Sunday, December 20, 2015


At the time of writing this description, December 2015, we approach our 5 year carfree anniversary – wheee!  It’s been quite a ride, mostly on 2 wheels.  Meet our family, enjoy our love story, and be inspired to quit driving (if your city’s infrastructure safely allows), get fit, and have fun traveling outside the box….
Our household is composed of
2 parents, 5 teens (no kidding, 5 kiddoes, ages 13-19) or …
3 earning income, 4 studying/supporting
4 adults, 3 minors
5 of driving age, 2 not
6 able bodied, 1 handicapped
7 suburban bike ninjas, 0 drivers!
We are employees, interns, volunteers, world schoolers, committee members, advocates, activists, actors, film producers, bloggers, bookworms, nature enthusiasts, dog lovers, dungeon masters, vegans, fun fanatics, and generally busy community members.  Not driving does NOT mean being stuck at home!

The biggest caveat to our story is LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION.  We moved from the Phoenix metro area to the Portland metro area in December 2009.  LOCATION was the ultimate factor that made not driving a safe and realistic choice for us – a location with decent sidewalks, good bike lanes, accessible mass transit, conveniently located community amenities, and a growing culture supportive of active transportation.  Not that everything here is perfect, but things are headed the right direction, and a darn sight better than what we left in AZ at the time.  From our minivan-dependent life in a sprawling car-centric metropolis where we sped along highways daily (often for an hour or more) and drove kids’ bikes to the park for a safe place to ride while parents had none to pedal themselves…

The first year in OR – call it year zero – our minivan’s gas consumption dwindles from weekly to monthly refuelings, in part due to conscious effort to keep outings/activities as local as possible and in part due to more walkable/bikeable grocery shopping.  Mom and kids enjoy a lot more exercise and outdoor time, and by the first hints of spring, Dad surprises everyone by getting on a bike.  Back in the early 2000’s, his doctor’s orders pursuant to a spinal condition were: “No standing for more than 10 minutes at a time, no sitting upright for more than 5 minutes at a time.”  That condition left him for many years with few options other than reclining, oxycodone for pain, and oversized portions of food to feed a growing depression.  Newly available microsurgery in 2008 was helpful enough to put an end to oxycodone, but was not a cure-all.  Could have been the wind on his first ride, but it was as if new life was breathed into Dad, who realized that biking hurt less than walking and remembered from his long-ago days as a bike commuter that it’s a lot more fun than driving too.  By fall, someone jokes about ways to save during family budget planning: "Well, we could get rid of the car." A pregnant pause, a thoughtful silence, glances exchanged, another examination of the numbers, more conversations, protests from some, long looks at maps, first attempts at mass transit, bike trailer shopping, gear check, a plan to ditch the minivan, and soon we’re parking at the bike rack instead of in the handicapped spot.  Although the minivan still sits in a parking space awaiting its fate, we declare December 25th our carfree anniversary after a successful convoy to the library with the new bike trailer and a sighting of two eagles on our ride home.

On hand-me-down and second-hand bikes, on foot, by bus and light rail, we learn to make our way around town and farther away to downtown Portland.  We bike on the sidewalk because the kiddoes are small-ish, Dad’s physical handicaps make him a bit unstable, Mom was taught growing up that the sidewalk was the proper place to pedal, and who in their right mind would actually want to share the same road space with large, loud, dirty, noisy, scary cars when the sidewalk is so conveniently and reassuringly separated from them?  Dad’s weight plummets by more than a hundred pounds, and Mom enjoys the best physical fitness of her life, and only getting better.  Before the end of the year, Oregonian reporter Casey Parks publishes a story (including video interview) about our car-free lifestyle, so even though we’re just getting started, we’re feeling pretty cool as well as stronger, healthier, and happier.

After everyone’s online and Mom’s on-road bike education from the League of American Bicyclists, plus a few close calls on sidewalks, we migrate from sidewalks into bike lanes.  And learn that bikes really can make left turns in traffic!  For some of us, this shift in self-confidence means faster and farther travel by bike, while smaller family members are less keen about getting off the sidewalk.  We are surprised to receive an Alice Award in May from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) for “outstanding achievements and dedication to building the future Oregon where bicycling is safe, convenient, and fun.”  For us, the award feels like a call to action, especially after being dubbed “Suburban Bike Ninjas” in the awards video.  We start posting more on social media, attending committee and public meetings about transportation system decisions, and delivering CSA shares by bike trailer as nonprofit volunteers.  Overall, 2012 is a 2nd year of getting stronger, healthier, happier, and more efficient in our non-driving travel.

Since using the bike lane on larger arterials is a bit spooky for some, we revise our routes to avoid traffic, taking longer, more creative routes on multi-use paths and quiet streets.  Turns out the longer rides not only feel safer, but also equal more fun and exercise.  We explore new, farther destination in addition to new routes.  The parents get a chuckle listening to the teens discuss polite ways to turn down car rides from friends because they actually prefer walking to being driven.  We sign up for the National Bike Challenge to discover that we’re averaging over 1,000 miles of pedaling monthly yielding an estimated >1,000 pounds CO2 saved by not driving, all while having an incalculable amount of fun.  Winning our independence from the minivan changes our perspective on everything.  We find ourselves with a growing intolerance for distracted drivers, a shocking outrage at the true costs of driving to the environment and public health, an unwillingness to accept the “acceptable losses” of a car-centric transportation system, and an associated willingness to speak up louder for safe and connected active transportation options.

Our viewpoints become more and more bike-centric.  The passing cars (and the cars we pass during rush hour standstill) seem somehow foreign and the idea of traveling inside one seems almost alien to us.  We can hardly fathom how much time we once spent driving and recoil at the thought.  As everyone is growing up and heading off in different directions with different interests and different friends, we wonder how we would have managed by minivan.  For years we had lamented the one car family dilemma, when the real solution turned out to be replacing four wheels with fourteen.  The kitchen never stops fueling our travel, and some days it’s difficult for some of us to eat enough.  There’s no thinking twice about seconds.  But who can complain about that?  We all feel a deeper connection to nature communing with the sun, wind, and rain, and listening to the music of the birds and the trees as we travel, to say nothing of encounters with coyotes, owls, beavers, raccoons, and more.  The mainstream acceptance of roadkill in the bike lane is inconceivable to us, and we ponder the role of the transportation system in an overall culture of violence.  Needless to say, it all makes for interesting dinner conversation in between many bites.  Did I mention how much we’re enjoying the vegan fuel as well as the fun of the ride?

We are all busy working, interning, volunteering, taking classes, being social, speaking up at advocacy events, grocery shopping, community gardening, doing basically anything and everything we used to think required a car to get there.  Quite frankly, we wouldn’t know what to do with a car if someone gave us one.  Our most frequent use of cars these days is checking reflections in a parked car’s window to make sure helmets are on straight before departing the bike rack.  We are experts at finding the safest bike routes, mapping mass transit trips, dressing in layers, and carrying enough extra socks on rainy days. We enjoy the most stamina and best physical fitness (yet) of our lives. More than anything we are grateful for biking’s role in Dad’s return to life from a gloom of pain, depression, and obesity – the biggest and most wonderful change from 5 years ago! And the most important reason why – in addition to falling more deeply in love with biking, nature, and fitness – our carfree family story is truly a love story!


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