Oh, the places you’ll go (without a car)!

The author pedaling across the Broadway Bridge. (Photos courtesy Rachel O’Connor)

This article was written by Portlander Rachel O’Connor. This essay was submitted as part of a community project to keep BikePortland going while BikePortland Editor & Publisher Jonathan Maus is tending to a family medical emergency out of town and unable to work as normal.

In August of 2023, I sold my beloved minivan to have extra money for upcoming international travel. I had no idea back then the domino effect that decision would create in my life.

Fast forward to November 2023 when I returned home from traveling and was faced with yet another decision — to buy a new vehicle or test out the waters of a carfree life. As you can probably guess, I opted for the latter, thinking it would be a temporary way to save some money. 

To understand where this story is going, it’s important for you to first understand a little bit about me. I’m a 32 year-old cis female living in Portland, and have had a car since I was 16. Cars have always represented an important form of freedom to me — freedom to road trip, freedom to car camp, and freedom to get as many groceries as I want at Costco. 

“My life has been completely transformed by the experiences I’ve had on a bike the past five months.”

Additionally, I’m a curvy girl with a transparently mediocre level of physical fitness. The past few years I have admittedly increased my outdoorsy-ness — tackling my first backpacking trip, more hikes than ever before, and a good amount of casual rides. However, the idea of relying solely on a bike as transportation was extremely daunting based on my at-the-time normal activity level. Regardless of my concerns, I decided this would be a good challenge. My partner is also an avid cyclist and has been carfree his entire adult life (which I’m not going to lie, greatly encouraged me to make the leap).

Enter my bike purchase era.

In November I decided to reach out to VVolt to ask about the availability of their used e-bikes. Riding around the city felt a lot more doable on an e-bike. To my delight (and dread), VVolt had an awesome Centauri model that had been completely refurbished and was on budget! No turning back now! I quickly bought the e-bike and apprehensively began my new car-free life. (Sidenote: Working with VVolt has been incredible, 10/10 recommend.)

Before continuing, I want to be transparent that my life has been completely transformed by the experiences I’ve had on a bike the past five months. Here are some rapid-fire highlights of how I have evolved, as well as some hacks I’ve stumbled upon along the way:

Highlights

Experiencing the city around me: I don’t know where I read this, but I am certain there is urban planning research to support the fact that cycling, walking, or taking public transit around your city makes you feel more connected to the world than being in a car. This has been one of the biggest transformations I’ve noticed sans car. I feel connected to the other cyclists in the bike lane, more connected to the local business, and generally more in love with living in Portland than ever before. Vehicles require isolation, while cycling requires integration. I just made that one up and I think it’s pretty good.

Resilience: There’s no escaping the reality that cycling does not sound fun sometimes. You want to meet a friend for drinks, or go to the park or grocery store, but doing so would require getting on your saddle and pedaling all the way there. This breeds a specific type of resiliency that I haven’t been challenged with before. Winter in Portland is even more extreme. A simple ride up to northeast to meet friends now requires gloves, a waterproof jacket and pants, wool socks, waterproof shoes, and something to keep your ears warm. Yet, rising to this challenge feels like a small win every time, and it’s a pretty great feeling when you get your wardrobe juuuust right for the circumstances (IYKYK).

Finding new community: I have always had a pretty decent connection to the cycling community via my partner, who was a courier for a while and participates in many Portland cycling events. However, I was really only connected by association. Being able to interact with other people who are passionate about being carfree and/or cycling in general has brought a new level of connectedness that I didn’t realize I was missing. Now I get excited to attend bike events instead of feeling like an awkward bystander (and quickly realized the cycling community is not as intimidating as I thought).

Activity level and a new hobby: Obviously, cycling for transportation increases my daily activity level. But I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. In fact, I have enjoyed it a little too much and recently bought myself a non-e-bike gravel bike. Last week, I rode my gravel bike over 50 miles just for fun and I find myself anxious to get back out on the road if I go too long without riding. Who am I?!

Career trajectory: Funny enough, my newly-found passion for being carfree helped me land a role in the sustainability industry — where I get to help organizations and government agencies find funding to support their transportation electrification goals (like e-bike voucher programs!). I could have never imagined this seemingly small lifestyle change would open up doors and set me on an entirely new career path. But I’m happily trudging down it.

Discovering new ways to travel: A big concern I had about going carfree was losing the ability to get outside of the city. To my surprise, Oregon has a shockingly extensive infrastructure for taking bikes and people across the state. So far, I have taken trips (bike in-tow) to Tillamook, Pacific City, Hood River, and Mt. Hood utilizing only public transportation. All experiences have been pleasant and way more fun than driving alone.

If you find yourself with some carfree curiosity, read on for some hacks that have worked for me:

Hacks

TriMet: Sometimes you just don’t want to ride a bike. Luckily, Portland has an amazing transit infrastructure and bikes are allowed on all of them. If you are within a certain income threshold and/or receive benefits like OHP or SNAP, you can qualify to become a TriMet Honored Citizen – making all of your trips half-off.

Biketown for All: Similarly to TriMet, falling into certain income categories will qualify you for free Biketown rentals for up to 60 minutes at a time. This has been a lifesaver for me when I’m riding to a concert or other activity and don’t feel comfortable leaving my bike locked up too long.

Charging: If you need to charge an e-bike during longer rides and have a removable battery, just pop that baby off and sit at a table in a coffee shop or bar with access to an outlet. 

Panniers: I cannot stress the magic of a rear rack and big waterproof panniers enough. I’ve found these to be specifically helpful for grocery hauls but there are many other use-cases. I shock myself every time I go to the grocery store and see how much food I can take home with those puppies, and I don’t even have to worry about the straight-from-hell Trader Joe’s parking lots.

Locks: I highly recommend double-locking your bike wherever you leave it. I always make sure to lock up both my rear wheel and my frame, and feel much better leaving it alone this way.

Insurance : Since accidents, crashes and theft are a thing, I enrolled in bike insurance. A lot of renter’s insurance policies will cover theft but not necessarily accidents, medical costs, injuries to others or yourself, and/or e-bike coverage. I think my insurance costs me about $8 per month, and offers some great peace of mind.

Tires: If you opt for an e-bike, make sure to ask about the tires. If they’re not tubeless, I highly recommend getting hard-to-puncture tires. When I first had my e-bike I got two flats on the stock tires, and changing them was hell on earth. I ended up having to get a local bike shop to help, but it was pricey.


Being carfree has been absolutely transformative. I feel more connected to my city, more connected to my body, and more connected to my community. Although every ride has not been pleasant (I’m looking at you, drivers parking in the bike lane and running stop signs), I can’t imagine returning to car ownership anytime soon. 

I know living without a car isn’t feasible for everyone. I share my experiences in hopes that some of y’all realize being carfree isn’t as terrible as you may think. In fact, it might just change your life!

— Rachel made the leap across the river to northwest Portland after living on the east side for the past nine years (opinion on the west side still pending). She currently works full-time as a sustainability consultant, and spends a lot of free time trying to perfect the art of the AeroPress. 

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Phil
Phil
25 days ago

I’m curious to hear other’s thoughts and experiences with bike insurance. Who do you use, what do you pay, have you ever had to use and what was that experience like? I feel like last time I looked into it it was a lot more than $8/month.

Chris
Chris
25 days ago
Reply to  Phil

You can also look into “non-owner driver insurance” from most car insurance companies. My main reason, it provides personal injury protection should I get hit by a car while biking and they are found not liable or are uninsured. I’m paying about $20/month for it. Well worth it.

Angelo
Angelo
25 days ago
Reply to  Chris

I recommend the non-owner auto policy – the driver that hit me did not stop, but my insurance company still paid for the doctor’s visit. (Doctor did not accept my medical insurance, but did accept auto insurance coverage/lawyer).

Also, get the $0 deductible on personal injury – the cost of lowering the deductible is minimal ($10/year) since most claims will be for non-owners in other cars. Likelihood of injury is higher for bicyclists or pedestrians.

