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.

1 comment:

Ben & Carly said...

good interview, this guy is really inspirational. I have had a harder time since having my third because I assumed I couldn't go as far since they all couldn't fit in the trailer. After reading this I think I haven't been giving my 5 year old enough credit. she could probably ride farther than I think she could. good info, and I like the links he suggested. keep up the good work!