Of the places I’ve lived in the US, Boulder makes car-free living the easiest and most enjoyable. For me, that means riding my bike. Yes, there’s a little snow, and a few times each winter bitter cold will slide down from Canada, and yes there’s a bit of topography coming out of the Boulder Creek floodplain. However, on balance the weather is very manageable with 300+ sunny days a year, and the terrain is varied enough to be interesting without daunting a healthy though unathletic cyclist. The city’s scale is also very accessible, with the longest possible trip taking about 45 minutes, between the northern and southern extrema. Most trips are 15 minutes or less. However, what really sets the city apart is the infrastructure and the burgeoning bicycle culture. Just watch Boulder Goes Bike Platinum from Streetfilms, and A Day in the Life of Community Cycles from Ryan Van Duzer.
I’m not saying it’s perfect, but whereas being a dedicated cyclist in Southern California felt like a heroic or sometimes Sisyphean labor, and often felt lonely, using my bike to get around here mostly just feels wonderful. It’s convenient, fast, cheap, and feels relatively safe. They plow the bike paths when it snows. Something like 10% of commute trips are done by bike. We have climbing lanes paired with downhill sharrows. The separated 13th St. contra-flow bike lane is blissful. There are sometimes (gasp!) signs specifically for bikes, telling you where the path you’re on will take you. This fall we got a couple of bike corrals on Pearl. Our cycling infrastructure can and should continue to be improved, but I think it might actually be more important right now to get more people familiar with using it.
I’ve also talked to people who don’t currently bike for transportation, but would like to. These folks are often outside the usual American cycling subculture demographic, which tends to be skewed toward young to middle-aged athletic and/or rebellious spandex-clad and/or tattooed males without families. In Los Angeles, I never felt I could recommend living car-free without reservations. It was clearly possible — I did it for 11 years — but it wasn’t always enjoyable, at least not in the way I knew it could be from living in Japan and bike touring in Europe. In SoCal, we were happy if we could just get the Powers That Be to recognize bikes ought to be considered transportation instead of (or in addition to) recreation, never mind getting them to make investments of money and space. Here, the City has been making those investments slowly over the past few decades. There, I was only really comfortable advocating the car-free life and its many benefits to people I knew, and who had a temperament to deal with the associated trials and tribulations. Here, I feel like I can unabashedly recommend utilitarian cycling to just about anyone. Here the personal costs are much lower, and the benefits — economic, bodily, environmental, etc. — are as great as ever.
The Power of Being Normal
Our strange little People’s Bubble Republic does not exist in isolation. We are embedded within a pervasively automotive system. Car culture also has social consequences, shaping people’s expectations about all kinds of things. How often does one need to go grocery shopping? How far away will you go for a Halloween party? What amount of urban density is appropriate? What’s the furthest you’d commute for a job? How much money can you save for retirement each year? How many hours a week do you need to work? Can you be an independent adult without owning a motor vehicle? Is driving on the freeway safe? What about neighborhood streets? Should parking be free? What is a reasonable speed limit for vehicles? Should children be able to safely play in the street? Is arriving at work a little bit flushed and a little bit sweaty acceptable? Is blanketing the entire Gulf Coast with oil okay? Or the Niger Delta? What about supporting oppressive and corrupt governments? Should we be invading other countries? Changing the composition of the atmosphere?
If you decide to live without a car, over time it is possible that your answers to many of the questions above will change, putting you at odds with the larger society. This can be stressful. We are social animals. However, I’ve found that even having a small group of people who can suspend their disbelief and tell you that you’re normal, or at least non-crazy, can really help make acting outside of general social norms feel much more comfortable. A dozen nearby people with whom you interact on a regular basis is enough to make you feel normal (even if deep down inside… you know you’re not).
Collecting $1000 worth of food from a dumpster at midnight by yourself: crazy. With a small bicycle gang: normal! Dressing up like a clown and handing out tickets to people parked in the bike lane: nutjob. With 10 other clowns: awesome! Cooking from scratch and eating at home when all your friends go out: weird and anti-social. When you’ve got a potluck group: normal! Using mathematical functions to describe everyday phenomena in middle America: what are you, some kind of mad scientist? If all your friends are PhD students: normal! Publicly declaring your atheism at the age of 8 in a rural farming town: not recommended. At a technical university: not even noticed.
So even here in Boulder, with Actually Existing infrastructure that makes living car-free pleasant and convenient, there are people who want to ride their bikes more for transportation, or to revert to living in a one car household, or even get rid of their motor vehicles altogether, but who still feel social pressure not to do so. Sometimes that pressure is overt as in the case of a friend of mine who was criticized publicly by a preschool teacher for bringing her kids to school in a bike trailer (too dangerous? cold? somehow inconvenient for the teacher?). More often though, I think it is the silent pressure of not knowing how to go about making living without a car joyful and efficient. It’s usually easiest to just keep on doing what most others do. It’s what’s familiar. Without examples, you have to figure things out for yourself. You have to re-invent the wheel. If you’re stubborn and resourceful, you’ll succeed, but doing it by yourself makes it harder than it needs to be, and many people give up in frustration, in part because the message that they get from their friends and families and co-workers is: of course it isn’t working. Of course it isn’t pleasant. You’re trying to do something crazy.
