Friday, May 31, 2013

Car-Free Moment #2

As I ride more and more frequently for practical reasons, I find that riding is the easy part, even on hilly terrain or busy streets.  In fact, I enjoy mapping out new bicycle-friendly routes for myself and discovering the best ways to get somewhere on a bike.  The hard part is what to do with my bike when I get there.

Last weekend, I needed to make a trip to the pharmacy (and needed an excuse to use my new pannier bags), so I left the kids with Daddy (thanks, Honey) and hopped on the bike.  I hadn't ridden to this particular area before, so it was like a new little adventure on some different roads.

The ride there was uneventful; however, when I arrived, I realized that there was no bike rack to lock up my bike.  No signposts, no shopping cart racks, no trees, nothing.  The closest I could find to an immovable object was a rickety chain link fence, hardly immovable (or unbreakable) for an enterprising person.  Conveniently, though, there was a competing pharmacy across the street, with a beautifully solid bike rack visible  even from where I stood.  Eureka!  I was quite proud of myself, both for being so resourceful and for supporting a business that supported bicycling.

Of course, as these things happen, the bike-friendly pharmacy did not carry what I needed (how can it be so hard to find infant vitamin D drops when they're recommended for all breastfed babies?).  So, back I went, somewhat sheepishly, to the bicycle-hostile pharmacy.  I ended up locking my bike to the sturdy fence of the Starbuck's in the next parking lot.

It was not difficult, except that the footing was awkward as the fence was placed between a sidewalk and some decorative loose rocks.  Not used to my pannier bags and not considering the physics implications, I removed one pannier bag to move the bike closer, and the whole bike tipped over, scratching my leg on its way down.  Picking up my bike, I instinctively glanced around to make sure no one had noticed.  I hadn't realized it until that moment, but the pharmacy with no bike rack had three drive-through lanes on one side of the building, and I was in the direct line of sight of three drivers as I righted my bike and examined my injuries with embarrassment.

This pharmacy, which had not seen fit to provide any secure place for me to park my vehicle, had made it possible for not one, not two, but three motorists to simultaneously avoid even having to get out of theirs.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Smart Growth Strategies Can Improve Financial Bottom Line for Towns

Smart Growth America just released a report on the financial benefits of smart growth policies for municipalities.  They found that smart growth development saved towns an average of 38% on upfront infrastructure costs and 10% on ongoing services, and generated 10 times more revenue per acre than conventional suburban development.

Check out the full report on their website,

Monday, May 20, 2013

Car-Free Moment #1

This is the first in what I hope will be a recurring feature called Car-Free Moments.  I'd like to use these stories to capture the good, the bad, the ugly, the funny, the absurd moments attached to the practice of car freedom, particularly in places where it is not the norm.  Feel free to add your own extraordinary moments of walking, biking, or using public transit, whether or not you own a car or three.

I'll start with a positive experience, as I'm sure there will be plenty of absurdity later on.

Last week after work, the Walking Daddy was kind enough to give me some time for a solo leisure bike ride. With no agenda and no place I needed to go, I headed in the opposite direction from the grocery stores and the library.  Although I knew that this entire area had been farmland only a few decades ago, I had forgotten how much real countryside is left, and very close by.

Not six blocks south of suburbia, I discovered real actual fields and horses and goats, framed by beautiful, majestic mountains and a deep blue sky.  The lilacs are in bloom, and they lined the road and filled the fresh air with their evocative springtime scent.  In a car, I never would have had cause to go this direction, and I certainly wouldn't have lingered so long.  The sky feels so much bigger on a bike.  And even with windows rolled down, I could never have enjoyed the lilac-scented air as well as I did on my bike, in the outdoors, at human level.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My New Ride

After a lot of test riding and even more research and visiting (at least) eight local bike shops, I finally chose my bike about a month ago. In the end, it turned out to be love at first ride with my Trek Allant WSD.

I tried pretty much every commuter and hybrid bike in my local bike shops, which were limited as these shops unfortunately seem to target the hardcore racing and mountain biking crowd. I tried Giants, Treks, Specialized, a Jamis and an Electra. As a relatively inexperienced cyclist, I didn't really know what I was looking for, and I can see why committed cyclists end up with two or three or more bikes for different purposes.

After visiting every bike shop in town, I decided to check one out in a town 26 miles away because I knew they carried the Allant and I had read good things about it. After two trips around the block in the rain, I was hooked.

The Trek Allant has the classic city bike look and feel to it that I was hoping to find. It has a leather saddle and cork handlebars, and let's face it, it's pretty, which a bike ought to be if it possibly can. Its seven speeds are plenty for the hills I'll encounter, and the more upright posture is nice when I'm riding alongside cars (which is all the time, so far at least). I find that it feels a bit heavier than the old mountain bike I had been riding, and it's possible that it's harder to go super fast as a result, but I will usually be carrying cargo, kids, or both, so speediness would be wasted on me, anyway.

Other than that, I can only tell you that I love riding this bike. Love. I don't know enough about bikes to tell you what kind of gears or derailers or tires or brakes it has (except that they're the squeezy kind, not the disc-y kind).

Buying a bike turns out to be surprisingly like buying cloth diapers: you research the heck out of these things, and you go around and around in your head about price and features and what you really want (which you don't know anyway because you've never really used them). But in the end, you have to just take a leap of faith and pick something. The choosing is a lot tougher than the using. And as I learn more and ride more and see what challenges I encounter, I may end up changing some things. I've already added a rear rack, a front basket, a lock mount for my U-lock, and I'm waiting on a set of beautiful pannier bags from Paris Packs on Etsy. The next step, of course, will be a child seat and/or a trailer (I still haven't decided) for the kiddos. Once I can take the kids with me, then I'll really feel that my bike is a viable transportation option for my everyday life.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Screen-Free Week Reflections

Screen-Free Week and I have a tenuous relationship.  If you're not familiar with the week, it is during the last week of April every year, sponsored by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and promoted by other lovely organizations like Center for a New American Dream and Simplicity Parenting.  I say we have a tenuous relationship because limited screen time is one (very important, I think) element of simple living that I have never really been able to get a grasp on.

