True Life Stories of the Carfree- Mary, Xaq and Darwin (3), Rochester NY

In the second of our series (see part I here) of guest posts and interviews with families (that aren’t us) living carfree, we introduce Mary, Xaq and Darwin (age 3) living completely carfree in Rochester NY, despite some truly impressive winters. They provide a wonderful example of a family living beautifully carfree (relying largely on bikes and walking, and a bit on buses) in a place where conventional wisdom says that you “absolutely need” a car, especially with kids. Are you living carfree with kids? Would you like to contribute to this series? We’d love to hear from you. Write to us at carfreewithkids at gmail. Mary writes: 

We are a family of 2 adults and 1 preschooler living carfree in Rochester NY. My husband and I were carfree bike commuters in Boston for several years before having a child, so it seemed natural to try and continue that. There are so many things we love about not owning a car. Let’s start with economics: we don’t pay car insurance, or gas, or parking, and the cost of bike purchase/maintenance is tiny compared to car ownership. Then there’s the environmental benefit, and the fitness benefit; mild exercise is an automatic part of my day and my thighs are all the happier for it. Consider the hassles we avoid: rush hour traffic doesn’t add travel time when you’re a biker; construction generally doesn’t either. You never have to move your car to the other side of the street, or shovel it out in the winter, or waste time looking for parking—almost without exception, I can lock my bike right in front of my destinations, for free. But I think my favorite things about biking are simply the joys of the ride: how much you get to see, how free you feel, how easy it is to find another route / get unlost / explore. On a bike you can interact much more (and much more freely) with your surroundings than you can in a car, and you can easily see so much more of your city than if you walked. The romance of night rides along quiet city streets, the thrill of whipping downhill, the affirmation of relying on your own bodily power to get around. Biking feels like a nearly perfect mode of transport for us.

Our “family bike” is a heavy, sturdy longtail bike that is built for cargo and/or child-toting: a Kona Ute, with the Xtracycle’s Peapod childseat mounted on it (total cost was around $1200). It is fitted with 2 enormous rainproof panniers and can hold quite a lot of groceries; one of us makes the trip every 10-14 days, a 20 minute ride each way. There is room behind the childseat to bungee more stuff on. We share that bike without having to readjust the seat (our height difference is 4 inches), and we each have a “regular” bike as well.

We definitely planned things to make our carfree existence possible: we chose to live 1 mile from my work (10 minute ride for me) and 3 miles from my husband’s work (15-20 minute ride for him, and being slightly sweaty doesn’t matter so much at his job). We knew the best-case childcare situation would be one located right near our home, and we were lucky to find a good situation only 10 minutes’ walk from our door. So far, that has been an acceptable walk even in the worst winter storms. (Second choice would have been childcare next to his or my work.) We also chose our primary care doctor based in part on their proximity to us. Finally, our chosen neighborhood has sufficient commercial activity within a 15 minute walk—drugstore, restaurants, bakeries, etc. The only thing we seem to lack is a super-convenient grocery store, which basically comes down to (the relatively privileged “problem” of) not having easy access to a wide variety of fresh produce in the winter.

As a winter-savvy city, the roads are kept admirably clear in Rochester, so last winter I was able to bike to work about 75% of the time. I will bike (without my child) in any kind of weather up to and including a very light snowfall; if it is snowing any harder, I just walk the mile to work, or wait for the bus. Good rain gear (coat, pants, backpack cover) will get you very far! Ski goggles are a good idea if you are going to bike during actual snowfalls (says my blizzard-biking husband). I leave my professional clothes at work, and my ride is short and flat enough that I don’t really get sweaty on the way. In terms of the cold… well, isn’t it cold for the first few minutes when you get into the car on a winter’s day? And then the heater warms you up? Pedaling a bike does the same thing. However, we haven’t taken my son on the bike when it’s extremely cold out, or in weather more severe than light rain.

I have not seen any other biking families here in Rochester. That’s not surprising, as this town is famous for its brutal winters. Rochester does not have great public transport; there are buses, but they are not generally convenient to where we want to go. Everyone with kids drives everywhere, as far as I have seen. Occasionally we snag a ride with a car-owning friend, but mostly we take taxis when necessary, for instance if we have to take my son to the doctor in very bad weather. What’s $40 here and there when you’re not paying for a car? We probably took 10 taxis in total last year. You can even bike to the Rochester airport: it’s a 30-40 minute ride from our house, and the three of us did that once, to the great amusement of our friends. When traveling out of state, we fly or rent a car.

