Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Car-Free in the Winter

It is not winter yet. Oh, no, no, no. Not yet. But I've had a couple of questions lately from friends and relatives about our transportation plans for the inevitable cold months ahead (which can be long and snowy here in the Inland Northwest).

First of all, we have done five years' worth of car-free winters in DC, and winter is usually no picnic there, either. On the other hand, the walkability and dependable public transit options in the DC area do make for a different situation. We also spent three of our DC winters without kids, and the remaining two winters with only one kid, so we are indeed dealing with a different matter this time around.

Based on our experience now and doing this lifestyle with kids, I'm fairly convinced that any healthy person without children can live well without owning a car almost anywhere. Active transportation like walking and biking warms you up, so staying warm is genuinely not a problem if you dress appropriately. And snow can be stared down quite effectively with a good pair of boots (or a not-great pair of sneakers, which is what I've been using up until now). Having kids does complicate the winter issue insofar as young kids can't walk or bike as far as adults (or not at all, in the case of our 9-month-old), so they can't warm themselves up.

That being said, we will likely continue doing what we're doing now, just with more layers! I especially love wool and silk under- and over-layers, whether knitted by Mama or purchased from any number of accommodating retailers. Although wool under-layers can be expensive, they don't need to be washed often, so I can get away with just buying one of a particular item of clothing and airing it out to fresh between wearings. And, really, I could outfit my kids from head to toe in organic wool and silk and still come out ahead compared to owning a car!

I would love to ride my bike all winter, and I am going to try to do this as much as possible, especially on kid-free trips. I don't know how my tires will do on snow and ice, and I probably wouldn't want to ride next to cars in icy or dark conditions with kids. Cars around here will not be looking out for bikes past October. In the daytime, though, if it's just cold, our bike trailer is fully enclosed and blocks the wind, so it is surprisingly warm inside.

The same bike trailer turns into our double stroller, so again, if we adults can walk somewhere, the kids should be cozy inside with coats and a blanket. Thick snow might be a problem for this stroller, but a light snowfall won't deter the 20" inflatable wheels on this baby. Sidewalks around here tend to get shoveled pretty well (as opposed to the streets), so I'm really not worried about even deeper snows. And, really, who would drive a car in over two or three feet of snow, anyway? On truly terrible winter days, we will do what all of us should be doing: taking a snow day and sticking close to home while making do with what we have, or sending one of us stouthearted adults to the store alone if necessary.

As final options, there is almost always the bus for longer trips, or getting a ride from a neighbor in dire circumstances. I don't like doing this much, but neighbors should be neighborly, and I wouldn't deny someone the joy of being neighborly if we truly needed something and couldn't get to it.

Finally, there are two things I like to keep in mind about winter carlessness: first, walkability is much more about proximity of amenities and quality of infrastructure than it is about climate (look at Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, and even parts of Canada). By no means am I comparing Spokane to Finland, but it helps to remember that many other humans live in equally bad or worse winter conditions without cars, and they do just fine.

And second, driving a car in the winter brings its own discomforts, inconveniences (I recall one particularly irksome episode, waiting in line at Costco for snow tires as a favor to a relative after the first snowfall last year), and probably more dangers. Winter just has a way of toughening us all up.  


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Our Gear

We finally feel satisfied with our gear for walking, biking, and riding transit with kids (as well as doing all these things with cargo, usually groceries). Because gear often makes or breaks our ability to live car-free, I wanted to share some of the specifics of how we do what we do. I've already written about my bike, and my husband recently got the men's version of the same model, which he is very happy with, so I'll focus on our other gear.

The Double Stroller/Bike Trailer: Burley Encore 2011 with Two-Wheel Stroller Kit

This beauty essentially makes our life possible. We have used it mostly in stroller mode thus far, as my youngest is still too young to be pulled behind a bike in it. I found our trailer used on Ebay, but I made sure to get a newer version so that I could use the swiveling two-wheel stroller attachment. If you just want a bike trailer, Craigslist or your local garage sale can set you up with any number and brand of trailers in great used condition (I myself got a chance to use my sister's Via Velo from Costco this summer, and it was wonderful as a bike trailer, though a bit narrower in the kids' shoulders than the Burley Encore). Our two small children fit comfortably in the Burley, along with quite a bit of cargo, maybe a week's worth of groceries. The seats fold down to accommodate tons of cargo if you're traveling sans kids. 

This model is still about as narrow as a wheelchair, so it fits through standard doorways and the security gate at the library. Before I found this trailer, I was seriously considering a new Croozer two-child trailer, which has quite a bit more shoulder room inside and individual bucket seats for the two kids. Unfortunately, it is very large at 35" wide, so it would not be convenient to take indoors anywhere. My hope is that by the time my oldest outgrows the trailer, he will be able to ride his own bike, or we might consider a trail-a-bike.

City Mini Single Stroller

When I know I'll be going on a bus, my toddler rides in the City Mini while baby rides in a carrier. Hands down, the best feature of the City Mini is the one-handed easy fold: you just pull up on a strap in the seat, and the whole thing collapses flat to about the size of a small suitcase. Its footprint is comparable in size to an umbrella stroller, but it swivels nicely with only one hand, so it is ideal for dealing with two kids of different ages in small spaces. It reclines flat, so baby can take a turn in it too if the toddler wants to walk or ride his balance bike. The only downside of the City Mini is limited cargo space in the basket, but it is still enough for the library or a small grocery run.

Strider Balance Bike

When we bought this guy on Amazon, I thought we were getting a toy, an alternative to a tricycle or a bike with training wheels, for my toddler to ride around in the driveway. As it turns out, the Strider has become like a hands-free stroller. Our 2 1/2-year-old is skilled enough on the Strider at this point that it is a viable transportation option for trips under 3 miles or so. He is actually quite a bit faster than my walking speed, so I stick to smaller streets (though we stay on the sidewalk, of course) and carry his bike to cross busy streets. We have even gone to the grocery store with him on his bike: I just throw his little bike in the cart when we get to the store.  

Baby Carriers: Um, One of Each, Please

I confess that I'm a sucker for baby slings. I started with a homemade wrap (equivalent to a Moby or Sleepy) and then kept adding to my collection on a quest for the perfect one. As babywearing moms will attest, no carrier is perfect for every stage of babyhood:
  • The wrap continues to be my favorite for young babies.
  • My Baby K'Tan, somewhere between a wrap and a structured carrier, is the best all-around carrier for different ages and holds, but you have to get it in your size, so it probably won't also work for a daddy or other caregiver;
  • I got a Mei Tai from Etsy to be able to carry baby on my back. Back carrying is more comfortable on long walks but is usually only safe for an older baby (6+ months). I have even carried my 30-pound 2-year-old in a Mei Tai fairly comfortably!
  • The Dr. Sears sling (Balboa Baby Sling) is adjustable, so it was useful for Daddy to walk the little baby down to sleep and trade off if necessary. It's generally very versatile and very quick to put on, but I confess that I haven't used mine very much lately.
  • We also have a structured carrier that Daddy prefers but I've never worn. 
I know many moms swear by their Ergos, but that is one I haven't tried yet. 

It feels like a lot of gear when I write it all out, but really, we have our routines set so that deciding on a method of travel is always easy. Library? Both kids in the double stroller. Bus to downtown? Toddler in the City Mini, baby in the Baby K'Tan. Local park? Toddler on his Strider, baby in the City Mini. Living successfully without a car (and, you know, still actually going places) is just a matter of preparation.

Feel free to brag about your favorite baby- and child-toting gear in the comments!