True Life Stories of the Carfree: Leigh and her family of four, West suburbs of Chicago

How is it August already? Our summer has been so filled with fun that we keep getting too distracted to write about. Instead, we’ve got another carfree family for inspiration for us and all of you. Leigh writes below about being a carfee family of four that relies primarily on walking and transit. If your family is carfree, we all need your inspiration, so drop us a line at carfreewithkids@gmail.com. We promise we’ll try not to wait two months to publish your post!


There are four of us, my husband and I, Monkey who is three, and Bee who is one and a bit. We live in the near west suburbs of Chicago. On a quiet afternoon you can hear the ‘L’ train announcements and the Metra commuter rail bells from the station an block and a half away. There are a few bike lanes and good sidewalks. My husband works downtown takes the train to and from work. He prefers the commuter rail with its nicer cars and faster ride, even though it runs less frequently and he has a longer walk at the end. It is a 35 minute commute door to door. If he misses that train, or is traveling at an odd time he takes the CTA L train (subway). I stay at home with the kids (I work online for the wonderful Camberville Diaper Lab). Day to day we get everywhere by foot and stroller. For occasional trips downtown, to target, the airport or to museums we take the train and bus. We take the CTA train and walk though a park to get to church on Sundays. We use Zipcar a few times a year.

Most families around here have two cars, though there is a sizable minority with just one. I know no other car free families, though we do know a few who try to go car-lighter. There are a number of hard core bike commuters in our church, but only one family who bikes with their school age children (and they have a mini van on the side). It is common here to commute by train to downtown.

We have been car free from day one, ever since we got married in university with no drivers’ licenses. My husband has a license now, but I have never gotten around to learning to drive well enough. We have car-sat a minivan for the past two summers for friends who spent the summer in Europe and have only on street parking. It has been interesting to try it, but in the end not worth owning one.

We have done a lot of planning to build our car free life. My husband was in law school in Cambridge, where it is pretty easy to live carless. We don’t have family in the US so we could choose to live anywhere after graduation (or anywhere with big law to pay the loans). We needed it to not be too hot (south, DC) or too expensive (New York) and be good for being carfree, which narrowed it down to Chicago and Boston. We picked our suburb for the tree lined streets, real main street (complete with movie theater) and loads of families. We bought our first house recently and chose it specifically for being so close to our life (public transit, shopping, libraries). My first thought as I looked at a house was how it would work for the commute and the grocery shop. Three grocery stores are within an easy walk (20 minutes) with two more in under 40. Libraries, preschool and the Y are also easy walks as is that full main street. The amazing town pool is less than half and hour’s walk. We picked a preschool before the house and since we did not know exactly where we would be I ruled out several great schools because they could very well end up being just too far to give me any time off during the school day.

The cost of car free living for our family is missing things. We are not infrequently late for church because we just missed the train and have to wait 12 minutes for the next one. Every outing outside our normal fifteen minute walk zone takes more thinking and planning. Is it worth the effort? Planning the train/bus route, arrange the zip car, find a ride etc. rather than just getting in the car and going? We do miss things that we could do with a car easily. Some, like the zoo, are good things, others, like regular Target runs, we are probably better without.

And that is the other side of being car free; we don’t do too much because it is more work. I don’t go to Target every week and be mesmerized by the giant bulls eye. We don’t have activities every day because we cannot walk that much or that far, so we don’t get worn out, and we have enough down time. And we get to stop and smell the roses, gently touch the pumpkins, talk to people and count the rectangles. We walk through a rather dodgy part of Chicago to get to church and being on the ground, experiencing the kindness and friendliness of people makes us view it very differently than if we only looked at it from the car window. Oh, and my pants keep getting too big.

I am pretty sure I have not been on a bike since I was pregnant with my first child. We are stroller people. We have three, including a lightweight umbrella UppaBaby G-lite (the moped) for  travel and downtown with one child and a jogger (the race car/magical put the preschooler to sleep machine). The workhorse is my UppaBaby Vista (my Land Rover), both as a single and now with the extra seat or the wheelie board as a double. I literally wore the rubber off the tires in the first 20 months. I have replaced (mostly under warranty) several parts, bough just about every accessory and when the 2011 was on Zulilly upgraded to a new one. For the first few months as a double we had the kids both in seats facing each other. Monkey preferred the lower seat and liked to compare his feet to his sisters. After about two and a half he was happy on the wheelie board and that is how we have been getting around for most of the past year. He can even fall asleep standing on it with his head in Bee’s lap.

In winter, we do hooded fleece jackets, hats, mitts (when the stars align and they will stay on), fleece booties — all in a Bundleme, sometimes with a blanket inside. On super cold/windy days, I add the rain hood for a greenhouse effect.  This winter for standing on cold days, Monkey wore a one piece snowsuit (aka the Astronaut suit). He was always dressed warmly enough for his time on the preschool playground. In the summer when Bee was tiny, we would often go outside with her in the bassinet and a damp cloth over top to keep her cool and happy.

The Vista has a huge basket and I keep the footrest for the rumble seat in it to provide a more supported shelf. We can get 2 gallons of milk, 2 cartons of OJ and two big bags of groceries in it. We usually shop at Trader Joe’s and Monkey pushes the little cart around and we fill that up while I push the stroller. It is so easy not to have to get the baby in and out of anything.

Both kids love to sleep in the strollers. When Monkey was a toddler he could fall asleep in the stroller just sitting in the hall, no walk required. They can stay asleep in when we get home and I can leave the stroller in the hall, mudroom, or back yard (with a window open).  Bee often sleeps in the stroller from preschool drop off to pick up.

About Angela

Angela is an associate professor of mathematics and enjoys writing, reading, and talking to people about her bike. She's the proud mother of two cute kids, H and R.
This entry was posted in Going and staying carfree, Public transportation, True Life Stories of the Carfree, Walking. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to True Life Stories of the Carfree: Leigh and her family of four, West suburbs of Chicago

  1. mary says:

    hello chicago, very inspiring! we are expecting baby #2 this fall (baby #1 will be 4 yrs old) and wondering about the transportation changes this will bring to our biking/walking lifestyle in Rochester NY. perhaps a year from now we’ll have finagled a double-child-seat contraption like angela & dorea’s Xtracycle, but in the meantime it’s great to be reminded of what’s possible with a good stroller situation!

  2. Catherine says:

    Mary – Also look into babywearing! My kids are 2.5 years apart and I have worn #2 almost exclusively since day 1, which means I don’t even need a double stroller (we have one that I use primarily for trips where I need to carry a lot of stuff – use the backseat as storage). Even now that he’s 15 months I rarely put him in the stroller. It’s such a lifesaver!

  3. Ellen says:

    Leigh, thank you for this post! My husband and I are carfree in Minneapolis (we also don’t really bike–we walk most places and use the bus and light rail). We’re expecting our first baby in January. I appreciate the stroller recommendations! Planning on babywearing as well, but I feel like I may be a bit nervous walking around babywearing when it’s very icy out…

    • Leigh says:

      It was super icy the winter I was pregnant with Bee and It was great holding the sturdy stroller and skating over the ice. Before the stroller I would have a few good falls ever winter.
      Baby wearing is wonderful, but it does not carry the groceries home. That said, I have worn the baby and filled ever nook in the stroller.

  4. Violet says:

    Hi! I’ve been following this blog since I moved to Cambridge, but this post took on new meaning because we recently found out we will be moving to Chicago. Would love to get in touch with Leigh to hear more about good neighborhoods for being car free in the Chicago area.

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