July 25, 2024


Where Innovation Lives

The Growing Movement to Go Car-Free

14 min read


Photo credit: Courtesy of Subjects

Photo credit: Courtesy of Subjects

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Heather Moore-Farley was pregnant with her third child when the family’s car died on route home from vacation. Her husband’s office was walkable from home, as was a Zipcar share. So to help save both money and the environment, the family decided to see how long they could go without a car. Two days before they welcomed their youngest child, “we ordered a cargo bike and just kept going,” said Moore-Farley, who lives in Oakland. That was 10 years ago. They still haven’t replaced the family car.

In the U.S., the movement to ditch private cars in lieu of active transportation such as walking, biking and taking public transportation has been gaining steam as gas prices skyrocket and cities invest in public transportation and bike infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and gridlock. During the pandemic, bike ridership surged nationwide, with bicycling trips up 26% at the height of the COVID-19 cycling boom. And though research links parenthood with increased car dependence, some families, like Moore-Farley’s, are consciously bucking the tendency to drive more as parents.

Photo credit: McKay Moore-Farley

Photo credit: McKay Moore-Farley

Back in 2018, when the urban-minded publication CityLab surveyed parents about raising kids in cities, many indicated a preference for going car-less, but said they struggled making that happen. Last fall, the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation published research looking at the “small and growing” number of families using electric bikes like family cars. Meanwhile, New York City is seeing a surge in parents bicycling young kids to school and daycare.

Looking for advice and insight on living car-free as a family in the U.S., I put out a call on social media for parents doing just that. Within hours, we’d heard from dozens of parents in 15 U.S. metropolitan areas. Many said they forgo cars to save money, others for logistics, convenience and to be more active and connected to their neighborhoods. Some cited environmental reasons, and a few, like the Moore-Farleys, had turned carless partially by happenstance.

We also heard from families living “car lite” in cities as diverse as Atlanta and Boston, as well as from parents who are dreaming of one day ditching their cars. “I wish this was me, but alas,” wrote one mom.

Themes emerged from how parents manage sans car. Many car-free families choose to live in walkable neighborhoods near public transportation, sometimes paying more to do so. They often stick to schools, camps and after-school activities close to home. “We’ve had to turn down some stuff like birthday parties that were especially far away,” said Moore-Farley, adding, “but that seems ok.”

Remote work also helps facilitate the car-free life. And in several cities, cargo e-bikes with pedal assist technology are making it easier and safer for parents to cycle with children up hills and for long distances.

For parents without cargo bikes, hauling groceries and laundry merits careful consideration. “Strollers are great for carrying groceries,” advised a dad in North Portland. A Brooklyn father reported navigating store aisles with a small wagon, which had the added perk of saving on bags, while a mother in the same city said money saved from not owning a car allows her to splurge guilt-free on quality rain gear and stylish, supportive shoes that work for both office and walking.

For travel and visiting families, many carless families own lightweight car seats, which can be checked for free on flights. Some keep seats at grandparents’ homes and turn to car services and carshares on an as-needed basis.

Not surprisingly, families have a far easier time living without a vehicle in cities with more developed transportation systems and bike infrastructure like Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Portland, Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco. In other places, being car-free demands not only more planning, parents sometimes spend considerable energy justifying their decision to others. People “don’t understand why you’d want to brave the outdoors to ride [a bike] to the grocery,” writes Dylan Holcomb, a father of three who lived car-free in Sacramento for more than a year. “It doesn’t compute. And really it shouldn’t — we have been acculturated to drive even from one side of the parking lot to the other when at the mall.”

Of course, for many parents without cars, including those with disabilities, not having a car is not a choice, but a necessity, one made all the more trying in places without robust, accessible transportation options.

But those parents who have actively said “no” to cars often find joys and unexpected perks to staying the course. Below are the stories
of three families who embrace car-free living.

“As soon as we leave home, it’s an adventure.”

Chris Burgess lives in Chicago with his wife, Jamie, and daughters, Riley and Quinn, ages 1 and 3.

Photo credit: Chris Burgess

Photo credit: Chris Burgess

Transportation modes: Train, subway, bus, cargo e-bike, bikeshare, scooter, walking.

My wife Jamie and I grew up in the land of cars, in Texas. We had cars through high school and college and drove everywhere. Public transit just wasn’t an option. I didn’t even know such a thing existed.

We moved to Chicago for Jamie’s grad school. Our second night there we looked online for a place to eat and found a Thai restaurant a mile and change from our apartment. Since they had parking, we thought, “Great, we can go there.” But when we got there we saw the parking was only three spaces, and one was reserved for delivery. That was our initial awakening that we no longer lived in the land of drive-throughs, where you have to get in a car to go anywhere. After that, we started walking around our neighborhood, and that was the beginning of our love story with urban life, where we could just walk out the door and go places.

We held onto the car even though we rarely used it and parking on the street was a huge pain. Eventually we moved back to Texas for my work. But we missed Chicago and its walkability, so after a few years we moved back. I joke that we love Chicago so much we moved there twice.

This time, we purposefully picked a neighborhood that’s close to public transportation and I took the Metra to work. I was commuting to the suburbs, but the train was still a little faster than driving and way more convenient. I watched all of Game of Thrones on my phone while commuting.

Photo credit: Laser1987 - Getty Images

Photo credit: Laser1987 – Getty Images

But we still had a car. Eventually we did the math and decided it was preposterous paying hundreds of dollars a month on a vehicle we didn’t use often, and when we did, we wished we didn’t. So we got rid of it. Selling the car has worked out really well.

I had already discovered biking in the city, but after selling the car I started biking more. Biking expanded my range of where I could go without a car, yet a bike is small and light, and you can throw it on the sidewalk and lock it to a light post. And I just love being out in the open, connected to my surroundings.

When I got a new job downtown, I would take the Metra and bike the last mile. Warm months, I’d bike all the way downtown on the Lakefront Trail. My work was in a medical facility and had a shower, so I would get there early and shower. It was a wonderful way to start my day.

When Jamie and I had kids, many of our friends assumed we would move to the suburbs where you can have more space and a yard. The idea is that you get more for your housing dollar there. I believe that to be true, but we would also have to buy a car, and so any savings we had on housing would be spent on that. Also, we would lose this lifestyle we love. So we don’t plan on ever leaving.

In so many places, to go anywhere, parents have to bundle their kids in the car, then the kids stare out the window, and then you unpack them just so they can run around. For us, as soon as we walk out the door it’s an adventure. As two kids from Texas who grew up driving everywhere, Jamie and I love that.

Being a parent has made me even more concerned about climate change, and it also gives me joy when I walk knowing that I’m not contributing to that. But living without a car is also just a really nice way to live, and I wish it were easier to do more places.

How the Burgesses live car-free in Chicago:

  • Live near reliable public transportation and a grocery store

  • Own an Urban Arrow cargo e-bike

  • Have laundry in-unit

  • Shop for one or two meals at a time, carrying a maximum of three bags

  • Daughter attend a daycare in walking distance

  • Own lightweight car seats for car services and visiting relatives

“My e-bike saves me time, money and stress.”

Patty Lin lives in Brooklyn with her father and 5-year-old son Deren.

Photo credit: Deanna Bangs

Photo credit: Deanna Bangs

Transportation modes: Electric cargo bike, public transportation, walking

My dad has long worked for a car service and has always seemed burdened by having a car and driving for a living. So I grew up with memories of cars bringing stress. After college, I moved to a neighborhood in Brooklyn close to a lot of subways and bus lines, so I’ve never needed a car, not even after having my son five years ago.

But during the first few months of the pandemic, we didn’t want to take public transportation. There were so many attacks on Asian-Americans happening and I got really paranoid being on the subway with my son. I didn’t feel safe. My dad, who lives with us, had stopped working, and said, “Since I’m not working, I can take you anywhere in
the car.” We did that for a while, but there’s something energetically about being in a car that doesn’t agree with me. I studied dance, and I’ve always been body-oriented, and being in a car feels really detached from the body to me.

I also felt bad that it takes my dad so long just to find parking on the street. He’s old now, and just finding a parking spot and walking back to the apartment takes him at least 30 minutes. It was so much trouble that during the pandemic I started biking a lot with my son to parks. But on hills, I was really struggling and couldn’t pay close attention to the road.

So I ordered a cargo e-bike. I could barely afford the bike on credit — it cost about $4,000 — but I knew it was going to be an important investment. It was. Once I got used to riding it, it was such a game-changer, with how efficient it is, how confident I feel on it and how easy it is to park. Now I can see a bookkeeping client, pick up my son from his nanny-share and get groceries all in one run, and I don’t have to deal with the traffic or parking. Also, I’m very interested in the arts, and the bike makes it easy for me to attend arts and cultural events around the city.

Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images - Getty Images

Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images – Getty Images

My son likes it, too. He’s just happier and less needy when he’s out. I’m the only provider and caretaker for him, and during the early days of the pandemic, when we were all home, biking became a great escape for us.

I do get a lot of comments like, “Wow, your bicycle is so big.” And I’m like, “It’s smaller than a car.”

Meanwhile, there are a lot of moms who say they had to get an SUV because it’s safer for their kids if they get in an accident. So everyone is driving in tanks, which is part of what makes the roads more dangerous.

I actually feel safer on a bike than walking, because we are short, and when we’re on that cargo bike, everyone sees us. When we’re at a crosswalk, we can ride through fast.

Some people think that the only people who buy cargo e-bikes are elite upper-class people, the type of adventurous people with resources, who live in vans by choice. But it can actually help people who are struggling to pay bills, like me.

