Friday, November 18, 2011

My Bike-Car Interfaith Marriage

Getting ready for a ride with Big and Little

Our family watching fireworks in the back of Grandma Mona's truck

Yes, I know.  It's a bit of an exaggeration to discuss decisions about transport in my family as though they were some kind of religious affiliation.  But the truth is, navigating our transition from being a two-car to a one-car family has been one of the most challenging, complex, and rewarding periods in our relationship.

When I first suggested that we get rid of a car so that I could purchase a new family bike, I think it's fair to say that my husband thought I was nuts.  He was worried about the safety of bicycling with kids.  He wondered how we might cope with bike breakdowns, and with longer travel times.  He was concerned about the potential hassle and expense of buying a second car again if for some reason living with one car didn't work for us.

These days, he still may think I'm a little nuts for riding my bike everywhere, but he's proud of me, too.  And our system works: it saves us money, keeps me healthy and in a good mood, and fits well into our very happy marriage.

Here's what has worked for us.

1. Poor Auto Maintenance

We had been discussing the possibility of selling one of our two cars for at least five months without finding much middle ground when my husband's car broke down.  After a respectful period of grieving for his...terrible misfortune, we approached the issue of what to do with that broken-down car from a purely budgetary perspective.  At that point I had already been living as if there were no second car for a few months.  He'd had some time to see what it would be like for us to have one parent getting around primarily by bike, and one parent driving.  Things were working pretty well.  Why dump more money into maintaining a second car when we were really only using one? 

I bring this up because I've heard of other families who got rid of cars this way: the car broke down, they figured out how to live without it while they were waiting for (or just procrastinating on) repairs, and they never looked back.  Car neglect could work for you, too!

2. Not Selling our Second Car Right Away

My husband decided he would feel more comfortable with transitioning to one car if we kept the second car for a little while.  We've never bought a car with credit, so both our (very modest, used) cars were already paid for.  We changed our insurance plan to an extremely low-cost, vehicle-in-storage policy for Austin's car, and completely stopped driving it.  (Easy to do when you don't fix it, of course.)  Frankly, I was ready to sell the car right away, but hanging on to the extra car helped us reach consensus on the transition.  Buying a second car after selling one off would be a big hassle, so for Austin, keeping the car around for a little while took the edge off a sizable concern.  And he eventually did decide he was ready to sell it.

3. Compromise and Seeing the Big Picture

Once we decided to rid ourselves of the second car and buy a very nice family bike, we faced what was actually, in my opinion, a greater test of our ability to compromise: navigating the endless transportation decisions that arise in day-to-day family life.  In some respects, I think our transition may have been easier if we had just gotten rid of both cars.  (Which I am totally open to, Austin, if you happen to be reading this.)  Because we still had one car, there was a lot of negotiation at first.  How would we get to our movie date?  What about last-minute, pre-dinner grocery runs?  Dinners out with the kids?

On each of these questions, my inner bike geek was shouting "Go Team!" at the top of her lungs.  I try, though, to take a deep breath and remember that my husband is making some really big changes, and often sacrificing his hard-earned free time (he works full time and goes to grad school at night) so that I can get around by bike.  And he, thankfully, usually remembers that how I get around keeps me healthy and happy, and saves us money.  There are trips that I make in the car with Austin because it would be silly or divisive to go separately.  However, I've also made a mental list of places that I absolutely will not go in a car, under any circumstances: grocery stores, our kids' schools, the library, or anywhere within 3 miles.  Those places are off-limits, and just as I wouldn't ask Austin to take the bus with me to his mom's house in Creswell, he doesn't ask me to visit the places in my no-drive zone by car.

One of the current challenges we face concerns my evening pilates class.  It's located about 35 minutes away by bike, whereas by car it's only 15 minutes.  I happen to really love the bike ride to class, and it seems ridiculous for me to drive somewhere in order to exercise.  But Austin is my babysitter, and he is so overworked that the additional 40 minutes of travel time feels like a significant loss of study time to him.  We've worked out a solution that I think will keep us both sane: if he feels like he needs that 40 minutes for schoolwork on my pilates nights, I can take the kids to a friend's house for dinner.  I think the key for us has been figuring out which seemingly small problems are grounded in something bigger for one or the other of us.  In this case, Austin's time is precious because he needs to spend so much of it studying and holding down a 9 to 5 job.  The longer rides are important for keeping me healthy and fit, and touch on my sense of equity and responsibility: It doesn't feel right to drive somewhere regularly when I can get there by bike or transit.  We feel frustrated with each other's choices sometimes -- what couple doesn't?  But we work hard at remembering to be influenced by each other, and at seeing how these little nuts and bolts issues are sometimes connected to something bigger for one or the other of us.  I feel that if we just managed a tit for tat kind of compromise for these problems, we wouldn't be quite as happy as we are.

When we first decided to stop using one car, Austin had some lingering concerns about the safety of bicycling with kids, logistics of long bike trips or fixing flats with kids in tow, and future changes in our family.  Each one of these topics could be an essay in itself, but suffice to say that we talked each one out, in careful detail.  I took a confident cycling class, which really did help me to figure out the best ways to get around (and taught me about inductive loops -- I can't recommend these classes enough).  We made some specific plans for how I would cope with mechanical problems or with really bad weather (hail, electrical storms, etc.).  And we've discussed our options for future changes -- such as the possibility that I will need to look for full-time teaching work in a bad economy, which could mean a position very far from home.  I think that if we didn't take each others' fears and priorities seriously, we couldn't have made it through the transition to being a one-car household and still love being around each other.

4. Multi-Modal Dates

Another key to our success is dates.  As many dates as we can get.  They have been a great opportunity for us to travel a little by the other person's preferred mode.  And also?  They're dates. 

In general, we alternate.  One date is to the movies by bike, and the next is to some far-flung restaurant in a car.  I do have to suck it up and pretend I don't wish I was riding my bike.  (At least, most of the time I remember not to complain about it.)  But Austin is a good sport and does his part by trying out going to places he normally wouldn't on a bike.  He gets to see that I actually do know how to get around safely, and that most trips are pretty quick by bike.  Now that it's getting dark so early, our bike dates are more likely to be on a weekend afternoon.  No one wins converts to bicycling by making someone ride a bike in the rainy, cold dark.  And we have fun -- by bike or by car.  It would be a waste of perfectly good babysitting not to live it up when we have an evening to ourselves.

5. Having a back-up plan

In the course of those discussions about bad weather and bike break-downs, I had to think through how I would cope with major transportation failure.  Would I call my husband to come pick us up?  Sure, he would be willing to help, but I also have other options.  I could take a taxi, or catch a bus.  I actually did take a long taxi ride one afternoon when I jotted down the incorrect time for a bus from Veneta to Eugene.  (The bus service on rural routes can be infrequent at best.)  It cost me twenty bucks, which seemed expensive at first.  But then, of course, I remembered:  that's less than a tank of gas for our station wagon.  I think it was a relief for both of us to consider some worst-case scenarios and realize that I wouldn't have to call on him to bail me out if it didn't feel like the best choice.

What doesn't kill you...

It's a cliche, but true: taking on big changes makes can make a relationship stronger.  I had some moments of hesitation about going car-light at first -- wouldn't this really be hard on my marriage?  For us, though, the big changes we've made to our life together -- though they may cause some bumps in the road in the short term -- make our marriage stronger and better in the long run.  All those complicated things we throw at our relationship are not just worth it because of their own merits, they also help us stay happy and connected: kids, graduate school, getting rid of a car.  There were difficult conversations and frustrating experiences aplenty along the way to our current, more balanced experience of being car-light.  But that's how it is with everything complicated and interesting that's worth doing, right?  Ultimately Austin wouldn't want to stand in the way of me doing something I find truly important, just as I want to support him in pursuing what he wants from life.

Our marriage is stronger now because we tested it with a bicycle.  Add that to your list of things that are better by bike.


  1. oh I like this!!!

    This kinda fits my husband and I. Although he bike commuted for a year about 6 years ago. but he thought ( and still thinks) the idea of not drivng when you have a car is a little strange. esp in the suburbs. He has come over to my way of thinking and realizes it isn't a fad. And he has come to bike to things lately on his own. Like to an important dinner meeting near by and now whenever he gets his car services ( like today) he brings his bike and rides from dealer to work which is a short bike path ride away. Although unlike me he didn't think about the fact that he would be riding inthe dark tonight and his light is for a leisure rider and so he was all stressy. he laughed at my $150 light- but my light is super bright and I wouldn't have stressed about the dusk falling....

  2. Thanks, MamaVee!

    How cool that your husband has started riding his bike more. Did he stop bike commuting when you moved to the suburbs?

    I'm thinking of adding another light to my family bike. Are you happy with yours?

  3. So great to have you back posting. This travel mode dance is something I think a lot of families struggle with and you have a great perspective and take on the whole thing.
    I think if Missy and I hadn't started our relationship out centered so much around the bike it would be more like this (a bit more of an effort). I feel lucky she fell in love with riding too... Though I do still have to tone it down every once and awhile.

  4. I love that you're the one convincing your husband to give up a car... stereo-typically it's the other way around.

    We went from 4 to 3 to 2 to 1 to no cars in a stretch of @ 8 years. It was a long slow process. With each car sale, we felt an increasing sense of relief!

    I'm cheering for you!

  5. Awesome post! We are also a one-car family and rely on our bikes a lot, although for us it's not a my bike/his car issue - we're totally even in that regard! We drive when we need to and bike when we can and it works.

    Our sons have grown up with the idea of cycling so this feels totally normal to them. In fact, we spent a total of four years bike touring as a family (most recent trip was three years from Alaska to Argentina!) where we didn't have a car at all.

    I love hearing about families who are making the effort to use the bikes as I feel it sends a wonderful message to the kids!

  6. This is a great post that I think will help others with this dance.

    Given our situation, we just never became a two-car family. We met as Peace Corps volunteers and neither of us owned a car, then on to NYC so no car. A set of twins and a move to Maine--> car, but we worked where we lived (a boarding school) so only one. Finally, with our last move to New Haven, CT, we made the intentional decision to remain a one-car family. My husband got his father's 1961 English Rudge Roadster bike and put a kid's seat on it. A year later, I discovered bakfietsen and became a woman possessed. Now we both ride with our three boys, both take the car when we need to, negotiate who uses what and when, walk, hop on the occasional bus, & try not to feel shy asking to bum a ride with a friend when necessary.

    I am interested in this gender split in bicyling families with a mom and a dad. Were both parents into bikes right away? Who convinced whom (or not)? How? Did the other partner change her/his thinking about bikes (or vice versa)? Oh, you may have just prompted a good investigation for me for some future blog posts! Cheers.

  7. I just want to let you know that I am loving reading all these thoughtful responses and looking forward to replying to them later this evening. At the moment I am covered in flour and balancing Little on one hip as I finish up my pies for Kidical Mass. Thanks for stopping by with comments! It's both interesting and encouraging to see how this works for other families.

  8. My wife and I (no kids) wrestled with the idea of moving from two cars to one. I bike-commute to work most of the year, but in Pittsburgh, PA, there are usually two months each winter when there's too much snow and ice on our hilly roads for safe biking, especially in the 6 a.m. darkness, so I drive. I could take a bus, but the 8-mile trip is a 20-minute drive, a 45-minute (all up hill) bike ride, but a 2.5-hour bus trip. I'd love to give up the one car, but haven't come up with a practical alternative...

  9. Shane:

    I like your term: "travel mode dance" describes how couples have to be responsive and engaged to figure this stuff out.

    And I think I should clarify something: Austin does enjoy riding a bike, thankfully. He did start out feeling that relying on a bike as a primary mode of transportation, or riding it in the dark, the rain, etc. was impractical and perhaps ill-advised. He may not be ready to get rid of our remaining car or head out to a date by bike on a dark, rainy night, but he is hopeful that once he completes his MLIS degree, he'll be able to work at a library downtown and commute by bike.

    So, who knows where we might end up?

  10. Anne and Sarah:

    It's interesting to think about the relationships between gender and an interest in cycling in different mom/dad families. Anne, you mentioned that you thought the stereotype might be of a husband trying to persuade a wife to take up bicycling. It's funny, I know a handful of women who are interested in riding their bikes more for transportation, but whose (male) partners are wary of cycling for transport. All of us became more interested in bicycling around the same time -- in part, I'm sure, because we were influenced by each other. But I also wonder if the proliferation of bicycling for transportation blogs written by women and mothers had some influence on us? I know that I found them to be really encouraging. Hmmm...something to think about.

  11. Emily and Sara,

    Yes, gender and cycling is an interesting discussion and also popular in the media and in blogs etc.

    I would be interested to know the stats on gender and transportation cycling in the US.

    Pucher says in Northern Europe it's even. And as he has studied, getting more women and families on bikes will go a long way toward expanding cycling as transportation in the US.

    While blogs help create community and are a wonderful resource, I often think we're talking to ourselves.(the people who've already made a commitment to ride). I'd love to figure out a way to reach people who haven't yet made the leap!

  12. Anne:

    Your comment is just so interesting that I'm going to write something way too long to unpack my thoughts about it. Bear with me!

