As the third in our series about families living carfree (that aren’t us, see also part I and part II), we have a wonderful contribution from Stacy, a mom of four (four!). Her family decreased from two cars to one over the summer, and recently completed a carfree month. We hope the insights she provides will be particularly helpful for larger families, families just beginning their reduction in car use, and those living in places with limited transit or biking/walking infrastructure. You can read more about their adventures at their blog, A Simple Six. Also note, Stacy would particularly like to hear from folks biking with three or more kids in comments! Stacy writes:
Our family of six includes two parents, Brent and myself (both mid 30s), and four children, London (9.5yo), Elliot (7.5yo), Avery (4.5yo), and Oliver (20m). We have lived in Huntington, WV for five years. Brent is a new-media and graphic design professor. I do preschool art instruction as well as volunteering with in the community and the children’s school.
Since about April 2011 we have been reducing our driving. We started by walking the children home from school (4miles round trip) and getting everyone out on the bikes more often recreationally. By July we were driving only one day a week for errands. In August we did a self-imposed car-free challenge, and at the beginning of September we gave away our car and now we only have our Honda Odyssey (I am at a stalemate with my husband about getting rid of the van.)
To give you a sense of local environment and infrastructure, Huntington WV is a city of 56,000 citizens. We have some bus service, with most routes running every one to three hours, weekdays and some routes on Saturdays. The city also has Greyhound and Amtrak stations and a regional airport. The city proper has one bike and pedestrian pathway in progress, known as PATH. Streets are a mix of brick and paved over brick. Sidewalks are present in some neighborhoods and not others (such as mine) and many are in disrepair, too narrow or too close to quick moving traffic, though we have seen an increase in paving projects and sidewalk intersection ramp installation and repairs over the past three years. Last week an article in our local paper announced a car share program, but it will be very small (two cars), and we don’t yet know enough details to know if it will be useful for us.
Our motivation for parking the cars was purely financially, but the idea was spawned by reading a lot of minimalist and sustainable living blogs. Watching and reading No Impact Man had a huge, well, impact. Then I read that Leo Babauta, of Zen Habits, had six children and lived a car free life, as well as Paul Cooley of Car Free Family, who had been doing so for seven years. These led to reading about more and more families who lived well without cars and I felt empowered to try. I dragged my family along with me.
I certainly thought living carfree would be more difficult than it actually has been. I thought we would be busing to the suburbs and neighboring shopping plazas looking for our old box store meccas. I thought we would be longing to get out of town. But once we all had a set of wheels (meaning bikes) and the younger children had proper seats, we felt limitless in our adventures. There were so many things for us to see and do and experience much closer to home. We began to reinvest in Huntington.
What’s “normal” around here:
In our area most families with two adults, have two cars. Most college students have a car. Most high school students appear to have a car, though I don’t know many, they all seem to be driving something (maybe their parent’s cars?). Automobiles are the primary mode of transportation. I know many families with four or more children here in Huntington and they all (I know of one exception) have mini vans and at least one other vehicle. I know a handful of families with fewer children who only own one vehicle. I know one other family who uses the public bus, but not often, and a few working dads who bike. I do not know any families that live carfree, but I do know a couple college students.
Our (mostly) carfree month:
During our carfree month, we walked, biked, bused, and carpooled. Brent mostly commuted to work by bike, about five miles round trip. The children’s commute to school was and continues to be the most challenging car-free issue, about four miles round trip. We tried biking, walking, busing, and carpooling. In the end, carpooling in the morning worked best. In the afternoon I would pick them up by either walking or biking up and we would bike, bus, or walk home. You can read about all our trials and errors of school commuting on my blog. The rest of our errands were done by bike.
Our grocery shopping has been at the same frequency, but with more even distribution between trips in terms of volume and weight. The food all goes in the bike trailer and when we took Oliver and Avery, we also took a backpack. Avery (4) would ride in the trailer with the food and Oliver (20 months) would sit in the iBert, our front-mounted seat. We added a rack to Brent’s bike, but have yet to get panniers for it, so that has helped minimally.
Most of the choices that have enabled a more car-lite/free life have been in amenities. We moved doctors, shopped at closer stores, frequented libraries on our school commute, planned recycling drop off on CSA pick up days, and enjoy our neighbors more.
We broke our own “oath” three times. The first on the first day because my daughter has strep throat and my husband drove her to the doctor’s office, though that could have been just a five minute walk. The second time was to pick up my 76 year old grandma at the Greyhound station at 10pm. The third time was to drive my grandma home, 200 miles away, do some bike shopping in Columbus, OH and come home. Both of these last two transportation needs could have been handled with car rentals.
So many perks and a few drawbacks:
I had read about all the great things that being car free could do for someone, but now that we have tasted it ourselves, I feel the things I read didn’t give them enough emphasis. I don’t think I could either. We have seen a significant savings due to paying off our vehicle, giving away our second vehicle, reducing our insurance, and not buying gas. I haven’t worked up the totals, but I estimate $600 a month. We did invest in a bike for Brent, at the tune of $600. We bought a helmet for Oliver and upgraded his child seat, about another $110 investment. We have otherwise made do with hand me down trailers, bikes and gear. I expect to lay down another couple thousand for upgrades to safety equipment and a new bicycle soon, but because we are saving so significantly with not driving our van, these are low-cost long-term investments for us.
The myriad of benefits that have come from ditching the gas guzzler include: living more locally, getting far more exercise, spending our time more wisely on more necessary activities, seeking out community events, educating our children on pedestrian and bike safety, making new friends (including bloggers like Nathan & Angela), meeting community leaders, inspiring others to bike or walk with their families, ditching the University parking pass, front door parking at all stores and restaurants, sharing a hobby with the whole family, more time talking and enjoy the children, satisfaction of overcoming challenges, discovering our neighborhood, supporting local businesses, learning to print postage online, making errands into dates, slipping through construction/closed roads, thinking creatively, riding the bus, feeling empowered and emboldened to advocate, learning so much more about bicycling, being more aware of the weather, guilt free eating, the thrill of riding, smelling and hearing everything everywhere we go, stopping to talk to anyone and everyone where ever.
Some of the drawbacks have included mild inconveniences and changes in habits. We use a lot more sunscreen and deodorant. We carry more water with us everywhere we go. Sometimes we are very tired, too tired to get home (so we rest more). Traveling with four children and one adult can be a lot of responsibility and especially exasperating on more dangerous routes. My husband worries about us traveling, but admits to worrying when we were driving too. It’s more difficult to “run errands” around Oliver’s nap times or before them because they take longer. Yet, it’s nothing we can’t do, and have actually found the challenges and changes enjoyable (minus the school commute).
One of the only things I really find frustrating about not driving is when London would have a tantrum about going to school. We would have just put her in the car and strapped her in and taken her up. Now we have to coax her into getting on a bike and moving her own legs. But the two times we have had to implement this plan B, because she missed our carpool ride, we have managed to do it and talking through her problems has had a lot of benefits as well.
Big Family Biking:
Our current bike set up is that Brent and I have bikes, his is a new GT 29in MTB, mine is a box-store basement salvage from the neighbor. London and Elliot have bikes and ride independently. Avery and Oliver have the bike trailer and Oliver has the option of the iBert front mounted seat.
I love having the little boys in the trailer and being able to throw all our things in there with them. They are out of the sun and rain and can nap. I really like the option of the front seat, and Oliver prefers it as well, until nap time. The downside of the trailer is that it is always pulling me back down the hill. It doesn’t always fit on our sidewalks when we must ride there, and I don’t feel that I have any options for providing Elliot (7) with a break from riding when he’s exhausted. The trailer’s full so we just have to stop and rest.
We are looking for a new bike that would allow me to ride with the four children with fewer bikes. We most seriously considered the Madsen kg271 and the Yuba Mundo. Both bikes would give us the option of carrying three children on one bike and having London continue to ride independently. Ultimately, we decided to go with the Yuba Mundo. [From Nathan: You can read a recent update on their Yuba here.]
When teaching our two oldest to ride we did a lot of “lecturing” as instruction. We weren’t very familiar as to how to ride in our area either. We knew what the law said, but riding on the street was not always safe or practical (fast cars, brick streets, pot holes, etc). We all learned our routes together. We discussed scenarios and learned as we rode. They still rely heavily on us to tell them exactly what to do. We tell them when to turn and when to cross and stop. We remind them about hand signals, but actually ask them not to signal often, as they need two hands on the handlebars. We are working on getting them to warn pedestrians that they are approaching. We are teaching them about locking up safely. We still have a lot to learn together. While they may know how to ride, they still do not ride without an adult.
After our carfree month, we are continuing to live as car-lite/free as we see safe and possible!