Hopeful Weekend Links

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What Happens in One Minute Around the World – Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic

Farm-to-Table Living Takes Root – Kate Murphy, New York Times

Freedom in 704 Square Feet – Sandy Keenan, New York Times

Help Kids Learn About Business and Finance : 60+ Resources – Laura Grace Weldon

Americans Are Riding Public Transit in Record Numbers – Justin Prichard, Associated Press

‘Genius Hour’ : What Kids Can Learn From Failure - Emanuella Grinberg, CNN

Hopeful Weekend Links

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These two young artists quit their jobs to build this glass house for $500 – Ilyce R. Glink, Yahoo News

We Warp Time – Laura Grace Weldon

Clean naturally with essential oils – Mother Earth Living

How cooking can change your life – Michael Pollan, RSA Shorts

Tiger Mom, Helicopter Dad, you both have it wrong – Melinda Blau, Shareable

The benefits of biking – Kelly McCartney, Shareable

Imagine a City With No Cars

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Every summer in Eugene, the city blocks off a neighborhood to car traffic for an afternoon, and people come out to bike, walk, roll, dance, do yoga, listen to music, and celebrate in the streets. The event, called Sunday Streets, and similar ones around the country are inspired by Bogota, Colombia’s Ciclovía, which started in 1976.

We always have a great time wandering around and celebrating human powered transportation. While most people don’t want to live in a city with no cars, Sunday Streets events help us envision safe and vibrant city centers that cater to people, instead of automobiles.

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As I mentioned last week, August will likely be quiet here, as I travel and revamp this site.  (Of course, I may not be able to resist stopping in for a garden update; there’s so much happening out there!) I look forward to seeing you back here at a new and improved New Urban Habitat in September.

(Note: if you subscribe to receive New Urban Habitat in your inbox and use Gmail, you probably know they will be putting blog subscriptions under a new “Promotions” tab. That means my posts may no longer come to your primary inbox. If you want them to, all you need to do is drag this post from your Promotions tab to your Primary tab. A small alert will pop up. Click “yes,”  and you’ll keep seeing my posts in your inbox.)

Bicycling in Shanghai

My sister, Columbine Quillen, is studying in Shanghai, China this summer. She wrote this post about the bicycling culture there for New Urban Habitat.

Let’s hope China does not lose its love for the bicycle as it strives towards modernity and first-nation status. In Chinese cities, rivers of people flow in every direction. So too do the cyclists, who flow with motorbikes in the outside lanes of every major thoroughfare. At rush hour the right lane is densely packed. When a stoplight turns red, the lane quickly becomes a congested mosh pit of sweaty cyclists often swelling to a block long by the time the light turns green.

The wary pedestrian must be hyper aware not only for looming buses and honking cars but also for gung-ho cyclists, as none of these parties will stop even when directly confronted. It’s the pedestrian who must scamper away if he wishes to hold on to his life.

Hundreds of bicycles line the wide sidewalks at every shopping mall, university, library, and bank. There are no bike racks in China, just kickstands and simple light-weight locks connecting wheels to frames. There’s no need for a U-Lock here, as theft is almost non-existent. In the rare case that a bike is stolen, a new one costs around $40.

The cyclists here wear no helmets, yet maneuver through a network of speeding cars, buses, bicycle carts, motorcycles, and electric scooters with ease. Some of the bicycles have large carts attached to them with tarp-covered mounds larger than the cyclist himself.  Sometimes children sit on a rack over the rear wheel clinging on while the peddler chats on a smart phone while maneuvering through a course most Westerners would deem more suited for a stint on Fear Factor.

Bike mechanics have small repair stations on the sidewalks. They carry parts, tubes, and do all sorts of repairs.

Many people in China look fit and young.  It seems as if they’ve discovered the Fountain of Youth. (Poor Ponce de Leon, I’m afraid he might have landed on the wrong continent.) I think there are many things that attribute to the Chinese people’s youth and vitality. Primarily, most people still know how to cook and thus eat whole and unprocessed foods. In addition the culture believes in daily exercise and calisthenics and in getting a good night’s sleep (which Mao supposedly preached to be at least eight hours per night).  But I also like to think it’s because so many people ride a bicycle everyday.

Columbine Quillen is a law student, world traveler, and avid bicycle rider.

Revisiting the Car-Free Life

two boys in a bike trailer

“Drive to work. Work to drive,” my husband likes to say. He has a point. The average cost of owning and operating a vehicle soared to $9,100 this year, according to AAA.

Saving money is not the only reason to consider living sans vehicle, at least for awhile. We’ve done it on and off over the years, and every time, we’re amazed by all the perks of the car-free life.

As long-time readers know, we lived car-free for more than a year. We bicycled our way through a dark, rainy Western Oregon winter. We fetched groceries, hauled chicken food, and toted our son to parks and play dates on two wheels. My husband rode twelve miles round trip to work every day, and I pedaled across town and over hills when I was nine months pregnant.

A few days before our second son Ira was born in August 2011, we welcomed a vintage gold Volvo sedan into our family.

Why?

We loved so much about the car-free life as I documented on this blog. However, most authorities on the matter agree that infants should not ride in bike trailers or seats until they’re about a year old. That would leave me car-free and bike-free throughout an entire winter.

I’m a huge believer in choosing a joyful life when you have the option. So that’s what we did. And our Volvo brought us a lot of joy in those early, overwhelming days of parenting two little ones. I loved taking it to the library and piling the trunk up with books. I loved zipping across town to my mama friends’ houses when it was pouring rain. I loved being able to go on hikes on nearby trails and visit my sister, who lives an hour away.

My husband biked to work most of the time. I walked (and then biked, when Ira was ready) nearly everywhere. But we also had the option of driving. My friend calls this the car-optional life. It felt like a pretty good one.

Then something happened a couple of months ago. Our Volvo needed an alternator, and we didn’t have time to fix it right away.

So we revisited the car-free life … and loved it.

We loved it so much that we’re still doing it. The weather is lovely and we’re biking everywhere, sometimes up to 15 to 20 miles in the course of a day.

This time, perhaps because we took a year-long crash course in the subject (and because of that lovely weather I mentioned), car-free living feels infinitely easier. Joyful. And we’re astounded all over again by how quickly it transforms your body, health, mind, and spirit.

Now that our transit is entirely human-powered, we both feel fitter and healthier, have more energy, and are less stressed.

Arthur Conan Doyle sagely advised, “When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

I agree. I know of no better mood lifter than gliding along the river or stream beneath newly leafed trees beside meadows of wild camas, community gardens, and unfurling irises, rhododendrons, and roses.

It’s been almost two months, and we just don’t feel in a hurry to jump back in the car.

The car-free life is not right for everyone in every place at every time. But it may be an adventure worth trying if you are able. You might find out you love it.

More posts about car-free living:

Have you ever lived car-free or car-lite? Have you ever wanted to try it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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Car-Free and Loving It

I’m guest-posting today on Jacquelin Cangro’s blog about my family’s decision to go car-free.

My post begins:

I met the Adkins family on a crisp September day a couple of years ago. I leaned my bike on the large bike rack they’d installed where their driveway used to be. Paul showed me around their yard, pointing out beehives, fruit trees, and rows of peppers and tomatoes ripening in their sprawling raised bed gardens. Nearby a flock of Araucana hens squawked and pecked in a run. The family’s Labrador Josie followed behind us wagging her tail as Paul unlocked the shed to show me the family’s 22 bikes and various bike trailers.

Paul and his wife Monica have four kids; their youngest daughter has Down’s Syndrome. When I met them, they’d been living intentionally car-free for a year and a half. Paul is a local bike advocate, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they decided to sell their Toyota Previa minivan. But living without a privatized motorized vehicle is incredibly rare where I live in Eugene, Oregon, as it is in most parts of the United States. Only 8.7 percent of American households have no vehicle, and that includes the young and elderly.

I was visiting the Adkins that day to interview them for an article about local families choosing a car-free lifestyle. Tellingly, I couldn’t find a single other family to interview.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Finding Adventure

My family has been living car-free since last August. If I were to write a survival guide about our year, I’d include all the practical tips on commuting, safety, weather, etc. … and I’d dedicate an entire chapter to adventure. For me, the real challenge to thriving sans automobile is finding ways to get out of the day-to-day and away from our neighborhood. It’s finding adventure.

When my husband talked about getting rid of our car, I didn’t worry about getting to the store, library, or doctors’ offices. I knew we’d figure all that out. But I had serious reservations about not being able to drive to the forest, mountains, and ocean. I know I’m not alone. I interviewed a car-free family with four kids for an article last year. They’re bicycle advocates and they thought about living car-free for a long time, but they held onto their Toyota Previa minivan for years. Why? They wanted to go canoeing. They wanted to visit the coast and big city. They wanted to go on adventures.

Well, fortunately, adventures are more accessible than you might think. Our city bus system drops off near one hiking trail that’s sixty miles from town. Local hiking groups routinely carpool to trail heads. In the winter, buses take adventure-seekers to two different ski resorts on weekend days, where you can also cross-country ski or snowshoe. You can often join in on friends’ hikes, excursions, or camping trips. And, of course, you can rent a car for a weekend.

When I’m feeling weary of the same old walks in the same old neighborhoods, I try to think like a tourist. I’ve traveled in the United States and Canada and in several foreign countries, and I rarely rented cars at my destinations. I never let that stop me from finding adventures. I took buses, subways, trains, and shuttles. I explored on foot. I rented a bike.

Bicycle day trips are a nearly perfect form of adventure. They’re not hard to plan, young kids can easily participate, it’s fun to seek out a scenic route, and the journey is inevitably part of the adventure.

On Memorial Day Weekend, I took two bicycle day trips. Both reminded me of how important it is for me to get away from the city and into nature even though both destinations were technically inside the city. One day I took a 14-mile bike ride in the wetlands. It’s an easy ride from my house, and it’s home to 200 kinds of birds and 350 plant species. I’ve seen blue herons, beavers, and a bald eagle there, and I’ve listened to the melody of Pacific Tree Frogs and birdsong. This time of year, the grasslands are speckled with native purple camas lilies.

The next day, my husband, son, and I rode to a beautiful forested city park that we don’t visit often. It’s on the other side of town, but only a four mile ride from our house. This time of year, it’s blooming with thousands of rhododendrons. We hiked around, smelled flowers, ate a picnic, and then stopped for ice cream on the way home.

Both were easy day trips and required little in the way of planning or packing. And both left me feeling restored … and made me hungry for longer bike trips. Next I’m hoping to ride to an arboretum and hiking spot about ten miles from our house. And I have big plans for a bike camping trip and a longer bicycle tour in the future (although both of those will wait until after our new family member arrives later this summer).

Taking a car-free adventure can seem daunting, but like any adventure, the hardest part is committing yourself to it. Once you’re on the journey, you’ll almost certainly be glad you went.

Looking for inspiration? Check out these resources:

Do you go on car-free adventures? I’d love to hear about it.

Overcoming Obstacles to the Bicycling Life

According to Bicycling Magazine, I live in the fifth best bicycling city in the United States. It’s true, Eugene boasts bike lanes on nearly every major street, an extensive network of off-street bike paths, and bike traffic signal-changers at most intersections. It’s rare not to see someone out cycling even on the darkest, rainiest days, and on sunny days the bike racks in front of the library, restaurants, and grocery stores overflow. This blog and the artsy video below celebrate some of the funky bike culture in these parts:

Maybe that’s why I sometimes imagine that bicycling predominates across the country. That everyone’s doing it. Then I am reminded of the statistics. Nationwide only one percent of urban trips are made by bike, and only .55 percent of people commute by bike. Even in Eugene only about 10.5 percent of people regularly get to work on their bikes. Obviously there are some significant obstacles to bicycling out there. In the eight months since we ditched our car, we’ve faced and overcome a number of them:

Commuting

I work at home, so I can’t boast much about my bike-commuting prowess. But I did commute on bike or foot to work or school for most of my life, and my husband currently rides his bike about 12 miles a day. In How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, Chris Balish insists that if you can get to work without a car, you can live car-free. The average American spends 46 minutes a day commuting, so it’s understandable that the daily commute could be a deal-breaker – especially in the suburbs or cities without bike infrastructure or adequate public transportation.

But if you live within cycling distance of work, here are a few things my husband has learned (the hard way) as a rain-or-shine bike commuter.

  • Bring a patch kit, pump, and tools with you everyday.
  • Tighten all of the nuts and bolts on your bike once a week.
  • Learn about bike maintenance. Many cities have bike-repair coops that offer affordable classes, tools, and repair areas.
  • Invest in water-proof panniers or some other way to carry cargo on board instead of on your back.
  • Choose the safest route, not the fastest one.

Grocery Getting

Okay, I hate to admit this, but my husband deserves the credit in this category as well. He and my son usually do our once-a-week grocery runs – probably the second biggest challenge of car-free living. Since we have a Burley trailer to carry our most precious cargo, we use that to haul our groceries. But there are all kinds of cool ways to carry cargo on bikes. Check out this site for some of the commercial and more cobbled-together options out there.

The single biggest thing we’ve learned about shopping on two wheels is: plan, plan, plan. Trust me, you don’t want to have to make four trips to the hardware store in the pouring rain.

Night-Riding

With these long spring days, it’s easy for me to forget when those stormy, pitch-black January nights made staying in sound sublime. I opted out of evenings out and writers’ group meetings on a few particularly dreary nights. But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. Negotiating the world without two tons of metal between you and the elements demands that you become more in tune with the weather, nature, and the seasons. Now that the days are warmer and longer, we’re making up for all of those cozy evenings at home by getting out every chance we get. 

Weather

You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned rain about four times already. Oh yes, we do face one minor challenge here in the fifth best bicycling city in the U.S – about 141 days of rain a year. I can’t complain. When I lived in Colorado, my bike was parked for much of the winter, because of snow or ice. Rain is entirely manageable and probably one of the major reasons the Northwest is a cycling mecca.

In our household we all own decent rain gear, none of it new or fancy. It’s the difference between getting to our destination feeling like wet cats and peeling off a quick layer and strolling in dry. I probably don’t have to say this, but in rainy terrain, fenders are a huge plus, as are lights, reflectors, neon vests, and anything else that keeps you visible on gray days. My son or I walk or ride every day, rain or sun.

You can find tips on winter riding in chillier climes here.

Safety

Honestly bicycling can be scary. This website puts some of the fear and safety concerns into perspective, but pedaling on roadways with cars, some whose drivers are invariably distracted, tired, or impaired, has inherent dangers. Here are a few ways we’ve learned to mitigate them:

  • Stay off the sidewalks. The major cause of bicycle-car collisions is when a bike comes out of a driveway or off a sidewalk.
  • Avoid dangerous intersections.
  • Embrace slow. (Leave plenty of time to get places. Don’t try to beat orange lights. Enjoy the journey.)
  • Be visible and follow all of the rules of the road.
  • Use hand signals, make eye contact with drivers, smile, be friendly.

Poor City-Planning

I’ve been fortunate to live in pedestrian and bike-friendly locales my entire life, and to be able to choose neighborhoods and places of employment that facilitate a human-powered life. But there’s a reason the U.S. does not boast the high ridership of many European countries. Fifty percent of Americans live in the suburbs, and many simply do not have the option to walk or ride a bike. Many American cities are also far from bike-friendly.

Is there anything we can do about poor city planning? Yes, although it’s not a quick fix. We can get involved in the planning process, support bike advocacy groups, write our congressmen and city council people, tell Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood we favor more livable communities, and otherwise campaign for a more bike-friendly country.

For all of the obstacles of biking, it comes with huge rewards. Most of all, in a world rife with problems, I often feel like part of the solution. And that’s an awesome feeling.

What obstacles keep you from riding a bike? What obstacles have you overcome?

Happy National Bike Month

Photo courtesy of State Library of New South Wales, 1937

What’s not to love about May? Spring flowers, budding trees, longer days, warmer weather…. and it’s National Bike Month!

I’ve written so much about bikes that I fear anything I have to say here will be redundant. But as we wax on about all of the seemingly intractable societal ills – global warming, pollution, traffic accidents, road rage, obesity, runaway health care costs, a flailing economy, an energy crisis, declining social connectedness, foreign wars – I am continually inspired that there is a simple, humble solution for all the above. Bicycles.

They are the perfect technology – cheap, easy to ride, energy efficient, and emission free. They require far fewer resources to produce than automobiles, and they can even be made of renewable materials like bamboo. Most people can learn to ride one, and doing so keeps the body healthy and the mind sharp. Plus, in my experience, bicycling has a way of inspiring that cheerful enthusiasm for life the French call joie de vivre.

I tend to favor vintage and urban bikes with kid seats and baskets overflowing with flowers and fresh vegetables. But really, all bikes are cool. So here’s to May! I’ll be celebrating the way I do everyday – by choosing two wheels over four. How about you?

"A brush salesman and his bicycle," Photo courtesy of Nationaal Archeif, 1957

Want some inspiration? Here’s a round up of some of my favorite bike stuff on the web:

Bike advocacy:

Bike news:

Beautiful Urban Biking Blogs:

Awesome bicycling families:

"Letter carrier delivering mail by bicycle," Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institute, 1890

Bike adventurists:

Inspiration for the bicycle way of life:

Some of my writings about bikes:

"The Coles sisters on a bicycle trip from Montreal to Ottawa," Courtesy of McCord Museum, 1916

How are you celebrating National Bike Month?

Car-Free Chronicles

When my son Ezra was an infant, he was no fan of the car. Car rides, even short jaunts around town, invariably included crying and multiple comfort stops. But, at some point, my almost-three-year-old became a huge admirer of the automobile – perhaps right around the time we sold ours.

“Mama, we need a truck. A big, huge truck. We can drive it all over the streets,” he remarks as we walk past a neighbor’s pickup.

“Dada, we should buy a car at the store,” he insists as we cross the parking lot to the grocery store. “We need a car.”

On the rare occasions when we rent a car, Ezra is ecstatic. “I can’t drive the car yet,” he explains as he crawls into his car seat. “My feet don’t reach the gas pedals. I will drive it when I’m this tall.” He waves his hand a few feet over his head.

Sometimes I wonder if our car-free experiment, now in its eighth month, is cementing our son’s love for all things automobile. One day he’ll undoubtedly drive a monster truck and eschew gardens, clotheslines, and hand-washing dishes.

But if our experiment has made my son more enamored with cars, it has only reinforced my husband and my ambivalence about car ownership.

A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law flew in from New York and rented a car for the week. We loved seeing her, and having a car around was great in lots of ways. We ran all kinds of errands and visited both the coast and the forest. I was able to zip over to a nearby town to interview someone for an article. My husband and I marveled at the convenience and warmth of cruising across town while rain pounded down. We shot sympathetic glances at cyclists who passed by us dripping wet and dressed head-to-toe in rain gear.

Then midway through my mother-in-law’s visit, my husband and I biked across town to run an errand.

“I feel alive again,” my husband said as we pedaled down the path. I couldn’t help but agree. For all the convenience of the car, I had really missed walking and riding my bike.

Plus, as my husband mused, car ownership is expensive — not only because of the car’s price tag, $3.80 a gallon gas, and the inevitable maintenance. With the exception of the ocean and hiking trails (which I love and miss visiting more often), we noticed that the car tended to take us to places where the main activity is spending money – notably malls, box stores, and home improvement centers. We hadn’t visited these places in about eight months, and we hadn’t missed them.

Apparently my husband and I are not alone in our ambivalence about car ownership. Car sharing was all over the news last week, when Zipcar, a car-sharing service with 560,000 members in 14 cities, went public on Thursday and raised an impressive $174.3 million in its initial public offering. Peer-to-peer car share services, like RelayRides, which allow car owners to rent out their own vehicles, have also been getting a lot of press.

The Oregon House of Representatives just passed a car sharing bill with overwhelming support. If it passes in the senate, it will allow car owners to rent their cars to friends or neighbors through a car sharing service without fear of losing insurance policies or facing increased rates.

As our planned one-year car-free experiment nears an end, we go back and forth about whether to buy another vehicle. Oddly, my husband, who once drove the car almost exclusively to commute to work and shop for groceries, is the one who’s more convinced we can live without one. He’s adapted amazingly well to commuting about 12 miles a day on his bike, and he’s in the best shape of his life because of it.

I rarely drove the car when we owned one, preferring to walk and ride my bike, but I’m more torn about whether we should buy another one this summer. I don’t want a car loan, and I don’t miss the stress and worries involved with maintaining an older vehicle. On the other hand, in a few months, we’ll have a new baby, who won’t be able to ride in a bike trailer or bike seat for quite awhile. I’m a huge fan of walking, and Eugene has decent public transportation, but I know a car will make daily life with an infant and three-year-old easier, a seductive idea as I contemplate caring for two little ones.

Hopefully car sharing will become an option for more of us soon, making decisions like my family’s easier and providing extra income opportunities for those who invest in car ownership. In the meantime, at least we know how Ezra will vote when we have to decide whether to shop for another vehicle.

As my mother-in-law packed, Ezra cried and told her how much he was going to miss her. Then, as we lugged her bags out to the rental car to say our goodbyes, we realized he was also going to miss something else.

“Grandma, please don’t take the red car,” he cried. “Can’t you walk to New York?”

Interested in reading more about car-free living? Check out these posts: