Friday Group Ride #136

I have been in a car, and it was awful. For some reason the first week of school, which in the Boston metro area is a total shit-storm of kids from 5-25 converging on a road system built for wagons, livestock and foot traffic, saw me confined to the family truckster for 5 straight days of commuting disaster. I’ll not enumerate the circumstances that led to this sad state of affairs, but I will tell you there’s not enough NPR and climate control on this planet earth to make me feel ok about sitting through lights for more than 6 full cycles.

And the truth is, I want it this way. I want driving around my city to be this painful. Pain motivates change. The harder it is to drive, the more sense it makes to ride, right? Well, maybe. Or maybe sense doesn’t enter into it. Perhaps we’ll give up our cars when they pry our dead asses from the heated, bucket seats they’re comfortably ensconced in.

The one positive thing that came of this week of automotive torture was a cycling fantasy that will no doubt lead to the reconfiguring of my bike-centric world view.

As I sat there in no-go traffic, idling, a steady stream of particulates and greenhouse gas spewing from my tail pipe, I thought, “What if there were no cars? What if cars were over? What would that mean for my everyday life?”

I have bikes. I have a lot of them (at least relatively speaking), so getting myself around isn’t an issue. I also have all the clothing necessary to do the aforementioned getting around in weather best suited for cocoa by the fire and/or lowland flooding. Moving me wouldn’t be a problem.

The challenges arise when I start to think about getting my kids around and laying in supplies. We live close enough to the elementary school that the average day wouldn’t be hard, but trips further afield might necessitate a harder think. Both my boys can ride their own bikes, so on a planet with no cars, I assume they would rise to the need and pedal themselves where they need to go, which would make them fitter and perhaps even more enthralled with cycling than they already are.

It would change the way we shop for food, smaller trips, more often, and it would radically alter our vacations, I think. But now we’re into the 1% problems, quibbling over luxuries. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t think it would be that hard for me and mine.

This week’s Group Ride asks you to imagine the Carpocalypse and tell us just how different YOUR life would be. What would be the greatest sacrifice of living entirely by bicycle? How close are you already to living solely on your own two wheels? And how anxious are you to see this bike-topia arrive on your own car-benighted shores?

20 comments

  1. Bart

    Are comments broken?

    We are a family of four (mom, dad, 2 year old, and 3 week old). We have one small car (Honda Civic) and hope to get by with that for as long as possible. My in-laws have parked their extra minivan (they have 5 cars for 2 people) in front of our house and given us keys, just in case we need it. It pains them to see a family like ours with “so few cylinders”. We happen to like it this way and almost never drive the van. However, the idea of going to 0 cars is pretty hard to imagine. Getting the new born and toddler to the doctor, buying supplies at Costco, Target and Trader Joes would be impossible without a car or a taxi. If there were a taxi service in our neighborhood that had child car seats it might be possible. But, for now, one small car is an important resource for our family.

    One other note, we avoid driving during rush hour as much as possible. I bike/run/bus to work and the other three stay at home during the day.

  2. Andrew

    Well, I bike to work most of the time, and even though it might occasionally be dangerous or near impossible at certain times during the winter here in MN, I think I could keep my job without a car. Everything else would be very tough. Family of 5, young kids, dog. We’re about 5 miles from a supermarket, so I guess that’s doable. Getting the kids to school would be near impossible- they’re in different parts of the (small) city. My oldest daughter would have to give up ballet, since we could never get her to and from the studio after school.

    Basically, American towns and cities, even a relatively small and bike friendly one like mine, are just too spread out and atomized to allow families to function as we do now. The only way it would work would be if our cities had developed pre-auto, like most European cities (and even there, most people don’t live in the nice urban core that you get to visit on holiday)

  3. Ransom

    I love cars. Deeply, irrationally… Even more than bicycles.

    But it’s not a heated-seats and climate-control love. I’m missing ‘cross season because I’ve been off the bike, working on rebuilding my garage. For the first time in my life, I’ll be able to have my tools, my car, and myself all indoors at the same time. Now I can disassemble, rebuild, and reengineer my ancient BMW 2002 as it’s deserved for so long. What I would miss most with no cars isn’t using them every day, it would be losing autocross, track days… Motorsport.

