a jet pack," she says. "It's just a matter of getting used to things, a slight shift in expectations. I can't cram as much into a day as someone with a car. I have low blood pressure."
I couldn't have said it better myself. (Thanks to Marc for the tip!)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Last Year's Carfree Camping Trip

Our friend, the swadfather, suggested that we do more blogging about car free trips. That’s when we realized that, aside from Dorea’s Woods Hole trip, we really haven’t done many. That’s mostly because we’re homebodies. After all, if we went away for the weekend, we’d miss socializing at our favorite park.

We have done one big car-free trip, however, to Provincetown last August, when H was a little over a year old. We went out for Family Week, and decided to camp, because we're cheap (have you seen hotel prices in P-town???) and like a challenge (suspiciously similar to our motivations for being car-free in general...). From the beginning, there were problems to solve:
  • Should we take our bikes? We decided not to last year, but I think for future camping trips we will take at least the xtracycle, now that H has a seat (she didn't last year).
  • How would we get all of our gear down to the ferry and then from the ferry to the campground? We weren’t sure we’d be able to easily access a grocery store, so we decided to bring food with us (if we bring a bike future years, we won't have to bring food). We filled an old-lady style shopping cart with groceries and cooking supplies. We also took two camping backpacks with our gear, and toted H in her stroller, with her very compact booster seat strapped to the back (it turned out to be a lifesaver to have a place she could be "strapped in" with some cheerios while we set up camp). We took the T to the ferry, And then walked to our campsite from the boat. It was a lot to carry from the ferry to the campsite (about a mile walk), especially since we got lost on the way, which made it more like a two mile walk, but we made it.
  • How would we sleep? Of course this is the biggest question that any parent of a young child has. We opted to take a roomy two-person tent (since that's what was generously loaned to us) and have H sleep on a mat with us. That, um, didn’t really go as well as we hoped. H is used to sleeping in a darkened room and we were trying to put her down in a stuffy tent while it was still light outside, which she used as a good opportunity to perfect her newfound tent-zipper-opening skills. We ended up having to hold her until she fell asleep in our arms around dark and then we were all up with the sun. She took naps in the stroller while we walked around town. Next time we camp, we’re going to bring a bigger tent, the kind that has rooms, and designate a separate space for H to sleep. Fortunately all of us stayed cheerful, though we all could have used a bit more sleep.
  • What would H eat? At home, she was basically nursing and eating whatever we ate and we assumed she’d do the same on the trip. We hadn't anticipated the challenge of getting our own food cooked on a toddlers schedule without available refrigeration, so we ended blasting through the few jars of babyfood we'd brought as a backup plan. Fortunately a nice well-prepared couple with twins gave us a few more packs of food on our last day when we ran out. In retrospect we would have put in more backup babyfood as well as more food specifically for H.
  • What would we do if it rained? We had a minimal rain backup plan including a tarp rigged up sufficient to shelter us while eating and our stuff while we were sleeping in the tent. If it had been rainy, we probably would have spent much more time indoors in town, and probably would have had a few more restaurant meals. Next time we camp we’re going to bring a bigger tent, which would help out with the rain issue.
A few more points:
  • Our campsite was unfortunately located across a busy highway from town, which necessitated a bit of a walk beside the highway. This was fine when H was in a carrier, but not possible with the stroller since the shoulder of the road was quite sandy. If we go again, we'll probably stay at the less shady campsite that's on the town side of route 6.
  • We planned our trip so late that the only reason we were even able to get a campsite at all was that we didn't have a car. They were completely booked for sites that had room for a vehicle, but since we only had ourselves, we got in!
  • Many many thanks to our friend and neighbors R & E who loaned us a backpacks, a tent, and other gear! Now that we know more what we need, we need to start rustling up some of our own gear.
Overall, the trip was a great success, despite the fact that nobody was getting enough sleep. H absolutely loved being outside (dirt! No baths! What could be better??), and we met lots of other GLBT-headed families. The scheduling didn't work out for a trip this summer, but we hope to make it in 2009. We'd love to know of other places accessible to car-free camping, without extensive bike trips to get there (i.e. places within a mile or two of ferry or commuter rail. We're planning to try camping on the Harbor Islands, but I'm sure there must be other good spots as well.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Some Links for You Carfree Activists Out There

I just watched this great film about activists taking over parking spaces in San Francisco and temporarily turning them into small parks, pedestrian walkways, and other spaces for humans to enjoy. On a larger scale, check out this film about why Melbourne is a walker's paradise.

Also, Carbusters #35 is out, featuring the world naked bike ride! Momentum #35 is out as well, featuring fashion (which I couldn't care less about) and what women want in a bike (which is a little more interesting to me). Oh, and if you dig into the archives, you'll find a piece on bike rage which I found interesting after my post last month on car complaints.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Unforseen perks, and a small logistical problem

Last night a close friend of ours was celebrating his birthday. Now, this might not seem like a big deal, except for that this group of friends contains several families with very young kids, and the birthday boy really wanted an adults-only party, so there were many logistics involved.

