Life Outside the Minivan: Car-Free Families Go Their Own Way

They don’t have the prize-winning glutes of spandex-wearing racers. They can’t bask in the cooler-than-you aloofness of bicycle messengers. But car-free parents are arguably the most hard-core subculture in the cycling world.

If that doesn't inspire admiration, you aren't a cyclist. Photo: ## Mark Stosberg##

I can barely manage to keep myself clothed and fed, and if I have to bike seven miles one way and the humidity is above 40 percent, you don’t want to be near me. Meanwhile, car-free parents are briskly hauling around two toddlers and a load of groceries in a cargo bike, all before 7 a.m. Who are these people?

Today, Anne at Network blog Car-Free Days shares a touching story of how this off-beat lifestyle can make families closer, but also leave car-free parents plagued by self-doubt.

The story starts when Anne rents a Zipcar to drive a child to a grandparent’s house in the suburbs.

On the walk to the Zipcar parking spot, the 8-year old negotiated a chance to play with my phone in the car. His excuse: “We never ride in cars, won’t you let me play games on your phone while we’re in traffic?” Later I found it kind of interesting that while playing with the phone, he chose to snap this photo to document something that seemed odd from his perspective: his mom at the wheel of an automobile.

That was my first clue that the mobility choices we’ve made in the past few years had really changed our kids’ attitudes about typical transportation. So, I went on to lecture anyway (the kids love that term) about how we’d be perfectly “normal” in other parts of the world where most people don’t do everything by car. We’re just not normal here.

When we started this whole CarFreeDays thing, it was to give us a break from being behind the wheel all the time, and to give them a break from being strapped into carseats all the time. Sure, we wanted to drive less than we had been, but neither of us suspected then we’d been depriving our kids of their American-given right to drive and shop at big box stores with all the “normal” people.

Anne wonders how the dynamic will change when the kids are teenagers. In the meantime, she remains, admirably, committed. “I’m not sure what the future will bring but it’s sure to be interesting!”

Also, hat tip to our other fine, car-free parenting blogs around the Network, Car-Free with Kids and Chicargobike. Let me know if I overlooked any.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Baltimore Innerspace questions the city’s over-attention to downtown megaprojects and under-attention to neighborhood livability concerns. The Raleigh Connoisseur reports the city is moving forward with light rail plans for downtown. And the League of American Bicyclists explains why, for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, simply being eligible for federal funding isn’t enough.

  • Thanks for this post Angie.  Car-free families often feel like they are struggling against everything that seems natural and easy, and some affirmation never hurts.

    But I have to disagree with the lead-in of the post that the car-free parents “don’t have the prize-winning glutes of spandex-wearing racers.”  I find that riding with my ~70 lb 8 y/o daughter on a trail-a-bike attachment to be an excellent workout.  The years I’ve spent pushing her and her brother up hills when they are on their own bikes have left their mark, too (for example on trips to and from their grandmother’s house on the other side of the Palisades).  Not to mention all the trips carrying four people’s gear on the back of my bike.  Now that I’ve started going on longer rides, including some club rides with spandex-clad folk, I find that simply by commuting alone and with my kids, I’m comfortable keeping pace on B-17 rides. Even though I’m riding my 50 lb commuter bike.  So I wouldn’t sell short the fitness benefits of family and commuter cycling.

    I can’t deny the “subcultural” aspect of family riding (qelle horreur, Copenhagenize!).  One of the stranger things I have done is ghost ride my son’s bike back home through from school on many a day when he wasn’t able to bring it home himself.  (I’ve become a highly skilled ghost rider.)  On occasion, I’ve even gone to pick it up and bring it back home from school in the morning before school started, so he could ride to school!

  • Ha. Point taken. Maybe car-free parents just aren’t as showy about their awesome glutes!

  • Kevin Love

    Where I used to live in Toronto, car mode share was 26% and falling.  Cycling is normal.  If you want to see what family cycling can be like, take a look at this video.  Note:  skip over the first 1:18 of a guy yakking about what we are going to see.

  • In addition to those car-free parenting blogs that deal with the everyday car-free life, parents (and others!) can get some great car-free travel fixes from these blogs by people who have gone on long (some really long!) bicycle journeys with their kids:
    (circular tour of North America – in progress)
    (three part tour of North America (Canada, West Coast, Northeast) – in progress)
    (Alaska to Tierra del Fuego – completed!)

  • dhin

    Hi- Thanks for this for this post and for mentioning us! We have to say we are not completely car free as my Dad is wheel chair bound and we are one of his caretakers. We are bike heavy. 
    Family riding is fun, kooky and a little weird here. My favorite thing about parents we know who bike is that for the most part they have a great sense of humor.
    It’s just so hard to look cool when you are covered in kid slime and grease all at once.

  • vhamer

    car free parents are intense

  • My blog isn’t solely focused on being a car-free family, but I do address those issues frequently as we only have one car and we try to use it as little as possible. We have a four year old and an eight year old and they ride with us. I’m hoping by the time they are teenagers there won’t be much question about driving. I’ve already promised my son he’d get a nice bike at 16 instead of the Camaro he asked for at 6 years old.

    Please check out my blog at . Thanks!

  • RLD

    Commenting on the “we’re not normal HERE” remark.  Can we make a connection between a high level of “car-centricity” in the USA and the fact that in most of the rest of the world, “football” means what we call “soccer”, and that we still use “traditional” weights and measures rather than the “metric” system?

  • Dorea

    Thanks for linking to us and so glad you picked up some of Anne’s wisdom. We love the view of her family a bit farther along than us. So far the car-free parents (whether they bike or not) and the family bikers we’ve met have been an absolutely delightful crowd. As far as the later years, three teen and pre-teen kids from another carfree family that we know locally insist they wouldn’t have it any other way. 

  • More carfree and carlite families are showing up on the streets and the internet every day.  Love the diversity of ages and lifestyles represented! The more we connect, the stronger we will be as a force for social change and hope for our children’s future.
    Annee, 3rd year carfree family of 7

  • Karen Nesius Roeger
    I know this is an older post, but I love reading about other carfree/lite families- helps to know we’re not the only odd ones out here!


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