Monday, August 31, 2009

Advice for the carfree plunge, Part 1: Gear

We got a comment last week from Lauren asking for advice in taking the step from car-light family to car-free family. She writes:

"My family (two grown-ups one 3.5 year old) have been day dreaming about being car free for a while- since we already owned a car, it was easy to just do our best being car light. Since our car has now taken it's last trip (by way of a high speed car wreck) we have the perfect opportunity to take the challenge on. I love the IDEA of car free, but things like, snow, illness, and visiting the grandparents makes me worry. I have been reading your blog and have found it very helpful and comforting. Right now we have a simple set up- two old bikes, a child bike seat and a burley trailer (with no rain cover)... but we have daycare that is walkable and work near the bike path. Any advice for some essentials to make life easier? ... (Our t-stop is Alewife too, maybe someday we will see you out there!)"
I have several thoughts for Lauren, and we'll get to them, but the most important thing I have to say is that you can do it! You live in our neighborhood, so I know for a fact that the resources are here. Yes, it can feel scary, and you will certainly have to figure out new ways to do some things, but I bet you'll feel a payoff pretty quickly in terms of your place in our community, your health and that feeling of freedom that comes from knowing you'll never get a parking ticket again. Now, for the first portion of some more detailed thoughts:

GEAR: It sounds like you have a completely reasonable bike set-up in order to use biking for a lot of your transport needs. Your trailer can be used easily for either kid or cargo, and if you need to haul cargo and kid at once, you can put the kid in the bike seat and haul stuff in the trailer. You might consider getting a hitch on both bikes if you haven't done so already. You also might consider some rain gear (like a raincover for the trailer, and rain pants and jacket for adults.) The number of days that you can ride comfortably in this area goes up dramatically once you are moderately protected from water. However, that said, we still only have one set of adult rain gear in our house, and we're fine. I got a LOT happier with my bike commute once I got rain gear, and now that Angela has been borrowing mine while I was on pregnancy bike hiatus, we may need to buck up and get a second set. Mostly though, if your bikes work and you have a way to haul both kid and some cargo, you are fine, and any remaining gear decisions come easier if you go ahead and ride with what you have, and then notice what drives you crazy the most. Then you can find gear that troubleshoots that problem specifically, rather than trying to anticipate all possible needs ahead of time (which will just make you spend a lot of money).

At some point quite soon, your 3.5 y.o. will outgrow the bike seat (most American seats have a 40 pound limit). The trailer work for a while after that, but soon that won't work either. If you're a carfree or mostly carfree family, consider the next kid-hauling purchase with cargo as well as kid in mind. The most common next step from the trailer is a trail-a-bike, but like the trailer, that has an extremely limited lifespan and even worse, provides no cargo capacity. If you need the trail-a-bike for the kid and also need to carry groceries what do you do? Well, some folks make giant trains by hooking a trailer to the trail-a-bike, and that does work, but it's a lot of weight and, in my opinion, a lot of accident risk due to sheer length. Another option is to go with both front and rear panniers on the adult bicycle, which does get you something, but if you need to haul groceries for a whole family, that probably won't cut it. We love our xtracycle (see also for its ability to carry both kid and stuff in a relatively compact package. There are other great cargo options out there (including the ute and the madsen), but from a price perspective, you might have great luck converting one of your existing adult bikes to an xtra, or possibly even both, once the trailer is outgrown. Even though a conversion would cost more than an trailer-bike, it would get you many many more years of use, and would be useful long after the kid bikes on his/her own. But you don't have to do it now. You can wait, see how your car-free lives unfold, and then assess down the line what next purchase will give your family the most use.

Next time, in part II, we address the importance of back-up plans.


Anonymous said...

If it's in your budget, and they are available in your area, the following are wonderful options as well:

Anonymous said...

Great suggestions!

For raingear can I suggest:

They sell PVC and Phthatate free raingear for kids and adults. They have euro bike ponchos too on Special order!

ride on!

Lex said...

We, too, are considering going car-free (or AT LEAST selling one of our two vehicles) once we move to our new home (easily accessible to most everything we need by bike/bus/foot). The main hesitation for us is also visiting grand-parents (and great-grandparents), something that we currently do two or three times a month (more in summer). Unfortunately our extended family lives close enough (15-60 miles away) for us to want to visit often, but too far to bike and not in towns with public transportation.

I am READY to at least sell one car, but my wife is not. She grew up in the woods and definitely seems to see her car (a 2-door civic) as the ultimate symbol of freedom (whereas I grew up in the city and associate cars with traffic, parking tickets and snow emergency/street cleaning nightmares). "My" car is a minivan, which fits all four of our children, while the civic does not. I'd be happy to have my wife drive it daily, but she hates that idea since it's a MINIVAN and her civic is so much more fuel efficient. So I suggested that we sell the minivan and just rent a second sedan whenever we need to go somewhere as a family (or, for that matter, rent a minivan when we need to go somewhere as a family), but that idea makes my wife panic as well. She says we'll be trapped.

It was kind of funny actually, because we were discussing this today in said minivan while driving home from my grandparents' house. We were each stating our strong opinions on the matter (it's so frustrating to me that we don't see eye-to-eye on this since my wife is a passionate environmentalist), and the discussion was a bit heated. Then our baby started crying and we ended up having to pull over a million times to try and soothe him and the last hour of the trip was just pure misery for all of us (mostly the baby). When we got home I think we were ALL ready to NEVER drive anywhere again!

So, I'm very hopeful that my wife will come around, but still curious about how we will make this happen and yet NOT feel trapped or like we need to limit our visits with family (which are very important to both of us).

Thanks for offering up so many wonderful suggestions! I'm off to check out the puddle-gear linked above. I'm also thinking that ski goggles could make a huge difference in the winter.

Anonymous said...

When you get to the next parts, could you add any thoughts on which car seat(s) are best if you don't own a car but need to occasionally ride with friends and take cabs? Our baby is due in 4 months.

Max said...

If going the cargo bike route, another (fairly) inexpensive option for a is the Yuba Mundo. We have one and it works great for carying our 5.5 and 2.5 y.o. A bit heavy, but it really is a smooth ride, and handles any load terrifically. I made two seats (there are now seats you can buy for them), and the kids love going for rides.
And another great feature of just about any brand of cargo bike is that you can usually carry their bikes too, and let them transition into riding more.

Thank you Car Free With Kids for a really informative and inspirational site.

Anonymous said...

Don't underestimate the power of public transportation, either.