Bicycle Commuting and the No-Car Life

When I moved from the rural Midwest to Portland, Oregon, I entered a metro area of 2 million people with more breweries than anywhere in the country and more strip clubs per capita than Las Vegas. My Minnesotan family collectively raised their eyebrows, but I had faith I wouldn't do anything drastic.

Between its pints and dancers, the City of Roses sways heavily toward environmentalism. This sentiment weaves through a culture of fleece-covered yuppies, dreadlocked beat poets, hipster rock stars, and the homeless man who picks up trash in the neighborhood park. When a co-worker said he didn't recycle, battle cries flew up from a four-cube radius. Somewhere all these groups merge to create a city recognized as one of the most environmentally-friendly, and, as a result, most bike-friendly cities in the country.

After just two years in the Pacific Northwest, I found myself making New Year's Resolution 2007: Sell car, buy bicycle.

When I made the announcement, my parents worried that Portland hippies were ruining their daughter, but still didn't believe I would take the plunge. Even my roommate, who supported the idea, figured this would go the way of "Do a handstand," which ended with me sprawled on my new yoga mat, laughing at myself. I wasn't coming into this adventure an urban biking expert. In fact, I hadn't even sat on a bike in two years. When the car-free plan didn't die in four days (like most of my resolutions), the questions started flying:

"Why on earth would you want to be without a car?"
"What would you do in the winter?"
"What if you get sick?"
"How will you carry groceries?"
"How will you bring us to the ocean if we visit in five years?"

All valid questions.

Why On Earth?
Like many things genuinely good for both people and the environment, living car-free isn't mainstream. In fact, it's almost unheard of. According to the Department of Transportation, about 90 percent of people in the United States drive to work. Subtract those who work from home or live in major metro areas like New York City—where driving and parking are logistical nightmares—and you're left with very few people who don't get in a car everyday.

I recycle, compost, and don't own a television, but I'm no hippie hero. The tastiest veggie burger I've ever eaten had bacon on it. I've yet to go to a protest for, well…anything. And yet, once this car-less thing came to mind, I couldn't get it out. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Gasoline will never be sustainable. Pedal power doesn't influence wars. I'm no financial wizard, but paying nearly $2,000 a year on something that decreases in value the longer I own it doesn't seem particularly prudent.

It's also a way to stay healthy. For me, exercising in a concrete gym to offset the stress of spending all day between a car and cube isn't worth the years of life it promises. So I confess, I'm not going car-less purely to save the earth or whales or children seven generations from now. I'm also doing this because I want to live simply, and I can't reconcile owning a car with the life I want to lead.

Cavalier Plans in a Cycling Community
Part of my plan involved easing into things, and the rest was pure self-trickery. I'd start exploring mass transit in April and buy a bike in May, while still driving if I was sick or late or lazy. I'd enjoy this new method through bright sun and balmy breezes. Then while biking still seemed like a glorious idea, I'd sell the car so when winter hit I'd be stuck.

After posting my '98 Chevy Cavalier on Craigslist one Saturday morning in August, I made plans to run some longer-distance errands. Then an email came, and then a couple of phone calls. An hour later I was left with a handful of cash and an empty parking space, watching my car drive away to the suburbs. After a whoop and a short tribal dance around the living room, reality hit with the thought, "So…now what?"

A few months before selling the car, I spent $400 on an overhauled Trek hybrid (a cross between a mountain bike and road bike) with everything the fatherly shop owner said I needed. I got lights for night riding, fenders for puddle protection, a decent rack, a sturdy U-lock, and a shiny helmet. Although endearing, my bike is conveniently ugly. When your primary mode of transportation could be carried away by anyone with a good bolt cutter and a crowbar, any method of theft deterrence is a good thing.

ortland earns its bike-friendly status largely through a passionate, if not eccentric, bike culture. The city is home to approximately 36 bike shops, community bike events featuring things like bike polo tournaments and pedal-powered cotton candy machines, and the largest Naked Bike Ride in North America. During "bike moves," extremists shun moving trucks and instead rally the troops to help them move all their earthly belongings via bicycle. City planners and transportation officials have come on board to require bike racks on all city buses and continually increase miles of bike lanes. Local business owners have started to team up with the city to take out parking spaces and replace them with on-street "bike corrals." Every summer the city closes portions of all ten city bridges to car traffic, including the interstate, for the third largest organized bike ride in the world—attracting 20,000 participants in 2007.

