Monday, March 19

The Stresses of Being a Car-lite Family

The car-lite lifestyle is awesome! I've been car-lite and car-free as a single person in a past life, and now as a father and husband my family is car-lite. We have just one motor-powered vehicle and a fleet of bicycles to fulfill all our transportation needs. When we can, we rely on the bikes instead of ole Forester Gump, but there are times the bikes limit us because of geography and meteorology.

While car-free would be a more noble goal to achieve, it is certainly a more onerous challenge at this point in our family's development. With a five year old and a (nearly) nine year old, getting through a Colorado winter with no car would be difficult to say the least. While we did try to arrange our lives in a more condensed fashion, when we were looking for houses nearly two years ago we didn't have the luxury of choice and were limited by financial constraints.

We looked for homes in a neighborhood that was less than a mile from where I work, where we go to church, and where we occasionally shop. The only housing options in that neighborhood within our price range were scary multi-family developments and one decent apartment complex with no vacancies.

The most proximate we could get to our daily destinations and be in our own home was 9.3 miles from where I currently work. That's not a huge distance; but still not walkable and still not a place of strength and resilience.

When we moved into the place we live now my wife home-schooled and my whole family stayed home each day. A few months later my son was enrolled in a private school and my wife began teaching there. That place is 9-ish miles in the opposite direction from where I work. Again, not so much a choice of geography, but one based on what we felt was most important for our family.

We're a bit scattered, especially for a car-lite family, but we make it work. I believe the majority of our car-lite-related stress is due to the scattered nature of our daily destinations.

You may ask: what is the nature of that stress?

When I say "stress" I don't necessarily mean spousal arguments. Part of the stress is on my shoulders, being the primary breadwinner and being dependent on the bicycle is stressful. What if I crash and seriously injure myself? In fact, that happened last summer, though it wasn't as serious as it could have been. What if I get sick? Hit by a car? Bad weather? The daily stresses of bike commuting are able to be mitigated, but that doesn't eliminate the psychological effects.

My wife feels the effects as well. The nature of bike commuting means my 20 mile round trip commute involves about two hours on top of the ten I spend at work each day. Her day with the kids is long and when I get home I hardly want to deal with real life, much less go the extra mile. Both of us are physically and mentally exhausted by the end of the week. There are things we want to do for ourselves and for our family that we can't find the time or energy to accomplish.

Those are the normal stresses. When our schedules and obligations have us going different directions we are often faced with transportation conundrums. When my wife has activities at school it is difficult for me to get home early if I need to keep the kids home. When there are activities at the school that involve the kids I most often have to opt out of participating or spectating, as making the 18 mile trip from work to school through the metro area between 5 o'clock and 6 is nearly impossible, and most definitely unpleasant.

There are many times we want to choose the bikes for our trips but are unable. My wife would love to be able to commute to work by bike, but the logistics are prohibitively challenging for her to do so. There are many days we would love to jump on the bikes to do activities with our family, but the reality is that we don't have adequate time or energy or good weather to pull it off over the distances we face. It is stressful to want to do the right thing and be unable.

And there's nothing worse than being all ready to take off and discover a flat, or some unseen factor that shoots the whole plan down, or a last minute change in the weather that makes the plan unfeasible with kids.

It's good we have a car, or I think at times our stress levels within the family would cause too much strife otherwise. As much as I hate to say it the car saves us at times. I know...I'm certain if we didn't have the car our "normal" would be to just ride. Just ride.

The reality is that being a car-lite or car-free family isn't all sunshine and rainbows. It's definitely harder than being a car-lite or car-free individual. But, having said that, I wouldn't trade it for anything. Facing the challenges of car-lite living makes us more adaptive, more creative and much more resilient. We save a lot of money by focusing on the bike as a fundamental component of our transportation solution. And we have a lot of great experiences traveling by bike.

Being able to face down adversity is a trait to be sought after and cherished; not one to be shunned. If we challenge ourselves beyond what our day-to-day lives throw at us, we will be able to deflect the disasters that come at us when we least expect them. It's not secret that Americans live relatively soft lives compared to much of the world. Our conveniences are a windfall directly related to our access to cheap and abundant fossil fuels. In the past we had an abundance within our own borders. These days we have access to an abundance of fossil fuels through dubious politcal and economic means.

I make an effort to reduce our stress. I keep an eye open for work opportunities closer to home, or closer to my family's daily destinations. I also look for better routes to and from our destinations. I am always remapping my world, looking for a better network of paths to and fro. Thinking, ever thinking...

Small and cheap (or easy) changes that can improve our efficiency of movement are key to reducing the stresses of the car-lite lifestyle. And sometimes, just the benefits alone offset the stresses. A good ride to town with the kids can wipe away the darkness of a bad commute.

1 comment:

  1. I have tried to be more car-lite lately myself. I have a long commute (too long to drive) but I did get myself a folding bike that I now keep in my trunk. So I still drive part of the way, and when I'm close enough to ride, I do. It's nice too, because if for some reason I can't ride one day, or if I need to do something after work, I don't need to ride all the way home to get to the car. It has really made my travel a lot more flexible.