When people first learn that our family of five has been living car-free in the East Bay for five years, they’re usually pretty surprised. Three kids and no car. Surely that can’t work, right? Sure, sometimes it can be a little tricky (the recent rainy weather has certainly been a little challenging!) but for the most part living car-free has been pretty easy for our family.
When we first moved to the Bay Area from Australia five years ago we made the conscious decision to live here without a car. The Bay Area has plenty of family-friendly neighborhoods where living without a car is easy and we were keen to take advantage of this. The mild climate here certainly helps too! It was quite a departure from our life in suburban Australia where we were dependent on our car, but we adapted to our new lifestyle pretty quickly and can’t see ourselves buying a car any time soon.
There are so many advantages to living car-free: great way to keep active, good for the environment, saves a lot of money, and gives our kids a feeling of independence and self-confidence. But when most people ask me about living car-free, it’s the logistics and challenges of living without a car that they want to know about. Usually the question is simply “How do you do it?”.
So today I’m sharing some tips that I’ve learned that make living car free in the East Bay easy…
Choosing where to live
When it comes to living car-free, location is pretty much the most important factor. Some neighborhoods lend themselves to walking or cycling better than others. A hilly neighborhood with windy streets is probably going to be more difficult than a flat neighborhood. Some neighborhoods have better access to frequent public transport than others and many have plenty of great restaurants, cafes, and shops within an easily walkable area.
Downtown Berkeley, where we live, is an easy place for living car-free. Pretty much everything we need is within walking distance of our apartment building: supermarkets, BART station, bus stops, schools, library, our local YMCA, parks, and playgrounds. With so many Cal students around, there is no shortage of places to eat out. While researching neighborhoods to live in, one piece of information that comes in really handy is the Walk Score. Most real estate listings will include the Walk Score for the neighborhood or it can be looked up at walkscore.com. This is a great resource when looking for a home in general, but comes in especially handy when planning to live car-free.
There is a trade off, of course, and that is that most really walk-able areas will have smaller housing and they may to be more expensive. In our case, we could save rent money by living further away from Downtown, but the added costs of owning and running a car (or two) in a less convenient neighborhood would cancel out any rent savings.
Taking public transport isn’t everyone’s idea of easy or convenient – especially with kids in tow – but after having used BART, AC Transit and Muni regularly for the past 5 years, I’ve learned plenty of tips to make it easier. Avoiding peak times when taking public transport with kids is the best way to make it a less stressful experience, but obviously this isn’t always practical. If traveling with babies or toddlers, especially at busy times, babywearing rather than using a stroller makes a huge difference. You’ll take up a lot less space on the bus or train, you’ll be able to move further back on the bus where strollers don’t fit (especially on the new AC Transit buses with steps in the middle), you can avoid using the (often urine filled) BART elevators, and when taking Muni or shuttle buses (for example, the Emery Go Round between MacArthur Bart station and Emeryville) you will avoid having to carry a stroller up stairs to board. Baby-wearing also means that you won’t have to deal with the occasional bus driver who insists that you fold up your stroller before boarding. In my experience, this always happens when the baby or toddler in the stroller is fast asleep! Of course, there are times that a stroller is more practical than baby wearing, especially if you’re carrying shopping. In these cases, I try to avoid taking public transport at busy times and I make sure that everything underneath the stroller is in bags, ready to be taken out quickly should I be asked to fold up the stroller.
One big advantage to taking public transport regularly with my kids, as with walking or bike riding, is that it helps give them a real sense of their surroundings and a feeling of independence. They’re familiar with how to get from A to B, they know how to read the maps and the schedules, and when the time comes that they’re old enough to take public transport on their own, they’ll be confident as they already know exactly what to do. The kids being so familiar with public transport at home really helps when we travel too. Navigating your way around New York’s subway system is a piece of cake when you’re used to taking trains at home!
Cycling and Scooting
For me, the best things about living car-free is that the whole family gets a lot of incidental exercise throughout the day. Usually when we’re out and about the kids and I just walk, but when we need to go a little further (more than a 20 – 30 minute walk), or if we’re in a hurry, scooters and bikes come in really handy. My two big girls ride their scooters to school, karate class, swim team and out running errands, while my littlest rides her balance bike. Not only does this make them move faster, it makes the trip a lot more fun. And we all know that making things more fun for kids definitely makes it easier on parents!
Bike riding isn’t just for the kids though. The East Bay is a pretty great place for commuting by bike with plenty of designated bike friendly streets, such as Berkeley’s “Bicycle Boulevards” and shared bike/pedestrian paths like the Ohlone Trail. Commuting by bike with kids is actually pretty easy thanks to the various types of cargo bikes and bike trailers on the market. My two oldest girls are now big enough to ride their own bikes around, but when they were younger they would sit on the back of my cargo bike for trips to pre-school, the supermarket and the park. If pedaling isn’t your strong suit, many cargo bikes are available with electronic assist. This comes in especially handy with all the hills in the Bay Area!
Living car-free doesn’t mean we never drive. A membership for a car sharing service like Zipcar or Get Around comes in super handy. When we want to take weekend trips or need to travel a little further than BART, AC Transit or Muni will take us, we use Zipcar. Between Zipcar and Get Around there are thousands of share cars located around the Bay Area. Most share cars do tend to be on the smaller side, but there is still a good range of family sized vehicles available. We usually make sure to book in advance to get the car that we want, but we rarely have problems with last minute bookings. Worst case scenario, the pick up location is just a little further away. Unlike rental cars, share cars aren’t available with baby/booster seats, so we do need to bring our own car seats. There are plenty of travel friendly cars seats available on the market that make the transition from closet to share car much easier.
I mentioned baby-wearing while riding public transport above, but for the most part when we’re just out and about locally, my youngest either walks, rides her balance bike or goes in her stroller. The stroller comes in really handy when we’re out shopping as I can fit a lot of groceries in the bottom. It’s also an easy way to carry the kids’ snacks, water bottles, jackets, change of clothes, books and toys etc. Basically, the bottom of our stroller holds all the stuff that most moms would throw in the trunk of their car before heading out! If you plan on living car-free and you have a baby or toddler, you’re probably going to be pushing a stroller around many miles a day, so I feel that purchasing a stroller that is sturdy, comfortable for you to push and has a lot of storage is really important. For me it’s also important that our stroller isn’t overly large given that I take it on BART and buses often. Our stroller has definitely racked up a lot of miles in the two and a half years that I’ve been using it with my youngest!
Online shopping is such a time saver for busy families, but it comes in even handier when you don’t have a car. Instead of lugging heavy bags full of larger grocery items such as washing liquid home from the supermarket, I simply order them online and they appear at my door. Many supermarkets offer online shopping with same day delivery, plus there are plenty of great online services for groceries such Google Express, Amazon Fresh and soap.com.
Have you ever considered living without a car? Or does your family live car-free? If it’s something that you’ve thought about I hope these tips will help you out. While it can be a challenge at times, the decision to live without a car has definitely been the right one for our family.