Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Going (sort of) Car Free


By Eric Diekhans


In an earlier Earth News, I profiled Matt Walker, a Presbyterian choir director who lived a car-free lifestyle. He was able to get anywhere he wanted to go using his bike and public transportation.


Giving up the automobile isn’t practical for many people. We are a car-dependent culture and our transportation system caters to drivers. Public transportation in much of the United States is scant or non-existent. Extremes in temperature can make cycling unpleasant or impossible.


While giving up our cars is a worthwhile goal, we don’t need to live 100% car-free to make a dent in the 4.6 metric tons of CO2 the average car emits every year. Thanks to the boom in e-bikes, we now have more options to change our mode of transportation some or most of the time.


I’ve used a bike for basic transportation since I was a kid, when I zipped around our subdivision and rode the two miles to elementary school. But when I got my driver’s license, my bike was relegated to mostly recreational riding as I enjoyed the freedom and ease an automobile gave me.


When I moved to Chicago and got a job downtown, I began occasionally using my bike for commuting, It saved me money (important to a recent college graduate) and I enjoyed the lakefront scenery while getting some much-needed exercise.


In 2019, I bought a Linus city bike with the express purpose of riding more and driving less. Its wider tires, rack, and fenders were more piratical than the road bike I used for recreation and allowed me to install panniers and take my bike to grocery shop, visit friends, go to the library, or grab a coffee at my local cafe.


I quickly saw the advantages of keeping my car in the garage. I save on gas and maintenance costs, and riding my bike is often faster than driving, Instead of circling the block or a parking lot looking for a space, I almost always park in front of my destination. While drivers sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I ride blissfully by.


In the last few years, e-bike sales have exploded. Whether the bike’s motor is pedal assist or operated by a throttle, e-bikes allow you to ride further, carry heavier loads, and arrive at your destination without breaking a sweat.


Cargo bikes in particular have surged in popularity. As more companies come into the market, prices come down and options increase. I often see moms and dads riding down my street on cargo bikes with one or two kids sitting happily behind them. Cargo bikes can haul a week’s worth of groceries and many can keep up with city traffic.


Cargo bikes may seem expensive, ranging from $1,500 to more than $8,000, but compare that to the price of a typical car. Maintenance is also comparatively cheap. Even if you keep your car, a cargo bike can expand your transportation options considerably while saving you money.


Bicycling magazine recently reviewed some of the latest cargo bikes. They highlighted several factors to consider when purchasing one.


1.     Buying your bike direct from the manufacturer has become a popular option. Online retailers can often offer lower prices because they cut out the middleman. You can also often customize your bike more. The big downside is that you can’t try before you buy, which is particularly important with a cargo bike. They all have different designs with different feels. Cargo bikes are also usually one-size-fits-most If you’re taller or shorter than average, that may be an issue. If you can’t test-ride a bike at your local shop, see if you can find someone with a similar model who is willing to let you try it.


2.     Bikes come in three classes. Consider which one fits your needs.


In class 1 bikes, the motor only works when you’re pedaling and allow a maximum assisted speed of 20 mph. Class 2 bikes have a throttle and allow you to ride without pedaling. They still only have a maximum speed of 20 mph, (Though they still have the option of pedal assistance.) Class 3 e-bikes allow pedal assist up to 28 mph.


Class 2 e-bikes are great if you carry heavy loads or have difficulty pedaling, Class 1 bikes usually offer more range.


3.     Consider storage. E-bikes are heavier than non-motorized bikes. Most are 80-90 pounds, though large-capacity e-bikes can tip the scale at over 100 pounds. You don’t want to be hauling a heavy bike up several flights of stairs, so a garage or storage shed is ideal.


If you’re interested in exploring e-bikes and cargo bikes, talk to owners. There are many Facebook groups you can join. You can also join a local bike club or visit a shop that specializes in e-bikes.


One day, perhaps the United States will look more like the Netherlands, where bike infrastructure is common, 99% of people own a bicycle, and 28% of trips are taken by bike. But you don’t have to wait and you don’t have to sell your car. Using a bicycle for basic transportation has never been easier, and it can make a real difference in lowering your carbon emissions.


Eric Diekhans is an author, Executive Director of the Greater Chicago Broadcast Ministries, and a member of Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

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