Shine: Car-free and Loving It, a Guest Post By Abby Quillen

When I thought about the first post in the new SHINE section, Abby Quillen at New Urban Habitat came to mind immediately. Abby’s blog is a favorite of mine. I look forward to reading her thought-provoking, informative and interesting tips on sustainable city living. One subject she touches on frequently is alternative transportation. Being in New York City, mass transit is reliable and my neighborhood is walkable, but what if you live in Eugene, Oregon? Or Toronto, Canada? Or Sydney, Australia? Abby and her family are living car-free and loving it. If you think you can’t possibly live without your car, read on…

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I met the Adkins family on a crisp September day a couple of years ago. I leaned my bike on the large bike rack they’d installed where their driveway used to be. Paul showed me around their yard, pointing out beehives, fruit trees, and rows of peppers and tomatoes ripening in their sprawling raised bed gardens. Nearby a flock of Araucana hens squawked and pecked in a run. The family’s Labrador Josie followed behind us wagging her tail as Paul unlocked the shed to show me the family’s 22 bikes and various bike trailers.

Paul and his wife Monica have four kids; their youngest daughter has Down’s Syndrome. When I met them, they’d been living intentionally car-free for a year and a half. Paul is a local bike advocate, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they decided to sell their Toyota Previa minivan. But living without a privatized motorized vehicle is incredibly rare where I live in Eugene, Oregon, as it is in most parts of the United States. Only 8.7 percent of American households have no vehicle, and that includes the young and elderly.

I was visiting the Adkins that day to interview them for an article about local families choosing a car-free lifestyle. Tellingly, I couldn’t find a single other family to interview.

As I sat in their dining room questioning them about their decision, I had no intention of becoming car-free myself. I’ve always walked and ridden my bike most everywhere, and I write and blog about building more livable, less car-dependent communities. But looking back, my family was as dependent on the automobile as most Americans. We owned a 1993 Isuzu Rodeo. My husband usually drove it about 12 miles a day to work and back, and we took it to the grocery store, on errands, to friends’ houses, to our one-year-old son’s play dates and doctor appointments, and wherever else we felt like going.

Our car-free experiment

Last August our Rodeo needed repairs that would cost significantly more than its resale value, and my husband and I had a big decision to make. We were weary of sinking money into a car that would probably never be reliable, and we were hesitant to take out a loan to purchase a newer vehicle. Although we’ve always spent less than most do on car ownership – according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, it cost the average American $8,487 to drive a car in 2009 – it was still a significant expense, one we wondered if we could do without.

Moreover, more often than not, we found driving to be a slightly miserable experience – sitting in traffic jams; finding parking spots; motoring through a sea of anonymous strip malls and parking lots.

Plus, cruising around town in our not-at-all-fuel-efficient vehicle spewing hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide into the air didn’t exactly fit with the way we were trying to live. We hand-washed our dishes and line-dried our clothes. We grew a garden and ate organic food. We shopped locally and packed our groceries into cloth bags.

But could we live without a car? We decided we’d try it for a year and find out. Now that year is almost over. We’ve discovered that living car-free is not really about doing without something; it’s about embracing a new lifestyle.

Upsides to the car-free life

Once we stopped thinking about how effortless it once was to zip to stores or restaurants in a V6, we started enjoying our new lifestyle more and more. We rely almost entirely on human-powered transit – our bikes and our feet. It’s not always easy, but it’s made us happier, healthier, and more financially secure in many ways and taught us a lot along the way:

1.  Building physical strength. My husband rides his bike 12 to 20 miles a day, rain or shine. At first he was exhausted when he got home, but now he has more energy than ever and loves his commute. He swears he’d continue riding even if we owned a car. My son and I also walk or ride everywhere we go – to the grocery store, library, parks, and to friends’ houses – and we reap the benefits of stronger bodies and better health because of it.

 2. Planning more and buying less. There’s nothing like riding a bike to the hardware store and back four times in the pouring rain to teach you the value of planning trips wisely. We primarily patronize the stores and businesses in our neighborhood. We only purchase things that we can carry in a bike trailer. We rarely make impulse jaunts for treats or take-out, and we almost never visit the box stores and home improvement centers on the fringes of town. All of this helps us to save money and keep packaging out of the landfills.

