How to Go Carfree with Kids

by Tammy Strobel on February 23, 2011

Over the last year, I’ve been interviewing amazing writers about simple living, location independence, financial freedom, and more. Today the feature interview is with Angela and Dorea of Car-free with Kids.

Enjoy the interview peeps!

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Tammy: Angela and Dorea, going car-free was a big decision. What inspired you to take the leap and go for it?

Angela and Dorea: Way back in 2004, before we had a kid, when we were free and easy grad students, we house sat for a professor in the suburbs for a summer. That summer our little pick-up truck died. It was an adorable 1987 Mazda and had taken us on many wonderful adventures. When the truck stopped working we felt a little sad, but mostly we felt relief.

We already used our bikes and public transit when we were living closer into the city. That was trickier in the suburbs, but we did it. We were each riding about 50 minutes each way to work, and groceries were a bit of a trick, but we did it, and we figured if we could do it in Newton, it would be a piece of cake once we moved back into town. We never looked back.

It’s not all that strange here to live without a car when you don’t have kids, but once we were expecting our daughter, the questions started. “When are you going to get a car?” Our answer was “We aren’t.” We saw the doubting looks and heard the knowing assurances we’d change our minds, but we stuck it out, and now can’t imagine living any other way.

Tammy: What type of bike do you ride? Do you have special seats for the little ones?

Angela and Dorea: We ride several bikes. Dorea has an old beater road bike for commuting and Angela has a similar quality mountain bike for commuting. Angela’s bike is also set up both with a single rear mounted child seat (a bobike maxi), a trailer hitch for a trailer (an older Chariot model) that we share with a neighbor, and that got us started hauling our own groceries by bike. But for riding with kids, we have an Xtracycle with a custom two-kid seat on the back.

We can’t imagine life without it. To be honest, it gets more use for hauling (mostly groceries) than for kids (everywhere we really need to go with them is walkable). But it’s great for the kids, and a lifesaver for one parent to be able to ride with both of them.

You can find more details on our set-up here and here.

Tammy: Do you have any advice for parents who want to use a bicycle instead of a car?

Angela and Dorea: It can be easy to get sidetracked by all the fancy bikes out there, but consider starting with what you have, and seeing how far that can take you. Common gear for biking with children, like trailers, trailer bikes and bike mounted rear child seats, are easy to get for cheap or free in the secondhand market.

You might even have them in your basement already for recreational riding (or your neighbor might). As you bike more you’ll see what your needs really are, and can reassess at the next stage. Also, if biking with your kids seems daunting, we find good cargo capacity is actually more important, and that same second hand trailer can work great to haul groceries.

For us, transit is at least as important as biking, especially with the kids, and especially in winter. If you’ve heard the buses or trains are awful where you live, check out what’s really offered. Even in areas with minimal transit, what’s there is usually tailored to support commuters. Such a route, especially in combination with a bicycle commute can help a two-car family cut down to one. Even a slow or infrequent bus can be great back up for days you can’t ride.

For more advice, You can find a two part series here, as well as an article we wrote at Shareable.

Tammy: What are the 5 things you love about being car-free with kids?

Angela and Dorea:

1. Knowing all of our neighbors.
2. Never having to shovel out a car
3. Riding to a park on a nice summer day with the kids, everyone singing “Yellow Submarine.”
4. Financial freedom
5. Getting plenty of exercise without even trying

Tammy: What’s one thing you wish people understood better about the way you live?

Angela and Dorea: Occasionally, we worry that people get the wrong idea about us. Some folks think we are environmental extremists, going to absurd lengths for our car-free cause. But as working parents of a four-year-old and one-year-old, we don’t tend to take on a lot of extra tasks. It’s really all we can really do to keep our laundry moving along, the dishes washed, and food in the pantry.

We don’t do stuff that’s hard. But for us, being carfree is actually much easier than having a car. We see our lives as easy, and the lives of car-owners as impossibly difficult. We love the environmental benefits and certainly wish more people made the same choice. But if that was our primary motivation, we would have given up long ago.

Tammy: Thanks Angela and Dorea!

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For more resources on biking with kids, check out Clever Cycles.

Note: Photo via Clever Chimp

1 Michelle February 23, 2011

I think going car-free would be awesome. My one question is, what do you do in inclement weather? Living in the mountains of Coloardo makes this nearly impossible for me as I’m pretty sure I couldn’t make it back up the mountain with a toddler in tow. Plus, we get tons of snow in the winter and freezing cold temps. Maybe someday!

2 Dorea February 23, 2011

It sounds like you actually have more questions than just inclement weather Michelle! I’m not sure I’d want to bike up a Colorado mountain, even in the sunshine!

As far as what we do for weather, if we need to walk or bike, we all have good rain gear (rain pants, rain jackets and waterproof boots, not just umbrellas). But when it’s really snowy and icy (which it has been a lot this winter here in MA), we definitely reduce our biking, and up our use of walking and transit. This is one reason we emphasize that being carfree isn’t just about replacing driving with biking. It’s about using public transit, choosing to live in a walkable neighborhood, and prioritizing local when choosing stores, daycare or schools.

Can you do that in the rural mountains? Probably not. One thing we have noticed though, is that it’s almost always possible to reduce car dependence below what is “normal” in your community. Do most families have two cars in your neighborhood? If so, chances are you can drop to one, probably by means of some creative commuting for one parent. In our neighborhood, most families have one car, and while it does take some work, it’s definitely do-able to drop to none.

3 Michelle February 24, 2011

Dorea,

Thank you so much for your response and all of the useful information. Maybe I’ll try using our free bus system this spring/summer when it warms up!

Michelle

4 Karen February 23, 2011

I always find it intriguing, the idea of not owning a vehicle. But like much of what minimalists write about, it seems more fitting for singles/couples/small families and those that live in the city. And for those whose jobs don’t require carrying equipment from place to place.

Maybe someday in the future we’ll be cycling. For now, our big family owns only 1 vehicle and zero bicycles.

5 Sarah March 2, 2011

It is possible to be car free with a big family. My husband and I have 4 children, ages 11, 10, 8, and 1 (and we plan on another in the future). We’ve been car free for 3 years and while it isn’t always easy, it IS cheaper and healthier. It also encourages interaction and togetherness a lot more than hopping in our old minivan did.

6 Karen March 2, 2011

Our family includes 11 of us. Our eldest 2 weren’t living at home, but this Friday our eldest is moving back home so there’ll be 10 of us. We went from 2 med-sized vehicles a few years ago down to a 15 passenger van, and dh needs something for work due to carrying his equipment (he recently started a new business). He was thinking of buying a second smaller vehicle for work, but we’ve decided not to at this point, and possibly just move closer to where he finds more of his work concentrated. But I suppose something to consider would be to trade the big van in for a smaller vehicle for his work and errands, and re-arrange our thinking about how/where we go as a whole family together.

I know its cheaper & healthier, for sure. Just wondering, out loud, how practical it would be for our family. Something to think/talk about.

7 Holli February 23, 2011

This is really enjoyable and insightful to read – we have a 4 and 2 year old. My husband recently turned free lance, working from home most days now. I have been starting to question the need to have 2 cars-one just sitting (it’s a wagon, the other more used one a sedan). When my husband does need to travel for work, we’re literally a 15 min bus ride downtown, so he uses the bus. I try to walk most places as much as possible – we live close to Preschool, parks and the Library.

Great advice, and food for thought! This post has answered many of the questions I’ve pondered lately, thinking about getting rid of a car and embracing bicycling as an alternative.

Thanks!

8 Eric February 24, 2011

I live car free in Brighton! I think the most important thing for people to realize is that the last step in going car free is actually getting rid of your car. You’ve got to choose a place that will cater to the lifestyle- schools within walking distance, groceries every 3 sq. miles, mass transit for when it rains or snows, busses and trains to get you to other states for holidays, employment opportunities, etc. While we do have a lot of snow sometimes, our roads are plowed and clear the next day, and they’re dump-trucking away overflow snow. This wouldn’t happen on a mountain road in Colorado- it’s something that’s just not possible in rural areas without going to extremes.

