There’s a giant grey (editor: almost black, really) elephant parked in my driveway, and it’s time to talk about it. Just over two years ago, after six years in various states of carfreeandcarliteness, we ripped off our metaphoric hairshirts (editor: and said “fuck it”) and bought a very used car. I’m (still) thrilled with our decision.
But I also understand such a disclosure could be confusing to some readers. I can hear longtime reader, ol’ Elmer in Iowa, right now (editor: we made him up):
Wait, wait… back up. I’m confused, if you have a car, why is your blog titled Car FREE Days?
Yes, this blog is titled Car Free DAYS, with the emphasis (originally, now, and always) on the DAYS part. That’s how it was from the beginning (editor: check that link. Those are some young, good looking cats!), and though we went pretty heavy into the car-free part for a while, the DAYS emphasis was always our intention.
Alrighty. I hope you’ve already had coffee. You might need it to get through this (editor: long, but very enjoyable) post.
Two years ago a very used, very depreciated, but in good-enough-condition-for-us car entered our family. If you’re snickering or thinking about offering advice and/or wisdom or mansplaining (editor: you’re dropping mansplaining on our dear readers? That’s ballsy!) the many reasons we failed and made the wrong choice, skip it. We’ve been through all the stages of car non-ownership grief. And we’re fine with it.
I know I can rent a car when I need to get out of town. I know I can take public transportation. I know I can walk and ride my bike. I’ve done all of these things hundreds of times. (editor: We’re experts at this shit!) For the past eight years, I’ve sampled most of the available alternative transportation choices with my kids: From Flexcar (remember them?), to Zipcar to Car2go, to buses, to most of the car rental companies, to Bolt Buses to Amtrak….trust me, we tried them all. The reality is, while many of these options are simple and beautiful and cheap and carefree for one (or maybe two people), add three more and the beautifulness (editor: and the cost effectiveness) diminishes (editor: greatly). When we finally admitted that full-on, zealot-level, whole-family carfreeness involved less joy, and created more chore (editor: cue weekly parental Rochambeau for who’s going to take back the Zipcar then Brompton home after 160 miles of driving, a long day of skiing, and did I mention it’s 39F and raining?), and more money, Tim and I began to talk car buying.
A note about costs. This is America, driving is (too) cheap! (editor: unfortunately)
I’ll let you in on a secret from our family accountant (me): buying a car has actually saved us money. Yes, it’s true. We’re saving money with a personal car. Au contraire to popular pro-bike claims, it’s actually quite expensive for a Seattle family of four to be car-free, unless they bike and walk exclusively (editor: or never leave their five mile zone.). It turns out the stats and calculations about the cost of car ownership, that so many bike advocates (Editor: and yes, we’ve been those people) love to quote, include the cost of new cars. If you buy an already depreciated used car, with cash, you can cut those costs by 60% or more.
Shocking truth: our seven-passenger-European-built, four-wheel-drive station wagon cost less out the door than a electric Edgerunner set up to carry a family. So yeah, it may not be electric, but it’s still affordable to own, run and insure (editor: yes, insurance was necessary even when we were car-free. More on this later but I’ll give you a pro-tip: If you own a house and use car share, you’d better well have your own liability insurance because the car sharing companies are not in the business of protecting your assets). I’d even venture to guess that most of these cost-saving stats are based on a one-to-one relationship: one car, one person. Shift into one-to-many territory, and the numbers start to get fuzzy, especially when you consider transit costs. Because, let’s be real, unless you are not venturing out of your 3-4-5 mile neighborhood zone, you can’t really bike everywhere with kids in Seattle. Which means, sometimes you have to take a bus (editor: or drive. Oh wait, that’s the point you’re slowly getting around to making).
Let’s check out an analysis of bus vs. car for a family of four:
Four non-peak, round-trip bus fares (two adult, two youth) cost $16 on King County Metro. At $2.69 a gallon and $2 an hour for on-street parking, that same non-peak trip in a car, including parking costs is half that. Yes, there’s the purchase of the car, but again, buying a used, reliable, depreciated car cost us about the same as one point five winter Zipcar bills (editor: so if you don’t ski in the winter and backpack in the summer you can stop reading now. Congratulations.) Then after that initial hit, we spend less per year on the car than we did on transit and car-sharing combined for just 3 months. Sure, if you exclusively (editor: but those people aren’t reading any more) bike or walk, my point is moot, as those modes really are close to free. (editor: but try to get your middle schooler to ride to his cross country meet in Federal Way, in the rain. Or try to get your bike-hating high-schooler to ride, well, anywhere. If you’re going to take a hardline on the biking and walking thing with teens, then prepare to spend a lot of time at home staring out the window.)
Another Argument: But hey, it’s not just about money. What about joy of biking and walking with kids
I’ve written about this before. Yes, there is joy. So much joy! (especially when the kids were young). Joy easily and always outweighs cost for me. Joy is priceless. We went everywhere on bikes. (editor: we rode to freakin’ Mexico! How’s that for cred?). It was easy to bike with kids-as-passengers in the city. Throw them on the back of an Xtracycle, bundle them up, give them a snack and a book and they were happy. I’m comfortable enough with my in-city traffic riding skills that trip distance was never really a problem for me. West Seattle and back? No prob. Vashon Island? Sure.
