Cycling as a Way of Life – Being Car Free

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I don’t own a car. Never have. At first it was because I didn’t need one. Then, I could not afford one. Then, I just got used to not having one. Will I never own a car? Doubtful. Is it a priority? No.

In highschool and college motorised transit seemed like it would be more trouble than it was worth. When I lived at home, I didn’t do much besides my official school sports, and we had a good carpool going for that. I rode my bike on weekends with the local touring club, and during finals I would bike to school. In college a car would not have been easy to keep – parking for undergrads was far away and expensive and more trouble than it was worth. Freshmen were not allowed to keep cars on campus. Plus everything I needed was within easy walking distance. I was on a meal plan, so groceries were not needed. I lived on campus. I didn’t have time, with my sports and academics to do much else. I did bicycle a fair bit for recreation as an undergrad.

When I say I couldn’t afford one, it is not an exaggeration. I was a graduate student living off of a really tiny stipend and my main goal was not going into debt. So I didn’t eat in restaurants, didn’t go to movies, didn’t buy a car. My weekly grocery shop involved seeing what was on sale in what market and going to three or four of them to get what I needed for the week. I chose an apartment that was close to school and most of the grocery stores. It was easy because I lived in a very bikable community with several multi use paths, mild winter temperatures, and if needed a decent bus system. Thank you Corvallis, OR for making my first forays into independent living and  actually needing to transport myself by bicycle to take care of weekly chores an easy transition.

After graduating, I became a graduate student again. This time in a place with no bus system whatsoever when I first moved there, and long, harsh winters (I’m talking about you Bozeman, MT). Although my stipend was a bit bigger and I didn’t have to budget to the penny as I did as a M.S. student, I still didn’t have enough extra in my monthly budget to pay for gas, nor in my yearly budget to pay for insurance. I also had developed a photography habit and any spare dollars went to feed that habit.  I learned to layer for winter commutes when the daily high temperatures topped out at -10 F. I splurged on a pair of studded tires for the bike. I started carrying lock de-icer in my winter commute kit. I finessed my cold tolerance. I actively sought out different  commute routes in winter than in summer, to take roads that were less plowed and had little traffic so when I fell, the risk of being hit by a car while down were minimized. I came to really enjoy the winter rides, and I was not the only one commuting in winter!

Then I graduated again and moved onto a job with a salary (!!!) and was so used to choosing my home based on ability to ride to work and the stores that I got an apartment that was convenient to cycling. So I cycled. And didn’t think twice about the winters or the distance. Riding my bike work, to the store, or the laundromat didn’t seem like an imposition or a bother. It was just part of the routine. The only real difference was that if I wanted to go on a road trip, I could afford to rent a car to do it. By the time my second post doc came around and the salary went up again, I would say I could definitely afford a car, but owning a car just seemed like it would be more trouble than it was worth.

So, here I am at age 41 still having never owned a car.  Cycling is just a way of life for me. I love how the morning ride wakes me up and leaves me invigorated for the day. I love how the ride home clears my head. I love how it helps me stay fit and healthier. I love how it allows me to indulge in some of my food weaknesses.  And yes, it also tickles my soul to see the expressions on the faces of my colleagues when I arrive after a particularly cold or snowy or rainy commute. “I was really hoping you wouldn’t ride in today – it was RAINING!” It never seems to sink in for those folks that it isn’t really a choice. I ride in, or I stay home. The only real choice is in not getting a car.

My commutes haven’t always be long or hard. They really aren’t very heroic. They are just a part of my daily routine the same as for some people, stopping to get gas once a week is. When asked what the hardest part of starting to bike commute was, I really can’t answer. I don’t really remember a hard part to it – Corvallis gets summer sun and winter rain, so getting a set of rain gear was key to comfort. That raingear became my outer layer for winter riding in Bozeman and Ithaca and Newark as well – layering it over street clothes kept me cozy (rain gear traps heat) and kept the road snot off of my clothing. Figuring out how to layer for my hands and feet took some experimentation in Bozeman – but I eventually figured out a good strategy. They key points being not to constrict the blood flow to hands and feet too much with the layers. To that end plastic bags between two pairs of liner socks in my regular commuting shoes worked well for the feet and windstopper fleece gloves usually worked for my hands. In a pinch, I would wear a pair of wool mittens over the gloves (I was commuting on a single speed so no need to be able to shift). Commuting in Newark, NJ brought a different challenge – lots more traffic in an area where I did not often see other cyclists. It felt like the majority of the drivers were afraid of me – afraid that I would dart in front of them, or do something silly. I made certain to follow the rules of the road to a T to demonstrate that I followed the same rules they did. I also educated where necessary – usually when people asked why I was stopped at a red light. My recent commute in Ithaca was tough because it contained a steep climb at the end of the commute, so even on cold days I would get sweaty. I found that for that commute it worked better to commute in kit and change into civvies at work. Who knows what my next commute will bring… whatever it is, I am sure I will figure out how to make it work for me. 😀

About Marjolein Schat

I am an ecologist by trade, an avid cyclist, and a photographer in my spare time. My work and my cycling take me outdoors on a daily basis, and I never leave the house without a camera in my pocket. My photography addiction started in 2006 when I got my digital SLR. Now 9 years later, I have taken well over 500,000 photos, thrown most of them away, and used the remaining ones to make blank note-cards for personal use, to give as gifts, and sell to the public.

My cycling has taken many forms from utility riding to run errands such as getting the weekly groceries, to year round commuting, to racing as a USAC category 2 rider on the road. I enjoy mountain biking, road riding, and the occasional psycho-cross outing. The bike as a mode of transportation puts me in closer touch with the world around me. That closer contact has, in turn, allowed me to capture scenes with the camera that I otherwise might not have noticed.

My work as an ecologist has involved the study of plant insect interactions and invasive species ecology in wetlands, rangelands, and now two deserts in the south western US.