We managed to rustle up a sitter even though we are out of practice (Angela's mom, our wonderful usual stand-in for such things, was out of town for work...The Horror...). We thought we had it all sealed up, but then the day before the event Angela found out that this particular sitter usually gets a ride home when our neighbors hire her. Hmmm. We feared the whole plan was in the toilet since we couldn't really trolley her home on one of our handlebars, and the bus from our neighborhood to her neighborhood doesn't run very often after rush. But it all turned out OK, because she is also a biker, and we were getting home early enough that she still felt comfortable riding home. Whew. I had never thought to worry about that one before, but now we know to make sure our sitters have their own transport...in whatever form. (Also, to be clear, we did convincingly offer to have one of us bike with her for safety, but she declined --also convincingly.)

The party itself was delightful in a way particular to parents who rarely get out in a group of grown-ups. You could sense the combination of slight confusion and excitement as we all bowled and ate delicious chocolate, at the lovely Sacco's Bowl Haven in Davis Square, without having to interrupt our games to shout "No! Don't run down the alley!" or "No! Don't drop the ball on your friend's head!"

As Angela and I walked home, I realized that, in a way, this lovely event was an unforeseen perk of our decision to live car-free. These are friends through our synagogue (OK, actually our chavurah, but think very small synagogue full of hippies with no rabbi and you'll get it), that we never would have joined had we not made the hard decision to leave our beloved old (suburban) synagogue in order to form a sustainable car-free life. Many members of our new(-ish) community walk to services on Shabbat, which means that we now have a wonderful crop of friends who live walking distance from us, by virtue of living walking distance from shul. For me, having such a lovely party right in our own neighborhood, with friends who live right in our own neighborhood made the evening even better.

(Also, anyone familiar with such things should pause for a moment to appreciate the deep irony that before we joined this congregation, the only day of the week that we ever drove was on Shabbat.)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Biking to spy pond

Our neighbors (the same ones who kindly share their bike trailer for grocery shopping, and who are serious about their family biking...their 4 year old is pretty solid on a 2-wheeler which I find rather impressive) were slightly horrified that we had never gone biking on the Minuteman Bikeway, which they insist is one of the best features of our neighborhood. It got to the point where Angela feared they might disown us if we didn't actually get out on this path, so on Labor day, at the last minute, we decided to try an actual recreational bike ride. We tend to see our bikes as utilitarian, and almost never go on recreational bike rides, so this was a big step!

We didn't go too far, just a quick couple miles to Spy Pond in Arlington. Unfortunately the playground was closed due to a sand wasp infestation, but we got a lot of mileage out of counting geese, ducks and swans, and running on the lawn. H was plenty happy riding along, and probably could have gone much farther once we got going. It was nice to feel like we got "out of the city" in just a few miles. For other folks who might like to try a ride on the Minuteman, it starts by Alewife station on the Red Line, and bikes are permitted on the red-line during non-rush hour on weekdays and all day on weekends. We'd love to hear about other car-free recreation options in the area, either by rail or bike or both, if anyone has some to suggest.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Costs of Car Ownership, Part II

In addition to the costs in time and money, there are other, less quantifiable costs of car ownership. These may be personal costs or costs to society at large.

Mental and Emotional Costs

  • The car is one more thing you have to worry about, and it’s a fairly big one. You have to worry that your car is operating properly, that it isn’t being towed away or ticketed right now, that you are going to have enough money for the rising costs of gas, and that the place where some paint got scraped off your car isn’t going to rust. You have to worry about whether or not you need to get a new car, when you are going to get the new car, and whether you can afford the car payments.
  • The car is something that you have to feel guilty about. Especially when you become a parent and you upgrade to a larger car, you have to feel guilty about your carbon footprint. You have to feel guilty when you hop into the car to take a trip that you know you could get to on foot, but the weather is bad or the kids don’t want to walk or you are just plain tired and need a break.
  • You have the mental stress of being cooped up with your kids while you take them to daycare, on errands, or on a road trip. Babies scream in the car seat, older kids pester you incessantly about how much longer they’ll have to be in the car, and siblings fight since they can’t get away from each other.
Social and Environmental Costs
  • The obvious cost to all of us is the carbon emissions of a car. An average car emits 77 pounds of hydrocarbons per year. There are roughly 135 million passenger vehicles in the US. If we got rid of one out of every fifty of those, we’d reduce carbon emissions by 208 million pounds per year.
  • There is also the cost of sprawl. Easy access to a car has enabled us to live far away from where we work and to shop far away from where we live and work. This has helped to create sprawling communities which are not walk-able or bike-able and which require us to drive even further.
  • Automobile dependency and inadequate public transportation negatively impact the working poor who may have trouble affording car ownership or accessing reliable alternative transportation.
  • Car use certainly has the potential of distancing us from our local communities. We don’t get to know our neighbors because our real friends live across town. We don’t shop at the neighborhood market because we can get better, cheaper food when we drive to a supermarket.

The good news is that going car-free will free you from these costs. The bad news is that there’s no free ride. Giving up a car means giving up the many benefits of car ownership (and a car-free lifestyle comes with it’s own costs as well). If you are considering going car free, you are going to have to determine whether the benefits you get from freeing yourself from your car outweigh the costs.

What do you see as being the biggest costs of car ownership and car driving? What are the benefits to car ownership that you can’t imagine giving up? If you own a car, how do you minimize the costs?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Costs of car ownership, part I

Those of us who go carfree or car-light often do so because of the high costs of car ownership. So I thought it would be a good idea to spend a some time detailing those costs, which look to me like they come in four broad categories: monetary costs, time costs, mental/emotional costs, and social and environmental costs.

Monetary costs include:
  • Car loan payments, lease payments, or one-time cost of purchasing a used car
  • Car insurance
  • Gasoline
  • Parking, including parking in a garage, the rental or purchase of a parking space, and paying the inevitable parking tickets
  • Car repair, including regular car maintenance and unexpected breakdowns
  • Items to make it safe or practical to transport your children in the car. This includes buying several car seats and booster seats for your children as they grow from infants through the toddler years and into the grade school years. It also includes the portable DVD player for the kids to keep them quiet, the toys that you buy to keep them entertained in the car seat, and that sun shade that you put up on the rear passenger windows.
  • Car “bells-and-whistles” including items purchased to make your car look nicer, smell better, or just be a more pleasant environment to spend time in. This includes that lock deicer, the nice floor mats, the new seat covers, the car CD organizer, and the hands-free cell phone.
  • The cost of buying more stuff. My mother recently moved to Boston from Orlando, Florida and got rid of her car. She says that she's actually saving money to spite the increase in the basic costs of living simply because she doesn't shop as much. Without a car, there aren't as many stores that are easily accessible and you almost never end up at the mall.
According to the AAA, it costs an average $9641 per year to own a car, and that's before you factor in your car loan! Bikes at work also has a calculator to help you total expenses.

Time costs include:
  • The obvious one: time spent driving. Note that this isn't just a time problem, but also potentially a health problem, since you are exposed to pollutants when you are driving. Of course, commuting by foot/bike/bus/subway takes time too (and can subject you to pollutants), but people often commute farther in cars than they do via other means, and if you are commuting on bus/train/bike/foot, the time can be used for other things (reading, exercise).
  • Time spent in car maintenance and repair. This includes both maintenance and repair that you might do yourself (e.g. washing car, changing wiper blades, changing oil) and dealing with maintenance and repairs done by others (e.g. car detailing, major car repairs)
  • Time spent finding someplace to put your car. In the city this can actually be a fairly large amount of time if you don’t own or rent a parking spot.
  • If you live in a snowy climate, time spent digging your car out of the snow in the winter.
If you have a car, what are your biggest costs, both in time and money? What are the hidden costs? If you are carfree, are you saving money? Are you saving time, or do other forms of commuting eat up the time saved by getting rid of your car?

Next time we'll address mental and emotional costs as well as social and environmental costs, and then we'll start to look at the flipside -- the costs of being carfree.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dispatch from Woods Hole

A couple folks have requested an update from Woods Hole. I'm learning a lot, there are a lot of great folks, the scenery is lovely, the entire town is about about 3 blocks square (much of that is the Marine Biological Laboratory where I'm studying for the month), and they feed us all the time. I'm really loving this not having to cook thing, though I must say the combination of minimal exercise, lots of time working on the computer and attending lectures, no toddler chasing, and decent cafeteria food has me feeling a bit like a slug. It's pretty easy to be car-free...since there isn't really anywhere I need to go.

I really miss H and Angela A LOT. I was expecting it to be hard, but not quite this hard. They got down for a good visit (along with my hero mother-in-law!) a couple weeks ago, and I got back to Boston for one last summer trip to the neighborhood pool last weekend (to see in-person proof of H's claim: "I swimming like a big kid"), but I'm feeling seriously deprived of toddler togetherness, and Angela has had an overdose. As great as this course is (really, it is far better than I expected), I'm remembering why I got happier as a scientist once I had a kid.

I'll be heading home for good this weekend, and since one of the other students has practically begged to ride my bike back to Boston, I'll be hopping on the bus. Hopefully he makes it!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Some finds on the web

Today I wasted a little time on the internet (OK, you can change "today" to "everyday") and I found a few interesting websites I hadn't seen before, so I thought I'd share:
  • There's a great page on carfree cities from Bikes at Work, Inc. This page uses census data to rank cities according to alternative commuting and percent of households that are carfree. I'm considering moving to New Square, New York which is 75% carfree (and I bet a couple of lesbian Jews-by-choice would fit right in). Note that on this page you can do your own search and as a result I found that Cambridge ("our fair city" to quote the cartalk guys who I still love to listen to) is 28% carfree with over 50% of people commuting by foot, bike, or public transportation. By the way, check out the Bikes at Work site, which has resources to help you haul stuff by bike (including how to move by bike), and a carfree resource page.
  • I also just found a carfree group on Yahoo and joined. I'm not that excited to get something new in my mailbox, but I'm hoping it will provide additional support/community. It seems like a medium-activity list.
  • For those of you that happen to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the city has a pair of good sites about biking and walking. Here you can find phone numbers about pothole repair, sidewalk clearance, and information about how to get involved with improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Just because you are carfree doesn't mean that you never have to interact with a car, and somehow everytime I use a car it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This weekend, my mother, H. and I rented a car and drove down to see Dorea in Woods Hole. The trip down started with us getting a parking ticket (and later we realized we had actually gotten two parking tickets). Then we had to endure two hours in the car with H. who really hates her carseat. Luckily we had brought along a portable DVD player to distract her, but I still had to sit in the back with her for half of the trip. (And somehow I think it must be the fault of the car that H. learned to climb out of her crib on this trip as well!)

My second complaint isn't about being in a car, it's about car drivers. Now, most of you car drivers out there are willing to share the road with pedestrians and cyclists, but unfortunately it's not you nice people who shout things out of your car windows at me. Tuesday, I was biking with H., going to Davis square after picking up our CSA share. I was making a left from Willow Ave onto Highland Ave. I often stop the bike and walk across this intersection because it can be difficult to make a left, but this time I pulled up just as the light turned red and decided to go ahead and make the left. I was just about to successfully make the left when a jerk behind us starts honking and screaming at me to get off the road, shouting a variety of obscenities, and calling me a hippy freak or some such nonsense. I wish I could have exchanged some colorful words with him, but all I could do was give him the finger since I was engaged in trying to get myself and my child safely across a lane of traffic.

It's not the first time I've been cursed at by a jerk in a car while with H. When she was a little under a year old, I was walking with H. (she was in an Ergo) somewhere in Somerville, when I started walking across a small cross street. This guy comes peeling around the corner, cutting me off, and then decides to stop his truck and curse me out for not watching where I was going. Now, he had a little bit of a point. I had been walking along singing a little song to myself and not paying quite enough attention to the very real possibility that a driver might come along and take a fast turn in front of me. But he was in the wrong, too, because he shouldn't have taken the turn nearly that fast, and should have been watching out for pedestrians as well. In any case there was no need to yell "f*ing hippy b*ch" at me (he could tell I was a hippy because of the baby carrier, but I'm not sure how he could tell I was a b*ch).

So, what is it with these drivers that seem to take personal offense at the fact that I'm not driving? Back when I was just myself, I would have stopped to chat, but now I feel obliged to keep it tame and thus I don't have an outlet for my anger. But maybe that's for the best, as I can't imagine that my yelling at drivers is really going to heal the bike/driver divide. So I've decided to take each rude driver as a reminder to look at my own biking practices and make sure I'm being as safe (and courteous) as I can be.

Monday, August 18, 2008

But is it safe?

The most common question I get about biking with my daughter is whether or not it is safe. I've also noticed that on any thread on any forum or list that addresses biking with kids, someone says some version of "You are all really awful parents. You should never bike with children in X setup or before/after Y age. Keep them in a car where they are safe."

My short answer is that, no, I don't think biking is safe, for adults or kids. Cars are big. Bikes and people are small. People are soft. There is very little space for bikes on American roads. But driving in cars miles and miles a week isn't safe either. Commuting on the highway every day 10-30 miles each way is unsafe, but it is a risk that we as a culture consider normal.

But I do think that biking is safe enough, and that on balance, once you consider the other alterations we've made to accommodate car-free living, our safety risk (for both grown-ups and kid) is not dramatically worse than the average suburban family, in which members drive (or are driven) to virtually all work, school and activities.

This "safety assessment" on my part has been based primarily on 12 years of experience with big city biking, and my own gut feeling, which is perhaps not the most scientific method. But recently, on one of those threads where folks got bent out of shape about safety, someone pointed to a quick analysis that actually seems useful. In 2005, bicyclist deaths were only about 2% of all traffic fatalities in the US. However, that doesn't take into consideration how few people bike, or how far they bike. If you also take into consideration the fact that only 0.2% of miles traveled are by bike, then you can get a ballpark estimate of actual risk. Assuming that all remaining miles and all remaining fatalities were in cars (which isn't perfect), biking results in 10 times as many deaths per passenger mile as driving. In MA, the situation may be a little better, since the 2006 stats put bike deaths at 1.4% of traffic deaths, but I couldn't find any MA specific data on miles traveled.