I’m under the impression only a few companies offer it, but maybe more companies offer it now. I got it because I still rent a car every 2-3 months.

Rachel
Rachel
25 days ago
Reply to  Phil

Good callout! To clarify, I have USAA so I think I get a pretty discounted rate for insurance through them. But as Chris said below, there are other options too outside of bike insurance!

Barbara
Barbara
24 days ago
Reply to  Phil

Yea interested in that as well. Insurance for bike theft etc. What good plans worth having in addition to if own a car or homeowners insurance. I’ve given up after many years doing so of using bike for errands etc since double locking still no guarantee that will wont get stolen even if can can a decent place to lock it up

Will
Will
24 days ago
Reply to  Phil

My renters insurance covers my bike from theft and damage whether it happens in the apartment or not. It costs about $8 a month from State Farm. AAA (of all groups!) also has bike insurance iirc, but I haven’t looked into it much.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor

Great post, and good for you making the leap!

Rachel
Rachel
25 days ago

Thank you Lisa!

John V
John V
25 days ago

This is a great and inspiring article!

I think the thing is very few people “start” car free. I mean, once they get old enough to get their first car. Then once you’re in, it holds you and it’s hard to leave. I’ve long since realized that “will power” at least for me isn’t so much of a thing in a lot of ways. I have a hard time having will power in the moment, so what I do is set up things for future me, because it’s easier to tell that guy what to do. So things like not having treats in the house. Point being, when one has a car, for me (and I don’t think most people are all that different) it’s really hard to consistently resist the temptation to use it. Like you said, you want to meet someone across town and it’s raining? Eh, the car just this time. But “just this time” happens all the time. I have a car because of a combination of my partner isn’t quite all in with not having one and we have a kid which society assumes you need a car to move around “just in case” (you don’t). And I hate having it because of the damned temptation to use it!

So, your experience I think is the kind of thing that you need to do. You had an opportunity where you already didn’t have a car and were able to just try it out. There’s nothing lost if you go carfree then decide you need to get one, only savings and exercise. I think that’s the opportune time to try it out (and find out it works for you). Like your used car is unreliable, or your lease is up.

On the topic of panniers, they’re great and I used them for years commuting and shopping. But my new bike I wanted to have “just enough” to be able to carry takeout so I got a short front basket and I have to say, baskets are amazing. It’ll easily hold one large bag, although obviously not quite two panniers worth. But I love it.

All that rant said, I agree. I love going around town on a bike, and the city really is pretty small by bike.

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
25 days ago

When I first had my e-bike I got two flats on the stock tires, and changing them was hell on earth.

E-bike tires are often some of the cheapest and poorly-made tires available (cheap overly-heavy wire-bead tires or cheap folding tires with minimal flat protection).

One of the best moves I made with my e-bike was to replace the thin flat-prone tires that came with the bike with tires that have good flat protection and decent rolling resistance. For city riding, I personally recommend Pirelli Cinturato Velo which come in 35 mm and are e-bike qualified.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
25 days ago

Other flat-less tires include the Schwalbe Marathon (and Marathon Plus) series, Continental Contact (and Plus), and Panaracer Tour (and Plus). Kenda, Goodyear, CST, and Michelin also make similar flatless tires. All these tires use various kevlar belts, but the Plus tires feature an extra layer of rubber protection and tend to ride slightly tall.

Fred
Fred
24 days ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

I swear by the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires – I have them on all of my bikes.

I did get a flat on the Springwater recently, which was REALLY surprising. I wouldn’t be surprised if some bad dudes are putting down glass, nails, tacks etc to discourage people from using it (good luck with that).

The flat told me that it’s time to get new tires. Even the SMP eventually wears down and the flat-protection becomes compromised.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
24 days ago
Reply to  Fred

I too use the SMP (or the 365 series) and eventually, after many seasons, got a few flats from stuff poking through (glass and roofing nails usually). I’ve also gotten pinch flats from having too much tube in my tire; valve stem flats from pumping my tires wrong or installing the valve at a wrong angle; rim tape flats from using tubeless tape instead of velox on my tubed wheels; and once had 5 spokes blow through a rear wheel when I used a 42 tooth rear cluster with a triple front (not smart).

