Deciding to transition from car to bicycle
June 7, 2013 6:53 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering selling my car and transitioning from using my car for most tasks (groceries, commuting to work, seeing friends, etc) to using mostly my bicycle for these same things. I plan to also get an "occasional" Zip car membership as well. Has anyone out there gone through this process? How was that transition for you and do you have any concrete advice for someone like me who is thinking about this pretty big shift in changing modes of transportation?

I need to save money and even though my car is paid off, by selling it I could pay off quite a bit of consumer debt and save a lot on gas and repairs. And I would just feel better about the environmental impact of my day-to-day.

If you have done this, was it worth it for you? Was there a lot of frustration in the process? Was there a transition period, and what was that like? How has your lifestyle changed (or not changed)?

Special snowflake details: I live in the San Francisco bay area (Oakland), am about a 30 minute walk/ 10 min bike ride from Bart (our rapid transit system), lots of buses nearby, love to bike but don't do it a lot right now, live alone.
posted by ethel to Travel & Transportation around Oakland, CA (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Disclaimer: I still own a car. I rarely ever drive it, though, because everything is walkable/bikeable or reachable by light rail or commuter rail for me.

I do grocery shopping on a Trek 7100 with a rear rack that has a basket that snaps on. I like how stable and cushy it is and how stable with a ton of stuff on it- my other, just for fun riding, bike is a road bike, which I would not want to fetch groceries on. I could clip panniers to the rack, but so far the basket works well enough. I supplement grocery runs on the bike with Fresh Direct grocery delivery- does SF have something like this? Fresh Direct has frequent free delivery weekends so I wait for one of those to get heavy stuff like laundry detergent, stock up on frozen food, and stuff like that.

Learn how to lock your bike well- that's my biggest fear, that I'll come out of a store and the bike will be gone. If you lock through the rear triangle & wheel with a good U lock you should generally be ok.

Fenders are really nice if you have to go out in the rain. Also, good lights.
posted by lyra4 at 7:17 PM on June 7, 2013

I did this. I kept the car though. I dropped to a 'grandma' insurance policy with a very low mileage cap. I had a few issues with forgetting street cleaning days; however, in aggregate I paid for any tickets, towing, bikes, bike clothing, gas and insurance in 6 months of cycle commuting. By keeping the car, I was able to return to a standard commute when I moved to the suburbs of Boston about three years later.

Last note, riding on rainy days was the worst. I preferred 6" of snow to run/bike in any day.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:19 PM on June 7, 2013

I biked everywhere less than 10 miles in Austin 78751; and I do everything less than 5 miles in COS 80903 now. Proper wet-weather gear, gore-tex, etc. and even a rainy day outside is stepping inside the grocery bank post office printshop coffeeshop bar etc. as dry as if it wasn't even raining. And you know what? If I've got some rain on my visor; hey. I earned it; don't be jealous.

I'm back on the bike v. car again after a couple of years in rural OK; the only frustration/transition/change has been retraining to ride city distances, becoming more alert of traffic, and yes; getting back into a proper level of conditioning. A nice seat might get stolen in the city; but the good gloves and helmet stay with me.

Saves a bundle on fuel, and teh health benefits are intangible. The car would sit for weeks at a time, sometimes a month or more, and if 'Zip' cars were around in my area and the car wasn't a Westy; it would have been long gone. Twelve city miles in a block to block environment is around a gallon of gas for most vehicles = $5 = I've got better things to do than put in the gas tank. . .

Fwiw; I put a focus on good high pressure kevlar tires; and the rest of the bike is of the 'if it gets stolen I'd be upset, but not ?in tears? variety.
posted by buzzman at 7:26 PM on June 7, 2013

I gave up my car a few years ago to live as a pedestrian. Beforehand, I assessed my current lifestyle to see what things would have to change that I might be taking for granted. It really wasn't all that much. Prior to giving up the car, I did a test run of things like getting groceries and getting to work. For my first two weeks car-free, I arranged some time off mid week, two days the first week and one day the second. That was intended to help me ramp up to walking to work daily without undue exhaustion and gave me time to get groceries in the middle of the week without having to also go to work that day.