Now, 10 times as risky as driving sounds pretty bad. But this is per passenger mile, and people drive much longer distances than they bike. Our daughter is almost never in a car, except when we travel (this weekend's trip to visit Woods Hole for instance). In our daughter's case, she's on the bike less than 5 miles per week. Thus, even with this overestimate, her accident risk due to biking is less than any kid who's in a car more than 50 miles per week, which I'm guessing is a lot of kids in car-dependent families, particularly those who travel long distances to school.

The situation might be a bit different for me, since I commute the longest in our family, at about 5 miles total per working day. Thus, someone would have to be commuting at least 50 miles per day for me to beat them out safety wise (for commute only). But here, I'll note that we almost never drive for those extra errands, to the store, or to visit family, so it may well even out once you consider non-commute driving, and that doesn't take into account health benefits of exercising instead of just sitting in a car, or the fact that safe traffic biking practices and basic safety considerations (like lights and helmets) reduce deaths.

Similar analysis for pedestrian stats is also somewhat sobering, resulting in 15.7 times the driving risk per mile. But again, people just don't walk very far so similar logic holds. Interestingly, no one ever suggests that you shouldn't walk somewhere because it is "unsafe."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

XtraCycle Specs

To follow up Angela's introduction to our new cargo & kid bike, here are some details and thoughts for others who might like to try this set up.
  • I got advice from local xtracycle riders (including Cambridge City Counsilor Craig Kelley, who was a great resource) that disc brakes and 26" tires are preferable for easy maintenance and strength, and also because of some peculiarities of the xtracycle free radical kit. We also preferred a more upright posture, which is actually kind of hard to find in a 26" bike. We ended up settling on the Trek SU 2.0, which is sort of a cross between a mountain bike and a commuter bike.
  • The xtracycle conversion went on great, after some confusion over what was the proper disc brake rotor. The bike mechanics at Quad Bikes did a great job.
  • Unfortunately, the peapod seat (also known as the Bobike Maxi+ in Europe) did not fit perfectly, due to our small bike frame (Angela is very little 5' 1"). I think there are small frames that it would fit, but a little frame really restricts the number of installation options. I won't bore you with details, but the upshot is that we got the seat to fit....sort of. It is too reclined for my preferences, had to be mounted on the seat post, and only barely clears the extracycle snap deck. At first the seat post mounting made me nervous, but I've since gotten over it, since there are other seats actually designed to attach to the seat post. If the struts supporting the footrests were longer and/or the ATB bracket attached to the bike were just slightly shorter, it would fit perfectly. It works well enough to hang onto and use for now, but won't be as useful as H gets bigger, so I'm still on a quest for a way to fix the seat attachment or get a better seat. I'm rather enthralled with this DIY set up that I saw described on the rootsradicals group. I wonder if we could pull off something similar.
  • If I had it to do over, I would first purchase the peapod seat alone, take it to the bike shop, and make sure that whatever bike we were getting would fit the kid seat, since that turned out to be the most restrictive compatibility issue. We might have had to give up on either the disc brakes or the 26" tires to get it to work, though.
  • Despite my annoyance about the seat, this bike is great. H loves it. It handles amazingly well. Suddenly errands we just avoided or couldn't do with H in tow are easy and fun. I was doubtful when I first heard folks saying this bike would change our lives. Not anymore. Local folks who are interested should feel free to contact us for a test ride.

I love the library!

To me the library is just about the greatest place on earth. It's like going to a Barnes and Noble where everything is free (but unfortunately there's no Starbucks). I love it even more now that I'm a parent. Here's some reasons you should love the library too, courtesy of Thrifty Green Thursday at Green Baby Guide:
  • Books! You can take out any book in the place for free (and sometimes magazines too)! Of course you have to return everything, but you don't really need those books cluttering up your tiny apartment anyway. And, if you are checking out kids books, its a great comfort to know that, yes, you will have to read this book 1,000 times in the next three weeks, but after that it can be out of your life forever. And don't worry that your kids will be hard on the library books -- you should teach them to treat books gently, but most libraries and librarians don't get flustered when a toddler tears a book (just let them know, and it's better to let the library do the repair than to do it yourself).
  • DVDs! Forget about Blockbuster or Netflix -- get your movies for free and return them on your next library trip.
  • Free activities for your kids! Most libraries have story times and many have programming for older kids and adults as well.
  • Free passes! Many libraries offer free passes to museums and other activities in your area. You generally have to reserve these in advance and the best passes tend to go early.
  • Be kind to the environment! By not purchasing your own books and DVDs, you use fewer natural resources and share those resources with others.
  • If you live in a city, you may have a library within walking distance. It might not be a big library (we get our library fix at the tiny O'Neill Branch), but it is great to get to know your local librarians, go to local activities, and you can often get materials from other libraries sent to you.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Introducing our new Xtracycle!