3. Becoming more in touch with nature. In February when it gets dark at five p.m. and icy rain pelts from the sky, we often opt to spend evenings at home. But now that the weather’s nicer, we make up for it by getting outside every chance we get. Adjusting our activities to the cycles of nature has been a big transition, but it’s enriched our lives in unexpected ways. We experience it all, bad and good – the sun on our faces, warm breezes, flowers blooming, birds singing. “Sometimes I actually feel sorry for drivers on rainy days,” my husband said a few months into our experiment. “I’m out here. I’m living.”

4. Making the journey part of the adventure. “Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling,” James E. Starrs said, and fortunately I’m finding that to be true.  It takes us longer to get places. Sometimes we go out of our way to take safer or less hilly routes. But we’re outside, and we’re moving. It’s hard not to be joyful when you’re soaring over a bridge or pedaling along a tree-lined trail.

5. Building community. “The hardest part is asking people for favors,” my husband lamented a few months after we gave up our car. He’s right. But it’s also the best part. We’ve borrowed our neighbors’ car a couple of times – once to take our son to the doctor and another time to run an errand – and friends have graciously offered us rides a few times over the year. We live in a culture that prizes self-sufficiency, and it’s not easy to depend on others. But we’re building a kind of wealth that a lot of people seem to take for granted these days – a network of friends and neighbors who help each other.

6. The power of one. Recently a mutual friend asked me if the Adkins inspired us to sell our car. At first I said no. But as I reflect on wandering around their yard on that September day two years ago, I think they did.

They didn’t convince me about the viability of car-free living with dreadful statistics about the costs of car ownership, or tales of traffic congestion, accidents, pollution, or global climate change. They convinced me, because they’re happy. I’ve never met a family that exudes as much joy as they do.

Monica told me she loves riding bikes with her family, even on dreary days. “It feels good on my face and on my hair. My kids are giggling and talking and closer to reality. And we’re getting exercise. Everything about it feels really good.”

“Now I understand the power of one,” she added. “I think us going car-free has made a difference in the world.”

Their decision definitely made a difference in my family’s world, and it would be amazing if our decision made a difference for another family. Maybe you’re thinking of transitioning from being a two-car family to a one-car family, parking the car for a day a week, finding a different way to get to work, or giving up your vehicle entirely? If you’re like us, you may lose a little in convenience, but you’ll be amazed at how much the change adds to your life.

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Abby Quillen is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Oregon with her husband, son, two cats, and four chickens. Her blog, New Urban Habitat, is about simple, healthy, and sustainable city living with researched articles, tips, and personal essays. You can find more of her writing at abbyquillen.com.

Coming up next on SHINE: Aleksandra opens her heart and her home to pit bulls in need. 

If you know anyone who should be featured in SHINE, please send me a message. contact  {at}   jacquelincangro  DOT   com.


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22 comments

  1. This is a beautifully written story and such an inspiration. It will be a tough act to follow! Thanks J for featuring this amazing family, and thank you Abby for writing so eloquently about the life your family has created for itself.

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  2. I don’t know how I found you but I am glad I did.

    Here in New Zealand public transport is the greatest but here where I live in Wellington, we have a great transport system. Not like London, Glasgow or Montreal (all places where I have lived) but buses into town every 20 minutes. Having been a car devotee and independent woman for so many years, I am enjoying taking the bus to town and walking to the local shops to buy instead of jumping into the car and rushing off to the supermarket – where I always spend more than I mean to.

    I shall return to your blog.

    Judith:)

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    1. Hi Judith, Thanks for stopping by! I’ve learned from living in NYC that there’s nothing like taking public transportation to keep my shopping list to the essentials. It sounds like you’ve found the same.
      Hope too see you again soon. 🙂
      Jackie

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    2. Jascquelin- it should have read – ‘public transport is not the greatest but here in Wellington…..’ Public transport is the subject of much discussion by politicians here.

      Judith:)

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  3. Very nicely said.
    We have been living car-free since the beginning (i don’t even own a license!) Truth be told it may be easier here, in Switzerland, because of the great public transportation. But still, not many people live like us, with three kids, away from the town.
    A fun story: once we borrowed my mother’s bus for two days. We kept wanting to “quickly do” this and that… at the end of the day we where exhausted. This week, exceptionally, here car is here. We have been very prudent and reasonable, only going on Monday to one place to get everything we need to repare our house (carefully planning – as you say) and on Tuesday surprising our family with an unplanned visit (we never do that when we need more than one hour to go…)
    Sometimes I find it exhausting (more often when the kids where smaller) but most of the time I am proud and VERY happy this way.
    🙂 Keep going!
    Manuèle

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    1. Hi Manuele, Thanks for your message. It must require some coordination living away from town with three kids. But it sounds like you’ve had much success. And happiness!
      I’ve had the same experience when I have had access to a car in the suburbs. We spend so much time getting from point A to point B. We also just zip by so fast that I feel we lose the experience of enjoying the surroundings.
      Best,
      Jackie

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  4. Thanks for featuring my story, Jackie, and thanks so much for your wonderful comments, everyone. Manuèle, we had a similar experience when my mother-in-law was in town and rented a car. It seemed like we spent every minute she was here zipping from place to place, and by the end of the week, my husband and I were completely exhausted. Bikes and public transit do seem to encourage slightly less ambitious agendas, don’t they?

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  5. Thank you for wording things for me- I have been car-free for 3 years in Portland, lived car-free for 3 in Seattle as well, and never regretted the decision. I make better choices without a car – I know what’s most important, and yes the 10 mile roundtrip to work rain or shine is great – I felt so powerful this year when I rode in 17 degrees or when snow clogged the city and I got on my mountain bike and where others took 3 hours in traffic to get home, my commute was only increased by 5-10 minutes 🙂 Also want to point out that over 50 cities in the US have ZipCar, which I take advantage of for the very few times I do need a vehicle (the $10/hr truck that includes gas/insurance? awesome to go pick up truckloads of mulch for the garden! and a honda insight hybrid 1 block from my house for $9/hr – priceless!). I get so tired of people saying ‘well i can’t do it, i have kids’ or this or that – I just want to say, do you know how many people out there can’t afford a car and HAVE to ride the bus, etc.? I am so proud of the author for taking the chance and doing the year. I will say though, we need examples from more conservative “my car is my life” places – Eugene is very bike friendly, let’s get some folks doing this now in the middle of America 🙂

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    1. That’s a great point! ZipCar is available in many US cities now and provides a great service for people who need a vehicle just for a short time.

      There are so many cities where there isn’t public transportation, bike lanes or even neighborhood sidewalks. But the more people who start using alternative transportation will encourage cities to make the investment in this infrastructure.

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  6. You are an inspiration Abbey! We planning to go from a two car family to a one car family in a few months. I don’t ride my bike as much as I used to these days, after a few close call with cars. But thats no excuse. I can still catch the train or bus, and ride the longer (but safer) cycle routes.

    Being able to transport building and garden material is something we are going to miss. But we’ve decided to set aside a small frction of what we would have spent on the second car in a year (exclding fuel) and use that to hire a trailer if we need to.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tricia. Good luck with your plan to give up one car. It sounds like you’ve given it a lot of thought and are dedicated to making it work. Please send an update in a few months and let me know how you’re family is doing with one car.

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  7. How lucky they are to live in a climate that permits biking year-round. I really can’t imagine doing it in the snow and ice we get in my area during the winter.

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    1. It’s definitely easier to go without a car if you live in a mild climate. Not a pleasant experience to bike through a blizzard. I like that Abby and her family are starting the conversation and giving people something to think about. Thanks for stopping by!

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  8. Hi,

    I am having a health issue with knees that is making my life difficult to walk/stand/climbing stairs.

    It is almost like a disability where I can only walk slowly for < 5 minutes, can't stand straight at the same location for < 3-5 minutes etc..

    Is there any minimalist tip for me to disown my car..

    One option is to hire a cab whenever need to go out..

    Currently, I own the car but using it very infrequently (probably 3-4 times a month)

    Thanks.

    Like

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