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 xtracycle.com) 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.