Twenty miles per hour is enough. If you’re wondering how fast you need to drive to total your car, it’s somewhere under twenty miles an hour.
That’s how fast Cleopatra was driving when someone hit her front panel from the side. By the time our car ground to a halt, the other vehicle’s front end had scraped across all four side panels and the section below the doors. That was more than enough for the insurance company to deem it a total loss. Farewell, good and faithful car. So much for my goal of 300,000 miles.
When I got Cleopatra’s text message alerting me to the collision, two questions ran through my mind in quick succession: Are you okay? Could we live without a car or would we need to replace it?
She was fine, and our toddler was home with me, so we were all free of cuts, contusions, concussions, and broken bones. That was the first blessing, if you will.
So that second question, Could we get by without a car for a while? We want to do refugee foster care eventually, so I know we’ll need a car at some point, but what about an experiment? Cleopatra had once experimented by going a year without buying anything new (besides health and safety items). And we’d once done a food experiment where we ate only foods available to the average person in the countries where most of Cleopatra’s immigrant students were coming from. Would she go for this new experiment — life in Michigan with a toddler sans auto?
Let’s try it for a month? If that works, maybe two months. If that works, let’s try to go all winter.
I’d been interested in car-less living ever since reading about Tom Sobal, who I wrote about on this very Pack Light blog in 2005. And we’d lived in Asia for three years without a car. It certainly slowed things down, but it was fine, though we had great public transportation there.
We agreed to try it, but we decided not to tell anyone for a month. Then if people said it couldn’t be done, we’d be able to say we’d already done it for a month. Word leaked out a bit, but this is our announcement: as of yesterday, we have not owned a car for a month.
The rest of this post will cover three things: (1) how we’re making it work; (2) how the accident addressed three different and seemingly unrelated prayer requests; and (3) “but what about…?”
How We’re Making It Work
We had some things in place and we’ve made a few adjustments that together make this easier than one might expect. First, we already had bikes, and we had a bike trailer on loan from a beautiful family. That helps us transport our toddler and loads of groceries regardless of the weather. Also, I’m in the process of putting panniers on my bike so I can carry loads more easily. If we were going to do this long-term, I’d also either want to get a bike trailer or an Xtracycle. Second, we live in close proximity to my work, our bank, a hardware store, our church, and a grocery store with an adequate health-food section. Third, I sold my 32L pack and got a used orange 40L backpack for carrying groceries and other household items.
Public transportation in our area isn’t great, but Berrien Bus covers our county. We haven’t found Lyft or Uber to be of any help here, but friends have been key. Friends who are going to Costco, a grape vineyard (pictured above), or other helpful destinations have offered rides that have meant a lot. A friend has weekly driven Cleopatra out to a farm to pick up our CSA half-share, so we give her half of the produce. Win-win. This week we tried a grocery shopping/home delivery service for the first time. Brilliant!
And right now there’s a car in our garage. Some friends lent us their extra car while Cleopatra’s mom is in town. But we’re going to pay this friend for the service; we’re not asking people to pay for our transportation. We just want to try to get by without owning a car ourselves. “Help us with transportation once in awhile, and we’ll help pay your car expenses.” Again, win-win.
After we’d been doing this for a week or two, Cleopatra pointed out to me how this experiment in car-less living is answering three things we had been discussing and praying about: loneliness, exercise, and money.
First, we were looking for ways to connect with people more. Cleopatra is home with our toddler all day, and I’m busy with work and a few side projects. That wasn’t leaving us much time or energy for socializing. Now we’re spending a lot more time with people. In the past, if we wanted to go to a large grocery store, we hopped in the car and went. If we wanted to go to the beach, we fired up the internal combustion engine. If we wanted to pick fruit, we pulled out of the driveway and headed straight to the orchard, field or vineyard. Now we go with friends. We talk on the way, while we’re there, and at home when they decide to stick around for a bit. We’re sharing life.
Second, I had been trying to figure out how to make time for more exercise. Besides my 20-minute walk to and from work everyday (a great time for podcasts), I was doing a lot of sitting. At this age, it was beginning to show. Now when I need to go to the bank, I ride. When we need bolts or bubble-wrap, I ride to the hardware store. On Friday I took the 40L back to the grocery story with Toddler in the stroller; we returned with a fine haul for friends who are about to come over for soup and a fire out back (we scavenged wood using the stroller and the bike trailer; again see picture above). We’re both exercising significantly more now.
Third, we had been praying over the budget, looking for ways to cut back. Under the influence of Mr. Money Mustache and others, we were already living pretty simply, but we were still looking for ways to cut expenses since there are three of us living on my hourly income. I don’t think I ever could have convinced Cleopatra to sell the car for the sake of the budget, but since it’s gone, we’re seeing the financial benefits. We had been spending about $300 a month on auto expenses (loan payment, insurance, gas, maintenance), and I figure we’ll still spend around $100 on transportation per month now, so possibly saving us around $200 a month.
But What About…?
But what about emergencies? What about the winter? What about next spring during camping season? What about doctor appointments? What about…?
Yes, these are all important questions. We don’t pretend to have perfect answers to all of them. And we don’t intend to go without a car indefinitely. We’ll see how the experiment goes. The most important question is definitely about camping, and these families found a way: Gone Camping, Family Bike Camping.
I don’t think this experiment would be possible without friends who share rides with us. At least it would be a much more constricting experiment. I haven’t personally felt much of a change yet, to be honest. I already walked to work year-round, something I’ve done at different jobs for years. Even when I worked at home for Toddler’s first year, we didn’t have a car while Cleopatra was away at work. We’d go for long walks in the stroller, on good days making it to the closest gas station for a treat like a Clif Bar or apple juice. For Cleopatra it’s been a bigger change, but so far she’s rockin’ it.
As the Beatles sang: we get by with a little help from our friends. Long live community!
Bonus 1: Check out these documentaries:
Bonus 2: TEDx Talks
- Detroit bike city: Jason Hall at TEDxDetroit 2013
- The Amazing Way Bicycles Change You| Anthony Desnick | TEDxZumbroRiver
- Bicycling For Life: Mark Martin at TEDxLSU
- Change in your Transportation Future | Zach Krapfl | TEDxPaonia
- Why a bicycle is the key to your city | Yvonne Bambrick |TEDxTheAnnexWomen
- Bicycles are a vehicle for social change | Dave Cieslewicz | TEDxMadison