Rachel
Rachel
23 days ago
Reply to  Fred

I have Schwalbe Marathon’s on my Vvolt actually. It has been a great change!

Lois Leveen
Lois Leveen
25 days ago

A lovely article. One more benefit you neglected to mention: the endorphin high as a motivating factor. I am exclusively a bike commuter, but one of my coworkers who is a mostly bike commuter observed about herself, “I’m just a much nicer person on the days I bike.” I know exactly what this coworker means; my sense of emotional well being has increased since I started a job with a longer commute. Only a bike commuter would say that!

On resiliency, there’s also the proud realization of what we can do with our human-powered vehicles. I was out for a leisurely ride yesterday on my analog bike, and saw an outdoor chair someone had left as a free-to-take item outside their house. Not a folding chair, not a camping chair. A rigid chair. I balanced it on my rear rack and panniers, and biked two miles back home with it. “Ha ha, world, check me out,” I thought as I rolled to a stop and unloaded my new free find.

As for your statement: “I don’t know where I read this, but I am certain there is urban planning research to support the fact that cycling, walking, or taking public transit around your city makes you feel more connected to the world than being in a car.” I am pretty sure BP highlighted a recent European research paper, I think from Germany, that substantiated this; it was probably in a Monday roundup, and maybe other readers or Jonathan when he returns will be able to point us to it again. 

Fred
Fred
25 days ago

Vehicles require isolation, while cycling requires integration. I just made that one up and I think it’s pretty good.

Quote of the week! I think often about how cars not only isolate drivers and passengers from the world: cars also absolve drivers and passengers for any responsibility to care for the areas they drive through. If you spend any time on the road outside of a car, you see how many drivers just blast through as quickly as they can, and if you get in their way they will run you over.

Remember the great lyrics from “Carbon Monoxide” by CAKE:

Car after bus after car after truck
After this my lungs will be so fucked up
I wish I was in that Mercedes Benz
Sealed away from my sin

John V
John V
24 days ago
Reply to  Fred

Great song! Along with “Long line of cars” (“There’s a long line of cars and it’s all because of me”). They sing about cars and traffic a lot!

Anoma Lee
Anoma Lee
24 days ago
Reply to  Fred

“Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation deliberation, civility. It subjects them to the implacable, as it were ahistorical demands of objects. Thus the ability is lost, for example, to close a door quietly and discreetly, yet firmly. Those of cars and refrigerators have to be slammed, others have the tendency to snap shut by themselves, imposing on those entering the bad manners of not looking behind them, not shielding the interior of the house which receives them . . . And which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists? The movements machines demand of their users already have the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment.”

-Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

Mick O
Mick O
25 days ago

I wish there was a way to syndicate this great writing to readership outside our bubble.

Matt
Matt
25 days ago

I did not find this sentiment relatable at all:

There’s no escaping the reality that cycling does not sound fun sometimes.

Cycling is and always has been fun to me. Driving, on the other hand, hasn’t felt fun since I was a teenager.

My experience of driving hews much more closely to the feeling you evoked here:

I don’t even have to worry about the straight-from-hell Trader Joe’s parking lots.

Yep, that’s just one example of why I leave my car at home as much as possible. Riding a bike is fun by default. Driving a car is meh by default, but the preponderance of reckless or distracted drivers makes it unpleasant more often than not. Whereas something about being on a bike usually makes it still fun in spite of any car-related aggravation.

Fred
Fred
24 days ago
Reply to  Matt

I agree with the sentiment, Matt, but sometimes when you are peddling up a steep hill, cycling really *IS* less than enjoyable. Which is to say: it is physically demanding and a bit painful – not that the pain isn’t worth it and the achievement isn’t satisfying.

