learning to live car-free

Many people make the choice to live car-free.  I admit I had the choice made for me more than five years ago.  You see, my husband and I separated and since he was working at the time and I was not, our only car went with him.  I was angry at first – I felt abandoned and stuck.  But I lived in a medium sized walkable city with access to good public transportation so I really wasn’t stuck.

I didn’t embrace using my bike for everything at first.  I walked.  I carried a little canister of pepper spray and I walked.  I bought what I call a “little old lady grocery cart” to do my shopping and I walked everywhere.

Then it occurred to me that I could get places a lot quicker on my bike. At the time I had a big-box store Schwinn.  Nothing fancy, but it was a bike and I could go farther and faster than on foot. After nearly crashing with my handlebars heavy from grocery bags I bought a rack and a detachable basket for it.  I felt almost like a serious bike person with that set-up, I tell you.

Eventually I found a job and needed to move to a completely different city.  Well, the suburbs, actually.   Work was a 3-mile bike commute, mostly on paved bike trails.  The grocery store was down the street but this wasn’t city anymore; this was suburbia and things were more spread out. I make it work but I have to be honest – living car-free is much more convenient in a decently sized city that has good public transportation.

But I found that bike commuting was freaking awesome.  I had my morning time with the quiet of a world just waking up.  Birds sang to me as I rode by.  I communed with squirrels.  A river otter silently slipped into a creek as I rode by and I glimpsed a bobcat one morning.  Dozens of tiny baby quail ran across the bike path, their mamas herding them. I loved the wildlife on my commute and by the time I rode home I was serene no matter how crappy my day may have been.  The stresses of my workday melted with each mile.

One great thing about this small city is its bike infrastructure.  While many cities have bike infrastructure that I positively drool over and this city’s infrastructure is modest, I enjoy a pretty decent network of trails and painted bike lanes on most streets.  And the city is incredible about keeping the trails in great shape. However, there are always those jerks who can’t stand sharing the road with cyclists.  It never ceases to amaze me that in a city where a lot of people ride supported by decent infrastructure, there are those completely intolerant idiots who think roads are for cars.  Morons.

Over the years I’ve embraced a car-free cycling lifestyle.  Shopping trips need to be planned a bit because I need to consider how to carry whatever I buy.  Distances need to be considered.  Riding at night is something I mostly avoid if I can even though I have a gazillion lights. Over the years I’ve equipped myself and my bike with various essentials to make us visible and noticeable.  And safe.  Also to make carrying things and doing everything by bike easier.  But no one has to spend a fortune on equipment right away.  The important thing is to ride and see how you feel doing more things on your bike.  Then get what you need, whether it’s a handlebar basket or a pannier and rack set-up.  Everybody has different needs and styles.

Being car-free and living on my bike has also made me the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life.  I haven’t even had a cold in more than five years.  Coincidence?  Naw.  I don’t think so.

I suppose rural areas are even more challenging if one doesn’t have a car.  The suburbs aren’t a piece of cake, that’s for sure.  My city ostensibly has a bus system but it is very rudimentary and hey, even if it’s raining it’s just more convenient to don the rain gear and get on my bike.  Someday I hope to move back into a decently sized city so I can walk as well as bike everywhere.  But for now I embrace my car-free cycling lifestyle,  even in the inconvenient suburbs, where everyone but me drives everywhere.

How about you? Are you car-free?  Do you want to be?  If you are, how do you make it work?

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riding tips for cold weather

Okay, yeah, I live in California so my cold is nothing like the cold some of you experience.  You have my sympathy and my utter admiration.  It’s daunting to ride in cold weather.  Where I live it’s been in the 20s at night, which is unusual.  It warms up to a whopping 30 degrees F by the time I bundle up and leave the house.  That’s cold to me!

This time of year you’ll find lots of great advice about what to wear when riding in the winter.  But I’d like to share some riding tips if you’re not normally a winter rider and you’re getting gutsy enough to try.  Do try – people will either think you’re crazy or freaking awesome!   I prefer to think I’m awesome for riding in all weather; your mileage may vary.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned as I’ve grown used to riding in the cold:

  • Consider going at a slower speed but pedaling at a higher cadence to stay warm.  This accomplishes two things: 1) there will be less cold wind resistance freezing your face at a slower speed and 2) the higher cadence keeps the blood flowing through your legs and keeps you warm.
  • Take an insulated water bottle or a spill-proof insulated coffee mug with you and fill it with warm water.  You always need water to help keep you hydrated in cold, dry air, but nobody wants to drink cold water on a cold day!  Just a sip of warm water can feel really good when you’re riding in the cold.
  • As you ride along, clap your hands to keep blood flowing to your fingers.  If you’re not comfortable going hands-free for this, clap them whenever you’re stopped at a traffic light.  Who cares if you look silly if your fingers are warm?  Alternatively, a couple of things I do to keep my fingers toasty is alternately gripping my handlebar grips and flexing my fingers in rapid succession and taking one hand off my handlebars at a time and shaking my whole arm out.  You’ll be surprised how much more enjoyable your ride is when your hands are warm.
  • Keep in mind that if your core is warm your body doesn’t have to “steal” heat from your extremities.
  • Be careful for water puddles that may have frozen and look out for painted parts of the street – they can get icy and slippery.  Also, if you’re on bike paths that have those yellow rubber bumpy strips at intersections, be aware that these can freeze and become very slippery when wet. Wow, I learned that the hard way (literally).
  • Let a couple of pounds of pressure out of your tires to increase road-to-tire surface area if it’s wet or snowy or icy.  Sure, you’ll go slower, but you’ll also ride with more stability.
  • Be prepared for the brighter sunlight of winter – the sun is at a steeper angle than in the summer and it can suddenly blind you.  Go slowly if the sun is in your eyes.
  • If it’s dreary and cloudy – even if it isn’t raining or snowing – use your lights.  Better to be too careful than not careful enough.  A lot of motorists don’t expect to see people riding bikes in the winter.  Make sure you’re visible.

And when you get done riding in the cold, have a nice huge cup of hot chocolate.  You’ve earned it!