Despite the city's reputation, not everyone is so supportive. Car-less Week No. 1 brought a pickup truck barreling past so quickly that I almost missed its "One Less Bike" bumper sticker. Two blocks later, the door of a red sports car flew open, giving me just enough time to squeak out of the bike lane into the car lane. If it hadn't been empty, I would have had to choose which car to hit. Despite infrequent heart-pounding incidents like these, often I feel safer riding a bike than driving a car. Slower and smaller gives me more options—I can quickly swerve onto the sidewalk or change directions onto a side street. If I caused an accident, they only one likely to get hurt is myself.

At the same time, I can't take it lightly. When it's car vs. bike, car always wins. Two Portland cyclists have been killed in the last two weeks (fall 2007)—one by a garbage truck and the other a cement truck—both while riding in the bike lane. While bike-commuting in Milwaukee, my friend Wendy was recently hit by an unyielding driver making a left turn. Luckily all she has is a permanent bump on her shin to prove it.

Winter brings fewer hours of daylight, which also affects safety. Reflective clothes become more important as visibility decreases, and as the days get shorter, I need my blinky lights not only to be a law-abiding citizen, but actually to see and be seen.

Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head
Portland winters are nothing compared to the Minnesota winters of my childhood, but they're definitely not rainbows and sunshine. During my first winter, it rained thirty-one days straight. This melancholic consistency challenges even the most creative meteorologist: "Light rain likely in the morning, turning into rain in the afternoon. Evening will bring showers, with a chance of rain after midnight." On the upside, there are very few days when it dips below freezing. Biking at a moderate speed, intensified by long downhills or cold rain, creates a wind chill that makes normally bearable temperatures bite. I'e seen cyclists decked out in enough sleek, reflective rain gear to live comfortably at the bottom of a swimming pool. Their less enthusiastic counterparts wear plastic ponchos with grocery bags on their feet. I opt for something in the middle, with a breathable raincoat and rain pants (bought used), and old shoes, which I change at work. Once it gets really cold, I'll add a balaclava and waterproof gloves.

Friends in the Midwest have differing perspectives on winter biking. While some say it's completely unrealistic, Mike made do without a car in northern Wisconsin, even in 3 degrees F and heavy snow. He rode a mountain bike, wore sunglasses (snow glare is fierce), and depended on wicking base layers that kept him warm and dry. One morning it was below freezing and he got a flat tire halfway to work. When he tried stretching the extra tub around his rim, it snapped in the cold. His advice holds valid for any climate, weather, or transportation mode: "Sometimes it's just better to call someone to pick you up."

Backup Plans
Of course it's not realistic to bike everywhere in all circumstances. Any mode of transportation should have a Plan B, and biking is no different. There are situations like job interviews and doctor's appointments that can't be left to chance. I'm not going to use my bike to pick up my sister from the airport, haul a garage-sale loveseat, or take a ninety-mile trip to the mountains. As invincible as I'd like to be, at some point I'll get too sick or hurt to pedal. With Portland's public transportation system, being car-less would be feasible without a bike, just more limiting. The hardest part about public transit is relying on schedules and routes. If I take the bus, it's suddenly impossible for me to get to work exactly on time: my options are either twelve minutes early or six minutes late. Some destinations take an hour by bus, which I can beat by twenty minutes on bike. However, the bus is a relief if I'm going farther, later, or through sketchy neighborhoods. Carpools come in handy if not abused (paying for gas earns friends). Renting a car for weekend trips or hosting out-of-town visitors is affordable when I consider the $900 a year I'm saving on just insurance. Car-sharing companies like Flexcar and Zipcar are gaining steam, which allow members to use cars parked around the city and pay by the hour. Most mid-sized towns at least have taxis, and family and friends are always the best bet for an emergency.

While some trips obviously take a lot longer by bike, rush-hour traffic can tip the scales. My friend Claudia "bikepools" on a tandem with her husband, and co-workers from the same neighborhood complain that the tandem beats them home. no-carlife

Claudia's bikepool got me thinking about future options if my family situation changes. I don't have kids, but biking with them doesn't seem out of the question. Older kids can ride their own bikes, and babies can be bundled into covered trailers. There are also options for those in-between. Every morning I pass a four-year-old in a red rain jacket dancing on the sidewalk, waiting for her mom to prepare their Tag-Along. These half-bikes attach behind the parent's bike and have their own pedals and handlebars. Though the children are not responsible for steering, balance, or keeping up with the pedaling pace (like a tandem bicycle), they can exercise their legs a bit as they have fun and develop a healthy habit.

A Bucket for a Back Seat
Without a trunk or back seat, every trip to the store is an experiment. I have to think twice about impulsively buying things like six-packs of chocolate stout or crystal punch bowl sets. While there are expensive panniers (bags that attach to a bike rack) and trailers, I currently make do with a four-gallon kitty-litter bucket that hooks on my rack. It's waterproof and too ugly to steal. Even when unbalanced, the weight rides low enough to make heavy things like a gallon of milk very manageable. For larger items, I've zip-tied a milk crate to the top of my rack, with mixed results. It holds a lot more, but heavy items make me precariously tippy. I also can't trust a crate to protect contents from rain or passersby. While riding with a backpack makes my back sweat, it carries a lot without requiring a rack and absorbs enough impact to safely transport eggs. Rumor has it that the water bottle holder doubles nicely for carrying a bottle of wine. The only thing I haven't been able to manage hauling is a passenger—despite romantic notions of motorcycle sidecars, my bucket does not fit a boy.

The Biker's Dress Code
Riding to work (or anywhere you want to arrive presentable) poses two basic options: ride in your work clothes or change when you get there. I work in a large, corporate office with a begrudgingly boring dress code that I almost follow. When biking entered the picture, my wardrobe became even more limited. The standard skirts, while very modest for normal activities, became insta-scandals on a bike. Thankfully the first day I wore shorts underneath, because the skirt hiked to my waist. On day two, thinking I'd chosen more wisely, I ditched the shorts (much to the surprise of the awakening construction workers when they saw more than a sunrise). On the way home, I ignored everyone and rode like lightning.

Despite mixed results early on, I now bike in skirts regularly. Full range of motion is key, with fabric heavy enough not to take flight. A little spunk doesn't hurt, either. As for pants, the gangster look of rolling up one leg is essential. After getting black chain-grease lines on khaki corduroys, I now roll both legs. After getting some curious looks, I now also remember to roll them down again.

Much to my dismay, biking makes me sweat, even on the short two-mile ride to work on cold days. I wear the lightest shirt possible, because even if I'm freezing at first, the exercise soon warms me up. Once I get to work, I head straight to the restroom to cool off my face and arms with a quick paper towel bath. Deodorant has earned its permanent place in my bag.

Some bike commuters look very cool. They glide by confidently with their hair blowing in the breeze. They do not sweat. They breathe about as hard as if they were lying on a beach blanket. I envied this coolness until I realize dhow most of these miracle-bikers don’t wear helmets. Then I decided I'd rather look ridiculous than be dead. After riding in 103-degree sun and 35-degree pouring rain, I resign to any uncoolness with the goals of Don't Melt, Don't Freeze, Don't Die.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed the independence and anonymity of driving. Being sealed in a little steel bubble at the perfect temperature while listening to clever reporters on public radio was quite nice most days. When I get on a bike, I still feel independent, but I also feel…real. Raw. Connected. I notice the crack in the street and how there are more chestnuts to swerve around than yesterday. I mourn the untimely deaths of gray squirrels and bloated cats. My heart beats in time with my rotating feet, and with the wind blowing freedom in my face, I can handle swallowing the occasional bug that goes with it.

My friend Trib, who bikes in Colorado Springs, captured it perfectly: "In a vehicle you're alienated from the natural world around you. On a bike you are a part of it."

There's something about the vulnerability of being on a bike that breaks down barriers with other people as well. Fellow bikers nod in passing, as if saying, "Hey, we're in this together." While I've rarely been approached by a stranger in a parking lot just to chat, this happens almost every time I'm at a bike rack. Because I usually choose smaller streets, I see neighborhoods instead of highways. I make eye contact with dog walkers, morning joggers, teenagers skateboarding to school, and construction workers on strike. Granted, not all acknowledgement is welcome—I could live without the catcalls.

Resolution Complete; Adventure Begun
Going car-less is big. This isn't a change you can make for a weekend, like deciding to compost your coffee grounds. Without a car, I'm forced off autopilot. I've gained a changed sense of place. I have to be more intentional about simple things like getting dressed in the morning and buying groceries. I arrive at work awake and rosy-cheeked. By the time I get home, I've already burned off the frustration of sitting at a computer all day long. I'm getting at least a half hour of exercise a day without even trying. And I'm saving a heck of a lot of money.

Most days I don't even mind riding in the rain—swimming down the street with cold kisses dripping of my nose feels ridiculous and makes me grin. Something I felt guilty about has turned into something gratifying. Car-less became car-free, and I have no regrets…except not trying it sooner.

Excerpted from Llewellyn's 2009 Green Living Guide

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