Life as a Car-Free Family
If you are anything like me, you’ve spent time fantasizing about going car-free–no more time spent in traffic! no car payment! no gas budget! I’d be so green!–but have never actually taken the leap. Erin Z, from the blog LivingEZ, plunged right into the car-free lifestyle with her husband and young daughter when they moved from Charlotte, North Carolina to Sydney, Australia.
As part of my Six Questions series, in which I interview inspirational cycling families, Erin shares with us why they chose to live car-free, how they manage to get around, and what steps you can take to spend more time on bike and less time in a car.
Life as a Car-Free Family: Six Questions with Erin Z from LivingEZ
What made you choose to become a car-free family?
We took a long, circuitous route to being car-free. Before we moved to Sydney, John and I lived just outside the city center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Home, work, and entertainment fell within a relatively small radius; and we walked most places. We regularly biked to our respective offices, and even started fitting in regular Trader Joe’s runs on bicycles.
We slowly increased our involvement in the Charlotte bike community through triathlon training, volunteering for the local bike-share, and participating in casual, social rides. We even moonlighted as tour guides, leading bike and brewery tours in the warmer months!
However, we owned two fully paid-for and well-maintained vehicles that we struggled to justify selling. After all, the mountains and the beach were only a few hours away by car.
The decision to move to Sydney came with a conscious preference for a slower pace of life and the opportunity for car-free living. We did not want to deal with the hassle and expense of moving our cars over, and didn’t see the benefit of buying a car since we only plan on staying 2-5 years.
We researched the best places to live in Sydney for cyclists and chose an apartment near a hub of protected cycleways. John extensively scoured the internet for tips on how to get our bikes past customs (professional cleaning, and new tires did the trick!). And lastly, we sold both our cars, and took the plunge!
What set-up do you use for biking with your daughter?
For around town and commuting, Erin rides a Bobbin Bramble and John rides an Xtracycle Radish (precursor to the current Edgerunner). For transporting Cecilia, we have a Yepp seat on each of our bikes. Erin has the front-mounted Yepp Mini, and John uses the rear mounted Yepp Maxi.
Our family is car-lite but not car-free. One thing that has kept us from making that leap is that we love getting out in nature—camping, hiking, mountain biking, etc. I know your family likes adventures too. How do you get to them?
Sydney spoils us in this aspect: there are heaps of parks, beaches, and mountains easily accessible by public transport. The train lines are really reliable, and reach beyond the city and suburbs to other regions.
During the summer we often make a day trip to the Blue Mountains, and enjoy the opportunity to make one-way hikes, instead of round trips back to our car. For example, we hop off the train and hike 10-15 minutes to the nearest trailhead. We casually enjoy a day along one of the many trails and exit the path in the next town. The Blue Mountains are frequented by tourists, so buses are readily available when we are running short on time to catch our return train.
We do want to experiment with more camping adventures. So far, we have only tried glamping – which is definitely an easy introduction to camping with a toddler. We are really inspired by your bike camping post, and think it is something that is possible for us when the weather turns warmer (it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere).
What tips do you have for parents that would like to become car-free?
We write a lot about car-free living, from the unexpected benefits, to the logistics of loading a bicycle with groceries and a toddler. Here are some specific tips for parents who may or may not be familiar with riding in their area:
- Group rides – If you aren’t familiar with the local routes and bike paths, this is a must-do before taking a trip with kids. Often times, you don’t ride the routes you choose to drive. Bike routes include small cut-throughs and alleyways that meander through neighborhoods, instead of the fastest and most direct routes. Group rides introduce you to these safe places to ride, and connect you with other family riders!
- Take unnecessary trips – Start off with low-stakes outings, like a trip to the park. That way, if you don’t make it for one of the many reasons that derail a family ride, you still have groceries for dinner.
- Institute a ride radius – Make a rule that all trips less than 3 miles from the house are bike trips. This helps create the habit of reaching for your helmet instead of your car keys. With the assistance of those group rides, you will begin piecing together the new routes you need to make this a success.
- Bike commuting to work/school – Once riding the store is a family routine, you are ready to up the ante. Many neighborhood schools have buffer zones with slower speed limits. If you live close enough, you can drop the kids at school by bike, before riding on to work.
How do you manage when there is bad weather—heat, rain, etc?
Living car-free is a quality of life decision – we ride when we enjoy it. We don’t ride in anything more than light drizzle, but we do cycle in the heat and cold.
Our rain plan currently leverages the train, since we are across the street from a major station, and two stops from John’s office. For consecutive rainy days, we cave, and make use of the car-share pod downstairs. However, this happens maybe once or twice a year.
On hot days, we wear hats, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen – and generally head to the beach! The mornings and evenings are generally the coolest parts of the day anyways, so it’s not terrible for the weekday commute. Fortunately, John’s office provides secure bike storage, with showers and lockers. He showers there during the summer months.
Winter is quite mild in Sydney, compared to North Carolina, and there are only a few days that are too cold to put Cecilia on a bicycle. Light jackets, hats, and gloves are usually plenty to keep us all warm.
We do have our eye on some wet-weather and winter riding upgrades, but we are holding out, for now, because the xtracycle is still in good order. We love the idea of the enclosed rain covers that come with the Bakfiets and Niholas. They double as wind protection in the winter, and the bikes provide an option for using an infant car seat. If we have another child, we will likely upgrade to one of these.
How is Australia different than the U.S. in terms of cycling culture and bike infrastructure?
The biggest difference is the same for driving and riding. You are on the opposite side of the road!
Joking aside, we never rode on a protected cycleway before Sydney. It is nice to have a substantial curb between our bikes and traffic. In the U.S., neither of us lived in a place classified as “bike-friendly,” but we still managed to get around fairly well. Regardless, there were roads we would never see a cyclist, whereas here, you will see them along the highways!
We suspect the lower speed limits are a factor. In the city center, a road or touring bike can easily keep pace with automobile traffic (40kmh / 25mph), and on the highways the average speed is 80-100kmh (50-60mph).
We hear that cycling culture is more developed in Melbourne. Bike commuting has become quite trendy down there and is slowly working it’s way up the coast. We are happy to have found a few other families that ride, and even participate in a weekly family group ride.
Lastly, we have to mention that cycling does have a place in government through the Australian Cyclists Party. One of the benefits of a multi-party system!