I cherish those Xtracycle passenger bike days!
But once the kids graduated beyond the Xtracycle – and even the tandem – to riding their own bikes, that carefree ease evaporated into the misty grey Seattle November skunge.
I know you blissful Seattle family bikers with young kids probably don’t want to hear this. And some of you are probably snickering and thinking I’m so lame and cranky, and that this just plain wrong.
Maybe your kids are different. I just know that once my kids started riding on their own, in the street, with cars, our entire family biking game changed. Sure, kids can do short trips on bikes; to school, to the store, to the neighborhood library branch, all still relatively easy on bikes in Seattle. But leaving our 2-3 mile zone with two kids on their own bikes? Crossing town to Ballard? Riding to Capitol Hill? Riding 8 miles from Ravenna to Downtown Seattle? Not easy. Sure, we did it. A bunch of times. And it was not safe. Not fun. Joy was in short supply. This city has come along way in terms of bike friendliness, but, frankly, (and this may hurt some feelings at SDOT and Greenways), it’s still a big giant turd when it comes to being a safe place for kids to ride. Even for my kids, who are seasoned riders and have pedaled all the way to Mexico.
Yet. The key word is yet.
I think our family was just too early. Seattle wasn’t ready for family biking when we started in 2007. I’d venture to say Seattle is still not really ready for family biking. Again, I’m not talking about parents biking with kids as passengers, I’m talking about kids pedaling their own bikes. (editor: yeah, they can do it, but it’s totally sketch. I’m getting up there in years. My heart can’t take this shit).
Our city still isn’t set up for kids to pedal across town safely….yet. The key word is yet. But I’m hopeful. The bike infrastructure we have now, in 2015 Seattle, is piecemeal, at best. A two-block bike lane here. A one-block “protected” bike lane there (editor: ie: plastic pylons tattooed with black bumper kisses and skidmarks. That is, where they haven’t been ripped out of the ground under the wheels of angry vehicles). Some green paint. Maybe a bike signal, maybe not. Connections? No. Seamless connected cross town routes? Not there, yet. Driver awareness of bikes. No way. Drivers don’t know the rules, the laws, or what this new bike and ped signage even means.
If you have to travel outside a neighborhood zone on bikes with young kids, you’re pretty much screwed. Fine for an adult. Not fine for kids. Not fine for a family. At least, not fine for me and mine. You may make other choices and that’s OK. No judgement here.
I know work is being done. I know safety improvements are coming. But by the time Seattle has a connected bike infrastructure that is safe for all people (ages 8-80!) to travel in the city, my kids will be out of college. They might possibly be married. And they might have kids of their own. (editor: Can we fucking get on with this already? We started caring about this shit even before we had kids and now we’re talking about them having kids and wondering if the city will even be safe by then. Christ, I’m so sick of this shit).
Apparently, we’re (ie, the editor is) getting tired. So I think we’ll stop here for the night and take up the car issue in the next post….stay tuned, part two is just around the corner.
– Anne and Tim (the editor if you haven’t guessed)
The reality of our surroundings. Cars are pretty nice and very useful. Besides the planned excursions, I’ve more or less given up on transportational cycling with kids. I feel like the downtown grid works but it can get sketch really quick in the afternoon rush when kids are tired and drivers take more chances. Incidentally, our new lease and costs associated with ownership of a new car are cheaper than our old Vanagon. Electric bikes worked out to being more expensive than even the Vanagon on a per mile basis. Who knew?
Thanks Brad! Sketch perfectly describes Seattle roads anytime traffic volumes are high. It seems aggression has increased in the past couple of years. I’ve taken to riding on the sidewalk in certain areas. I just don’t want to share the road with aggressive drivers, not worth it for me nor my family. And that’s sad. Electric bike maintenance is expensive — but then, you already know that. : )
Excellent points and great post! However, I’m sure our respective bike coalitions would NOT agree… 😉
I never really broke it down like you did, but it aways struck me at a gut level that the analysis put out by the “car free” camp didn’t make much sense, particularly if you have a regular or occasional destination of 25 or so miles each way, which is what the situation is with our vet who we love. Also, my wife and I also volunteer with our dogs (they are therapy dogs) at Stanford Hospital here in the Bay Area. There is so much work in getting them ready. Not to mention Stanford is about 18 miles away. The extra time and getting there and us smelly on the Xtracycle would not be conducive to visiting patients.
So I consider us “car-lite.” My goal is there always to be a layer of dust on the car between trips. I am usually successful. I have a 92 Prelude with over 200,000 miles that works just fine. We are eventually going to get either a nice used Subaru or Nissan Element for a bit more carrying capacity, but that is on the back-burner.
The other good thing about being car-lite is I could care less about gas costs since I probably fill up once every 6 weeks.
I admire you for going car free for as long as you did. I was never able to do that. I think as long as your bike is primary and the car is secondary/occasional, it’s all good.
Thanks for the comment. Cars are totally useful sometimes — especially to transport multiple people, dogs, the elderly…!
