Monday, April 23, 2012

One car family

Amsterdam, 2005
Last December, Nick was driving some of his debaters (he coaches) to a tournament and his ‘94 Camry threw in the towel in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. He got towed to a mechanic who did the equivalent of last rites and closing its eyelids. The next day, his car was presumably a milk-crate-sized cube of steel and he was returning to Columbus in a rental.

I think we both knew it before it was formally discussed: we were now indefinitely a one car family. My ‘05 Vibe is reliable enough to drive longer distances, we live in the city and both work within a few miles of our home. Neither of us live with a disability that complicates mobility and we don’t have to worry about transporting kids to childcare or school.

It’s not uncommon for midwesterners to have multiple cars per household. In this medium-sized city, parking is a breeze in most places (although good luck convincing my mom of that) and public transportation is just not an everyday way of life for most.

When people ask how our unplanned downsizing is going, and I always say “Great!” but Nick has had to bear most of the burden of our new arrangement. (He would disagree because he is absurdly chipper.) Up until a few weeks ago, I was driving to work every day. Nick was biking to campus to teach and take classes (a quick ride on a lovely wooded trail) and also biking to our common workplace (a grueling ride through rough neighborhoods, on congested and poorly maintained roads, in the bitter cold.)

Of course, once at work he was able to use our car for site visits and outreach appointments, because I was already there and I rarely had appointments outside of the office. On days where we were both in the office, we’d throw his bike in the back of the station wagon at 5 pm and go home together (or I’d drop him and his bike off at his night class. Grad school, man. Not for the faint of heart.)

Now that I am bike commuting to my new job (!!!!!), Nick can drive to the office if the weather’s lousy or he doesn’t feel like dodging one billion potholes and murderous drivers. While I do miss listening to NPR during my old commute, my new commute is worlds better. People tend to think that bike-commuting is self-sacrificing or virtuous somehow, but it rarely gets touted as fun and peaceful. Which it really really is. I get to work in the morning and feel like a human, which is more than I can say for any other job I’ve ever had.

We are still getting used to sharing, six months out. Nick will still slip and ask if he is “allowed” to use “my” car. (And I still slip up and grant “permission” to use “my” car, ha) This weekend he was out of town with the car and I kept setting out to run quick cross-town errands and then forgetting that I couldn’t make that happen in a pinch.

Without tipping my hand too much (but hey what’s a blog for anyhow), we’d like to have a kid in the next few years. I am curious to know how any working mothers without a stay-at-home co-parent manage to bike commute. Right now I sort of enjoy packing my jar o’ coffee, lunch, snacks, and gym clothes in my messenger bag for the day but packing up a kid for daycare and getting the little squirt there all on two wheels sounds like it could be a hairy undertaking.


  1. We've been a 1-car crew forever -- except when we had no car (and a two year old..) for a year. I was pregnant then too and it totally worked.

    We're committed to remaining a single car family. As we prepare for a cross country move, Chuck's ability to continue bike commuting is a primary consideration in our housing choice, and not just for the obvious environmental and fiscal reasons. With a gaggle of kids (and even with just one), it is awful easy to over-schedule your family. There are so many classes and activities you want Jr. to be involved in, on top of the preexisting errands, commutes and general life stuff. With two cars, it is too easy to "divide and conquer" our time and end up spending our time off in different cars zooming to different places to do different things and the result is less time together.

    Part of our scheduling decisions are related to having only one car, but I guess much more they are our own life philosophy and desire to maximize time together as a family. We cut stuff to make this work. Instead of taking kids to a birthday party while Chuck grocery shops, we go on a family ride that is mostly recreational but also swing by the store for a few essentials. The time spent together over times adds up to a lot more value than a collection of inherently good activities that involve being apart.

    I realize now that I am on a soap box now and not even about bikes!

    SO, bikes and buses and trains with kids? You can do it. Slap that kid in a bike seat and a messenger bag over your really isn't a big deal. Kids love public transport and bike seats way more than car seats anyway. And if you ever get to multiple small people, one will be big enough to ride on his or her own...or you can always get a bike like mine. I stay-at-home and am the one with daytime access to the car, but most of the time, I'm out with 4 kids on bikes or feet to take care of most everything we need to do. You can do it too.

    1. I was hoping you'd weigh in, Ginny!

      Hopefully we can find childcare options within our neighborhood, so that I can bike commute and Nick can do the drop-off without too much trouble on his way to campus since his schedule is more flexible than mine.

      Who knows where we'll live when Nick graduates in, like, 2050 or whatever. Hopefully it'll be equally if not more doable on 2 wheels.

  2. I recently went from 1 car to no car...I wasn't sure I'd be able to handle the commute, but once I got a bike that folds, I felt a lot more confident - knowing I'd be able to take it home on the train with me, for example, even during rush hour, if the weather was really bad, and being able to store it inside. These were huge for me. And once I got in the habit, there didn't seem to be any reason to keep the car around anymore - I was hardly using it.

  3. I've recently become hugely enamoured of my bike commute - I took the bus today because of the snow and arrived feeling decidedly un-human.

    I don't know if it's Canada in general or just the cities I've lived in, but we seem to be much less of a car culture than the US. Very few of my peers own any cars, and I don't know anyone under 50 who has >2 vehicles in the driveway. I don't have kids so I can't weigh in on experience, but those running stroller-slash-bike trailer get-ups are hugely popular here. I don't suppose you'd want to put a really tiny baby in one, but a kid who could sit up would probably have a blast in one, at least until they're old enough to have their own bike.

    Those tandem attachments look like a lot of fun, too.

    1. In our part of the country, most of my peers can claim a car. We each had a car as young single midwesterners meaning when we shacked up we suddenly had two cars. Both were paid off and neither was costing much to maintain, so we held on to them but I suspected that when one became costly with age-related repairs we'd be eager to get rid of one. Or, in our case, when one just completely went kaput.

      We like being one-car, it's seldom been inconvenient and encourages us to become less car-reliant. I guess I am a little bit daunted by the notion of being two working, bike/bus-commuting parents but we will have to figure it out when the time comes.

      P.S. I figured out biking to work in a dress/skirt! I just wear pants over my tights/under my dress and then take the pants off in the restroom at work. Not sure why I thought that would be so complicated, ha.

  4. We're about to be a one-car family (lease will run out) and I can't wait. Not just because of the insurance money, but because it will encourage walking and better car care (not having to vacuum TWO means it's more likely one will get cleaned).

    I'm terrified about bike commuting. There is minimal public transport here and I want to move to a city. There's a daycare right behind our house, though, so I suppose we're safe on that!

    Thanks for the tip on the skirt/dress biking!

  5. Hey Evie, I know I rambled at you at twitter about this but we're definitely trying to be as car-light as possible for as long as possible. Part of it is financial, part of it is that the Mister doesn't have a driver's license (ha!) but mostly we want to live in the city and raise city kids. Chris spent most of his childhood totally car-free and my family never had more than one car. My parents bused to work and my brother and I walked and later bused to school. We used our car mostly on the weekends for soccer games, grocery shopping, day trips, etc.

    Currently I bus/bike commute and Chris walks to work. Staying in the city is a huge lifestyle priority for us and we're willing to be frugal in other parts of our lives to maintain that. Especially in as bike friendly a city as Seattle, its relatively easy to be car-light.

    I second kids loving bikes and public transportation-there is so much more to look at! I also have a totally unsubstantiated theory that public transportation better socializes kids. It teaches them to respect other people's space and be flexible. With loving disciple and enough snacks I think you can make most things work with small-ish kiddos. I like Ginger's comment about one car forces you to constrain family activities (in a good way). I like that a lot.

    Finally, for your viewing pleasure, I give you Chris touring the Seattle Bike Expo, looking for his future bike mini van, with our buddy Michelle: