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

  • 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").