I feel you. I have a car too, and bike to 90% of my solo locations, but when it’s a family trip, it’s in the car, and when we can get where we need to go, the bus. My partner doesn’t ride, and my kid is in between trailabike and tandem and it just hasn’t been working. I feel comfortable with our compromise. Thanks for writing this.
Thanks for the comment. And, you’re welcome!
I understand your points, especially as kids–tweens-teens are on their own. When we moved to Seattle without our car 2008 we didn’t consider biking as our main transportation choice. We used the bus and Flexcar. Yes, we remember. Flexcar was useful in getting to know the city but the cost of car-share can get expensive. A monthly bill of exclusive use can be more than owning a car. When I later started commuting to work I used the trailer to haul the older kid. Now that we are a family of four with varied ages children I find it mentally tiring to have the tween ride long distances. Somehow at a certain age, kids are not ready to be “alert” all the time. Getting to busy intersections where we have to just go is difficult. A car makes sense when you have two adults who drive and when you are ready to teach off-spring the skill of driving. I think knowing how to drive a car is a good skill. My father taught us all how to drive a stick-shift. It’s amazing how handy that skill is.
Currently we are in a place in life where my husband (A tall Danish guy) will never get a driver’s license. So, I don’t see a car for us. I have given up our Zipcar membership and 2015 marked the first time we were really car-light. I think I used Car2Go 12 times.
I also had a second child 10 years after the 1st one. So, I feel like I have regressed, now learning to bike with a fiery toddler and tween. Some days we bike to certain destinations or either bus or take the light rail. I can’t deal!
In any case, I understand and it’s not LAME.
Thanks for the comment Shirley! I feel less and less lame everyday : )
We haven’t ever actually reached car-free, for many of the same reasons that you list. If you used your car like a typical family, you would have two or three of them and you would use them for everything.
My annual car costs including depreciation and repairs are around $1200. Coincidentally, that is the cost of renting a minivan for a week.
So true! I know we’re not a typical family. And I feel good that our kids have been exposed to so many different modes of transport and ways to get around the city while they were growing up. They’re not the type of kids who sit around and wait for someone to pick them up. They’re pretty capable people because of these experiences!
We are in a similar place to you when you started out – loving hauling little kids around on an Xtracycle, but feeling very lonely about it. The Eastside is some years behind Seattle yet. We do have a car, and are still thrilled with the decision to trade the other car for an electric cargo bike. I don’t see us giving up the other car. There are too many people and opportunities too far away, and too few other ways to transport four children. I think it’s much easier to go to a single car for a family than from one car to no cars for a single person.
Good points! I don’t think I could live without a car on the Eastside. It’s certainly hard to be lonely. The Eastside has so much greenspace though, jealous of that! Every time I go over there, I notice new parks connected by greenspace and walking paths. They did something right over there!
Good for you! We own one car (10-years-old at time of purchase), and we try to make a conscious decision to use it whenever we do. When biking or walking or transit makes sense, we do that.
Thank you for this! Super helpful and delightfully honest 🙂 We’re currently car-free with two small passengers, but I always wonder what the future will hold.
A & T – took me a while to get to this, but really glad that I did. You both have always been rationale and fact-based with respect to your advocacy (of anything, just addressing bikes for now), and this post = capital T truth. Preachy kills, and sometimes what we hope for doesn’t fit neatly on the time-space continuum, so being willing and able to ‘adjust your plans to include what is happening’ becomes a super power. I always enjoy reading your content and appreciate your perspective. This is a fun-to-read highly pragmatic and honest assessment of where we are today, and as a guy who went through the 2 kids in a Bakfiets to Xtracycling to kids on their own bikes evolution and who loved every minute of it, driving when you need or want to is just fine. Thanks for saying it loud.
+Anne – Love the discussion this recent post started! Great stuff.
+Frank – I agree wholeheartedly regarding “Preachy Kills.” I’m thinking some people who read/see some of us on our Xtracycles (in my case) or box bikes, etc., shy away from it thinking it is too much, particularly when the person on it gives the impression that they ONLY have a bike. It is likely intimidating.
I live 25 miles south of San Francisco, which is very close to Oakland where the Xtracycle was created and yet as far as I can tell I am the only person with one in my area, so I get asked questions a lot when I am out and about on it. I usually tell people the truth – that the Xtracycle is for local shopping and riding, and the car is for distance stuff and other occasions when the bike would take too long for be too inconvenient. The reaction I get is usually positive and some comments like “I’d like to do that!”, and that’s good.
Great job on trying.
We found as kids get older, the soccer practice/scouts/dance etc etc thing becomes a reality and a family of 4 or 5 with parents working in the Eastside and downtown Seattle, 2 cars were needed. As the kids get old enough to drive, we made the conscious choice not to add a 3rd car, but for me to buy a disc brake bike so I could ride/bus year round. I would ride to meet my sons at soccer practice (I was the coach) and we’d drive home together.
The weekends took planning but very doable and if pinch came to shove we could rent a car.
Once they all move out, we may go to 1 car and I’ll continue to ride.
Exactly. Stay tuned for Part 2, we talk about kid activities!
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