I do want to stress that in talking to my friends that live out of town with cars, our lifestyles (monthly expenses) are generally at a break even. While they pay $350/month in car, gas, and insurance, my rent is $250 higher per month, my public transit averages to around $35/month with trips to visit family and friends in other states, and things like milk, eggs, and a beer ever now and again are 10-15% higher in cost (milk’s $4.29/gal, for example).However, not owning a car is a luxury that I’d pay extra for- it’s just so much less of a burden, and so much more fun riding bikes everywhere. Plus, bike rides=exercise=actually needing to load up on carbs, and eating whatever you want, because you ride 20-30 miles per day. bonus points.

9 Dorea February 24, 2011

Thanks Eric! I haven’t done math on comparing our life in Cambridge without a car to what friends pay, say, a couple towns out from us, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right about breaking even, or close to it. I do know we spend much less than families around us in our neighborhood and neighboring towns who do support cars. But yes, we could probably move out far enough that housing (and daycare) were cheap enough that we’d actually be net the same amount of money out per month, or maybe less. But like you say, that would be at a very high price in terms of quality of life (time, exercise, community connection, etc).

Thanks again for the great comment (and happy pedaling).

10 Casey February 24, 2011

We have been really inspired by Dorea and Angela’s carfree life, but it really doesn’t completely work for us, which I found discouraging at first. But we have been able to work out going car-light just fine. We pretty much have to drive to work as our work requires job site visits out of the city on most days, but we work together and take one car. We are able to bike some to work, but not as much as we would like. By shopping locally, we are able to do almost all of our errands on foot or by bus.

It was hard to give up our second car, but we did a trial first. We tried not to use it for two months to see how it went, and it turned out that we didn’t miss it at all! We ended up having to encourage our friends to borrow it occasionally while we set up to sell it so it wouldn’t sit too long.

11 et February 24, 2011

For this I would consider moving to town… almost. For now, one car that gets driven maybe 50 miles/week is ok for me.
If I lived in a less rural area a carshare/car coop would also be an option.

Glad to see outspoken people making good choices!

12 Joanna Laine March 2, 2011

I’m curious if you’re ever concerned about safety when taking your kids on your bike. I’m not a parent (yet), but the idea of putting kids in a trailer behind my bike has always seemed very scary to me. I worry that something will happen – one of them will get hurt or the trailer will start to disconnect – and I won’t notice because of the loud street traffic. I also worry that I’ll get into a bike accident with the kids in tow and they’ll be seriously hurt. (Yes, i know that I can also get into a car accident – but without the protective enclosure of a car, the potential to get seriously hurt seems greater). Especially on busy, bike-unfriendly streets, I think I’d be terrified. When I’m by myself on a bike, I can wind along narrow road shoulders safely in a way that I couldn’t with a trailer.

Do you ever have these concerns, and if so, how do you deal with them? Do you avoid taking your kids on certain streets because they seem dangerous?

13 Dorea March 6, 2011

You’d better believe my heart was in my throat the first time I had either of our kids up on a bike, and we do our best to be sensible. But overall, I believe that taken as a whole, our kids are safer traveling as we do, with a healthy mix of foot, transit (safer than driving per mile) and bike (riskier than driving per mile), but rarely more than a couple miles from home, than they would be if we were in a far-flung car-dependent area driving many many miles with them per day, even if they were in the best car seats ever. Here’s my more detailed take on how this all balances out: http://carfreecambridge.com/2008/08/but-is-it-safe/

As far as a more detailed take on biking specifically, I identify with much of what Julian at totcycle writes here: http://totcycle.com/blog/is-family-cycling-safe.html

It’s also useful to note that if, as a society, our number one concern was safety, everyone would be required to take buses instead of driving. Buses (and public transit in general) are fabulously safe, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

14 Lauren M.F. March 3, 2011

Thanks for sharing your car-free lifestyle! I don’t have kids (and my fiance and I are thinking we probably never will), but I think your five things you love about being car free ring true for everyone that gets around by bicycle. As a Minnesotan in my second winter of bicycle commuting I particularly noticed the joys of never having to shovel out a car; though there were a few days where the going was a bit rough, I was always excited to be able to head out and hop on my bike immediately to get where I was going, regardless of how long it took, rather than spend a ridiculously long time shoveling out and de-icing (and sometimes, in the case of my housemate, chopping out from the bottom of the driveway after trying to get over the icy/snowy buildup shoved up by the plow that stopped the car entirely) a car.

The exercise is great too! The other day I heard that the latest recommendation is 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, and I realized that I get that every day or two.

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