Every once in awhile, the news bubbles up to the surface again, and someone, or someones, new gets word that I’m car free, that I ride my bike everywhere, even in the rain, even to get groceries, even to the doctor when I’m sick. I’ve noticed it happening a lot again recently. Someone shares the news that I ride my bike to school, or that I’m the weird lady without a car, and I end up stuck in a string of questioning about it. It fascinates people, this idea that life is live-able, or that you could have any kind of quality of life, without a car. How does that work exactly?
What do I do in the rain? What do I do about trains? What about trips? What if I’m sick? Would I do it in the snow? Would I do it when I’m low? Would I ride my bike to school? Yes I would, because I’m cool (not really, I just like riding my bike and talking in Dr. Suess Rhyme).
Just to answer the important question, yes. It is possible to live car free. I originally became car free because I both enjoyed riding a bike, and hated investing money in my car every time it broke down. My last car break down cost 700 dollars, more than I was paying in rent. I live on a fixed income so continuing to sink money into expensive auto repairs did not seem sustainable. I got tired of either borrowing money from wealthier friends or arranging my bills (aka pushing everything back) so that I could afford to keep my car running. Seriously, that didn’t make sense to me.
So I bit the bullet, I became car free. That was over four years ago now, that decision to stop using my car. I think at first people thought it was temporary. I think sometimes people still think it’s temporary–who would want to live without a car forever after all?
I never know what to say when people look at me in alarm and say, “What about when it’s cold?” Last year a teacher at my school asked, “What about when it rains?” I said, pretty nonchalantly because it seemed like an obvious answer, “I get wet.” We talked a little more and I explained that I don’t see rain as a negative experience. Someone the other day mentioned dreading riding in cold weather. Now I do hate all the clothes that are necessary for cold weather riding, but I’ve had some of my most peaceful, most lovely rides on very cold mornings. You sense that the world is somewhat asleep. You are the only person riding a bike. Steam rises from the creek-bed. The heron makes itself as small as possible. Frost shimmers on the grass. Your lungs take in cold air and your face freezes and that is maybe the most alive you’ll feel, right then. It’s the same in the rain, even if it’s not a looked forward to experience. That water falling, that feeling of maybe being wetter than you’ve ever been, that sound of drops on your raincoat. When you get past the bullshit reasons for not doing difficult things, you realize that you absolutely love those moments just beyond that particular wall of your mind–the I can’t, or the I don’t want to. To me it’s the Universe’s way of telling me how very precious “the now” is and how very temporary I am. That’s why I’m car free.
I’ve made it a priority in my life for four years now. At first it was an exciting novelty. All things bicycle you know? But to be honest, most days now it doesn’t cross my mind that I’m doing anything unique or different. I pack my saddlebags in the morning with my purse and lunch box just like any motorist throws their day’s worth of needed items in their backseat, and then I roll out the door to work. Like anyone I like to challenge time. Sometimes I get stuck and leave too late. Sometimes I’m late for work.
I always see the same four cyclists on my commute. I’m the only woman among us most days. There’s a fit but stocky gentleman about my age, a young dude still in the throes of thinking he’s cool because he’s a daily commuter (he’s new), there’s a business casually dressed very kind gentleman in his fifties who wears glasses and another gentleman in glasses who’s probably in his mid sixties who always says hello. They are all riding into the city while I’m riding out to Woodlawn. Oh, if I’m early, or he’s late, I may get lucky and have a Ben Miller spotting. Those are the really good days, seeing Ben Miller’s funny kid helmet on his lanky body. He’s very tall, but rides like an elementary school child on the way to see his best friend. He’s got that much joy about riding his bike.
While I’m riding I can go over my day because my mind is all the way awake, I’m trying to navigate the bridges on the creek, and sometimes I slide through impossibly tight situations. Tonight at the start of my commute home I slid my bicycle through an impossibly tight space between our school building and the cart the janitor had left behind to go inside the gym. It’s an art, fitting into tight spaces and it shakes the cobwebs off my brain and I can feel all the planning functions, the strategizing and problem solving bits of my thinking come online in a way they just don’t usually.
The rest is just details. I carry groceries in bags attached to the cargo rack of my bike. Sometimes I carry heavy things, like big bags of dog food or gallon jugs of water (in the case of Bike Camp). Once I pedaled a Christmas tree up my hill. In certain situations I wear protective clothing. I always use lights in the dark. I wear a helmet.
The only thing I’d change about my life, or the life of my car free friends is that I’d like to see our streets be safer. I’d love to see our city prioritize good driving and penalize (especially) distracted drivers. I absolutely love it when I come to an intersection where there’s a car or me at every corner and we all have to choose what to do, and we all wait our turn and choose correctly and politely. It feels like we’ve all cooperated. We’ve all kept our part of the bargain by being present and generous. (that’s happened perfectly twice in two days). I’d love to see our city prioritize appropriate infrastructure (including well maintained sidewalks for children just learning) in all parts of Charlotte, not just in the better maintained areas. That takes choosing a different set of priorities. It takes deciding something else is important. It takes time and effort.
I know two cyclists that were hit this past week. Both of those cyclists are car free women like me. Both are experienced cycle commuters. Both have family and friends. Both have jobs and good lives to continue. At least one was hit by a distracted driver. Of all the things about being car free, the cold weather riding, the rainy day riding, the hot weather riding, that’s the only change I’d make, just simply that drivers would pay attention, be present on the road and put that cell phone away. Other than that one danger, I love my car free life.