Additionally, getting more, and more diverse people out on bikes, and understanding the issues that transportation cyclists face can only help with efforts to advocate for better facilities, and the political challenges that any suggestion of subordinating cars in planning will face. When cyclists are really just a big slice of normal people, when we stop self-identifying as “cyclists”, when alternative transportation becomes less alternative and more transportation, other possibilities open up. Many more streets like 13th downtown. Greater latitude to pedestrianize dense core areas. The ability to imagine decreasing traffic volumes on major roads, making the city cleaner, safer, and quieter, without the fear of bankrupting anyone except the petroleum industry (since our auto industry already bankrupted itself). Livable density that’s comfortable and convenient for people, without inviting more cars and traffic into the area. Car free neighborhoods like Freiburg’s Quartier Vauban. So long as cyclists are a sub-culture, and these issues are us versus them, these kinds of things will be off the table.
Car Free Mentorship
With just a little bit of structure, I think we can ease a significant number of people into living car-free or car-lite lives. Lives that would not be seriously impacted if gas were suddenly to cost $5 or $10 a gallon. I think it’s important to let these folks to make the decision on their own, as opposed to evangelizing. We only have so much time and energy; it might as well be spent in the most efficient way. We should just play a supporting role. I think of it like a mentorship, with several domains and goals:
- Car Free Normalization: helping people who want to live without a car (at least some of the time) feel like this is normal, or at least entirely possible, by making sure that they know many people who are in the same boat. This makes it much easier to deal with criticisms and pushback that they get from others. It’s easy to ignore someone who says “You can’t…” when you know others who do. Almost all of the stubbornly optimistic bike activists I know have lived or traveled in places like the Netherlands and Japan, and seen a much less car intensive society working well. In particular, I think having one primary contact person is a good idea. Someone who has a similar situation… commuting to Lakewood, having 2 kids, etc. Someone who’s already had to deal with many of the issues you’ll be facing, and can empathize and offer their experiences. This is the person you don’t have to feel bad about calling or e-mailing when you’re frustrated. At the same time, a broader network of people is needed for it to seem really normalized, and it’s unlikely that any two people will share all the same experiences. This network should meet face to face and socialize on a regular basis. A monthly potluck?
- Setting Expectations: Living without a car isn’t the same as living with one. Helping people understand what will be different at the beginning will keep them from being surprised later on. It means living and shopping and socializing more locally, changing your conception of where you live. If you don’t want to get sweaty, don’t ride like you would when you’re out for exercise. Leisurely riding is fine. Riding a bike is much, much cheaper than owning a car, but it’s not free. How much does it need to cost? What’s a good value? How good of shape do I actually need to be in to ride up the hills on Folsom and Broadway?
- Developing Skills and Strategies: How do you find calm but direct bike routes? What are the basic repair skills you’ll need on the road? What to do if you do need a car occasionally (carshare, rentals). What kinds of things will need more advance planning? Which clothes will you want to wear or carry during what kinds of weather? How can you ride safely in the snow? How do you move large or heavy loads? How do you integrate your bike with other modes of transport? What if you’ve got kids? What is legal for bikes? What are the safe ways to ride? What are common dangerous behaviors?
- Equipment Choices: There’s a tendency to focus on purchasing solutions, and some of the adjustments of living without a car just can’t be bought. They have to be learned. At the same time, having the right basic stuff makes things easy. Good lights, fenders, a rack and panniers, windproof gloves, smooth tires, a neck gaiter, a decent wind/rain shell. Much of the bike industry in the US comes from a recreational or fitness background rather than a transportation background. This isn’t nearly as true here in Boulder as in most places, but it’s still something to be aware of. When you’re asking questions about stuff in a shop, make sure you’re talking to someone who does the same kind of cycling that you do.
All this information is already available if they want to seek it out. The thing that would make this different is the social aspect. Making it local, face to face, personal, and building a supportive and inclusive community. Showing, by example, that living without a car can be enjoyable. That it’s different, but not inferior. That it can be normalized, and that there are many reasons why normalizing it is desirable.
For the mentors, I would suggest the following qualifications:
- You have lived as an independent adult without a car for at least one year in Boulder, or somewhere else with a similar climate.
- You currently live without a car, or if you do have one, that it is used very infrequently (say, less than once a week), and that its sudden unexpected loss would not disrupt your life significantly.
- You actually enjoy living without depending on a car.
- You would be willing to come to a potluck meetup once a month to meet people face to face and chat.
I’ve created a signup form for people who would like to participate as mentors. Once we’ve got about 10 people, we can work on recruiting people to the other side…