Going Car Free
by Eric Diekhans
Lake View Presbyterian Church’s choir director Matt Walker didn’t have a grand plan to go car-free. It just kind of happened.
Thirty years ago, Matt arrived in Chicago in an aging Chevy Metro. “When my car broke down and it was just too far gone to repair,” Matt says, “I thought, I'll just have to run out and buy another car. In the meantime, I took public transportation and walked, and I started riding my bike, I found I could defer getting that car a little bit longer.”
Matt grew up in Flint, Michigan, where kids free-wheeled through his residential neighborhood. But in a city dominated by General Motors and car culture, few people saw the bicycle as a means of transportation.
Matt found that he could get around on Chicago’s public transportation, but riding a bike was often easier and more convenient. “It started like, ‘It's summer, it's a nice day. I think I'll ride to work.’ After a while cycling became more habitual during nice weather. And then a couple of times, I got caught in bad weather and I realized, ‘Well, that's not so bad.’”
He didn’t miss the frustrations that came along with taking the bus. “There’s the moment, when I’ve just missed the bus and realize, I’m going to be standing there another 40 minutes, and if had been there two minutes earlier, I could have been on that bus.”
Matt liked having the sense of control that came from riding his bike. Traffic didn’t affect him as much as it did when he was riding the bus, and he reliably knew when he would reach his destination. His day job is as a custom framer. His ride to work is three miles and consistently takes about 20-30 minutes. On the bus, the trip takes anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half.
When Covid hit, Matt was thankful he didn’t have to ride a crowded bus. He continued to commute by bike until winter, when a big snowstorm hit Chicago. Then he switched to walking.
Finding a Church Home
Matt grew up in an evangelical church, but when he was looking for a church home in Chicago, Lake View Presbyterian was closest to his apartment. "I poked my head in,” says Matt, “and decided I didn't need to look any further.”
Matt was busy pursuing work in theater, and it took several years until he joined the choir. He then became a deacon. When his term ended, he thought he’d go back to just being a member of the congregation. But shortly before Easter, the choir director quit.
“I volunteered just as a stop gap, with no intention of making it my job. In the meantime, they were doing a job search, and I knew they don’t usually hire a member of the congregation.”
Matt finished out the year as temporary choir director. The church wasn’t having luck in finding a permanent replacement. Matt finally asked Joy Douglas Strome, Lake View’s pastor at the time, for the permanent job. The church had to get special dispensation to hire a member, but the process came to a satisfying conclusion for everyone.
One of the best perks of his position is that Matt can ride his bike to choir rehearsal and Sunday service.
Over the years Matt has seen a lot of improvements in Chicago’s bike infrastructure, though the city still has a long way to go. “I lived in Uptown for years and they never had bike paths, but now they have great bike paths on Broadway. I’m more likely to go to a neighborhood with good bike paths than not, especially during the summer street festivals. It makes the neighborhood more attractive for commerce, for street festivals, and street fairs, I think they’re a good addition to any neighborhood, especially for major thoroughfares.”
Matt offers several tips for people thinking of going car free, or just using a bike as a transportation alternative. “If you live in an apartment, definitely find a building that has a safe, covered place to put your bike.”
“Proximity is also important,” Matt continues. “I live in a neighborhood where I don't have to go long distances to whatever I need. Also proximity to work. I lived in North Andersonville (on Chicago’s north side) for quite a while. Anytime I had to go anywhere, it was an hour and a half to two hours. So it was a great workout every day. The only problem was it was much harder when the weather was bad.”
Matt also advises investing in good saddlebags. “You don't have a trunk. You can't just throw everything in the backseat of the car.”
Matt rides year-round, and offers some winter riding tips. “Loose layers in cold weather. If I’m comfortable on a cold morning, a half hour into my ride I’ll be sweating. Good gloves, good waterproof boots, and something to cover your head and face. If those are covered, you can wear fairly light clothing over the rest of your body, because you don’t want to get sweaty.”
Matt also has safety tips “I haven’t had an accident in years. When I ride my bike, I assume everyone is trying to kill me. I assume cars don’t see me. Always be aware that nobody is aware of you.”
Matt always wears bright clothing. At night, he uses a minimum of three lights.
If you’d like to learn more about commuting by bikes, there are many books, websites, and blogs you can check out. You might also want to readby journalist Peter Walker.
Eric Diekhans is a fiction writer, Executive Director of the Greater Chicago Broadcast Ministries and a member of Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago.