“We spend how much on the car?” My wife asked in disbelief at the figure I had presented to her during a discussion of our family’s budget. She had already been bike commuting to work most days and the kids and I were doing the lion’s share of our errands around town by bike. Our car sat unused for a week or more at a time. When we added all the car expenses up (purchase price, insurance, maintenance, registration, and gas) it averaged out to over $500 per month. Car expenses had always been something we accepted. They were just something we took as part of life. We paid them and never questioned if they were necessary... until now.
Let me back up-- about a year after our first child was born, I thought it would be fun to go biking with kiddo. I bought a $50 mountain bike and $30 kid trailer off craigslist. After a tune-up at the local bike shop, the bike ended up costing closer to $200, but that’s another story. A neighbor gave us a kid-sized helmet and we began using the bike/trailer for fair-weather errands around the neighborhood. Almost immediately I realized, or more accurately, I remembered that I love to ride bikes.
As youth my buddies and I rode our bikes all over our suburban southern California neighborhood. In high school we all got driver’s licenses and cars became our primary mode of transportation. I never disliked bikes, I just moved on to cars. I was suddenly re-discovering the joys I experienced as a kid riding my bike. As a kid I never thought about what I liked about riding the bike, but the adult me was instantly aware of all sorts of differences. I like seeing my neighborhood at a slower pace. I like the feeling of being outside. I like being able to stop and chat with my neighbors. I like not looking for parking. I like finding the hidden little passageways that are only passable on foot or bike. I like having exercise built into my day. I like becoming familiar with the subtle variations in topography.
I especially liked that my daughter enjoyed riding in the trailer. If it was hot out, I’d leave the cover open so she got fresh air. If it was cool out I’d bundle her in a blanket. If the ride was going to be long (relatively speaking) I’d give her a toy or a snack. Mostly she just enjoyed looking out the window. Over time the bike/trailer got used for more and more trips. Our second child being born put us back in the car until he was about a year old, but through that year we still did bike/trailer trips with kiddo #1 as often as possible. Once kiddo #2 was old enough to ride in the trailer, bicycling really got hold of our family. My wife bought a bike so she could ride with us. She also started to bike to work most days. One piece at a time we got outfitted with fenders, lights, and rain jackets. We never had any sort of goals to increase our riding. It happened naturally. Biking was/is more fun than driving.
Our two cars sat in the driveway more and more. I had seen a couple cargo bikes around, but had written them off as some sort of specialty thing ... like recumbents ... those bikes that the rider sits reclined with the pedals in front. My perspective changed when I saw a cargo bike set up as a family bike. Dad was pedaling and two kids were riding on the skateboard-sized platform on the back. Something inside of me clicked.
That night at dinner I told my wife what I had seen and proposed that instead of repairing our car (one of our cars was facing a couple grand of maintenance if it was going to be on the road much longer) we could replace it with a cargo bike. The suggestion was met with hesitance at first but not resistance. We had noticed over the last couple years that we were filling up the gas tank less and less from all the biking. After a bit of discussion, it seemed reasonable that our family could get by with one car, so we did it. We got rid of the second car and bought a cargo bike. For about two years pretty much all of our around town errands were done by bike. When weather was really ugly, we drove. When our destination was outside of town, we drove. The rest of the time we pedaled.
Then came that fateful day when we realized that even though we hardly ever drove, we were still sinking hundreds of dollars every month (on average) into our car. The car was getting up in mileage and was going to need significant maintenance in the foreseeable future. Our family had evolved to not depending on the car for our daily transportation needs and we were at a crossroads. Do we commit to maintaining an aging car? Do we replace the car? Do we sell it while it still has resale value? Was the convenience of having a car waiting in the driveway worth the expense? Would that money be more useful to our family if put to a different use? Ultimately we decided that our family would benefit more if our “car money” were put toward other things. We sold the car and bought a second cargo bike... one with a rain cover.
It’s been over a year since our family has owned a car. Our day-to-day world has gotten geographically smaller, but within that smaller circle we've bicycled thousands of miles together and have become intimately familiar with tiny details of our city that previously went unnoticed. Life isn't always day-to-day though. Every once in a while we take a vacation. We could rent a car and drive somewhere, but we haven’t done that yet. We took the Greyhound halfway across the country. It was an adventure full of characters. The train was somewhat less “interesting” but an adventure in it’s own way. Perhaps our favorite family trips lately have been bike camping. The details are enough to fill their own article, but I can testify that pedaling two kids to a campground and spending the night is not only possible, but a lot of fun.
Being car-free has its downsides and may not last forever for us, but for now, when we’re out on the family bike, we are experiencing the world together. We see, hear, smell and feel things that we’d miss if we were in a car and our lives are richer for it. I wouldn't trade our family biking experiences for anything. People occasionally ask me about my bikes. Most common are questions about how expensive a cargo bike must be or about how tired I must be from hauling the kids. If the cargo bike were a toy, I would consider it expensive, but it’s our primary mode of transportation and it’s significantly cheaper to buy, maintain, and operate than a car. I don’t know any parent who isn't tired some of the time. I don’t think that I am any less or more tired than other parents I know. I suppose reading the tale of how someone else’s family went from two cars to two cargo bikes is nice and all, but what can you, the reader, get out of it? Have I learned anything that I can pass along to other families who are interested to get out on bikes? Yes.
A few bits of family bike wisdom
- Start with the basics. Make sure that everyone in the family has an appropriately sized and adjusted bike, trailer, or bike-mounted child seat. Having equipment that fits and is set-up correctly will help everyone to have a good time.
- I never had a handlebar-mounted child seat, but everyone I know who has or has had one says that they’re the bees' knees. Kiddo is right there so you can communicate without shouting and you can see them, see what they’re looking at, how they’re doing, etc. If I could do it all over again, I would absolutely get a handlebar-mounted child seat.
- Gears and front+rear brakes are mandatory if you’re going to be towing kiddo in a trailer.
- Find low speed + low traffic routes. MUPs (Multi-Use Paths) are nice but sometimes weekend warrior racer types treat them as a freeway, so quiet neighborhood streets might be better if kiddo is still learning how to keep right and ride a straight line.
- Patience is paramount when teaching kiddos to ride. Once the teacher starts to get frustrated, find something else to do.
- Include destinations that are exciting for kiddos... park, ice cream shop, berry picking, etc. These can be sprinkled in between “real” stops at the places mom/dad needs to go.
- Don’t be afraid to make impromptu stops. One of our favorites is stopping to look off the side of a bridge or overpass. I often ride onto the sidewalk if a bridge is coming so that we can stop mid-span. Even if it’s just watching the river flow under the bridge, it can be fun. Seeing a train or a interesting boat is top notch.
- Let kiddo bring a favorite toy. Toys that can be tethered on are nice so young ones don’t lose them.
- Give kiddo their own bike bell (assuming it won’t be too much of a distraction if they’re riding their own bike).
- Give kiddo a small handlebar bag for their own bike. They can carry their own toy, gloves, treat, whatever fits. My kids like to collect pine cones and rocks in their handlebar bags.
- Gloves or mittens for everyone. Never underestimate the comfort of gloves even on a kind-of-cool-but-not-really-cold day. Wind resistance is a key feature to look for.
- Join a family-oriented group ride. Often rides are family friendly but they’re not really family oriented. There is Kidical Mass and similar groups in many cities across the country. The rides are designed specifically with children in mind. These are great places to meet other families who bike and see their set-ups.
About the author: Andy Schmidt is a stay-home dad and perpetual tinkerer in Milwaukie, OR. His most recent projects include a bike jump for his kids, a garden box, and a shelf for a DVD player. None of it is fine carpentry, but all of it sees regular use, and that's the kind of thing that brings Andy joy. As his kids get older, he is having a hard time staying ahead of them in being able to identify plants around the neighborhood. He's debating giving up on that race and letting the kids teach him about plants. Andy's dream family activity is to build a dingy-size sailboat in the backyard. This post first appeared on Paranoid Stay-at-Home Mom, a blog co-managed by ParentMap editorial intern Rory Graves.