While Dorea is in Woods Hole, H. and I are up in Boston, holding down the fort, and getting a lot of time together to use our new Xtracycle. FYI, all of the credit for researching and acquiring the Xtracycle goes to Dorea. We have the Free Radical mounted on a hybrid Trek with disk brakes and a Peapod for H. on the back. I'm going to let Dorea make a post about all of the gear, because she's the gearhead -- I'm just riding the thing.

I was nervous when first riding the Xtracycle, especially with H. on the back. I ride a bike daily, but I have a short commute (3/4 mile each way), so I have lost some of the "city-biking chops" that I used to be so proud of. With a child on the back, the Xtracycle is a little more wobbly than the green Giant mountain bike that I've been riding for 10 years or so. But a little riding cured me of my wobble and it is now a very smooth enjoyable ride. A person might also be nervous about riding a bike with a hell-raising gremlin on the back (that would be the two-year-old H.). But we have rules about the bike (like "no wiggling" and "don't touch the driver while the bike is in motion") and we stop the bike ASAP if she breakes a rule. She likes to ride, so she's well behaved. She also tells me "shoe on pedal Ima!" as soon as we're ready to ride because she wants to get moving! We've instituted a checklist we go through: helmets (for both of us), foot straps, and seatbelt (this checklist is the result of the fact that I once forgot to strap her in -- and she corrected me right away).

The bike is a little taller than I'm used to (we got a bike at the upper end of my size range and the lower end of Dorea's, and I think we probably got the smallest bike that would accommodate both the Free Radical and the Peapod) and has a straight top tube rather than a step-through style top tube. I am very short (5' 1.25", and, yes the quarter of an inch is important), so it's a little challenging for me to get on the bike, but I've gotten used to that at this point. The bike can also be hard to walk with because it is longer than a standard bike and not as maneuverable. It's taken me about a week, but I'm fairly good now at moving it in tight situations.

They don't call it an SUB (sport-utility bicycle) for nothin'! It takes H. and I everywhere we might want to go and lets us carry all the stuff we might want with us. The other day we went to sleep over at a friend's house and had the following with us: my work backpack (with my computer, files, etc.), our "trip" backpack (with changes of clothes, H's sleeping gear, etc.), H's bag from school (which was full of towels and blankets and changes of clothes because it was the end of the week when all of that junk comes home), and a full picnic dinner for us to have after school. We fit all of it easily in the Xtracycle and could have hauled much more. We've even strapped our stroller to the bike (OK, Dorea did that one, but I think I could do it too!). One day last week, I picked H. up from school and then went grocery shopping on the bike (and today we'll do the same, except I plan on picking up a drying rack at the same time).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Car-free road trip

For much of August, I am staying about 70 miles south of Boston at a summer intensive at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. Before I came down, I spent a lot of time worrying about how Angela and H. would fare in my absence, how much I was going to miss H, and how much I was going to enjoy having someone else cook for me while here. But I forgot to think very hard about how I was actually going to get here.

The idea of biking down had crossed my mind, maybe sometime in June, but any work on necessary preparation for such a trip was quickly brushed aside in our summer chaos of multiple work trips (for both of us), seemingly innumerable family visits, and looming grant deadlines. But a day and a half before I needed to leave, I got it in my head that I really did want to have my bike here, and that I didn't want to box my bike for a trip on the Peter Pan bus (I don't know how, didn't have time to learn, and I think the dirt is holding my bike together so I'm loathe to take it apart). I quickly figured out that a bike-friendly commuter rail ride to Plymouth would get me what I thought was 30 miles from Woods Hole, which seemed somewhat do-able, even though I've never done a long-ish ride like that. I bustled around cleaning my bike, rustling up panniers to borrow (Thank you Karen!), buying a much needed rain-jacket and snacks, packing, culling, and repacking the panniers, all during the approximately 30 hours that Angela and I were both home after her trip but before mine. Angela, bless her, thought this was a great idea and helped with the planning.

The ride turned out to be wonderful. There was plenty of room for my bike on the train. I found my way easily using my Rubel bike maps (though the directions at the Sagamore Bridge could use some work), following the Claire Saltonstall Bikeway. The weather originally threatened rain, but surely my nice new rain gear is what fended it off. I felt so free as I sailed down the side highways on my little old road bike, with everything I needed in my panniers. As I rode, I wondered why I had never done this before and fantasized about a tandem bicycle and family bike trips. My bike even held up fine. The ride also turned out to be 40 miles, not 30, but it was manageable (surely it has been documented that pre-trip estimates are always low).