Over time, I adjusted to life without a car and it was no big. But I tried to arrange a transitional zone and that helped in those early days.
posted by Michele in California at 7:27 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to live in Berkeley about the same distance from BART. I biked everywhere and also had Zipcar membership for big trips. Over a year and a half, I only used the Zip car once to pick up skis. I've since moved and have to drive everywhere and, oh man, I miss biking.

I didn't have a choice about transitioning immediately, so I can't speak to a slow transition period, but it was not too painful to make the switch. It's nice that you're starting in the summertime, you'll have great weather and longer daylight hours.

Things that came up:

1. Groceries -- I'd go about once a week with my big pannier. Super easy. Biggest change was I stopped buying juice & drinks because they were so bulky and heavy. Every now and again I'd do a beverage-only run.

2. Rainy weather -- even with good rain gear, it's a huge pain the ass. I usually opted to walk to BART when it was rainy.

3. Personal safety -- I sometimes opted out of evening events if I didn't want to bike through an area at night, or I had to make sure I had a ride planned. I suppose I could have Zipped on those nights, but spontaneous nocturnal festivities don't always line up with Zipcar availability. Also, when flying back into town, I either asked a friend for a ride or made sure my flight landed in time to catch BART.

4. Traffic safety -- I'm a very defensive cyclist. I found biking in Oakland to be more difficult, traffic-safety-wise, than biking in Berkeley; drivers seemed more aggressive. Please make sure you're up to date on how to be safe on the roads.

5. Money money -- it's so nice to not have to pay for gas!

6. Parking -- IT'S EVERYWHERE!! I miss being able to lock my bike anywhere. If you're leaving your bike at BART I recommend the BikeLink lockers.

7. Healthy -- You'll be so fit from biking everywhere. I never felt better than when I was biking a lot.

(8. It's pretty -- I find that I notice my neighborhood more when I'm on a bicycle than when I'm in a car. :)
posted by pluot at 7:38 PM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also --

9. Google maps bicycle directions -- do not blindly follow the bicycle route suggestions. They're not always good roads and sometimes you'll be able to find a parallel side street with much less traffic. For instance, my personal discomfort with traffic on Telegraph (oh god the buses!) led me to develop a zig zag through neighborhoods to avoid it. It was just as fast as riding on Telegraph.
posted by pluot at 7:44 PM on June 7, 2013

A cargo trailer is a big help. I have this one with a lidded Rubbermaid container lashed to it, and it holds 4 bags of groceries. Not easy to ride uphill with when fully loaded, but totally doable.
posted by outfielder at 7:51 PM on June 7, 2013

All I would suggest is to run your bike-only lifestyle for a month or two before getting rid of the car.
posted by gjc at 8:00 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wanted to go this route but my car was too scratched/dinged/covered with dog fur to get a good price. Selling a car can be a real pain.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:06 PM on June 7, 2013

I like to think of cars and bicycles as analogous:

- If your car has a horn, your bicycle needs a bell.
- If your car has lights, your bike needs lights.
- If your car can carry things, you need bike panniers and a rack.
- If your car has a trunk, your bicycle need a trailer.
- If your car has more than one seat, your bicycle needs a guest bicycle.
- If your car needs regular maintenance, so does your bicycle.
- If your car keeps you dry when it is wet out, you need rain gear and fenders for your bicycle.
- If you lock your car, lock your bike.
- If you have car insurance, you need bicycle insurance.
- If you need fuel for your car, you need fuel (food) for your bicycle.

Everything you need for a car, you need for a bicycle.
posted by aniola at 8:14 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

My husband and I lived without a car in Seattle for several years, relying on bikes and public transportation. The city had financial incentives for giving up your car at the time when we donated it – maybe look into that? It was just fine (and we relied on Zipcar for beer runs, etc.) but really put a damper on impromptu out-of-town trips and made a number of events inconvenient or impossible to attend. We also took cabs a lot after going out late at night when fewer busses run, so don't ignore that potential expense. Eventually we bought a car in 2010 when our Zipcar bills started getting $300-400 a month mostly due to out of town trips (there is so much gorgeous nature just outside of Seattle, missing out is just not worth it) and Zipcar was getting so popular that you could never get a car when you needed one even though there were 30 or 40 of them within walking distance.
posted by halogen at 8:17 PM on June 7, 2013

I didn't do this - I skipped the car completely. I cannot recommend car-freeness (car-freedom?) enough! Propelling yourself is good fun and good exercise.

If you haven't already, learn some fundamental bike maintenance. I know the Bay Area has several good bike collectives/co-ops (Spokeland comes to mind first) that will teach you this stuff and let you use tools cheap. They can also be a good source for quality used bikes and parts, if you know what to look for. If you don't like wrenching, take your bike to a shop for regular tune-ups. But make them (or someone) teach you the following simple things:

1) Learn to adjust your brakes; they're crucial to your safety and really easy to fix. And they do loosen over time due to pad wear and cable stretch. (Check this every few months.)
2) Keep your tire pressure up. Low pressure tires will slow you down several MPH, and can be dangerous if they get really low - they'll influence cornering and be more prone to blowouts. Also, it's a really easy fix. In CA, you should be able to get free air at any gas station if you don't have a pump handy. (Do this every 1-2 weeks.)
3) Oil your chain. It makes for a more pleasant ride, and may add some time to the life of your drivetrain. Use actual bike chain lube! Do NOT use WD-40! (Do this every month or two, possibly more frequently if you ride wet/dirty streets without fenders.)
4) Learn to fix flats. You'll have to someday, and it's better to learn in advance than to figure it out on the road, twenty miles from home...

Also, to extend aniola's analogy: Your car has a spare tire, your bike needs a spare tube (and a pump). It's much quicker than fixing a flat on the road.
posted by sibilatorix at 8:41 PM on June 7, 2013

I did this for about six years, and definitely getting rid of your car is better than holding on to it and just not using it much. You pay a lot in registration and insurance (at least here in Australia). It's better to put that money into an account where you can access it and use it for emergency taxi money.

In fact, that is my main recommendation. Be okay with using taxis. Even if you are spending $20 on taxis a couple of times a week it works out cheaper than owning a car! (By my own personal calculations, YMMV). So don't be afraid to sometimes just do it. The main advantage of having a car is being able to spontaneously choose to go to awkward places - that party friends are having across the other side of town on a rainy night. Ikea to buy a bookshelf. And if you don't have a car you calculate the one-off cost of a taxi or hire car for that particular need and decide it isn't worth it, but then you miss out on some fun times. So plan to sometimes pay extra to do stuff that maybe doesn't seem worth the taxi or hire cost that one time, but remember that actually the cost is spread across the whole year of you not paying to run a car.

If you have zipcar, then what I said about taxis might not be so relevant. I'm coming at this from the perspective of someone in a town with shit public transport and no zipcar service.

Finally, the big adjustment I had to make was about groceries. I had been used to shopping in bulk once a week at a cheap grocery shop quite a way away from my house. When I no longer had a car, I had to get used to shopping more frequently, buying smaller portions of things, and using the shops I passed closer to on my commuting route. This did make groceries more expensive, but definitely not by so much as to outweigh the cost of a car.
posted by lollusc at 9:07 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and it's worth picking up one or two cheap second-hand "spare" bicycles so that you can use them when your main one is in for repairs, or if you get a flat you don't have to change it right away that day in order to be able to go to work. If you get a couple of extra bikes, you can loan them to visitors and friends so you can go fun places together.
posted by lollusc at 9:09 PM on June 7, 2013

I've always been carless and recently got a bike that I hardly use (because I'm so out of shape :P, but it's fun!). I also have a carshare membership (CityCarShare in this case), and live in Oakland too, near the Berkeley border.

For the most part, I can get around just fine. If your workplace is in SF, you might want to check out Casual Carpool. I use this to get to work, with Bart as Plan B. Groceries: I hand-carry them and walk home, since the store is about ten minutes away. Biking with groceries sounds doable, but if you get frustrated with it, maybe look into CSAs or buses?

What would you use the carshare for? Occasional errands? Day trips? Regular outings? As halogen pointed out, Zipcar is super-popular, so be open to the possibility of not getting a car at your desired times or location. And if you want to go on day trips, note that carsharing may end up costing more than the regular car rentals.

Oh! Yes, definitely seconding taking GoogMap biking directions with a grain of salt. Generally, residential streets are less hectic than major roads, and I say this both from a biker's and a walker's perspective. I don't know how doable this is in your area.

And lastly, social life: When you estimate the time you think you need to get anywhere, add a few more minutes for mishaps. There are hills to tackle, sidewalk left-turns to do (I personally hate going in the left lane on a bike), asshole drivers to stay clear from, rain to grump about, places to find bike parking, securing your bike, putting your helmet somewhere... and if it's late at night, safety.

Eh, sorry if my bike life is a bit lacking, but hopefully this answers your questions about going carless in general.
posted by curagea at 9:21 PM on June 7, 2013

Okay, so I've never owned a car, but I very recently made an unpopular yet life-altering purchase in the transportation vicinity that is somewhat between your two options: an electric bike.

My issue with biking as a daily form of transportation is that I am slow and bad at it and I get sweaty and tired and it turns every trip into a workout even if I don't want it to be one (like going to work and being all gross when I get there, or arriving at the grocery store tired even before I have to carry the dang groceries home).

I wanted to become less dependent on public transportation and get my lazy ass to bike to work but didn't want to be a stinky wreck before my day even started. After lots of research I decided to take the plunge and ordered an electric bike from a bike/scooter website. I've had it two weeks now and I am in LOVE. It has 'pedal assist' settings which means the battery and motor speed you up with less effort from pedaling, or you can also use a throttle that runs the motor with no pedaling at all. Or you can just pedal it like a normal (yet slightly heavier) bike.

Not a very common or cheap option where I am, but something I thought I'd throw in here since it's ROCKING MY WORLD at the moment. (speeding... UP a hill? OMG)

(I am generally very pro-not-car though so YMMV - having to pay for parking AND insurance AND gas and probably also have to sit in traffic during a daily commute? naw.)
posted by ghostbikes at 9:28 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

My boyfriend and I have not had a car for the last three years. We live in Oakland, and are lucky to be a eight minute walk from BART and have a CityCarShare two doors down from us. It's been worth it in that we no longer have to worry about car insurance, maintenance, and street cleaning. Even when I had a car we both took BART to San Francisco for work because it was just so much easier than driving. Most of our friends live in the City, so it's a bit of a pain to stay out late if we haven't gotten a carshare. The best thing is Clipper finally being useful on all the transit I use- I no longer have to agonize about having bus change, and if I'm tired of being on foot (or bike) I can just hop on a bus. The worst thing for me is biking in the rain- I wear glasses, so even when I'm wearing rain gear and staying dry I can't see. Grocery shopping would definitely be more of a pain if we didn't have a decent market around the corner and a Whole Foods 10 minutes away. Otherwise being without a car has been freeing. When we move from this neighborhood we hope we won't feel like we need to own a car again.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:37 PM on June 7, 2013

Tips from a guy who bikes an hour most days but tries really hard not to be a hardcore cyclist.

- bike in your work clothes. Go a little slower on your way to work and you won't sweat.
- invest in really nice rain gear (jacket, pants, shoe covers, lobster gloves) and you'll arrive dry.
- get a helmet with lots of ventilation
- it's not a race
- biking in the rain is actually no big deal, it's the 10min before the ride that's hard.
- be defensive but own your space. You are way safer if you take up a little more lane.
posted by way_out_west at 11:16 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're in Oakland with a bike, you don't need casual carpool, you can take the bike shuttle. However, I heard that BART's letting bikes on all day now, so that might be moot.

I hate riding in the rain, but it can be easily done, and the rainy season in the Bay Area is so short, you may be able to avoid it. I found drivers to be much more courteous in the East Bay than in SF.

The really big deal is how are you going to transport stuff? I spent years with a messenger bag, then eventually progressed to mostly using panniers or a huge cycling backpack.

Just start riding more now, and eventually you'll let go of your car. It's not an extreme transition, especially in the Bay Area. I generally avoided leaving my bike at BART, but you really just have to lock up better than the people around you.
posted by loriginedumonde at 12:34 AM on June 8, 2013

Not sure transporting things other than yourself is such an issue. Unless you're trying to feed a family your average fresh produce requirements for the week should fit in a backpack, basket or panniers. For all things heavy and/or bulky find a source that ships/delivers. Be prepared to pay for that if necessary. The delivery charge will still be negligible compared to the cost of running a car.

This may not be relevant for you but if your job requires you to travel a lot consider just how easy it is going to be to get to the airport for 6am or back from the airport at 11pm with your luggage. Because that's exhausting at the best of times and if you struggle to get to/from the airport a lot more. How I got round that was that the connection for early morning flights was actually quite good and I could get to the airport in half an hr. The connection going the other way was a lot less good, taking almost an hr, and I just started to take a taxi. That was expensive but I was too tired to want to stand around and wait for my connection late at night when it's cold.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:06 AM on June 8, 2013

This isn't super relevant to the switching-from-a-car angle, but if you do get panniers (which I reccomend!), you may want to consider a heavy-duty chain that you stash in the panniers while biking around. (Mine's made by OnGuard.) It will be quite a bit heavier than a U-lock, but it's so much easier to securely lock up both the front wheel and frame to random objects (lamp posts, the posts of a chain-link fence, your friend's porch railing, etc) if you need to park somewhere without bike racks.
posted by rivenwanderer at 5:27 AM on June 8, 2013

I did exactly that--I'd lost my parking lot and didn't want to have to deal with parking all the time. And the car needed repairs, etc. I figured that even if I took a taxi as often as I drove (rarely) I'd probably save money. This was about 5 years ago and it worked out fine. ( I do have multiple bikes for when one breaks down.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:15 AM on June 8, 2013

I've moved around a lot and have had a car before, but most recently have not had a car and relied on zipcar/walking/public transportation. This is the way to go - cars are a HUGE money pit.

For inspiration, check out Mr Money Mustache's posts on this topic:
posted by Pademelon at 7:12 AM on June 8, 2013

Just don't be the guy who is "carfree" but is always bumming rides from friends-I had friends like that. "Oh, we haven't had a car for yearrrrrs"-but we always had to give em a ride and they never, ever chipped in for has.

Other than that, go for it! I hope we'll be able to dump a car when we aren't both working 25-50 miles away.
posted by purenitrous at 9:03 AM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bart is running experiments with all-day bikes, but I don't believe they're allowing them at the moment. A five-month experiment is coming soon. I love biking in Oakland and the first bikes are allowed on Bart at 9am, so I ride a bit out of my way to West Oakland station and wait for the first train with room.

CityCarShare has better coverage in Oakland than Zipcar from what I've seen, but Zip is moving aggressively into the east bay.
posted by migurski at 10:06 AM on June 8, 2013

Experiment starts next month, says Bart.
posted by migurski at 10:14 AM on June 8, 2013

Response by poster: I love Ask Metafilter!!! Thanks so so much everyone. As always, it is hard to choose a best answer. For reference for other folks in the area considering this move, I'm looking at for possible help with the heavy groceries issue. I think doing a trial run while I still have my car is a good call, going to do that after my summer vacation coming up. Getting excited!!
posted by ethel at 2:22 PM on June 8, 2013

I still own a car, but I can go two weeks without driving it.

I would invest in the following things:
- panniers (can hold a week's groceries, no back sweat, some have clip-on shoulder straps so they double as a bag). Note this implies your bike has a rack.
- warm waterproof gloves
- cycling rain jacket (good ones for cycling are extra long at the back to cover your bum and have thumb loops at the end of the sleeves so they don't ride up)
- overtrousers for rain
- two rear lights (just in case one fails, because you can't see it when it does)
- front light
- tyre patch kit and/or a spare inner tube, tire irons
- small bike pump
- cheap bike toolkit with allen keys etc

Nice to have:
- polyprop balaclava for really cold days
- trailer + trailer hitch
- Monkeylectric lights and other visibility aids
- spare bike for when you don't have time fix a flat

I bought some nice Ortlieb panniers and good rain gear and figured out how many bus rides/car trips I would have to bike for to achieve payback. Where I lived, it only took a few months of biking to work every day, and the rain gear and panniers were what enabled that in the first place.

I second the suggestion to bike slower and not sweat, at least on the way to work.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:57 PM on June 8, 2013

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