Since I work as a bookkeeper for artists, I see just how much money other people spend on cars for repairs, gas and insurance. I spend about one-tenth of what they do, and my e-bike also saves on childcare. Childcare time is precious to me, and I need to make the most of it when I have it. If I’m stuck on a train or looking for parking, I’m still paying.

One downside is that there has been a lot of reckless driving since the pandemic, and I wish the bike infrastructure here were better. Also, the e-bike is so efficient and functional that friends and clients, even those who have SUVs and cars, will ask me to run errands for them because they can’t park easily. I say yes to a lot of things because it’s so efficient on the bike.

It’s not perfect, but my e-bike saves me money, time and energy and I feel healthier on it. I get in such a better mood when I’m riding. In a way, it saved me.

How Patty lives car-free in Brooklyn:

  • Lives near public transportation

  • Invested in a Madsen cargo e-bike and uses it like a family car

  • Chose a school for her son that they can safely bike to

  • Chooses routes to clients and for errands based on where safe bike infrastructure exists or traffic is light

“I bond with my son riding the bus.”

Rae Johnson lives car-free in Milwaukee with their 12-year-old son, Elijah.

Photo credit: Rae Johnson

Photo credit: Rae Johnson

Transportation modes: county bus, walking

I had a Bachelor’s degree and a baby before I got my driver’s license. Growing up, my mom didn’t drive, and as a teenager I was able to navigate Milwaukee really well by the county bus. Later, as a single parent, I didn’t have resources to afford a car and it just wasn’t important to me.

I had my son when I was in college, also in Milwaukee, where it’s pretty unusual not to have a car. That’s when people started wanting me to drive. They were like, “What are you going to do in the winter?” and I’d say, “I’m going to walk and take the bus.” But a lot of people were concerned.

I would take my son to daycare on the bus and then go to class. There was a special section on the bus for strollers, but I was so broke back then I didn’t have a stroller. I just carried my baby.

When my son was a toddler, riding the bus helped us connect. He’d get excited when we went somewhere and he’d go pick a book. We would read while waiting for the bus and riding it. Other passengers would be giving me kudos for that. Now he’s 12 and reads amazingly well and above his grade level. I think it’s because we’ve been reading on the bus together since he was young. Now we’ll both bring books to read separately on the bus and that’s a beautiful experience.

Photo credit: Milwaukee County Transit System

Photo credit: Milwaukee County Transit System

One thing I didn’t like about not driving as a parent was hauling laundry to the laundromat. Until fairly recently, I didn’t have laundry in my home and there were times I took my laundry in a rideshare because it felt embarrassing to walk with it, since some people — especially young people — will give you attitude for not having a car. I just had to get over it and handle my business. I also got really heavy, nice laundry bags and a really nice biker book bag to carry things.

It wasn’t until my son started elementary school that it became really hard not having a car. Our neighborhood didn’t qualify for a school bus, and taking him to school and picking him up plus commuting to my work as a writer took up to four hours of my day. At that point, I would have happily taken a car.

Instead, I bought a house in the bus zone for my son’s school. It is also four blocks from my parents’ house, which is nice. But because of the school bus driver shortage brought on by the pandemic, busing has been extremely inconsistent. Friends with cars help with bringing my son to school, but my frustration is that I bought a house in this neighborhood so he can be on a school bus, and now the bus isn’t dependable.

Even so, I prefer being carless. When I first bought the house, my dad had an extra truck that he gave me. Suddenly I could leave a lot later to go places, and didn’t have to carry groceries. But I was also dealing with traffic, and I was surprised by the cost of keeping a car. I hadn’t understood how much maintenance was necessary. So when the truck broke after a few months, I didn’t bother to fix it. The truck is still sitting in my driveway, broken, and I’m back to the bus.

On the bus, you see the city differently, a lot slower, and notice more things than when you’re driving. It’s really wonderful. Gas prices are going up, and I don’t have to worry about that. Bus fare is just $2. And since the pandemic started, I order groceries for delivery, and I have a new job where I work remotely.

My son swims and does Boy Scouts, and I plan his activities around our home and the bus routes. A lot of parents just drop their kids off or sit in the car waiting. I like that I’m able to watch him practice and excel, and then coming home we talk. When I was driving, I was so focused on the road, we didn’t have those conversations. But on the bus, you don’t have a choice but to slow down and talk to the person next to you.

My life is kind of minimalist. I don’t venture too far away from home, and I think that’s okay, and I think it’s also okay and important to maintain a community of people who can help out sometimes. At this point, I think it would just be a waste to have a car.

How Rae lives car-free in Milwaukee:

  • Lives in neighborhood with school bus service to their son’s school

  • Chooses only after-school activities easily reached by bus or walking

  • Works remotely

  • Orders groceries online

  • Has washer and dryer at home

  • Invested in high quality bags for carrying things. Rae’s favorite biker bag is from Chrome Industries which is easy to carry, waterproof and holds a lot.

  • Nurtures a supportive community of friends and family who live nearby

  • Appreciates a minimalist lifestyle and the connections that happen when you slow down

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