How We Became a One-car Household: Slowly, Then Suddenly

When Laura and I bought electric pedal-assist bikes in March 2022, our goal was to ditch one of our cars at some vague future date, but we didn’t really know how it would happen.

I mean, cars are just so convenient, and when you have them it’s easy to just keep them, right?

We spent the year replacing car miles with bike miles (and, during shitty weather, bus miles).

Like most folks, the majority of our trips are just a few miles. Laura found her commute into downtown Iowa City was faster by bike than car because she cut out the five-minute walk from parking to the office. My 12-mile commute didn’t have the same time savings, but it really only added 15 minutes or so.

Groceries were manageable with panniers and the extra weight didn’t matter because of the peddle assistance. Costco trips were still by car, but Laura hauled fence posts for her garden on her bike, and we just don’t haul much.

Most of the time, at least one of our cars sat unused for weeks at a time, though it was easy to get lazy and make an excuse to use a car.

I started marking bike days on my calendar and lumping as best I could days I would need to travel from my office (or urging phone and video calls when it made sense). I did rely on coworkers for tides when we were going to an offsite meeting together, but that just means carpooling which we should be doing anyway.

Then, in just before last Christmas, a driver failed to yield and smashed into our sedan, totaling it. (Everyone was fine, albeit a little shaken). So here we were, in the middle of an Iowa winter, with one car. And it was fine.

(We went back to two cars for a short time when we got a Prius to replace the relatively inefficient Subaru Outback.)

It helps that our high schooler (1) doesn’t drive a lot, (2) doesn’t travel for extra curricular activities since they’re boarding at school, (3) our jobs are flexible enough that we can work from home during bad weather, (4) we can afford costly cab/rideshare fares and (5) have coworkers willing to drive. But we’re going to save thousands of dollars each year on car insurance, gasoline, oil changes and other maintenance. You might also save of parking costs we don’t have.

Electric pedal-assist bikes are transformative. A good one isn’t cheap (we spent $4,000 each for our class 3 Specialized Turbo Vado 4.0 bikes plus more on gear), but it’s cheaper that a car and gets the job done. I’ve found it’s easier if I just plan to ride every day, alleviating decision-making second guessing.

American Exceptionalism Extends to Killing More People Walking and Riding Bikes

Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano writing for The New York Times:

Safety advocates and government officials lament that so many deaths are often tolerated in America as an unavoidable cost of mass mobility. But periodically, the illogic of that toll becomes clearer: Americans die in rising numbers even when they drive less. They die in rising numbers even as roads around the world grow safer. American foreign service officers leave war zones, only to die on roads around the nation’s capital.

Much of the familiar explanation for America’s road safety record lies with a transportation system primarily designed to move cars quickly, not to move people safely.

“Motor vehicles are first, highways are first, and everything else is an afterthought,” said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

This is maddening because, as Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists puts it here, “We know what the problem is, we know what the solution is. We just don’t have the political will to do it.”

Electric-Assist Bikes are Good for You and the Planet

Michael Jenkins and coauthors, summarizing their study on pedal-assist electric bikes:

Overall, it appears that the uptake of PAEB leads to a modal shift such that overall car use is decreased. PAEB use is associated with lower emissions compared to cars, but requires physical effort that classifies use of a PAEB as moderate intensity physical activity. Cost appears to be prohibitive, thus sharing or rental programs, and subsidies may be beneficial. Several additional barriers related to lack of infrastructure were also noted.

No matter what you call them, bikes with electric motors bolted on them are transformative. In urban settings, they’re more convenient than a car and not much slower. It comes as no surprise that we need to provide better infrastructure support.

The other day, I let a regular cyclist try mine out and talked about how I used mine. It was the first time he’d really thought about it as a tool for commuting. An ebike let’s you wear your work clothes (I commuted in my oxfords the other day), helps avoid the need for a shower and basically eliminates the park-and-walk portion.

1,000 Miles

In March, I bought a brand-new electric-assist bicycle. I just hit 1,000 miles on the odometer.

I don’t ride it much for recreation, so that 1,000 miles represents 1,000 miles of replaced gas-powered car trips, including three days a week of replacing my 24-mile-round-trip commute, weekly grocery runs and other trips out of the house.

Planning my week around bike riding is becoming second nature. For the time being, we have two cars, but there’s only been a couple of occasions where we’ve used both.

While a full Midwestern winter is still an unattempted hurdle, I’ve ridden in temperatures below freezing (get a balaclava and warm gloves) and, now, in a heat advisory (just sweat, but at least you’ll get a good breeze). I think we can probably ditch one of our cars.

The speed and silence of the bike means you get close encounters with nature. I’ve startled deer, almost hit a raccoon and been attacked by a goose.

There is great joy in being able to ride with traffic at the speed limit, with drivers still seeing you as a slow-moving bike as you quickly fend off their attempts to pass. Short trips are faster, since you can almost always find parking near the front door.

There are certainly cyclists who look down their nose at ebikes, who call it cheating. OK, I’ll still pass them on my commute home without guilt.

Over these past 130 days, I’ve found this “magic flying machine,” as my wife calls hers, has returned a great amount of joy in cycling for me.