The Beginner's Mind of Car Freedom

Bike commuting in Tucson is becoming easier. My routes are starting to take shape, and I’m feeling less and less like I will get lost on the way to work. I don’t think of my commutes as “exercise.” Rather, I’m aware that my body is adjusting to what I’m asking it to do every day: ride 20 or more miles.

And with the commuting part of my life becoming easier and more routine, my beginner’s mind is learning what it means to live and adapt in a city this size when one doesn’t have a car. Not carless, but car free, thank you.

(In case you missed my first pretentious post on “The Beginner’s Mind,” it refers to the Zen practice of approaching your pursuits with openness and without preconceptions, regardless how much you already think you know.)

When I gave up my car about 10 years ago in Washington, DC, one aspect I hadn’t thought through was this: What do I expect from my car-owning friends?

They kept offering me rides. I kept accepting — sometimes with a token protest.

I pondered whether or not I was entitled to rides from friends. Was I sacrificing car ownership for some noble purpose? And my friends who persisted in owning and using cars, was it their penance to schlep me, the martyr, around from time to time?

Or was I going to be a completely independent grownup who just didn’t happen own a car?

I chose to be as self-sufficient without a car as I had been with one.

It’s embarrassing that I gave this a moment’s thought, but I was young, okay? I was, like, 40.

My choice, to paraphrase Zachary Taylor, was to “ask no car favors and shun no transportation responsibilities.”

I know even less about President Taylor than I do about Zen Buddhism, but my choice meant that — no matter what — I would never ask my friends with cars for favors if the favors were ones I wouldn’t have needed when I owned a car.

I knew I had a lot of things to figure out. I did figure them out, and I never looked back. There was extensive public transportation, ubiquitous taxis, car-sharing, and car rental agencies.

Oh: And I worked from home.

That was DC. This is Tucson.

Vox DA5 1x6.5'' 5 watt Guitar Amp Combo Black
Also amplifies cargo-carrying limitations

This little guitar amplifier caused a ridiculous amount of creative consternation. It’s only about as big as two toasters, stacked one on top of the other. I decided to sell it on eBay, and I did.

I just wanted to get this amp to my workplace from where it was — my friend Mike’s house — so I could box it up and ship it to the buyer. But I didn’t want to use a car, or ask anyone with a car to help me.

My bike has no bike rack. My backpack is too small.

Right away I failed; I asked Mike to drive the amp and me over to where I am staying. He drove eight miles, round trip, because I suck at being car free in Tucson.

The next morning, I still needed to get the amp 10 miles.

In DC, this dilemma would have been resolved with public transportation.

I went online and figured out the Tucson bus system and learned it would have taken me two-and-a-half hours, including an hour of walking and half an hour of waiting between buses. Walking the entire way would have taken three hours.

In DC, when public transportation was not a viable solution, I might have resolved this with a taxi ride. So I called a Tucson taxi company and got a $20 estimate. I rejected that idea because it would have eaten my eBay profit. (But I did save the taxi company’s number in my phone for future reference.)

And in DC, my ace in the hole would be to rent a car, and then combine several car-appropriate errands into the time when I had the car — from an hour to an entire weekend. But in Tucson, on that day, I couldn’t justify it.

Finally I looked at my carry-on sized suitcase and remembered that hidden beneath a zippered panel there were two backpack straps that I have never used. This feature is like a James Bond gadget — the kind where you know, as soon as it is revealed by Q, that there will eventually be a plot contrivance where it is critically useful to have a flame thrower hidden inside of some bagpipes.

Suitcase Backpack on a Bike
This is definitely not DC

You know, it wasn’t that bad. I looked less like James Bond and more like a third grader with an overloaded book bag. But until I come up with something better — like a bike cargo trailer — this is my new ace in the hole. And I suspect I might never try public transportation in Tucson.

Suitcase as Grocery Hauler
I even loaded my suitcase with groceries on the way home

The very next day I had another guitar-related transportation need — but with less consternation. I hauled my acoustic guitar to work so that after work I could meet my friend Paul at an open mic event.

I transferred my commuting essentials from my regular backpack into my guitar backpack, and also a change of clothes.

The day will come when will I need to haul more than just one large thing. Perhaps a large thing and a couple of medium things. Or, God forbid, two large things! When that day arrives, carrying everything on my back won’t work.

Guitar Hauling Shadow
Guitar Backpack Shadow

I’m working on acquiring more appropriate gear for carrying cargo.

The open mic event worked out fine. (Tusconians: It was at Sky Bar.) Paul and I listened. We performed a few songs. I had a couple of beers. It was getting late. I was tired.

And then…

Paul offered me a ride home. I accepted. It was out of his way and I knew it. I folded the Montague bike and put it in the trunk of Paul’s car.

When Paul dropped me off, I went straight to bed. And I realized as my head was hitting the pillow that Paul probably was still driving himself home. If I had refused his ride, it would have meant my head on my pillow 30 minutes later, and Paul would have been home 30 minutes sooner.

There was no justification for accepting his ride home. I just wanted to get home as soon as possible, and the inconvenience to Paul didn’t factor in my mi
nd — because I had a bike and he had a car.

Rather than be the car-free independent, I let myself be the carless martyr. Worse: I may have confirmed a belief that a car is necessary for life in Tucson. Car freedom is harder in Tucson than it was in DC, but I know it’s possible.

When I chose a folding bike for Tucson, I imagined that it might be handy to put it in the trunk of a car — occasionally when that convenient feature worked for everyone. Now I’m afraid I’ve given the impression that I expect to put this bike in my friends’ cars whenever I decide cycling is inconvenient. I’m kind of kicking myself about that.

But when you have the beginner’s mind, you allow yourself these mistakes; you learn from them. I’d like to think it won’t happen again. But this is a large city.

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19 thoughts on “The Beginner's Mind of Car Freedom”

  1. Matt H says:

    Take your eBay profits and pick up a (used) copy of “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car: Save Money, Breathe Easier, and Get More Mileage Out of Life.” It’s a bit dated (life has changed remarkably since 2006) and you certainly do not need the justifications it provides in the first third of the book, but there are some interesting details that I’m finding helpful. This week, for instance, we’re having our groceries delivered via Peapod for the first time. (My wife resisted at first because she thought that grocery delivery was only for old people until I pointed out that old people wouldn’t be clicking through lists of pears and coffee on their laptops). The author points out – and I concur – that so much of “car-free” or “car-lite” is about organization and timing. We’re at “car-lite” and trying to head to “car-free” sometime soon.

    Thanks for your posts.

  2. Adam says:

    All the time you have wasted trying to figure things out and then write this post could have been better put to use by a trip to a bike shop to buy a proper rack and/or a bike trailer.

    Or just get a car :p

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Standard bike racks impeded the foldability of this bike — which might be a good thing, because I wouldn’t be able to accept rides. But I’m looking to an easy-on-easy-off rack that isn’t seat-post-mounted. A trailer solution is also brewing.

  3. Adam says:

    Oh, and buying individual Clif Bars is a waste of money:)

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      I know. I was sampling various flavors. Next time I’ll be all about Crunchy Peanut Butter in bulk.

  4. BluesCat says:

    I’m getting pretty good at only driving the car for those trips which I absolutely cannot do on the bike, and combining trips so that I make as few separate trips as possible.

    I made a rough guess about what just my gas savings are, typically, for a week: $20. The Zen of Saving $1,040 a year is my idea of religion.


  5. norm says:

    Hmm. Hadn’t thought about the problem of cargo modulo folding bike. I probably missed where you explained why you needed a folding bike to begin with, but I’m sure it’s not because you need to accept rides frequently 😉

    Perhaps a really lightweight folding trailer (like that travois deelie that was reviewed here a few months back) is a good compromise?

  6. Ed Eubanks says:

    Ted, the first rack I ever bought was an Avenir, back in the 90s sometime, that was removable. It had these little snap-clips that attached the lower portion, and a weird barrel-attachment thing that the rack sort of “rolled” into behind the seat. It did NOT attach to the seat-post.

    I’ve only recently replaced it, and found that most panniers and other rack-attachable things had no problem connecting.

    I don’t know if that helps, but I’d be happy to come by and show you what I have (I live in Tucson).

  7. Rusty Wright says:

    “I probably missed where you explained why you needed a folding bike to begin with …”

    I’m also puzzled by the need for a folding bike. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time, as the saying goes. A decent inexpensive road bike (e.g., bottom end steel frame Motobecane or Mercier) will make a nice commute bike and the folder can be your backup bike. Cheap bikes are nice because it’s somewhat less traumatic if it gets stolen.

    Where I live, in the San Francisco bay area, a folding bike would be handy because the BART light rail system allows regular bikes on the trains only during non-commute hours, but folding bikes all the time. Luckily, before I retired, I was able to come in a bit late and avoid the commute hours. Now that I’m retired it’s not an issue.

    Seeing you with a backpack on and knowing that you live in Tuscon, I can well imagine how sweaty your back gets when it’s not cold. That was the biggest relief for me when I got a rack for my bike (a nice black aluminum rack with a cheap plastic milk crate attached with zip ties).

  8. Adam says:

    Oh, sorry, I missed the fact that it was a folding bike. Although, I had a Dahon once (for a week, didn’t like it) and I was able to mount a fairly standard rack and it still folded properly.

    But then again, that’s not an excuse:) And if you get a trailer then it’ll impede the foldability as well, unless you put the folded bike in the trailer:)

    Crunchy Peanut Butter. Mmmm… I like the Chocolate Chip too. The problem with bulk Clif bars, at least here in New York, is that the box has always three flavors. You can’t really get a bulk box with only one flavor. Same on Amazon too.

  9. listenermark says:

    Zach Taylor was an uptight dickweed. In my culture refusing an offer of kindness is seen as disrespectful.

    By choosing a car-free lifestyle you are already doing more to promote a healthy and sustainable lifestyle than 99 percent of your fellow citizens….don’t sweat the little stuff and let your friends be nice to you.

  10. Graham says:

    If you truly regret the bike’s foldability, turn it into an xtracycle.

  11. Sam says:

    I second the idea that you should let friends be nice. Of course saying that I seldom accept rides when I’m offered, but I’m not against the idea. And you did get to spend an extra thirty minutes with a friend. You could practice songs for the next open mic.

  12. Chris says:

    Just a word of caution about using a backpack to haul relatively heavy loads on your back while riding — this load can cause a torque on your spine if you rotate your shoulders left or right. I wasn’t aware of this and dropped a water bottle once while riding and wearing a backpack. I turned around, slowed way down, leaned over to pick up my water bottle, and the added torque on my spine made me fall over. Just remember that this is definitely NOT the safest way to transport heavy bulky things on your bike.

  13. Steve@Tern says:

    Hi from over the pond – always good to see kindred spirits getting into commuting by bike. I look enviously at the pic of the wide open spaces you guys enjoy over there (it’s getting hard to find here in the UK)- but I guess you encounter the occasional bit of traffic, no?

  14. JC says:

    You can fit a lot in a large messenger bag.

  15. WaterRat says:

    I’m impressed with the (I assume round-trip) distance of 20mi. That’s a tough ride every day! My workday round trip is 16mi.

    Commuting year round over the hills of WV, Like Rusty, I’ve found that the simple milk crate style plastic basket, zip-tied to the rack, is just about the most robust method of hauling freight. My crate is a bit larger than an actual milk crate. And I also have one on the front. Not a fashion statement for sure, but its great to have all that space available. Of course I regularly haul the usual stuff, like tools, supplies backpack and extra clothes, but sometimes thing like; pizza (fresh from the parlor), dinner left-overs (right off the table on a full sized plate), multiple gallon jugs of water, small appliances, and full sized sheet cakes.
    It’s really quite amazing what you can haul in/on a plastic box.

  16. Tukson says:

    Hi. Welcome to Tucson! Been in Tucson for over 30 years now. Cycling is more a hobby for me now than it was in my youth. Still, I try to get about a 100 total miles of riding per week. Less now that the summer heat is here.

    Just wondering, knowing that you’re new in Tucson, how are you dealing with the 100F+ degrees here without a car?

    We get several days of rain in Tucson per year. Summer seems to last between the middle of May to about the end of October. Then we get into spring. Winter and Fall don’t exist except for maybe a week or two out of the year.

    If you have any general questions about Tucson, feel free to ask. I may not always know the answer, but I can BS a pretty good one. 🙂

  17. Frank Watson says:

    I also am impressed with your 20 mile round trip commute, daily. I live in Tampa, and have opted to only commute by bike for the year. Began in February and have logged over 1000 miles thus far. This past week I was trying to take a tower fan to work as our AC was out. I have a Topeak MTX bag & rack, so I bungy corded it to it, looked strange, but was able to get it there. Good luck with your car-freeness in Tucson.

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