My October challenge for myself was not to use a car. For at least 30 days, I could only walk, ride my bike, or take Metro or the bus.
No driving, no Uber/Lyft. And if a friend gave me a ride, it had to be something we would do naturally, like going to lunch together. (This happened three times during the month.) Fortunately the weather was really nice here in October, helping ease me into the challenge.
While living here, I’ve often walked to the Metro station about a mile away, and I’ve enjoyed bike riding, mainly on dedicated trails.
- I’d never taken the bus (I didn’t even know how to pay for it).
- I’d never biked in the dark.
- I had no idea how I would get to appointments in places I usually drove to on busy streets (like Tysons Corner, Fairfax and Bailey’s Crossroads).
Of course, at this point in my life, I’m in a very favorable position for a car-free challenge. I work at home, and my days of driving kids to soccer and baseball are over. I can take an extra 30 or even 60 minutes to get to an appointment if I need to.
Within the first few days I was already making my first positive discoveries.
Google Maps bike navigation
I found that with my AirPods and Google Maps, I can navigate just like in a car. “In 600 feet, turn right onto the Washington and Old Dominion Trail.”
When I choose the bike icon, Google routes me preferentially on trails and on roads with marked bike lanes. And there are many more of those around here than there used to be.
The W&OD trail is a former railroad right-of-way, so it passes near many of the main business centers. Of course! So I can take the trail and pop out close to where I want to go, avoiding main thoroughfares.
Privileged me discovers the bus
I was a bit unsure at first about riding the bus, but it turned out to be very easy. The system uses the same SmarTrip card as the Metro. The buses don’t arrive exactly on schedule, but there are real-time updates on the website and app. The drivers and other passengers (from all over the world) exchange friendly greetings. I felt quite at home. The only downside is that many buses come 30 minutes apart, so it can be quite a wait.
Biking at night, and liking it
The next challenge was returning home after Zumba as the autumn darkness fell. I bought a reflective vest and blinking front and back lights from Amazon, but that didn’t seem quite enough, so I went to my local bike shop to fix the original dynamo lights on my city bike (purchased in Germany in 1998) and to buy a $50 spotlight that throws a nice pool of light in front of the bike. Even then, I still didn’t feel 100% sure that drivers would see me.
Now I do. I added blue Activ LED lights on my bike wheels, only about $7 each on Amazon. Drivers can’t miss me now!
Since then, I’ve ridden to and from various events in the dark (once in drizzling rain in the dark), and I feel very comfortable and confident.
Aside from my usual Amazon Prime
obsession purchases, I didn’t intend to rely on delivery services during my no-car challenge. However, I’d received promotional emails from Instacart and from Amazon/Whole Foods offering generous discounts on my first order. OK, why not?
Instacart gave me a choice of stores, and I selected Wegman’s basically because it’s not nearby. The website was easy to use, and I could specify backup options in case my items were out of stock. Text message confirmations dinged on my phone, rapidly followed by the appearance of my personal shopper on my doorstep. The order was all correct, and the bunch of cilantro was even nicer than one I’d pick out myself (somehow I always get a few slimy leaves).
Amazon’s Whole Foods delivery was a similar experience. Within two hours, grapes, apples, kombucha, grass-fed cream and other hand-selected groceries were on my porch. The delivery guy, about my age, also gave me his business card as a photographer. I tipped him well on the app; I know the gig economy is tough.
E-bikes: the future of (my) mobility?
As the month went on, it gradually seemed easier to ride the 2.5 miles to my gym, or 5 or 6 miles to an appointment. However, I noticed myself dreading or even avoiding hilly areas. My heavy 7-speed city bike is not the optimal hill-climbing machine.
My no-car challenge has something to do with the urge to re-create a European lifestyle. And in Europe itself, people (especially those my age and older) are increasingly turning to electric bikes. In the Netherlands, sales of e-bikes have surpassed those of regular adult bikes since 2018.
E-bikes are not like mopeds; you still have to pedal, but they give you an extra boost, especially on hills.
My husband rented an e-bike in Belgium and gave an enthusiastic report. So I found a local place to rent one for a couple of days to try it out.
At first I wasn’t sure I liked it. It weighed at least 50 pounds, and starting off from a standstill was hard, especially uphill — I would strain at the pedals and then suddenly the bike would jerk forward when the power kicked in. But gradually I learned to use the little throttle on the handlebar to get started. There was also the time when the e-bike wouldn’t start when I needed to leave, so I left it behind in the shed and switched to my regular bike. But I called an expert who advised me to turn the battery off and back on (a good trick with anything electronic, I should have guessed).
By the third day on the e-bike, I felt more comfortable controlling it in traffic and on the trail, and even going slowly on sidewalks when necessary (with no pedestrians nearby of course).
In fact, by the third day, I was sold on the concept.
Most people I encountered around town commented favorably on my bright green e-machine. But some rolled their eyes. Somehow an e-bike feels a bit like cheating. I felt that way too at first, as I cruised up inclines with the assist on 3 or 4 (out of 5), instead of standing up on the bike with my quad muscles screaming.
