One Family’s Path to Car-Freedom

We met Elle B. of the Tiny Helmets Big Bikes blog a few months back, when she purchased a Yuba Mundo from our dealer in Sacramento. Since that time, she and her family have made some major changes to their lives – they sold their car and ride or take transit almost everywhere they go, inspired by her experience, Elle now works at Practical Cycle to help others transition to a more bike-centric lifestyle.

She recently made a blog post reflecting on her family’s journey to being car-free. In the beginning of 2012, she hadn’t considered that it would be possible for a family with young children to give up their car, and is surprised, looking forward to 2013 how easy the transition was.

Here’s her article from her blog:

Jose and I have always loved biking. We bonded over bike rides, long and short. He used his bike as transportation and I used mine for most of my transportation when we lived in Northern California. We liked to challenge ourselves and each other to see what we could accomplish by bike. We would go on a few overnight rides every once in a while. Our car was an old third- or fourth-hand Toyota Tercel, almost as old as we were. We made conscious choices to ride our bikes instead of drive. It kept us sane and happy. We always say that our couples therapy is done by bike.
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Biking dates.
By the time I got pregnant, we had a different car, my parents’ passed-down Toyota Camry. We were living in Sacramento, chosen because of its proximity to my parents and its comfortable biking system. We dreamed about raising our kid to ride bikes and forgo driving but we hung onto the car because we still had to get around with a baby.

As the little guy got bigger, I was dying to get back onto my bike regularly. I hated driving, the stress and guilt it brought me. I took to the internet and researched for days. My conclusion was that a trailer was the best option. The main concerns for riding with a baby on a bike, besides the inherent danger of biking (and living), was the amount of vibration a baby would experience and the ability to wear a helmet. At six months, the little guy was holding his head up and sitting perfectly. We talked with our pediatrician who gave us the go ahead to give riding a chance, starting out slowly and riding to his comfort level.

I chose a Chariot trailer because of the great reviews and suspension, which minimized the vibrations. We found a teeny weeny helmet and started out taking slow, short trips around the neighborhood and American River Parkway. He loved it! Biking became an option again and we’d use the bike-trailer setup to do some errands and fun trips. We even managed to do a 600-mile bike tour around Oregon when our little one was 11 months old. We felt pretty good about our transportation even though we were still using the car for most of our trips. Many of our destinations didn’t feel bikeable, especially with a baby, and the trailer setup took time and effort to use.

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Our initial set up.
Then we had another little guy. Biking became even more difficult because I was home with two kids and we didn’t have an option to take the wee one for the first six months. At the same time, our Camry conked out and we made the decision to lease a Toyota Prius for three years. In three years, we decided, we’d have more options to get around and wouldn’t need a car. The car payments and insurance became a huge chunk of our monthly bills, over $450. It was rough but we thought that was what we “needed.” Again, I felt horrible about driving but justified it by saying “I have kids, what else can I do?”

When Little Brother turned six months old, we found a double Chariot on Craigslist and began riding again. It got easier and easier the more we rode. Our car began to go longer and longer without being moved. We were slowly replacing more and more trips by bike, even with the babies. The idea of going car-free started to look more doable. Jose and I often discussed what it would be like to live without a car and how fantastic we would feel without that burden parked out front.

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Happy brothers.
I started doing more research and began looking at cargo bikes. The one that really caught my eye was the Xtracycle. It seemed reasonably priced, easy enough to put together on a regular bike, and could haul two kids. Jose and I had seen them a lot up in Northern California. One day we were all out riding along the parkway when an Xtracycle breezed by us. Once again, we started drooling. Jose (who was pulling the trailer) said “go catch him and ask where he got it.” Off I went, pedaling and pedaling, not able to catch up. I was confused (and very competitive) so I kept going. This guy was barely working and I was dying! Finally, I was within a few feet, still not able to catch up, but yelled out “where’d you get your bike?” Kindly, this guy turned off his pedal assist(!) and said he’d built it himself, he owns a bike shop in Old Town and we should come by to check it out, Practical Cycle. That was Tim.

A few hours later, we did. He showed us the parts needed to build an Xtracycle, discussed our options with the bikes we already used; it was a lot more complicated than I had thought. I tested out his amazing rig, complete with BionX. To my surprise, I didn’t really like it. There was a lot of flex and give, I couldn’t imagine feeling comfortable putting my babies on it. Tim then sent me out on the Mundo. I was hooked! It felt like riding a regular bike, smooth, comfortable, stable, tank-like. That was it, I had made my decision.

The price was difficult to swallow but I saw the Mundo as an investment for our future and our ability to go car-free. I made the commitment to use the bike over the car every chance I could. My thinking went from “I’ll ride if I can” to “if I can ride, I will.” It was a subtle change but exactly what I needed. We were back within the week to claim our bike.

I still worried about putting my kids ON the bike as opposed to in a trailer, especially after having been very anti-bike seat, pro-trailer. However, I realized I hadn’t dropped my bike more than twice in all my years of riding (and even those were because of pretty stupid reasons), so what was the true likelihood of my doing it now. I was back online doing more and more research and reading about amazing families who had gone car-free with the help of these (and other) incredible cargo bikes.

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They know they’re cool.
Little Brother was about 10 months old by then. We decided that a front seat was the best option for him and chose the iBert because of the price. Big Brother got a Peanut Shell in the back. We added the Stand-Alone Kickstand, Deflopilator, deck, and disc brakes. For fun and added comfort, I bought an Acouztic light/mp3 player. The only thing I would have changed from that would have been the disc brakes. They took an incredibly long time to break-in, squealed like a banshee, and didn’t really feel like they were worth the cost.

Other than that, I was very impressed with the components of the Mundo. The gear ratio is perfect for long distances, heavy loads, and hills. The standard pedals were exactly what I would have chosen anyway. I swapped out the stock seat for my favorite Nashbar seat, not because it wasn’t comfortable but because I liked my orange one. I used my standard panniers and sometimes added a milk crate for larger loads.

We did change the iBert pretty quickly. I didn’t like the attachment skewer, it was difficult to remove the seat, and interfered with my cables. The Mini Yepp ended up being a 1000 times better, especially after I added the windshield for protection since Little Brother was ending up wind-blown and exhausted from our rides.

It was so much easier to choose riding the Mundo over the bike-trailer combo. The weight distribution on the Mundo allowed me to ride faster, about 12-14 mph, whereas the trailer slowed me down by about 2-4 mph. The trailer’s weight hurt my back when I rode, which was not a problem with the Mundo. I could carry more on the Mundo. It was so much easier to just have one bike to worry about getting out of the shed and locking up.

As we increased our riding and since summer was coming up, sun (and, to a less extent in Sacramento, rain) protection was needed for both. I put together a great system using Kelty Sun Hoods, a few zip-ties, and holes. Keeping the little ones comfortable meant that we could keep riding happily and regularly.

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Frivolous trips without the guilt of driving.
After six months of bike riding almost exclusively, and over 2000 miles put on the Mundo, it was still our vehicle of choice. The boys would run to the backdoor without a second thought, asking to ride the bike instead of the car. We gained confidence in roads and destinations that I hadn’t thought were “bikeable.” We were still caught up in our lease with another year to pay and it was torture. We really didn’t need a car at this point. It was easy to get lazy and drive while having the car sitting out front.

During that time, while we were paying for the car, the insurance, the maintenance, gas, registration, bumper repair, etc (easily $3000), the Mundo had (and still has) only needed a new inner tube and liner, the initial 30-day tune up, the brake cables tightened, and the chain lubed. *UPDATE: We’ve also gone through the factory grips (they got sticky and I hate sticky grips), moved to blinker light grips which broke when the bike tipped over, so we’ll probably be going on our third set in the near future.

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Big Brother graduating to the big boy seat.
The only real changes we’ve made to the bike have been the seating arrangements. I felt like we were wasting the space behind the Peanut Shell, missing out on the Mundo’s ability to carry a larger human (like myself on the rare occasions that I get to be cargo!). At about 3.5 years old, Big Brother took to the Soft Spot and Stoker Bars quicker than we had thought. He felt right at ease holding on, especially once I swapped out the standard handlebars for longer ones. Little Brother now likes to sit in the Peanut Shell and bug his brother but we still have the option to rotate around and buckle in the big guy if he gets tired.

Having the Peanut Shell in the very back does prevent the Mundo from hauling bikes (something I LOVE about the bike) but I can remove the seat pretty quickly with a socket wrench, it just requires some planning now. With both of the boys on the back, I’m also more limited in my carrying capacity so a Bread Basket might be in my near future, especially since Little Brother has basically chosen to stay in the back and isn’t using the Yepp Mini much.

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Public meltdowns do happen.
So finally, we ended up deciding that it was worth taking a hit and getting rid of the Prius early. We settled on selling the car to Carmax and paying the remaining $1000. We mainly ride our bikes but have the option of using my parents’ Prius, if necessary, since they also rarely drive. We’ve found other car-sharing options like Zipcar and private car share programs like Relay Rides. There are so many local resources out there and it’s fantastic to have a wonderful community of car-free and car-lite families to support us and lead the way.

At the beginning of this year, I would have never imagined going car-free so quickly and effortlessly. The community network we’ve found and the Mundo have made it all possible. I hope that we are able to show others that using cars less often is much easier than they think. We still have conflicts and challenges every so often, like today when the boys are having a difficult day and we had wanted to meet a biking blog friend, Hum Of The City, in Davis. It’s close enough to feel annoyed that it’s too far to get to conveniently without a car. Even with a car, I still would have had un-napped children, traffic, parking, and driving to deal with–just as frustrating, if not more so. It’s not always easier or safer with a car, we’re just trained to think it is.

It’s going to take a bit more planning to get around sometimes, we’ll be more exposed to the weather, and many people are going to think we’re nuts. However, the boys are happier and I like that they are being raised with values that are important to us. I don’t want them to think that everyone should have a car and that driving is something to be taken lightly. I want them to understand that they won’t melt or get sick in cold weather. I want them to see biking as a valid form of transportation and to know that physical activity should be an everyday part of life.

It is the right choice for our family to be car-free and I am thrilled to be here. And, with the money we’re saving, I finally get to have someone come in and clean my house once a month. Life is grand!