No Car, Must Travel

It has been two and a half months now without the car - pretty much the entire winter. For the most part we did not miss it. But now that the blizzards have subsided, it is time to get things done. We'll start going on photoshoots and other trips again soon, and there are other ways in which we will need it as well. This weekend was our first experiment with alternative options.

I needed to get to Harris Cyclery (10 miles away) to drop off a bicycle along with some extra wheels and rims, since they'll be building new wheels for the Bella Ciao Superba prototype and also replacing the headset. After considering various options, we decided to take a taxi there with all the stuff, then take the commuter train back. Ordering the taxi, we specified that there would be two people plus a bicycle. Nevertheless, they sent a small sedan and great fun was had by all as we stuffed both me and the bicycle in the back seat. Still, we managed to fit everything in and arrived at Harris without incident. The fee for the taxi was reasonable. Total time for the trip, including calling and waiting for a taxi, wrangling in the bicycle, and the drive itself: 1 hour. Had we rented a car, it probably would have taken longer than the taxi, as a result of having to first go and get the rental. Had we driven our own car, it would have taken 30 minutes.

After getting done everything that we needed done, we had several hours to kill before heading back. The Saturday train schedule limited our choice for when to travel considerably: There was basically one train in the early afternoon and another late at night. So we test rode some Moultons and wandered around the three shops on the Main street, before heading for the Commuter Rail station.

We arrived several minutes early. The station is outdoors and the train was 7 minutes late. In freezing temperatures, that wait is more difficult to endure than it sounds. The other people on the platform looked miserable as they paced back and forth to keep warm and cursed the train's (apparently habitual) lateness.

But finally it arrived, and thankfully it was warm inside. The numbness in my face began to subside as we headed toward Boston. Once in the city, we transferred to the subway, then walked home from the station.

Total time for the trip, including waiting for the commuter train, transferring onto the subway line and walking home: 1 hour 15 minutes. But if we include the time wasted because of the spotty train schedule, then the return trip was really over 3 hours. Had we driven our own car, it would have been 30 minutes. In other words, an activity that would have taken us a total of two hours had we used our private vehicle, wound up taking up half of our day - which is not exactly a success story. Next time we will give car rental or zipcar a go, but it is too bad that public transportation in the greater Boston area is not more convenient.


  1. Have you ever considered a utility/cargo bicycle?
    They seem quite good for hauling things around on. However, I have never tried one so don't know personally.

  2. I am waiting for Zipcar to open for business in Kalamazoo, Mi. Being a college town, it has to be soon. When it is available, the car will go away. Even in the winter, I drive about once a week, sometimes less.


  3. We travel long distances in hilly areas, so cargo bikes would not work.

    We'll try zip car next time and see how that works out.

  4. Train is a fairly foreign word here in Indianapolis.

    Maybe you need a bicycle trailer so you can carry gear and you could have just ridden the 10miles?

  5. The car free lifestyle appeals to me on some level but I always wonder if this is some romantic notion that would fade quickly in bad weather or when getting from A to B is my primary objective.

    On the other hand, how much do we miss when our journeys are quick and non-descript. I suspect it is good to be a little cold, a little delayed or a little burdened every now and then.

  6. It seems to me that if you had planned your trip around the train schedule you could have eliminated much of the waiting time -- the several hours you spent killing time on the main street. I agree that private transport is quicker and more convenient for trips like these, but good planning makes the gap far smaller, and the hours you save in not working to pay for a car you can spend doing other things, or work those hours and bank the money or spend it on other things.

  7. Jules - You are right. I am not used to adapting to a transportation schedule with 4 hr gaps. Plus for me, the stuff I need to do comes first, and the other things adapt to it, not vise versa. If I had to live my life by a train schedule, I'd be utterly miserable : (

  8. Ha! At least you have public transportation options. There are zero trains (other than one Amtrak route) in the entire state here in Arkansas and while there are buses in Little Rock (the capitol), they are hub-and-spoke style which means you can't actually go anywhere except downtown.

  9. Bryan - The thing is (and I tried to put this in the post initially, but was too mentally tired) that public transportation in the outskirt of Boston doesn't feel "normal" and I think that is the biggest problem. The trains are sparse, the stations look unwholesome and I don't like being in them alone after dark, and there is just a general feeling of... I don't know, indignity, to using this option. When I am in the EU, taking a similar type of commuter train feels completely different.

    Anyhow, believe it or not I'd prefer to live somewhere like Arkansas (but next to the ocean!) in the middle of the countryside, rather then in the midst of these endless suburbs that are neither here nor there...

  10. I know how you feel about some of this. I don't ride my bike as much as I could but the majority of my errands and work related running around just isn't practical on a bike. I live a few miles out in the country and my schedule is really unpredictable and at the mercy of my customers. But I really want to drive less and be a little(Hell, a LOT)more intentional about this. I really like cars but don't feel like the way we view them, use them and allow ourselves to build our lives around the impulsive convenience they allow is good for those of us who have them or those who don't.

    I missed a chance to free myself from some of this when I decided to build a house out in the country instead of closer to town. I love it out here but what the heck do I need with 3 acres out in the county? I'm not gonna' farm it and our garden is the same size it was when we lived in a small town.

    I've been thinking lately about what it would take to get by on 1/2 the fuel I currently use. I need a pickup about 15% of the time so I'm going to keep the old one I have and get a small, efficient car and just keep the truck going rather than replace it with a newer truck like I was planning(I really don't like trucks anyway). Second, I'm going to try to use the car or truck less by putting a limit on how often I buy gas(I did this years ago when I was single and semi-employed, it made me really think differently about driving everywhere) and by driving to town but parking at a shopping center on the edge and riding my bike from there. It takes 2 minutes to put on a helmet and take the bike off the rack and I'll be about where I would be if we had built closer to town in the first place. I dunno', I hope it works. It's starting to.

    I'll get to ride my bike more, feel a little less driven by the worlds schedule and spend less on fuel. My neighbors think it's sort of silly and my townie bike-hippie friends think it's cheating but I think it might be alright.


  11. Velouria said...
    "but it is too bad that public transportation in the greater Boston area is not more convenient."

    Sadly, today it's much easier to get money for wars than it is for America's infrastructure.

    In my mind cycling is about the only dependable transportation option, albeit hard to accomplish at times, available to the common man/woman. That is unless you consider the use of horses.

  12. Somehow, I missed what happened with the Freelander. I'd agree about the suburbs, but the country would be tough with only a bike. Distances are long and alternative transport is tough to come by.

  13. Didn't you mention awhile ago that you signed up with Zipcar? Why didn't you just Zipcar it there and back?

    Personally (and I don't mean to offend anyone by this) I couldn't ever live in the Boston 'burbs. As Velouria said, they don't feel "here nor there". They don't have the tranquility of the country OR the convenience of the city. They're like purgatory.

  14. Velouria--The way I would look at it in the whole not using a car angle, is how often would I need to do these kinds of trips? If it's every once in awhile, like every two months or so, I'd put up with the "adventure" of getting to and from the suburbs. If this was an every day or every week type of thing, then yeah, a car is more convenient.

    That's what a motor vehicle gives us above all: convenience. When it's not present, we realize how hard it actually is to go longer distances. And unfortunately, public transit is never going to offer us the same type of convenience, no matter how good it is. You're going to be somewhat of a slave to schedule. (And yeah, I know that the US is not near Europe/Japan levels of transit, but Boston is a lot better than many other places. At least it has a commuter rail network!)

    What's the point I'm trying to get to? Umm...I don't really know! All I know is that I've lived sans car for 11 years, 10 of which here in Portland. For the most part, I don't miss it. Then again, my life is based around Central Portland with its decent transit, walkable neighborhoods, and bike routes out the bejeezus. I built my life around this, and moved specifically to a city like this because I didn't want to have to depend on a car. I rarely have to venture out into the suburbs, but when I do, it definitely falls into "adventure" category.

  15. How 'bout a trailer - it might be a bit of a difficult ride with hills, but probably wouldn't be too bad. After all, some people actually tour with them!

  16. Pro tip: pay the cab driver to wait while you take care of your business!! It may seem expensive at the nominal rate, but it's often a terrific deal. You don't have to wait and drivers are often willing to cut a special deal (even wait for free!) to get the fare on the way back rather than make the return trip with an empty cab.

  17. somervillain - Purgatory. Ha, Brilliant.

  18. lyen - Are you sure? I was there for over an hour!

    Spindizzy - I would love 3 acres in the country, or better still 10. I guess I'd make a rambling garden with all my favourite trees and flowers, plant some corn, try to lure hummingbirds, ski on it in the winter... the possibilities are endless. When I owed a house there was an acre that came with it, but it was all hilly and not really good for walking around.

  19. All season cycling is awesome:) I remember some snowy rides I took in Wisconsin a few years back. The winter is so cold and silent. Great for viewing from a bicycle. Also... thanks for the Chrome link. I dig the shoes :)

  20. I have been car 'free' for a year or so now. We live near Belfast city centre so its not too bad getting around town and to and from work. The main issue is the down-time, especially when you need to combine services. I go regularly to Glenarm on the north east coast and spend a LOT of time in Larne as a result - to the point where I prefer taking the bike on the train to Larne and doing the remaining 12 miles under my own steam (in good weather).

    The secret is to build in coffee stops, late breakfasts and so on. Also the iPhone invaluable for waits of more than a few minutes (check news, emails, Facebook etc.).

    Thanks for an interesting Blog.

  21. Jammy & Emily - Most of the trips for which we need a car are considerably more than 10 miles away. More like 60. So if we did get a trailer or cargo bike, that would be just one more expense and we'd still need a car almost as often as without it.

  22. Just an idea: wouldn't it make sense for places like Harris Cycles -- many of whose customers would presumably prefer not to have to own a car -- to offer a pick-up and delivery service by van? Maybe it could visit different districts on set days of the week/month, collecting/delivering bikes and parts on its rounds. Maybe you could suggest it to them.

  23. I always say when I moved to Mineapolis from San Francisco that I moved back to America ~ and that specifically references how much we drive here. I had a conversation about nearly the exact same thing you are discussing with someone yesterday who does not have a car. I applaud them, but for the same reasons as you encountered, not having a car in Minneapolis for me = takes a lot of time I do not have to get things done. Plus, it was 7 freakin' degrees out yesterday and snowing. I kind of got the riot act from the person I was talking to and frankly, it pissed me off. I am acutely aware of what having a car does and doesn't mean. We were both meeting up for a bicycle cause for goodness sake. I respect anyone's decision to be car free, but sometimes I wish it went the other way - I ride my bicycle, but I also drive. Who I am today is not who I have been or who I want to be. In Colorado and NorCal I was a big public transit user, but when it doesn't make sense, it doesn't make sense. If it makes sense, I use it.

  24. Boston public transit is extremely annoying especially if you have to go across town, when I worked in Back Bay and lived in Davis Square, I ended up walking to the red line most days because to go in the wrong direction then change subway lines took much more time than hoofing it a few miles. When I started riding a bike, it was MUCH quicker to ride than either drive or take public transit.

    "If I had to live my life by a train schedule, I'd be utterly miserable : (" I did in Boston for years and was miserable. It's a place that is much easier to be car light than car free.

    All of the subway and light rail is oriented towards commuters going downtown, with limited service on weekends and no connecting lines other than at the main stations. For example to get from Providence to Maine by train, you would have to take the train to Back Bay, walk a few blocks juggling luggage, get on the subway then go to North Station to take the other train. And that's the easy way, the other way involves two subway lines between the stations. Add a child to that and it becomes very problematic. The Providence line continues on to New York and DC so northern New England is effectively cut off of the main rail line by Boston infrastructure.

    Public transit is one of the reasons we're hesitant about moving back to Boston. Its fine as long as you're headed downtown, but most people need to get out to suburban locations regularly. As far as living in the suburbs, purgatory indeed. Give me a downtown or rural area any day.

  25. Winter trips of any distance can be foreboding. Wind, cold, rain and snow are do not make for an ideal trip. But yesterday, I left the bike at home in favor of the warmth of the car and realized how stressful driving can be. And my lack of love for driving only seems to increase with age.

    Some of our lives are such that occasional car use is unavoidable. Many of my common trips are 10 miles each way making me think twice before taking a winter journey by bike. As some have commented, planning a car-free life can take careful, long-term planning. In my case, this might involve a move and a career change. No small undertaking for a 50 plus, risk averse person. But I keep these things in mind when making decisions and am moving in that direction in small steps.

    My experience with cargo bikes is that the large footprint can make parking and maneuvering inconvenient. The concept is a new and bikes seem to in a rapid stage of development, so better designs are sure to come along soon.

    Those transit stop photos look dreary. If you have managed to survive several months of a cold Boston winter without the car, good for you. Think many times before idealizing a bucolic life in the country. For me, that is a nice place to visit . . .

  26. JdeP--there are too many bike shops in Boston for this to work. For example, there is a bike shop 4 minutes walking away from home, 2 more 12 minutes away and (I think) 3 or 5 if you're willing to walk 15 minutes. It's not worth it.

  27. I think you've encapsulated the basic problem of a lot of suburban/exurban development. It does feel increasingly neither here nor there, especially as we retreat more and more from the sunny-seeming postwar ideals that hastened those kinds of development in the first place. Suburbs can now feel like they have all the bad qualities of cities without any of their benefits. I imagine this was not always true.

    I really wish rail travel were more tenable in the US because if it were I would choose it every time, as I do when in Europe.

  28. I've lived in the country (with a friend's family, the land wasn't mine), and I gotta be honest, unless you're specifically doing a rural career (farming, for instance), it's not nearly as nice as a lot of people would like to think.

    Yeah, it's nice to wander around the property and have a huge garden and all that. Where I lived was seven acres, and had some reforested land, plus horses and chickens and a huge garden. But I think it's outweighed by the very fact that you are so far away from everything. And where I was wasn't really that far out--five miles into the nearest town, which was a suburb of Portland and had a commuter rail station--and the train runs far more often than the one you took!

    Every time you left to go anywhere, you had to ask yourself if it was really worth it, because of the drive. I hated owning a car even then...well, I liked the convenience, but as an environmentalist I felt like a hypocrite. And this was an older Hyundai with really fantastic gas mileage!

    I did try living there without a car, but oh man. I had to get someone to drive me into town, and then pick me up later, so in the long run I think it used up more gas!

    Lastly, living in a rural area can feel isolating. And I was living with close friends!

  29. Velouria-

    I don't mean to poke fun, but your comment of "we travel long distances over hilly roads, so cargo bikes won't work" comment made me laugh a little. Anything can be done, you just need the desire to do so. And a little extra time.
    I've been without a car now for almost 2 years, by my own choice...and while Seattle is a fairly compact city, the endless huge hills and extremely poor weather more than make up the difference.
    I wish I could afford one of those behemoth cargo bikes...then I would never even need the occasional zipcar! As it stands now, i've had to get pretty creative when it comes to load carrying on my diamond frame singlespeed. Hell, I even carried another 62cm fully assembled bike strapped to my back the other day!
    I get a lot of puzzled looks from bystanders concerning the things I do, but people forget cargo transport by bike was the norm back in the day...just look at vintage urban photos from almost anywhere, or even modern day China.
    You never know what you can do until you give it a shot! Good luck :)

  30. Sigrid-

    quick off topic, but can you tell me how the heck Minneapolis took the honors of "Best cycling city in America"?? The weather alone should put it near the bottom of the list I would think. Who wants to ride around in -20 temps for months on end? What is the infrastructure like?

  31. I once tried to order a "large" taxi to go to the airport with a bag full of ski gear that is larger than me... no taxi company would send me a van unless I was in a wheel chair. So, we opted to drive and park at the airport.

    Your trip to Harris, on the other hand, is a perfect use for the zipcar. A lot of zipcars are large enough to swallow up a bike or two inside (honda element, etc), and some of them here in Seattle even have bike and ski racks (think subaru 4 wheel drive cars) for going on outdoor adventures. My love of zipcar, however, does not mean I don't want to own a car at all, but it does make it manageable to have a 1 car household.

  32. Amanda - Yup, will try it next time. Bike racks you say? I will have to keep a lookout for those.

    Q said...
    "I don't mean to poke fun, but your comment of "we travel long distances over hilly roads, so cargo bikes won't work" comment made me laugh a little. Anything can be done, you just need the desire to do so. And a little extra time."

    I agree with you, and it has to do with priorities. My priority is not to be car free and not to get everywhere by bike at any cost. Rather, it is to do what I need to do, and to find the method that *I* feel is best to accomplish it. I do not want to travel 60 miles (one way) in hilly terrain (NH and Maine) on a cargo bike full of equipment, nor would this method of travel accommodate a number of other uses we get from the car during such trips. But for those dedicated to a bike-only lifestyle specifically - yeah, I am sure it can be done.

  33. That's why, I think, in this whole discussion of carlessness, it's important for each person to evaluate their own situation and needs and desires. I don't need to own a car in Portland, but I don't haul around large photographic equipment and props like you do, nor do I have reason to leave the inner city more than a couple of times per month.

    It's not that everyone should go without a car, we just need to really think rationally about how we use them, and cut down on how much we use them *unnecessarily*.

    It's obvious you've thought about this honestly and thoroughly, and so the decision you come to is fine, because I believe it will fit your needs, and noit just your convenience.

  34. I second everyone else's comments about zipcar. I have been carfree for the past four years (and I think, judging from your pics, we live in the same neighborhood) and I have had no problem at all combining regular bike riding with buses, the T, and the occasional zipcar trip to get errands done.

    Try renting a hybrid when you want to try it - they're only $7/hr instead of $10/hr!

    In this case, maybe a better solution would be to have taken a taxi (or walked a mile walk) to the green line (Woodland stop is probably the closest to Harris). Runs far more frequently than the commuter rail.

    I concur...

    My priority was not saving the world by being some militant biker, but rather, being unable to justify an expensive car payment any longer :) Especially when 90% of my trips were under 5 miles.
    I just happened to get lucky by moving to a city that afforded me the opportunity to live this way.
    That being said, for your personal application, Amanda's suggestion of zipcars outfitted with racks seems the best way to go. Those Subarus are everywhere up here in the PNW.
    ...and not having to pay attention to what the gas price signs are telling me....priceless
    Having been a driver for 15 years, and spending the last 2 on the other side, it's given me a nice overall picture.
    Personally, it bothers me when I read the public comments at the bottom of city websites concerning installation of bike lanes and road diets. I live in a very congested city (and a "green" one at that), and the ignorance of drivers here is appalling. If you are living here, you're paying taxes for public transportation...might as well use it from time to time and cut down on the stress level.
    All that being said, if I want to get out of town to do some camping or other activities, I still have to hitch rides with friends...can't have it all I suppose.
    Another aside...Your "Mary Poppins effect" post was interesting. Have you ever been on an approach to a stoplight, only to have a car pass you, and then get way over within inches of the curb, to prevent you from getting around them?

  36. Peppy (the antisocial cat)February 27, 2011 at 11:12 PM

    Q: then go around them on their left and wave. :)

  37. I'll add to the chorus of "zipcar"
    The commuter rail is just that- scheduled around the hours when most people who live in the burbs are flowing in and out of the city. To use them, you really have to plan around them, and they are not great at non-peak times.

    There's an express bus that runs out there via 90 from downtown I believe, but that's also very peak-time dependent.

    I like the suggestion of pickup/ dropoff - I don't think it would work all of the time, but I know that shops would like to increase winter service business and smooth out the spring rush, and it seems that that would be an attractive way for them to get the early business.
    I would definitely pay for such a service, especially if it were competitive with the cost of a zipcar or a taxi, not to mention my time.

  38. Agreed that Zipcar is probably the best option here.

    But just for suggestion's sake...what if you strapped a small folding bike to your full-sized bike, rode out to Harris and dropped off the full-sized bike, then rode the folder back to the Green Line, so as not to be at the mercy of the Commuter Rail's weekend schedule? Not that the Green Line is fantastic (or was, when I lived in Boston many years ago). I haven't tried this, but I've bought a Dahon Piccolo and am planning to give it a whirl -- it seems like it might solve the problem of how to drop off or pick up a bike with another bike.

  39. I'm with BG, I've done this a few times with my Brompton when taking bikes to people, or when I need to combine a bike journey with the train/bus/subway/flight/a ride in someone's car. It gives you a lot more options, I've had mine a month and it gives me a lot more options and means I get to do even more of my travelling by bike. They have the advantage of being lovely bicycles too.

  40. I'm surprised that the length/odiousness of your journey is noteworthy to you...I don't drive, and I've just come to accept spending three times as long as a driver to get anything done (if I take transit. If I bike, it's a different story, but there are some things that simply can't be done on a (non-cargo) bicycle.

    I agree with the above poster who says that being car-free is a nice idea, but individuals should consider what their needs are before committing to a full-time carless lifestyle. I have to admit that if I had the opportunity to get a car, I'd do it in a heartbeat. It's awesome to feel "green" and know that my lifestyle isn't harming the environment or consuming scarce resources, but it's also an enormous inconvenience.

  41. Kat - The length itself is not unusual, but I've hitherto done it either on a bike (which I would have done now as well if I didn't have to bring a second bike and extra parts along) or in our joint private car, which makes carrying bikes and large parts easy. I don't normally take public transportation or taxis.

    I have to say that it is not acceptable to me for it to take 3 times as long to get things done. But I also think that most city/ public transport planners would agree that public transportation should not have that effect on one's time. In areas where it is successful, public transportation is faster and more convenient, not slower and more nerve-wrecking than driving.

  42. Lucienrau, in Copenhagen businesses are required to build new office space within short walk of rail station, Boston/MA did not require this, hence most jobs, malls etc are sprinkled on 128, very difficult to fix, altough it should be time to start. Most if not all rail lines on other hand were built long ago when most people did not own cars or use them to commute to work.

  43. Anonymous said...
    " Copenhagen businesses are required to build new office space within short walk of rail station"

    Interesting, did not know that!


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