I think most Americans – and probably most people around the globe – have become so inured to the idea that transportation should be easy and comfy that they would never consider doing something like peddling for a few miles, even on a flat surface. Ads, DOTs, and everything else in the culture tell people: “You deserve a fast and easy trip!” People respond to that idea with gusto. We who cycle regularly know there’s more to the story – that cycling really is a better way of getting around. But we are NOT breaking through – the other cultural narrative is too compelling for most people.

Matt
Matt
24 days ago
Reply to  Fred

Maybe I’m just a weirdo then, but I actually enjoy riding uphill (and in the moment itself, not just in the “type 2 fun” way I’ve heard others talk about).

Watts
Watts
24 days ago
Reply to  Fred

“Easy and comfortable” is more than a compelling cultural narrative; it’s a reality that everyone has experienced. I agree that cycling is often better (for me at least), but I also accept that others have different priorities.

Who am I to say that their priorities are wrong? (even if they are 🙂 )

Fred
Fred
24 days ago
Reply to  Watts

That’s an easy one: their priorities are wrong b/c they are killing the planet.

Do you have a harder question? 😉

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
24 days ago
Reply to  Matt

I also dislike driving (for many reasons) but I bike only for utilitarian reasons. I find cycling to be a boring, every-day way to get from point A to B. I tend to bike faster than the average commuter because I want to stop riding and do the things that I actually enjoy. Bike enthusiasts often fail to understand that most people simply want to get from point A to B in a convenient manner. Until we make it harder to drive, cycling will remain a niche transportation mode.

Fred
Fred
24 days ago

That’s an interesting viewpoint I hadn’t considered. I’d wager you are in the minority here: most of us on BP would ride a bike if it went nowhere. Hmm – would that be a stationary bike? (or maybe a stationery bike – one that writes letters).

Most people who don’t like an activity just don’t do it, which is 98% of the population that never, ever rides a bike.

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
23 days ago
Reply to  Fred

Most people who don’t like an activity just don’t do it,

I brush my teeth every day even though I don’t enjoy it. The absence of joy is not dislike. I don’t dislike riding a bike for transportation — it’s just an everyday routine that I rarely think about. Of the 51% of people in Utrecht who ride for transportation, I suspect few would ride a bike if it went nowhere.

Fred
Fred
23 days ago

Get some tasty toothpaste and you’ll enjoy brushing more.

Martin
Martin
25 days ago

I loved this article. Thank you

Mac D.
Mac D.
25 days ago

Amazing story, I remember riding tandem in the streets of Portland at the peak of morning light. Pigs were barking, crows squawking, and my oh my was I tired.

Shawne Martinez (Guest author)
Shawne Martinez
24 days ago

I enjoyed this story! Going car-free is a big step. Once you do it, you wish that you made the choice way earlier. Thanks for sharing!

Jerrod Corrones
Jerrod Corrones
24 days ago

Childless remote worker finds electric bicycle feasible. Good for the author but I’m not sure most people experience these very favorable circumstances.

Fred
Fred
24 days ago

We hear these excuses all the time: “I can’t ride a bike b/c I have a child! (or children).” “I can’t ride a bike b/c I have to drive to my job in Vancouver.” etc

But many people ride a bike IN SPITE OF the difficulties. It can be done if you want it badly enough.

TakeTheLane
TakeTheLane
23 days ago

Tell me more about how you get your bike to Pacific City or get to a remote trailhead to go backpacking without a car. In the 90s I biked the East Coast, Key West, FL to Madawaska, ME. It required breaking down my bicycle and putting it into a box to take it on the plane and bus.

Rachel
Rachel
23 days ago
Reply to  TakeTheLane

Good question! For weekend trips, I usually get a 3 day bass on the NW Connector. One bus goes from Portland > Tillamook, and then I transfer for a quick bus ride to Pacific City. You can really ask the driver to drop you off anywhere, some people get off at trailheads etc. Bike racks on the front of the bus!

TakeTheLane
TakeTheLane
23 days ago
Reply to  Rachel

Thanks.