    Second on the list would be autonomous travel. If we go only by train or bus to leave the cities, we can only go where everyone else goes, and when trying to see a region, it can be tough to make many individual spots by bike without making it more about cycling and less about spending time at the destinations. Which is great sometimes, but not always the point.

    Last, while cities where *people* move only by bicycle might be workable with a lot of social adaptation, moving goods isn’t so readily changed. And while it would reduce traffic a lot, sharing the roads with trucks is very different from just bicycles. You can move a lot of goods by bike, but I don’t think you can switch everything… There are too many items that would take dozens of trips by cargo bike to cross town where a truck and a pallet jack could drop them off in half an hour. Or maybe I’m wrong and that could all be part of the adaptation; things too large for bikes would have to arrive in pieces and be assembled on-site. Not efficient, but part of the trade-off for our velo-utopia?

    Bloody hell, I’ve already rewritten this once… I will understand if it gets moderated out for simply taking up too much space…

  4. Wsquared

    I ride bike year round, but when I drive, most of the time I take my two dogs with me. We enjoy each others company. If I started leaving them at home every time I left the house, they would never forgive me. As it is now, all I have to do is put on a pair of bike shorts and they give me that look that says, “why don’t you just put us down now and end it all?” They sulk and won’t eat or drink until I get back from my ride. Never taking them along would be the deal breaker.

  5. Michael

    I live in Flagstaff, which, at least according to a survey our local paper reported, has one of the shortest average commutes in the US. We average a bit over 100 inches of snow a year in town, but that mostly comes as biggish dumps of 6″ – 4′, and the low-latitude sun melts it in a few days from any surface where a half-hearted attempt at shoveling or plowing was made. Summers bring thunderstorms, but the temperature only hits 90 maybe once or twice. Stores and restaurants and such are all within a few miles, and trails are within blocks. So, if you don’t mind bundling up for the 0-degree mornings, bike commuting is pretty easy here, and would be great if we could get rid of the cars that make it dangerous. There might be raging cyclists instead of car drivers, I suppose.

    The difficulty, as raised by Bart, is for families with kids. We put about 2000 miles a year on our ’91 Honda (we bought it new, and it may go forever at this rate) but those are high-value miles. When our daughter has a seizure, or one of us has a broken leg or arm, riding the bike becomes tough. Maybe some sort of graduated pricing for miles driven would work, so people would think about whether getting in the car was worth it. That would go over like a lead balloon with most, though!

  6. Rod

    Very little would change for me. My wife, daughter and I don’t own a car, we have planned our life so we don’t “need” to own a car. When it becomes necessary to use one, we have no problem renting or using a car-share service.

    But living like this requires foresight and a clear view of what one wants. We were only able to afford the house we currently live in because we were not burdened by car payments, and we both knew we wanted to live and work downtown in one of Canada’s major cities. Winter is cold but doable with the right clothes. What clinched it for me is when I was getting to work (1/2 hour commute) faster than my neighbor on a car or myself on a bus. Many cities are just too choked up with traffic – the main reason I won’t reconsider moving back to Mexico City, where I lived for 22 years.

  7. Peter

    Carpocolypse! I am ready for bike-topia! Where can I find it?

    We (mom/dad/1- year old daughter) don’t own a car and get around pretty well. We did splurge on a Surly Big Dummy w/xtracycle and use that as the family bicycle. Living without a car simply gives you an excuse to expand your stable of bicycles. But honestly aside from trips out of town pretty much everything we do works by bicycle, foot, or public transit. And, if as a society we had to give up many of our cars there would be dramatic improvements in public transit. I do live in Oakland California so the weather is easy to bicycle in all year.

    The thing I would have to really give up if I had no access to a car are trips to wilderness areas. I don’t have enough vacation to take transit all the way in each direction and still get in a good adventure. Right now I just rent a car and off we go.

    Bart and Micheal have extremely valid concerns but they are ones that you can work around if you live in the right area. For emergencies we rely on a car sharing service (citycarshare.org) or a taxi. When I am injured I take the bus.

    I dream of the day we no longer kill 32,000+ people a year in motor vehicle crashes (2010 NHTSA) and I don’t have to worry about my daughter growing up with asthma because of the nearby highway.

    Robot: For funny anecdotes and inspiration for the car free lifestyle in and around Boston check out: http://carfreecambridge.com/

  8. Running Cyclist

    I find myself dreaming of the Carpocalypse from time to time. In some ways, I’m sure I would benefit. Survival of the fittest, right? Of course, the economy would likely collapse and that would be bad for all of us. I do daydream about a time when “cars” no longer need “roads” but simply travel through marked lanes in the air. Cyclists would have the roads to ourselves. Of course, upkeep of the roads over time would lead to the demise of road bikes and we’d all become full time mountain bikers. This is what I think about when I drive. Is that wrong?

  9. keepitride

    I had a staring contest with a passenger in a car driving down the highway parallel to the train I was on yesterday. The contest lasted for about 30 seconds, pretty long, considering we were completely isolated in our forms of transport. The idea being that we would get to our destinations at similar rates, but I felt justified being a smug a**hole with my publicly-transported self. Interesting how we were the same, goal-wise, but totally different. Mainly in that (I assume) he was fatter/less happy than me, and totally irresponsible and selfish with the gift of nature we’ve been given. (all tongue in cheek, but true!). I can’t wait til the highways are empty. I mean how will all those guys prove their manliness when they can’t drive huge, loud pick-up trucks?

    Sincerely, small truck owner

  10. Brian

    I ride to work most days in Chicago from the Far Northside, winter especially. My family of my wife and our 1 year old daughter doesn’t have a car. So my only other option, CTA trains, are notoriously fickle in cold weather, and delays are rampant. But mostly I’d rather be moving and sweating and enjoying a lakefront path (that is cleared and salted) all to myself the 8 mile ride into work. Many times I will take city streets, however, just for a change of pace or if I want to stop for donuts or espresso or something.

    I recall riding in down Lincoln Avenue on a particularly cold January day, so cold the car exhaust is held down and writhes among the cars, cars which were backed up through multiple intersections. I cruised slowly down the bike lane, wary of the door-zone, shaking my head while alternately cursing and laughing to myself.

    What a bunch of coddled pussies. No way are these people all from out of town or passing through. No way are most of these people more than 10 miles from work, or more than a half mile walk from a bus or El station. Yet they willingly pay $4 a gallon to drive to work EVERY SINGLE DAY. Or at least on days like this. My question that I was laughing over was, yeah, what if there were no cars? How would you fucking babies even deal? How the fuck did Chicago become a such a vibrant city, considering that it’s first big growth spurt came before the widespread use of fossil fuels?

    The Chicagoan of that era would LAUGH at these whiners. Be embarrassed to be associated with them.

    Darwin will have the last word with cars, for this reason. The cold. How will these people eat?

  11. A Stray Velo

    I live in northern Europe so I’d say we’re kind of on the ball when it comes to using bicycles for transportation.

    So what I’d really like to say bike-topia is pretty nice.

  12. scaredskinnydog

    My version of carpocalypse is kinda like Mad Max on bikes. Instead of gasoline the battle is for bikes and bike parts. If you have a dispute you settle it in the Velodome, “Two riders enter, One rider leaves”

  13. Souleur

    very little change for Souleur, as i ride to work most days
    it would require a little adjustment in getting goodies/food/items from the store, as we live a bit away from it

    it would most greatly affect my social life, as there is none here, and the velo-ma-hottie and I drive to do anything social

    My wife, however, would be struck. She is Martha Stewart of our house/home, and doesn’t ride, but would…reluctantly.

    My friends/neighbors/community, would all probably die, whine, and be forced to live lives that would require consideration of stewardship and responsibility

    but we would all be better, happier and cleaner

  14. brucew

    On a fundamental level, I’m a lazy guy. With apologies to Yogi Berra, when life comes to a fork in the road, I leave it there for someone else to take. I follow the path of least resistance.

