Monday, December 21, 2009


I drove my car on Friday for the first time in 110 days. Zeb and I ran errands that day. It was an odd experince, driving again, especially for the first few minutes. In sitting behind the wheel, traveling down the road, I felt very disconnected. The best way I can describe it is that it was similar to when I have a bad cold; I know what is happening around me, but it doesn't quite seem real. I couldn't feel the bite of the cold; I couldn't feel the air moving at all. The speed of the car had little to do with me, a mere foot on a pedal, not a full-body effort. I barely noticed hills or curves. I--my body, at least--was disconnected from the act of traveling.

After a few miles, the strangness of this disconnect began to wear off. I appreciated the ease and comfort with which Zeb and I were able to travel. We were able to accomplish more errands, and buy more stuff, then I could have on a bike. In fact, I found myself buying things with an abandon that I never felt on the bike. When I got home, I had to explain to Tim that I had spent more money than I intended to. In part this was because we needed a fair amount with the holidays and all, but also in part because with the car, I did not have to carefully think about each purchase the way I do when I am hauling it all home by bike. I realized that the realities of bike transportation had been acting as a first filter for responsible spending.

Overall, I am ambivalent about begining to use the car again. I appreciate being out of the cold and the additional measure of safety on slick roads. I enjoy being able to go to places that I would not take the time to ride to on a bike. But, I don't care for the feeling of disconnection from the world and from my motion. It begins to reduce travel to a video game. I also feel wrong about participating in what automobiles are. I feel guilty about buying gasoline and about adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. I am also ambivalent about the faster pace of life that an automobile brings.

As Zeb and I returned to Poultney on rte 22A from Granville, we passed a sign that said something like, "Right to Farm Life Law." I thought about that as I drove. Somehow, in our culture, we have started moving so fast that we have lost or forgotten our roots and what sustains us today. We get in such a hurry in our cars that we get angry if a farmer is driving his tractor down the road, forcing us to slow down for a few minutes. This issue is prevelant enough that a law had to be passed to protect farmers. Somehow, in our fossil fuel-powered haste, we have forgotten that farmers provide us with food and that without food, we would die. We have forgotten that we rely on trees and plants and bees and microorganisms. We have forgotten that we need functioning ecosystems more than we need a bigger house or better cell phone coverage. In the end, at the most fundemental level, we need our planet to be healthy more than anything else. We need to slow down enough to remember our connections to the air, the rain, the soil, and to this specific spot on earth wher we live. I think that forgoing my car and riding my bike for the past three months has helped me to do that.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The End of the Semester

Yesterday was the last day of finals and technically the last day of the semester. I needed to come into campus today to tie up a few loose ends. For the first time in over one hundred days, I considered driving my car. Given my agenda for the day, I opted to ride my bike again. As I headed out the door, Tim warned me of the cold; it was 10 degrees at our house.

The cold wasn't too bad on the walk out to the road; a little more bite on exposed skin was all. When I got out to the road, I glanced around for the car, just in case I wanted to change my mind. But my car was gone! I looked around on the off chance that Tim moved it, but I didn't see it. All I can think is that perhaps our neighbor borrowed it if her car wouldn't start this morning.

I hopped on my bike and started into town. Heeding Tim's warning, I checked my brakes to be sure they weren't frozen before heading down hill. The brakes worked fine, but my gears were frozen. I could change my front gear rings, but the back ones wouldn't budge. I hopped off on a flat spot and manually moved the chain to where I wanted it. Despite my cold fingers, legs, and face, I was able to appreciate the simplicity of the bicycle; Even though I don't know too much about bike repair, I was able to fix my shifting problem in short order. I don't have that same self-reliance and assurance with a car.

The rest of the ride was relatively uneventful. The roads were clear and the sun was out. I was reasonably well prepared for the cold; only my legs got very cold. The cold seemed to bite through the thin fabric of my pants like I had nothing on, reminding me that I should start wearing long underwear. When I got to campus, I discovered that my lock was frozen shut. Ah, well, the realities of winter riding.

So today is it. The final day of our experiment in car-free living. What have I learned from this? That the bicycle is a viable form of transportation, even here in rural Vermont. That weather doesn't prove to be too much of a barrier for most of the year, if you prepare for it. That if you only use a bike for transportation, your "home range" shrinks, but you get to know where you live, and you have a greater sense of place and distance.

What will I do with those lessons? Will Tim and I look back at this as the point when we changed to primarily human-powered transportation? Or will it be just another college project that gets forgotten? I'm not very good at trying to predict the future, but I think that this project will only be the beginning of our discussions and debate about finding sustainable transportation alternatives. We plan to drive the car over the holidays to visit family. After months of limited transportation range, it will be nice to go somewhere. When next semester begins though, I suspect that we will be on bikes more often than in the car. And come next summer, I would guess that once again our car will be found sitting in the parking lot, day after day after day.

With the end of the semester, and the end of our experiment, I guess this is also the end of this blog. Tim and I have talked about possibly continuing to post our on-going thoughts on transportation and sustainability. If you would be interested in continuing to read this blog from time to time, please post a comment telling us that. Otherwise, this will be my last posting. I would like to thank all of you for taking the time to read my thoughts and for your support in this endeavour. Happy Holidays to you all!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Staying Home....

It stormed on Wednesday. We awoke to new snow on the ground and more coming down. Not huge amounts, maybe a couple inches, but with the wind howling through the trees, it felt like a real blizzard.

It was fortuitous timing though; my only class on Wednesdays is Botany lab which only meets sometimes. This week, my calendar was open (excepting the huge pile of homework to complete). So, given the conditions of the roads, I decided to do my homework at home. I spent a couple hours working on projects, then Zeb and I went sledding. Whoo-hoo!

Unfortunately, the poor road conditions meant that we missed out on the (free!) Holiday dinner that the college puts on for students each year. Although both Tim and I were saddened to miss out on all the good food, we decided that it probably wasn't worth risking our health and well-being to get there.

By the next morning, the paved roads were cleared. The mile of Endless Brook Rd was a little sketchy, but not too bad. Tim and Zeb met me for lunch that day. I mentioned to Tim that I had fish-tailed down Endless Brook Rd. "Didn't you let some air out of your tires? I did and had no problems." Tim asked me. "Nope." I said. "But I sure went fast on the pavement!" Tim looked at me askance, then laughed. "We didn't have any problems on the slushy ice, but it was slow on the pavement."

So that is the trade off: we can let air out of our tires, increasing traction on ice and snow, but also increasing friction on cleared roads, or we can leave our tires as is, slipping around on snow and ice, but riding easily on cleared roads. I guess we could get the best of both worlds by letting air out of our tires for the dirt roads, then pumping the tires back up for the cleared roads. Neither of us has taken the extra time to do that, though.

With the snow it's getting colder as well. This morning, with a cold wind blowing from the west, I began to miss my balaclava, which Zeb has claimed for his own. The section of Lake St. Catherine that I pass on the ride into town is starting to freeze over. It seems like in just a week we've left autumn and entered winter.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


We had our first real snow of the winter over the weekend. Roads weren't too bad riding into campus on Monday. Tim and Zeb met me in town. By the time we left Monday evening, it was dark and snowing lightly.

I must say, there is a big psychological difference between riding when there is snow on the ground and riding when it is actively snowing. As we made our way down Main Street, the chimes at the college began to play Christmas carols. I can tell you, there is nothing that makes me feel more cold and lonely than hearing Christmas carols while riding at night through the falling snow with five miles to go before reaching home.

Tim and I took it slow on the way home. The roads weren't bad, per se, but there was layer of snow and slush on them, deeper on the shoulders. As we left town, a white car that was passing us slowed down. The window rolled down and a disembodied voice said, "You people are crazy." Then up went the window and off went the car.

Are we crazy? Maybe. A van passed us a little while later as we were climbing a hill. The van slowed down and the driver asked Tim if we were ok. Tim said we were fine and waved them on.

We did make it home, uneventfully. But I do wonder a bit about mixing snow and darkness. I think being on a bike is safe enough. In those conditions I generally go slow enough that a fall would be bruising, but not serious. And if things got that bad, I could always get off and walk. What worries me is the cars that are on the road. Snow, darkness, and a driver who is in a bit too much of a hurry could be fatal.

Tim and I talked about it on the ride home and later that evening. We've decided to open more options: either of us can and should stay home if the conditions are too sketchy; Tim can take the car if getting somewhere seems extremely important; and we can creatively plan trips around the weather. In the next few days Tim is going to bring our sleeping bags and some spare diapers into town. We'll stash them somewhere on campus. Then, if we get caught in town with bad road conditions, we can simply stay there. It might be fun: we can swim at the pool, see the events, eat at the cafeteria, like a mini-vacation.

We've only got eight days left in the experiment. We've been quite lucky with the mild autumn this year. We could have had this snow in the end of October, so I guess I can't complain.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Early History of Bicycles

A few weeks ago, while doing research for a paper I was writing, I stumbled upon a wonderful article about the early history of bicycles in the U.S. Written by Sidney Aronson, "The Sociology of the Bicycle" was published in the Social Forces Journal in 1952. It's a great article, only seven pages long, but full of informational gems. If you are interested in that sort of thing, and you can find a copy, I highly recommend the read. (I found it through JSTOR.) Here are just a few of the more interesting highlights.

The bicycle as we know it today--called the "safety bicycle"--arrived in the United States in 1885. It's arrival and subsequent popularity changed several aspects of life here. This version of the bicycle could be manufactured in factories using assembly line techniques. This dropped the cost, making bicycles affordable for working families; by 1900, a new bicycle cost as little as $18. Before bicycles, transportation options for most people were limited to the occasional train ride. Horses were available, but only to the wealth who could afford their maintenance and upkeep.

With the bicycle, city workers were able to get out to the country. Weekend round trips could total as much as fifty miles as families visited neighboring towns. The bicycle "gave rise in the [eighteen]nineties to that new type of mobility which became so characteristic of the twentieth century” (Aronson, p. 311). The bicycle provided the beginnings for our current culture, based on the independent transportation of the individual.

The bicycle also changed things for women, giving them more independence and freedom. Women's clothing changed to increase safety when riding bikes. Skirts were shortened, revealing ankles (gasp!). It became acceptable for a woman to wear bloomers. Relationships between the sexes also changed. Courting couples--often on a bicycle built for two--no longer had to be chaperoned; the matrons who would have played that role did not care to learn to ride themselves. My favorite is a quote from Harper's proclaiming that in the question of right-of-way at intersections, "a woman should always have the right of way”(Aronson, p. 308).

Perhaps most interesting is one of the central premises of Aronson's article: that the bicycle "paved the way" for the automobile. The bicycle preceded the automobile by a mere 10 or 15 years. During that time however, bicyclists lobbied for improving and expanding the road system and added guideposts to direct cyclists and light posts to aid in night riding. The surging popularity of bicycles during the decade between 1890 and 1900 created a need for both traffic laws and a system to enforce these laws. The booming industry of bicycle factories and repair stations were easily converted to servicing the automobile. Bicycles were instrumental in changing the way people thought about travel. Aronson postulates that without these factors in place, the automobile would not have succeeded.

In the years following 1900, the automobile gained popularity as quickly as the bicycle lost favor. It was a short golden decade for the bicycle, but an influential one. I wonder how things might be different now had the bicycle never become popular or had the automobile arrived before the bicycle.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Where's the Snow??

It's the last day of November. We've had our studded snow tires on our bikes for a month and a half now. I know I'll probably jinxed it by saying this, but thus far, we haven't had any snow. I've seen a small patch of ice on the road on two chilly mornings. Other than that, it has been a mild autumn. We've had some rain, and some cold days, but really not much of either. Tim is still wearing shorts most days. Probably the coldest I've been while biking was that morning in October that I rode through the rain with shorts and sandals.

The NOAA weather forecast is calling for a 30% chance of rain or snow showers this evening and tonight. After that the next mention of snow in the forecast is Thursday night and Friday, also with a 30% chance of snow or rain. The last day of finals--the end of the semester--is only 18 days away. There is a chance--a chance that probably just got smaller with me mentioning it out loud--that we might finish our official experiment in living car-free without ever riding through snow. (Knowing the fickleness of weather, though, we might get two major blizzards in the next two weeks.)

Not that I'm complaining though. I tried commuting by bike a couple times last winter. It is significantly harder to ride on snowy roads, even with the snow tires. If the snow is more than a couple inches deep, walking is almost an easier option. Snow also increases the hazards from cars. Winter commuting can be done, of course. There are others who live car-free year-round in snowy climates. Years ago before I got my driver's license, I used to commute to work by bike near Buffalo, New York. I remember one morning, in the 5:30 AM dark, riding gingerly down the road through about 4 or 5 inches of snow and then hearing a snow plow come up behind me. I was terrified, but survived without incident.

Tim and I talk some about where we want to be in the future. I've come to the conclusion that living car-free year round probably makes a lot more sense in a warmer climate. If we were to stay in Vermont, I think I'd want to drive the car through the winter months. In our discussions, I can get very opinionated on the subject. As I write about it here though, I wonder if at least part of that is my fear of the very really possibility of facing snowy riding soon. Things tend to get larger than life the longer I dwell on them. Once we actually do ride in snow it probably won't be as bad as I'm making it out to be.

Not that I'm complaining about the mild weather, though. I'll take a ride in the rain over a ride in the snow most days.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Staying Local for Thanksgiving

This year for Thanksgiving we had to decline the invitation to join my family at my uncle's house near Ithaca, New York. Getting there without the use of private automobiles presented too large of a challenge for me to wrap my head around in the midst of finishing all the class projects that were due the day before break began. That was unfortunate as my cousin recently got married and I've not yet had the opportunity to meet his wife or congratulate him in person. Would it have been worth the carbon footprint to drive out to Ithaca to stay in touch with family? Probably, but it will have to wait for another time.

Instead we spent Thanksgiving with our neighbor up the hill. It was a great day with lots of yummy food and I enjoyed spending time with Barbara and her family. One of the benefits of not traveling for the holidays is that the time that would have been spent packing and traveling can instead be spent on other things. We've been able to spend time as a family--reading to Zeb endlessly--and get caught up on some of our postponed projects.

The Thanksgiving break from classes has also provided a break from commuting. I haven't ridden my bike in three days--the longest stretch since classes started at the end of August. I've slept in a lot and my cold seems to finally be clearing up. It's amazing what rest will do.

Zeb has started commenting on our biking-lifestyle. I guess he thinks it is too new fangled or something: Three times now when we've tried to put him in his bike seat, he's said "No. Zeb walk!" and taken off down the road toward town. Maybe someday he'll be the one to start an experiment in only walking for a semester.