Thursday, February 19, 2009

Advice from the pros:

Interview with Paul Cooley – Father, Bike-enthusiast, and writer of the Car Free Family Blog.

Making the transition to living a car-lite or car-free lifestyle can be an intimidating notion.   Fortunately – the Internet has made it possible for like-minded individuals to connect, from around the world.

I had the opportunity to chat with Paul Cooley of Car-free Family.  Paul is a writer, stay-at-home dad, and dedicated blogger.  Paul has a Masters Degree from St. Johns College in Eastern Classics.

KBD – Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions about the car-free lifestyle. How long has your family been car-free?

Paul Cooley - We sold our car on May 5, 2004, when my children were two and four years of age.  We did however, slowly transition to using the car less and less as a family, relying on our Burley trailer and the city bus system to get around.  And there had been times in my life previously where I had gone for stretches without owning a car, so it wasn't really such a sudden or dramatic transition.

KBD - What are the biggest challenges for a car-free family?

PC - One of the things I didn't like about owning a car was that I would use it when I became frustrated with the children.  At the time, they were younger, and so I would drive around hoping they would fall asleep in their car seats.  (I am the at-home-parent).  I know, of course, what a horrible waste of gas that is.  I shudder to imagine what the collective impact on carbon emissions result from parents trying to get their children to nap.  However, though it was not the most ethical use of a motor vehicle in the world, I would still use it for that because the car was there, and because I think we're trained, in this society, to put ourselves in motion when we are feeling frustrated.


Now, when I'm feeling frustrated with being home with the kids, we have to go out and bicycle.  That is a much better way to dispel frustration.  However, there are times when I wish we could just drive up into the mountains or drive up to a lake.  There are places public transportation doesn't go and that would be too difficult to reach on a bicycle laden with two children plus food, water, etc.  That cultural expectation of being able to get wherever you want to go in an absurdly short period of time does not automatically vanish when you sell your car.

I also did a lot of river running and backpacking before I had children, and when I had a car.  That's a big part of my identity.  Now, I'm trying to shift that over into bicycle touring, but I really do have a love of wilderness travel that isn't assuaged by riding a bicycle full of camping gear down a busy highway.  I really should budget in a few more car rentals a year for taking my kids to the backcountry.  (We've rented a car twice in the last four-and-a-half years).


Most of the things people think of, as challenges --buying food, bicycling on snowy roads, riding on cold days -- are really just a matter of buying the right equipment.

KBD - Would you share with us one experience that you had (as a car-free family) that made you think, "see, if only other families had this type of experience then maybe they could do it to?"

PC - When the kids were three and five, we did a bicycle tour up into the mountains on our Bike Fridays.  The trip was probably close to fifty miles.  My daughter, who was the five-year-old, rode on the tandem the entire way, eight hours on the bicycle.  She was amazing.  My son, who was only three, bicycled the first ten miles, took a break in the Burley trailer, and then got back on the bike for the last fifteen mile climb up into the mountains.  I had not idea that my children would be that capable of bicycling on a long ride, though to be honest, they didn't contribute much to the work of hauling everything uphill with their pedaling.  That was one long grind for my wife and me, but it really showed us that the possibilities were endless.

KBD - Why did you start your blog, Car-freeFamily?

PC - I started my blog in January 2005, mainly because I found other similar blogs and listservs about being car-free inspirational.  I wanted to document that it was possible to be car-free and have children.

KBD - How do your children feel about bicycles?

PC - Both of my children love bicycles.  My daughter, who is now nine, can now ride almost anywhere on her own bicycle.  My son rides his own bicycle as often as he can convince me to allow him, but research shows that nine is about the age when a child's cognitive development and peripheral vision have developed to the point where they can navigate traffic effectively, so I usually don't allow him to ride places where the traffic is heavy. My son once told the public librarian, "I'm not a McDonalds, car, and television sort of boy; I'm a science, bicycle, and library sort of boy."

KBD – To close - What small, digestible chunks of advice would you give to families who are considering making the car-free adjustment?  Is there anything that you would've done differently?

PC - Katie Alvord's book, "Divorce Your Car," provides a wonderful overview of the problems associated with car culture and the various avenues you can take to avoid it.  That book, in conjunction with the Car-free listserv at Yahoo groups made me feel I had a community backing my decision to get rid of the car.  Human beings need community support, and getting rid of your car will be looked at as odd by many people, though the number of people we know in town who admire our decision is surprising.  Ken Kifer's bike pages are also a wonderful resource.


If you're planning on switching to bicycling as your transportation, it is well worthwhile to take a safety course from the League of American Bicyclists.  Many bicyclists put themselves in harm's way through trying to avoid danger.  Bicyclists need to assert their right to the road -- without being pushy or obnoxious -- and follow all the rules and regulations motorists follow.  At the very least read "Urban Bikers' Tips and Tricks."  That's a good short course on being safe on a bicycle.


If you do not already own a bicycle you love, I would also advise doing a lot of research on bicycles online rather than going to your local bike shop right away.  While there are some great bike shops out there, many of them sell mainly racing bikes or not-so-great mountain bikes, or great mountain bikes with full suspension, but you don't really need that.  I'm inserting my own prejudice here, but I really love touring bikes for commuting, (not to mention for touring itself).  A good page, though not updated, for information is  That was my original porthole to finding bicycle information on the web after a disastrous experience with my LBS.  For most everyday use, it's also hard to beat an Xtracycle.  While I now own a fancy touring bike, my Xtracycle bears the brunt of the work around here.  I can haul both children on it; carry groceries, one hundred pounds of dog food, almost anything that needs to be carried.  And for tandem riding with children, Bike Friday offers some of the best tandems at a reasonable price.  Don't be discouraged by what you see on the floor of a bike shop, there's some great bikes out there for people who want to haul stuff and base their lives around bicycles instead of automobiles.  You just need to know where to look.  (Consequently, I might add, we've spent a lot of money on bikes and bike stuff over the last five years.  I'm not sure if our decision has saved us money at all, but we feel better about the money spent).


