Follow or subscribe to our blog to get notifications of updates to this site
as well as more frequent insightful, pithy commentary


bike logo



The care free life

by Pamela and John

In June of 2004, we sold our little fuel efficient Toyota Lite-Ace that we'd used to get around in New Zealand. We returned to the US, and looked for a nice fuel efficient car that would work well for carrying bikes and us to events some distance away. I did have a particular car in mid that wasn't yet imported into the US, but looked at lots of others in hopes of finding something comparable. No luck.

Then I saw a zipcar. Zipcar is a shared car membership. Zipcars are located all around Boston and nearby suburbs, in specific spots that can be found online. Online reservations and self-service entry make this method of car sharing incredibly convenient. Since we already used our bikes to go to work and pretty much most other things, the convenience of zipcars would mean we could get one to go to a brevet 100 miles away or to go skiing. And we could pick the type of vehicle to match our needs. We don't always need a van. A small car will do for many journeys, but if we need a van, we could rent one of those without committing 4 years to it! And since it's self service we could pick it up when we need it.

So we made a commitment to go car-free, well car-ownership free - at least. The first thing we did was pick a new home. This is pretty important. We hear lots of folks say they have to have a car because the store is too far away, or to get to work, or whatever. So if you live too far away - move. OK, we had a clean slate making it easier. We decided to pick a neighborhood that is served by public transportation, has accessible food shops, is convenient to most places we might look for work, and is someplace we'd like to live and can afford. John grew up in such a neighborhood just outside of Dublin. I got spoiled by having so much accessible in Nelson, and we wanted to keep things that way. It took a little while for me to realize that the market here had shifted and what we really wanted was a townhouse or condo. Everything was in about the same price range - but the closer to the city you got the smaller the lots size and house. This was not a bad thing. It seemed most of the houses we saw were enormous. The old 3 bedroom capes in the suburbs were being replaced by 8 bedroom McMansions. I had no desire to heat one of these, or clean it or furnish it, and certainly not to mow the pasture around it, or commute 50 miles to get to work. We wanted a nice place with a bedroom for us, a guestroom, study a nice kitchen and space for bikes. We finally realized that to get a normal size place, we'd have to share! Seems other folks realized that too. The townhouse/condo market here has exploded. This meant there were lots from which we could choose. One of the hidden advantages to a townhouse is lower heating cost. The insulation for half of your house is another house! One of the social advantages of higher density housing is more people can live closer to work, meaning less fuel consumption. So while we save gas, we also help our community too - and that's pretty cool.

We found a great place with a tandem garage - for the car-bound - that's parking for two, one behind the other. For us that is secured storage for tandems and bikes. A couple of blocks away is a bus to Boston. A block further there are a couple of buses to Cambridge, and one to Waltham. There is also a bike path all the way into Boston here. A large grocery store is two blocks from the house. A smaller whole foods store is a couple more blocks away, next to a great wine store. Within about the same distance, we found a fabulous market with great produce, breads, etc. We also have loads of good restaurants within wlaking distance. The town is central enough that jobs in Boston, Cambridge and most of the 128 suburbs would work. So while it works well for our current jobs, it should also work for future jobs too.

So we could ride our bikes to work, and as software folks, we should be able to work from home when the snow is really bad. We could do most of our grocery shopping on foot or bike. We could walk to a great variety of restaurants and shops or take buses and subways into town for even more variety or access to the airport, and we could rent a vehicle if we really needed one.

And we could leave our garage as a bike storage space and our driveway as a snow storage facility - and just shovel a path wide enough for the bikes.

We do most of our everyday stuff on bike or foot. We bought a burley cargo trailer for shopping. John has towed home loads of cat litter, many cases of wine, water and a lots of groceries and even a microwave oven. I get in on the action with a few panniers full of groceries, but I admit to that the single trailer hitch was a present for me. I do miss milk delivery in NZ, in part for the reusable glass bottles, but also for the freshness. As we got used to shopping for small amounts of fresh stuff regularly we have become spoiled for getting fresh stuff regularly. So a side benefit is that we shop for fresh milk, produce and such regularly.

I'll admit to using UPS and FedEx a bit with mail-order purchases. One of the hassles is that these guys don't like to leave computers or TV's on your doorstep without a signature, and seem to think that you can come get them easily! We have occasionally had to hang out to receive something or risk having it left, but so far mail order has worked great for those occasional big purchases.









While we do our commuting and everyday stuff without a car, I will admit, we often rented a zipcar to get to places we would rather ride from than to! While we will happily pedal somewhere from home for the weekend, sometimes we'd like to get to a place and then cycle or ski from there, so we rented a car for the weekend. The first year, we took Fridays off to ride to Westfield to do a brevet on Saturday and then ride home on Sunday. For the 600km that year we did get a lift with a friend. The second year, we opted to rent more frequently to get to these types of events, and found we were fresher if we didn't ride 200km the day before! Yes, we got soft. Actually with limited time off it is nice to save the vacation for longer trips away.

For the first two years, we've averaged about than $2000.00 per year on zipcars, which included gasoline and insurance! So even though sometimes a weekend away might seem expensive when you add in rental, compared to buying a car we were way ahead.

We averaged about one rental a month, but sometimes had more. During the third year, we found we wanted to do more and more remote events, and found we were booking cars two and sometimes three weekends in a month. The car I had looked for when we first came back to the US was the Honda Fit, and it became available in the last year. And zipcar got a few, so I had plenty of time to test drive them! In fact, I was booking the same car so often, I had memorized its plate numbers.

We also noticed that we were not doing some things, like going to the x-c ski center a few miles away when the snow conditions were good because it was just too hard to carry the skis on the bike, and rather than book a car and go get it, we'd just go for a bike ride. We also found we were rarely doing any mountain biking because it involved a long ride on the road to get to nice trails, so we'd just go for a road ride. So we weren't being couch potatoes, we just weren't as well-rounded, so to speak!

Now I suppose if I was truly committed ... well ... I'd live in Europe, where the train system is so good that I could get anywhere with my bike easily. And if I was truly committed, I would just do everything locally or ride there. But I do love getting to see other places, and I do like going 100 miles away and exploring the territory out there!

So I'm sure you can tell that this is leading to an admission that we decided to stop hogging the zipcar that I'd learned the plate number for and buy our own. It will not be used for going to work or the grocery store. We will use it the same way we have used zipcars, except it will be parked very conveniently in front of our house. It will not displace bikes in the garage! We will still use the bus and subway to go to the city. We will still go to Russo's with the trailer, and we will still cycle to work and every other place we cycle to now. We will have to shovel the driveway this winter!

I will add to avoid these folks.

We kept our last (US) car for a dozen years, so it will be a while before we think about another. I hope that a dozen years from now that fuel economy will have improved significantly. In the 30 years I have had a driver's license, it has not! I'd also love to see our trains become a bit more usable. How can a train through Vermont not have a place for skis and bikes? And I'd really like to see communities go to more sustainable models with schools and shops accessible on foot. I can dream, right?

And I hope if you've been inspired by this article in the past, that you are not too disappointed, and can still find my advice for limiting dependence on a car useful.