Sunday, October 4, 2009

Advice for taking the car free plunge -- Part II: Back-up Plans

This is part of a series in response to a question we got way back when from a family considering remaining car free in our neighborhood after their car met an untimely (or timely?) demise. In Part I we addressed some questions regarding gear. Here we bite off something perhaps even more important: The Back-Up Plan

In general, it is best to have at least two possible ways to get anywhere you need to go on a regular basis. If you've had a car, even if it's just one car that you barely ever use, you've always had a fail-safe back-up plan for any required trip. Even if you took almost every trip by bike or transit, if the weather turned sour or you felt kind of sick that day, you had another option. Biking is a fabulous primary method of transport for the car-free who are in good health, but, especially with kids involved and New England winters, it's just not going to work every single day. Yes, yes, I know plenty of you are wonderful hard core bikers and will ride in anything, no matter how nasty, slippery or icy, and I used to be one of you. But I'm not going to take my kid(s) out in everything, especially not on ice, and my personal risk tolerance has also gone down since having kids.

Fortunately for Lauren. who asked this question originally and lives in our area, there are a wealth of back-up plans, mostly based on public transit. I used my back-up plan (taking the Red Line to Kendall) to get to work for about a year while I was pregnant and recovering from birth, though I am now happily biking again. The train takes longer than biking, but it's pretty reliable and with my discount T-pass through work, it is quite affordable. I also have several bus routes available that take me to several places I might need to stop on the way to or from work, and knowing available routes comes in very handy when the T is delayed. Angela can walk, bike, bus, or take the T to work, but bike is her first choice. Daycare drop-off is mostly by foot and sometimes by bike. Groceries are almost always by bike, and our snowstorm back-up is to shop at the store we don't like that's closer, or to borrow our friends car (hey, we're not purists). There is also a bus, but paying more (and grumbling) at the close-by store is usually our preferred back-up option.

Another great back-up option is a car-share (Zipcar in our area) and this might be particularly good for someone making the transition away from car ownership. Lauren has a 3.5 y.o. who is probably able to be in a booster seat in the car, which is relatively easy to get in and out. With car sharing, if you are used to using your car for occasional trips, you'll still have that option easily available. Car sharing can really help you to take the plunge; at first, you can give yourself permission to just get a car whenever you don't see another easy way to make a trip. It won't feel like too much of a lifestyle shift, and you won't feel deprived and resentful. But one of the beautiful things about a car-share like this is that it attaches the economic cost of the car to the activity itself because you pay by the hour. So even if at first you use it a lot, you'll soon find yourself motivated to find ways around using the car (is it really worth $35 to get to Target when you could pay just a tiny bit more for the same thing from the hardware store on the corner?).

When we first got rid of our car we were fairly heavy Zipcar users (2-3 times a month). But that was ages ago, and while we still maintain a membership so we can have the option, we are considering cutting it because we just don't use it (as in, I can't remember the last time), and we have friends who generously offer their cars for occasional use (which definitely was a help while I was pregnant).

When we were first car free, I remember frequently feeling like I was backed into a corner. Suddenly there was something I couldn't do without a car! But once you've settled into your life, and have ready access to two or three methods of doing your most frequent tasks, you can save the effort of figuring and planning for the big stuff, like cooking up a fabulous car-free camping trip, or adventures by train out of town. And that kind of planning is actually fun.


CarFree Stupidity said...

My back up plan... have three bicycles. But of course, all I have to worry about is myself, no kids yet.

ksteinhoff said...

The Florida Department of Transportation is experimenting with a Plan B for commuters.

If you live in certain counties, you register with their program and they'll pick up the tab for as many as six cab rides a year if your Plan A falls through.

The program is available to commuters who carpool, vanpool, ride transit, bicycle, or walk to work at least three days a week.

Amy Herbst said...

When our second car got totalled almost two years ago (parked on the street in front of our house!) we debated about buying another car. After the first month we realized how much easier, cheaper and more relaxing it was to have only one car. Now we rarely even drive the one. I love your point about linking the cost of getting there (Target) to what you're actually buying. I am constantly thinking about things like that too. It's quite fun and challenging to figure out ways around needing the car!

Anonymous said...

This article was very interesting. I think that the carfree option is excellent for those who live in a city with excellent public transportation, but for people who don't I am not sure it would work. In Las Vegas, as big of a city as it is the public trasportation is not good at all. I feel like this is something that really needs to be worked on in this country.
Aunt Wendy