It feels quite easy to be carfree while my son is so young; at 3, there is nowhere he really needs to go except daycare (we walk or bike) and the occasional doctor visit (bike or taxi). We bike to playdates, or invite them to come to our house instead. Perhaps things will seem less manageable when he gets older, and/or when our next child comes along… but perhaps we’ll adapt, like the very inspiring Vierling-Claassens have! That’s what I’m hoping.

-Mary, Xaq, and Darwin (3)

About Nathan

Nathan is a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience. He thinks parenting is way more fun when you don't have to worry about car seats.
This entry was posted in Going and staying carfree, True Life Stories of the Carfree. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to True Life Stories of the Carfree- Mary, Xaq and Darwin (3), Rochester NY

  1. Devin says:

    I admire these folks. When we lived in MN, we are car-lite with 1 car and bikes, now that we live in a smaller town in CO to help take care our parents, we are finding it hard to continue that idea. The only job I was able to find was 20 miles OW from our house and the bus system is a corrupt system with it running 10 dollars a day to take the bus. I have a small MC that I can ride to work all month for less than one weeks bus fare.

  2. Karen says:

    Props to Rochester! I’m from Alfred, NY. I bike all winter long in snow (I don’t do rain, though) in Champaign, IL now. It’s much flatter. :-)

  3. Diane says:

    I went to college at the University of Rochester, and when my friends and I eventually moved off campus, we all biked most of the time. It was incredibly convenient, as we could always just take a bus to where we needed to go in bad weather – first there were a couple of city bus routes that would take us to Wegmans, or to a variety of points between UR and Eastman, and then it was a private bus company doing the same thing. I can’t imagine trying to do that in an area less frequented by buses, though.

  4. jeanine kromhout says:

    Hi Dorea, Great article and thanks for sharing, me and my husband share a similar lifestyle and love, love,love the every day challenge of being independent with out having to own a car, we life in Montclair NJ and are proud to see our town’s investment in more bike lanes, by the way inspired by our friends whom own a befits from bakfiets.nl switched from a long tail to a 2 wheel cargo bicycle, not having the funding to purchase a “real” bakfiets ($2800) me and my husband settled for a 7 speed doubledutchbikes cargo bike instead ($1699) and could not be happier with our decision to switch to a cargo bike, thank you again for sharing your story and safe riding!.

    • Elena says:

      Great site & project. Read about you in the Sunday LA Times. An idea for what’s next: Major brdige rides, Coronado in San Diego, Oakland in San Fran, etc. Please keep So Cal in mind, we have lots of cyclist & little metro involement.

  5. Such a great series of posts! Looking forward to reading more of these inspiring stories…

  6. Pingback: True Life Stories of the Carfree — Stacy, Brent, London (9), Elliot (7), Avery(4) & Oliver (1), Huntington WV — Carfree with Kids

  7. Carly says:

    I’m so encouraged to read this. I lived in Boston and did not have a car and have now moved back to Rochester. I was hoping to avoid buying a car for myself. We are a one car family. I agree that Rochester public transportation is quite sparse compared to Boston. I was nervous also as my wife is currently pregnant with our first child. It is possible. Thank you again for sharing your experience.

  8. Mike Henry says:

    Hi Angela and Nathan! I too have been car-free in Rochester, for eleven years now. I totally appreciate your comments. It was an adjustment for me but I’ve done just fine and my happy meter has risen significantly while my weight has dropped off almost sixty pounds. I’m 61 now and move more easily than when I was thirty. In the adjustment I’ve discovered the local organic food coop (Marshall Street) where over the past few years I’ve made some great friendships. I’ve also discovered lots of little markets right here in my near downtown neighborhood where I can buy fresh veggies pretty cheaply. I agree we could use a quality grocery store and there’s work out that one is coming. I ride a low step single speed cruiser bike with a big basket on the back, I’ve put big two inch knobby tires on – which has sharply curtailed the number of flats. In winter I walk the mile to the bus stop to take me to my job at a hospital on the south side. That’s enjoyable anyways since it gives me some quality reading time or just a chance to visit with all kinds of people. For most years since my car-free experiment began back in 2003 I’ve resumed my daily ride to work in the first week of March. This year, 2014 it was delayed a bit, needing to take the bus a few days here and there due to persistent snow. My finding is that my car-free existence has only improved my sense of well-being and definitely improved my finances. I also feel more connected to my community in that I have more contact with my neighbors (and their neat gardens). I enjoyed reading your account. While Rochester may not have the best mass transit infrastructure we do have a nice plain terrain where single speed biking is very doable – my preference over single speed is it simplifies things even more. I find that even the coaster brakes eliminate headaches of having to keep things adjusted and add to the relaxed mode of transport. Well, I wish you and your family all the best as you pursue this culture change! Mike in Swillburg

Leave a Reply