    Yes, the number of women on bikes in the US is far, far behind the number of men on bikes. In 2009, women made up only 27% of bike commuters nationwide. See this excellent map for more information. In Portland, the percentage of female bike commuters was still only 39%. And we all know that women and families on bikes are a good indicator of how friendly and safe the bike infrastructure is (and how effective any education and encouragement efforts are). My intention wasn't to say that women are now more likely to be a convincing a male partner to get rid of a car, but rather to consider the possibility that existing networks of women encouraging other women to ride bikes (such as blogs) might have had a big impact on my particular group of friends. I'm curious to see if women elsewhere may have noticed something similar.

    In the families I know with a male partner who is more of a bike rider than a female partner, the men in question began riding for transportation maybe five or ten years before my girlfriends and I did. I think that there's a lot more out there in terms of encouragement for women right now, and I wonder how that is helping the number of women cyclists grow.

    It's by no means a significant sample of the female population (!), but among my girlfriends and I, the story of our love affair (or renewed love affair) with the bicycle went something like this. Something prompted us to think about getting back on a bike, or to think about how to get our small kids out on a bike with us. Then we did a tiny bit of internet research and found...a ton of encouraging information and beautiful, empowering images of women doing just what we had imagined. Only maybe in a way that was just a little bit cooler than we had imagined bikes to be.

    Yeah, I definitely agree with you that we're still not to where we meed to be in terms of the number of women cyclists. And I agree that it seems like a lot of the time we're preaching to the choir on these bike-y blogs. But I also think that the amount of support and information available to women who begin to be interested in cycling is fantastic, and improving all the time.

    As far as how to connect with folks who haven't yet found out how practical, fun, and convenient cycling is -- I have no idea. But I do know SO MANY women who have started to ride a bike for transportation in the past year or two. I can't help but feel that there's a lot of person-to-person influence that those of us who ride bikes have that we may not fully realize.

  13. the gender discussion is interesting!

    My husband bike communted when we lived in New Haven. His parking card was very costly and his car was all but dying. So he decided to take it off the road ( parked it in the garage spot) and got rid of his parking spot at work and biked daily for that year. At the end of the year we donated the car to NPR and he bought a used but newer car and we moved to the suburbs where we are now. Back when we lived in NYC, he bought a piar of rollar blades as transportation and rollerbladed everywhere in NYC. So for him- bike/blades as transportation were def an Urban/money saving tactic and once we were in the suburbs and had more money he was happy to have his car. ( granted he works a 1+ hour drive from home and works overnight/through the night shifts so for him having a car to commute is kinda key. also his driving 1 hour actually saves 30 people from driving down to boston to see him as he sees about that many people in their locale rather than having them come to him... )

    For me it was as Emily described it- and less a money saving thing but a way to get around without driving. I circle a 6-8 mile route running errands most days. there is no reason I should be driving that and esp now with my new bike- I seriously don't very often. I have opted to keep my car b/c it's paid for and b/c my husband is gone from 6-7 monday -friday and then gone for 24 hours on a given sat or sun ( and every weds) his car is simply with him. My goal is to use mine mostly for road trips when he is at work all weekend and things like that. Plus I admit to being being a more fair weather rider than most- so the car may get more use in the fierce cold and snow and rain.

    I'm being tangential in my reply. but I agree- person to person is so key. Also just being out there. I feel like so many people are attempting to ride even now and then b/c they see me out and about and see that it might be possible to run all those errands with out the car....

  14. Hi! Honestly I haven't read this entire post, but I plan on it. I saw the pics of your bike and am in love with it! lol My hubby has been bike commuting for 3 years now and this summer I plan to join in since our little ones are big enough... We have used a trailer in the past for riding on paths, but I love the safety of having your babies right with you... I was wondering if it gets heavy??? You obviously run all sorts of errands with your bike, do groceries added to the weight of the kids get just too heavy... Thanks :)

    1. I don't find this bike to feel heavy when riding it loaded up with groceries and kids under normal circumstances. Certainly, though, if I were to ride up a significant hill, I would be either straining to climb or getting off the bike and walking it up. (I used to live in Japan, and everyone on a bicycle seemed to hop off and push at a certain hill near the train station. It doesn't hurt my ego to do this from time to time.)

      What most surprised me about riding such a heavy bike was the momentum it seems to build after a few seconds of pedaling along a flat path. It's a very smooth, pleasant ride, in my experience.

      I find it very easy to ride this bike with lots of weight on it, but it's possible that you wouldn't feel that way. If you are considering purchasing this bike, I would recommend you travel to a bike shop that carries Fr8s in order to get a test ride with your kids or other cargo.

      Good luck!

    2. Emily thanks! Your blog actually prompted me to get things going b4 the summer. For now we are sticking to a trailer and hybrid that I have... We are taking a little time to see if we are ready to go all the way, but I am excited about the change. Thanks for the great tips throughout your posts.