We had a TV, VCR, and Nintendo (the original) in my house growing up, with fairly few restrictions on our viewing except for content (I remember that MTV and VH1 were blocked, and we weren't allowed to watch the Simpsons). In spite of the relative lack of limits on screen time itself, most of my childhood memories involve outdoor play, make-believe, reading, and riding bikes. I had a few shows that were my favorites (Garfield and Friends, My Little Pony, Reading Rainbow, the TGIF and Snick lineups, oh how I'm dating myself...), but I could watch one show or play one level of a video game and be done. Playing with toys or outdoors had much more of a draw for me, at least from what I remember.  As a teenager, I was obsessed with my couple of favorite shows and had to see them every week or record them (this was before Hulu, Netflix, episodes posted online, or even DVDs of whole TV shows).  Thinking back, my fixation with Lois and Clark or Mulder and Scully, characters who weren't real, was probably not terribly healthy.

Fast-forward to adulthood.  First as a college student (no TV unless my roommates had one), then a full-time volunteer living with other volunteers (a tiny old TV with no cable), then a newlywed (TV but still no cable), I made an effort to assess and reassess my TV consumption often and keep it limited. Now, as a parent of young children, I've gone back and forth over whether we should have a TV at all, where it should be in the house, and how we should use it. I admit to having used the TV as a babysitter, but I've also discovered some PBS shows that I think my son has genuinely learned from.

It's a tough line to walk for me, as I have a number of competing desires: I LIKE watching TV, especially movies; my husband likes TV, and it is something we have done together and from which we have lots of inside jokes. I also have two small children and I worry about TV's effects on their brain development/creativity/learning/morals, but at the same time, I need a shower and I need to work once in a while, and TV does hold my very active two-year-old's attention better than any other activity (which is quite scary). And yes, I do think TV has something to offer in terms of educational value (obviously not to the exclusion of actual human interaction). With those caveats in mind, I have always wanted to give Screen-Free Week a shot, which brings us to last week.

As it happened, I have to confess that it turned out to be "screen-free between the hours of 8 and 6, Monday through Friday" week, but in our current situation, this was all I could ask for. My parameters were: no TV during those hours, no blogs or Facebook for me, no online cartoons for my toddler; I only allowed myself to check email (I work from home, so can't be unreachable) and necessary sites (banks, Google maps, etc.). We were coming off of some screen-heavy weeks thanks to my heavy workload, so this was quite the change.

I expected my two-year-old to beg for Sesame Street, Dinosaur Train, and Daniel Tiger, but in fact, he barely seemed to care that the TV was off.  He still sang his songs from these shows (it's creepy how he remembers them), but he didn't ask to watch them, mostly because we got busy with other activities. With ideas from Joyful Play with Toddlers  from the library, we made Play-Dough porcupines and forests (with toothpicks), and tunnels, a play house, a sit-in airplane, and a play oven, all out of cardboard boxes. We read dozens of library books. I knitted; my son actually played with his toys and tried to show his baby sister how to play with his toys. We went to the park almost every day, and I got to talk to actual adults there. I didn't miss my blogs or Facebook (much), and my son wasn't begging me to watch his favorite videos or trying to type on the keyboard because I wasn't at the computer. In fact, I had a lot fewer discipline issues with him overall because I was actually physically and mentally present with him, rather than yelling corrections at him from across the room. I felt like a better parent, and I daresay he learned even more from me than from Sesame Street. It was also much easier to keep to a schedule, without the distractions of internet rabbit trails or one "quality" children's program after another. For that or some other reason, my son took naps four days in a row, for the first time in months.

During Screen-Free Week, my second cousin had a baby, and I didn't find out about it until days later because I wasn't on Facebook (I had to hear about it from my mom, who is on Facebook.). And you know what? No one noticed that I didn't comment on her cute baby photos. No one felt slighted, I didn't feel out of the loop (in fact, it was kind of freeing not to be involved in everyone's life all. the. time.). That baby was no less loved because I wasn't virtually "there" to take notice of him. Her baby wasn't less loved, but my babies were so much more loved due to my presence and attention to them.

Our TV probably isn't going into the dumpster or onto Craigslist anytime soon (much as I might enjoy that). But, I will say that the TV has naturally come on less and less often since Screen-Free Week. I am sticking to my policy of no TV during the daytime, and limiting my own computer use during the times of day when I am alone with my kids. This does require more work from me during this particular stage of parenting - I often need to redirect my two-year-old to new activities, or even create new activities for him.  I need to assess his mood and the situation to decide whether we need to start a new activity or get outside or go to the park.  But, I can see how this extra work early on in my children's lives will cultivate the springs of creativity that they will draw on later to keep themselves engaged. Even with just one week of screen-light, interaction-heavy time, I can see my son's attention span growing. And the bonus for me?  I'm feeling the creative juices flowing again as well, thinking about gardening and writing and knitting and sewing and drawing (I can't draw). Is that worth missing a few hours of TV or Facebook?  I'm thinking yes.

Did you participate in Screen-Free Week?  How do you and your family deal with screens in your home?

P.S. A book I found inspiring during the week was Living Outside the Box: TV-Free Families Share Their Secrets by Barbara Brock.