    Since moving back to the city 16 years ago next month, a lifestyle of discarded cutlery has lead me from being a Car and Driver subscriber living in a high-rise with an underground parking garage, to living in a walk-up with room for my bikes, that’s a comfortable 100 yards walk from an LBS.

    Mine is not a large city. It’s a 15-minute walk across the heart of downtown, and maybe 90-minutes to walk across the whole thing, suburb-to-suburb, and that’s if you just stroll along. We don’t have a lot of big city transportation problems. Parking is generally easy to find and traffic jams are something we read about other cities having.

    And yet, less than three years after moving to the city from a lifetime in the suburbs, all I felt was relief when the city towed my car away.

    It was just plain easier to walk to the store, café, restaurant, movies, parks or what have you. It was just plain easier to stand at the end of the block for five minutes and hop on a bus that took me right to the doorstep at work. Car people had to walk several hundred yards through the snow and wind from the parking lot.

    Initial withdrawal from suburban big box stores and malls morphed into a fatter wallet with no change in my employment. In fact, without the need for a full-time income from a career in IT that I really hated, I now live on a half-time job with the city that pays all the bills, and a quarter-time job with an NFP that provides savings, mad money, and bike money.

    Eventually, a bike replaced the bus, because it was easier on my schedule and routing. The flexibility was liberating.

    What keeps me at it is the joy that each ride brings. Even a routine grocery run in the dead of winter is more fun on a bike than I remember it being in a car.

    But, I’m not so sure a Copenhagen or Amsterdam-style biketopia is for me either. I see YouTubes of people dressed in long coats wobbling around on 60-pound black city bikes and it gives me shudders. Seeing thousands upon thousands of the things locked up at European train stations is not the kind of thing I want to become a part of.

    I’m happy being able to zip around and dart through holes in traffic. Holes that someday might be plugged by middle managers on cell phones. Hell, I even avoid group-start charity rides.

    While dreams of Carpocalypse may provide some with smug satisfaction, I’m not sure I prefer the alternative.


  15. Author
    Robot

    @ All – Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Some of the things BruceW said rung very true for me. The reason my life wouldn’t be so much more difficult is that Boston is such a small city. Hell, if I’m feeling ambitious I can actually ride to Rhode Island for a beach weekend.

    Having said all that, I am sympathetic to the idea that getting to far flung locales, wilderness even, would be more difficult. That consequence is tempered for me by the belief that, without cars, there would actually, eventually, be more wilderness.

    Finally, I am not really wishing for the end of cars. What I would like to see, and what I believe will happen over the next decade or two, is for car-travel to become less reflexive, for people to see that cycling might be a better solution for some of their travel needs, and for cycling infrastructure to catch up to those needs.

    Fun to think about it all, huh?

  16. Tominalbany

    I’m buying up all of the available real estate in the cities and ‘citified’ burbs around me in anticipation of the coming carpocolypse. I will become rich beyond my wildest dreams and move out of the city and have everything delivered TO me by people on ‘utility’ bicycles. and with this, the ‘dream’ will die…

  17. Slappy

    Xtra cycle just released some rad new stuff, a long bike with an internally geared hub, dynamo hub and electric assist along with their new side car and potentially a child hauling trailer and you’ve got a pretty serious contender for the car in a lot of conditions. I’d love to take the train and get off with my family and spin up the road on that . Premier grocery and child hauling bike though, what I’ve been riding and preaching for ages. Haven’t managed a power assist yet . .

  18. Clem

    I think my girlfriend and I could manage pretty well. We’re close enough to things around home that we could get groceries and do other errands just fine. Her commute though, would be close to 25 miles each way and she already doesn’t get to leave work till very late. I’d be pretty concerned about her riding that distance at that hour, and through the places necessary.

    I know it’d mean an end to both of our racing though. There are very few places where it would be practicable to ride to a race from central houston and arrive there with enough time and fresh legs.

    Additionally, we’d never see our families. Mine are in DFW and Australia, and hers are (mostly) in Michigan. Assuming air transportation is still on the table, riding to the airport would be an option though.

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