If I'd had a car, I would have just driven down. Had I been feeling less adventurous, I certainly could have taken the bus, but I love that the combination of pressures (not easy to get a bike on the bus, no car with bike rack, really wanting my bike in Woods Hole) combined to encourage me to have a new adventure, one that I hope to repeat. That said, I think I'll hitch a ride back to Boston. It's uphill going back.

Monday, August 4, 2008


Our toddler is increasingly uninterested in riding in her stroller. She wants to walk! Of course, the problem is that walking with a toddler isn't always, um, productive. And then there's the problem of walkability and safety.

Walkability and Safety

We live in a fairly walkable neighborhood, but safety is a big concern when we walk. We are lucky that we can walk to daycare, stores, parks, and the library, but to walk to these places we sometimes have to walk along busy streets. To stay safe, we have some rules about walking.
  • When we are walking on a quiet, neighborhood street, H. can walk on her own (without holding a hand) and holds hands to cross the street (or gets carried). If she goes into the street, she'll get a time out (and if it is feasible, we'll return home for the timeout to show the seriousness of the problem).
  • On a busy street, we make her hold hands all the time (or hold onto a stroller or bicycle if holding hands isn't doable). When crossing a busy street, we generally carry her, as it takes a long time to cross the street and she'll often forget about the holding hand rule before we get to the other side.
  • Personally, I'd like to start doing more with H. to emphasize walking safety, such as this activity, or starting to read some books about walking safety, or better yet, singing songs about walking safety.

The Frustration Factor

To keep H. from driving us completely crazy as we walk with her, we use the following strategies (and we are looking for more, so please leave some in the comments).
  • Don't try to go very far or very fast. Our best walks tend to be short ones. To the nearest park is a quarter mile. H.'s limit is about a half-mile walk (she'll get tired enough to want to be carried by the very end).
  • Walk to someplace exciting. That way, there's a reason for your child to keep walking, and you can remind them about your destination when they start to slow down.
  • Play games. We do a stop/go game (basically red light, green light) that our daughter likes. We'll also move her forward with "Can you run to the ______?"
  • Especially when you are starting, have a backup plan. We often bring the stroller, even if we are planning to walk, because that gives us a backup if H. gets tired, and it gives us an enforceable threat if she isn't behaving resonably.

More Resources

  • http://www.walktoschool.org. This looks like a terrific campain, designed to get kids walking to school (and to make communities walkable). Why walk to school? The organization gives three reasons: to enhance the health of kids, to improve air quality and the environment, and to reduce air pollution.
  • How walkable is your community? Answer a few questions about your walking trips and get a walkability score and tips for improving your walks and your neighborhood.
  • The walking school bus. Get together with other parents in your neighborhood and form a "walking school bus" in which one or more parents walks with several children to school. Great idea!
  • Walking safety. Here's a site that includes pictures of cross-walk signs and lights to teach children about safe street crossing.
  • And don't forget that Google Maps now offers pedestrian directions (choose "Walking" rather than "By Car").

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cost of Living in Cambridge vs. the Cost of a Car

One interesting tradeoff that we've used to make our lives car-free is to trade housing costs for automobile costs. The only reason that we can afford to live in a condo in Cambridge, MA, is that we don't have to make any car payments or pay the high costs of maintenance and gasoline. Now, that is not to say that we don't have any transportations costs at all. We pay to ride the subway and the bus, we pay occasionally for the use of a zipcar, and we spend a significant amount of money on our bicycles. But those costs pale in comparison to the cost of car ownership.

Lowering our transportation costs allows us to tolerate an increase in housing costs, hence we can afford to live in an expensive city. We've kept our housing costs as low as possible by living in a 2-bedroom , 660 square foot condominium. We don't have a yard, but we do have many parks nearby (and we live on a private way which sort of functions as a paved yard for kids in the neighborhood). Personally, I like to think of our closest park as a yard that's maintained by the nice people at the Department of Public Works. We're willing to live in a small place in order to be able to live without our car, and we see it as a choice we are making, rather than as a constraint that we are forced to live with.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Trains and Buses and Toddlers

We have family in town right now who are staying in the south end, and this means more rides on buses and subways for our little family than usual. Yesterday we took a bus to the science museum, a train to "vacation house" (as H. calls it), and then a pair of trains back home. Since we were riding at rush hour, we took H. out of her stroller and let her ride either sitting on my lap or sitting on her own seat. She hasn't yet done much riding outside of her stroller, so we were curious to see how she would do.

The results were mixed. She was happy to be sitting in her own seat, but was a bit more vigorous that most of the other riders probably would have enjoyed. She liked looking out of the window, but sometimes had to be reminded to be quieter in her enthusiasm. She needed frequent reminders to continue sitting and was squirmy enough that the trips made me tired. During the last ride, we had to get off of the train because H. got a little hysterical when the nice man she was flirting with moved a few seats down (either to get away from her, or to give us room to sit down next to her -- I'm not sure which). We put her back into her stroller and told her if she didn't calm down we would get off the train. She didn't, so we did, and we got back on the next train with a calmer child who stayed in her stroller.

So we still have some things to work on. We want her to be safe on the train, to listen to us, and to sit in a seat (although I think we're deciding that kneeling in order to be able to look out the window is OK). We've been thinking of taking some "practice" stroller-free train trips with her for short distances so that we can work on the rules of riding in situations with less pressure.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Surprising Benefits from Being Car Free

One surprising benefit of being car free has been the reduction of choice in our lives. This might seem counter intuitive in a world in which more choices are assumed to make us happier. But making choices takes a lot of time and energy. If we hadn't been restricted geographically, we would have felt obliged to research 15 possible daycare centers; instead, we considered just the three that were walking distance from our home. That was a significant savings of time and effort, and it was a surprising relief not to feel obligated to provide our child with the absolute "best" of everything. We can easily provide her with "very good" using only resources that are close by.

But of course giving up choice is not always easy and it doesn't automatically make you happier. We have given up some things that were important to us in order to live without a car. For us, the most important thing we gave up was membership in a great religious community, which was located in Newton and not very accessible by public transportation. Before we had a child, we were able to manage membership, both due to the generosity of other members who lived in our neighborhood and offered us rides, and by using our Zipcar. However, once we added our daughter to the mix, it became prohibitive to carpool while getting a car seat in and out, and difficult to fit a 45 minute drive on both sides of an activity without messing up hard-won nap schedules. Any trip to our synagogue left us exhausted.

Though we were sad to leave our old synagogue, committing ourselves to being car free forced us to find the Jewish community in Cambridge and Somerville, which has many offerings that we hadn't even known about. We found and became members of Havurat Shalom, which is within walking distance of our home. Joining this community has come a host of unexpected benefits: we no longer drive on Shabbat, we have good friends within walking distance of our house, and we have convenient playmates for our daughter whose parents share our values.

Friday, July 18, 2008

About Us

Who are we, you ask? We're Angela and Dorea Vierling-Claassen, two carfree mathematicians who have a daughter H (born 6/06) and a son R (born 5/09). We've been happily carfree since our truck died in 2004. Oh, and in case the names aren't a complete tip-off, we're also lesbians.

Dorea works on mathematical modeling in neuroscience at MIT and MGH. Angela teaches mathematics at Lesley University and works on using game theory to model the division of labor in parenting.

Our other passions include talking a lot about almost everything, knitting (Dorea), reading (Angela), pretending to give people raisins (H) and laughing at his big sister (R). We live in North Cambridge, are members of Havurat Shalom, get veggies from Parker Farm, get our groceries at the Market Basket and lug them home in our Xtracycle.

Becoming Car-Free with a Kid

Before our daughter was born in Summer 2006, we were already avid bike commuters and users of public transit. We chose our Somerville (Massachusetts) neighborhood because it was an easy walking distance from groceries and work for Angela, and a manageable bike ride for Dorea. When we started planning for a child we decided that we were committed to staying in an urban setting (for the time being in our 400 square foot 1 bedroom apartment) and that we would remain car-free.

There were many naysayers. I'm pretty sure our friends were taking bets on how long we'd last without a car now that we had a kid. People would kindly, but hesitantly, inquire about our living and transport situation and when we would insist that we were staying in town and weren't planning to get a car. They would exchange knowing looks with one another and say, "oh...really...," and then change the subject. But as our daughter grew, our enjoyment of and commitment to being car-free grew as well. Eventually we couldn't stand the one-bedroom apartment anymore, but all of that money we saved by not supporting a car permitted us to buy a condo, which we were careful to choose in close proximity to work and public transit. When it came time for our daughter to attend daycare 3 days a week, we chose a center an easy 10 minute walk from home. Our biggest concern in moving was that we were no longer walking distance from our favorite grocery store (the cheapest), but our neighbors (car-lite avid family bikers) offered to share their bicycle trailer and I was able to haul more groceries by bike than I ever managed previously on foot.

We've gained so many benefits from car-free family living. The most obvious is financial. We would never have been able to afford our home at this point in our lives had we also had to financially support a car. But some of the more important benefits were unexpected. By living car-free we've become very integrated into our immediate geographic area. If we had a car, we would be free to associate with friends spread all around the city and suburbs, probably selecting friends just like us. But we don’t have a car to visit far-flung friends, so we make friends and find community with the wonderful variety of people in our own neighborhood. We live in what we think is the best neighborhood in the world for kids, and we love how close we have grown to our neighbors and neighborhood in the year we have been in North Cambridge. Living this way is not without inconveniences, but by far the good outweighs the bad, and by a margin much larger than we ever could have anticipated.