The only thing I would do differently, perhaps, is schedule in some car rentals each year.  It would be good to go canoe the San Juan River again, or go climb a fourteener in Colorado.  I miss doing those things, but my not doing them probably has as much to do with having young children as not owning a car.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

rain - strategy revisited

After my experience yesterday,  I made a few adaptations for the rain this morning.

Monday my hands were very cold - for some reason I opted out of wearing my bicycling gloves.  In my head I thought they'd just get wet and magnify the cold.  While that is true, they also provide a buffer between your metal handlebars which get really cold - so even when wet they can provide nominal protection, not to mention protection in the event of fall.

Also on Monday, my feet were totally soaked and my saddle got a little wet, even through the cover.   Plastic bags to the rescue!

I wrapped my saddle in a Target bag, man those things are awesome.  I then put the cover over the saddle and to my delight the saddle was dry as a bone when I got to work.

I also put cheapo Ralphs bags over my wool socks, tied them around my ankles and secured them with reflective ankle straps to keep my feet dry-er.  Those worked ok...  I noticed that the bottoms of my socks weren't wet, but the tops were.  The weak link must be around the ankle soemwhere.  I'll need to experiment with bigger bags.

Finally, I wore fleece mittens over my bike gloves.  Even though there was constant rain, they kept my hands relatively warm and dry.  I'll be doing this again, for sure.

If you are wondering what the combination of plastic bags on your feet, ankle reflectors, and wearing a hood underneath your helmet looks like - imagine some sort of bicyclist refugee in the Kevin Coster epic bomb, Water World.

Still wrestling with the glasses issue.  Not sure what is the best method there.

In other news - George is less than one month away from being born.  He'll be ready for a trailer just in time for summer.  Can't wait.

Monday, February 16, 2009


My primary outer-layer that I wear during rain was once described as water-resistant.  I think it is more functionally described as water-apathetic

I've been reluctant to actually get a rain jacket because of the "trapped in a rubber bag" sensation it produces - but these last couple weeks of rain have me thinking otherwise.   Of course, then it creates a monsoon of sweat on the inside of the jacket.  There really is no compromise, is there?

Unless of course you are willing to spend a small fortune. Nuts to that.

Monday, February 9, 2009

more advice on biking when pregnant

Marion Rice, writer at BikePortland chimes in on the discussion.  She's previously written on topics we're interested in here at kids.bikes.dads, namely how to bike with deal with kids who don't want to bike.  I'll put her on the list of people to contact for future ideas.

She writes a regular column titled family biking - should be a good resource.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

comfortable doesn't have to be ugly

There are various reasons people feel like bicycling isn't a practical form of transportation. One of them is finding a bike that is both comfortable and efficient. That is why many of us drive cars for our primary mode of transportation, because they are comfortable and it is familiar. While comparing bicycles with cars is kind of a fruitless task - it is helpful to know that there are things you can do to get the best of both worlds (comfort and efficiency/speed) out of bicycles.

On one hand, beach cruisers and mountain bikes can be very comfortable to ride - but their designs make them less appealing for more than short trips. Beach cruisers often lack gearing that allows you to travel at a nice speed, and mountain bikes have wide, knobby tires which greatly reduce efficiency on the road.

On the other hand, road bikes are built for speed and efficiency, but are sometimes less comfortable because they require a more aggressive riding position. By aggressive, I mean they require you to lean forward out toward your handlebars (as opposed to a beach cruiser which allows you to sit perfectly straight).

A good way to get both comfort and efficiency is by slightly modifying a road bike. I've taken my 1989 330 Trek and converted it from an entry-level road bike - to a much more comfortable city bike.

My Trek as I bought it - made it more ideal for "racing" or recreational riding where speed was of the essence. It featured "drop" handlebars which allow riders to get in aerodynamic positions. It also had a sport saddle which are typically lighter in weight, thus making it easier to ride at faster speeds. The shifters are also located on the downtube. While this is not the common practice now, this was the prominent design for most racing bicycles from the late 70's to the early 90's.

I've made several changes to my bike that make it really, really fun to ride in the city. First, I changed the handlebars from drops to mustache. For me, this provides a much more comfortable braking position than typical drop handlebars, and their design also allows me to sit more upright.

I also replaced the stem that had a downward degree slope with an upward one. This places my handlebars at a much higher level, making them essentially even with my saddle. Again, this puts me in a very comfortable riding position.

I've also switched the downtube shifters to bar-end shifters. These are are a real dream come true. I was used to downtube shifters, and had become somewhat proficient at shifting, but I did not enjoy the position it put me in when I had to shift, because you have to reach down and take your hand(s) off the handlebar. Bar-end shifters allow you to just slightly move your hand to shift - easily going about your business.

Finally - I sacrificed the weight of the saddle and got a Brooks leather saddle. What I sacrificed in weight, I more than made up in aesthetics and comfort. Brooks saddles are a financial investment, but properly maintained they will last a lifetime. They have a ravenous following with little design modifications in the past century they have been making them. Something must be right.

Finally, I added fenders. Mine are nothing fancy, and I've already put them to good use as it's rained a lot this past week. Fenders help protect your bike from road grime during the rain, and they also spare you from the dreaded rooster-tail.

With a few modifications - you can transform a road bike into a great commuter-errand bike. I still would like to put a front/rear rack on it - but I haven't found the bargains I'm looking for.

What changes/improvements to your bike have you made that has made it more enjoyable to ride? Anything I neglected?