But wait a minute. Nobody would roll their eyes if I said I was driving my CAR to the dermatologist, Trader Joe’s, or a workshop. I was prepared to go to all those places on my city bike, as part of my October challenge. But I’m REALLY ready — even eager — to go there on an e-bike.
Even though I work out regularly, I could feel myself getting fitter during October with all the walking and biking. Would I lose all that with an e-bike? Selene Yeager of Bicycling.com compares e-biking to “brisk walking” in comparison with running. Nothing wrong with that. And I’d definitely travel more miles, more often, on an e-bike.
Before owning an e-bike, 55 percent of the respondents said they rode daily or weekly. After getting an e-bike, that number soared to 91 percent riding daily or weekly. More striking, 94 percent of non-cyclists rode daily or weekly after getting an e-bike—nearly every single one of them! For many e-bike owners, their e-bike doesn’t replace their traditional bike; it replaces their car.Selene Yeager, Bicycling.com (emphasis added)
The e-bikes at the rental place were on sale, but the prices started at about $1,500 and went way up from there. But if I sold the car …
Should I get rid of the car and replace it with an e-bike? Hmmm …
Winter is coming
Right. Yes. Not only darkness, but cold rain in the darkness. Sleet. Snow. Slush. Will I still think my e-bike is fun then?
The clothing research has begun. I bought a nice bike raincoat on clearance at REI. But my legs, feet and backpack were all soaked when I rode in the (not particularly cold) October rain.
“Riding in the cold can actually be awesome, if you have the proper winter-riding gear,” says Bicycling.com reassuringly. This includes wool socks, shoe covers, full-zip rain pants, and “bib tights” (I’m learning a lot). My friend Rebecca who has lived in Taiwan said that during monsoon season, bikers there wear pants with attached feet, like pajama bottoms. Nice! So far I can’t find those online, though.
Certainly it’s not cold enough here for this Darth Vader-type ski mask . I’ll just need some wool long underwear, a beanie under my helmet, warm gloves, and outer protective layers against cold/rain/wind.
For an extra incentive to ride during the winter, I can even join a Freezing Saddles team through the BikeArlington Forum. Teams compete in accumulating miles from January through March. And yes, e-bikes are accepted!
But what about …
- What if you need to get somewhere quickly, or give someone a ride? Now that my October challenge is over, I can use Uber and Lyft. Easy, and no parking issues.
- Wait, are you forgetting that your son Zack lives in Richmond? How will you visit him? Eight Amtrak trains run between our cities each day, how cool is that? And there’s a Bolt Bus stop within walking distance of his apartment. Nicer than fighting the traffic that always seems to be snarled up around Fredericksburg, no matter what day or time. And of course I could rent a car if needed.
- What about visiting your extended family in Atlanta? I’ll fly; I’ve basically had it with that boring, butt-killing 10-hour drive.
- So, let’s say you need to buy a ladder or some basement shelves at Home Depot. They deliver. Or there are those $19.99 in-town daily van rental deals.
- Fine. Can you think of anything that will become problematic? I’ll have to say goodbye to my regular trips to IKEA, where I fold down the seats and gleefully stuff the car with flat-packed shelving, pale blue plastic laundry baskets, cozy towels, fluffy comforters, LED lighting strips and of course frozen meatballs and lingonberry sauce. But my house is pretty well set up now, and I’ll just have to live without those excursions, I think I can do it 🙂
And there’s also …
During my challenge I ran into an aspect of U.S. culture I hadn’t thought about before. On multiple occasions, people who came to my house waited in their cars and didn’t knock on the door because they assumed I was running late and would drive up shortly.
I’m sure my friends, colleagues and clients would eventually adjust to my weirdly empty driveway. Of course I’d have to keep my expensive e-bike safely locked in the shed and not parked out front. Unfortunately, potential burglars may also think that no one is home. I’m not sure what to do about that. Fortunately our area is quite safe and our neighbors are helpfully watchful, so I think the risk is not large. I won’t let it stop me from taking the next step toward car-free mobility.
Taking the next step toward car-free mobility. Should I?
I used to love convertibles (I’ve had a Triumph, a VW Cabrio and a Saab). But isn’t an e-bike the ultimate convertible?
I learned so much during October. Google Maps bike navigation. The ease and friendliness of the bus. The growing network of bike lanes. Two-hour grocery delivery. The accessibility of commercial areas on the bike trail. High-tech winter clothing. The joy of walking — actually encountering real people and saying hello, feeling like I live somewhere and am not just passing through. The fun and exhilaration of pedaling an e-bike on level 3 or 4. (Level 5 was too fast!)
“I know you’re going to do it,” predicted Becky at Conte’s Bike Shop. She’s ordered me a Vale Go! to test ride; it should come in this week. It costs over $3,000 (yikes), so buying it would definitely involve selling the car.
I can take Uber or Lyft. I can ride the bus. I can rent a car. But on most days, I’d pull on my wool underwear, reflective vest, helmet and gloves, and head out on my electric bike, to the gym, to the grocery store and to clients’ homes. In the summer, I’d be less sweaty on an e-bike, because less effort is needed to pedal.
I love this vision.
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