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Car Free in Portland!
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Due to the popularity of my post “Tips for Biking with Kids,” I thought I’d do a follow-up that focuses on a family living without a car in Portland…by choice!  If you’re a family thinking about making a similar lifestyle change, or you’re simply interested in how a family can possibly live without a car, read-on and get inspired.

In October 2006, Michael Downes and Wendy Ashton moved to Portland, Oregon with their son Nathan Downes after living in Pasadena, California for 10 years. 

Downes/Ashton familyWhen I first met the Downes/Ashton family, I was impressed right away with their commitment to living car-free, and I knew they were a perfect choice for this short article.  I want to thank them for granting me permission to publish an email-interview about their experiences biking around town.  The transcript from this exchange is printed below with both Michael and Wendy contributing.  Enjoy the article and email it to a friend, or a family who may be headed in a similar direction.

1.  Did you move to Portland with the idea of living without a car?

Michael:  Yes….after ten years of driving absolutely everywhere we were sick of it. The financial burden was huge but we also worried about the environmental damage that we were contributing to everyday. All our efforts to do things like recycling seemed entirely negated by having to live in a vast car-centric city. Plus sitting for hours on heavily congested freeways is a waste of quality family time. Of course bicycles weren’t the only attraction. The scale and livability of Portland and the great mass transit was a huge draw.

2.  When you got here, did you still own a vehicle?

Michael:  No…we arrived without cars. Our two junkers weren’t worth the cost of shipping all the way here. We figured we would try it out for a while and if the car free thing didn’t work we would buy a used car locally. So far we haven’t been tempted to get a vehicle.

3.  Before getting rid of your car, did you read anything that inspired you or let you know that you can indeed, live without a car?

Michael:  Actually I was born and raised in London and never even learned to drive until I came to California in my late thirties. There never seemed much point. I always had a bicycle, public transit was excellent and even taxis didn’t cost that much. The question was always why bother?

Wendy:  The proximity of our house to the center of town, great public transportation, our dedication to cycling, and the ability to use Zipcar/rental cars.

4.  What were the major reasons for wanting to be a family without a car?

Michael:  Sanity, health, self sufficiency, community and thrift. Adopting a low carbon foot print was also important but that came way down on the list.

Wendy:  Cars are a complete pain in the ass, they are expensive, pollute, break down, need repair, need maintenance, insurance and lots of gas. Quality of life. Health – less stress & more exercise. It is just not necessary. Didn’t want my son growing up believing living one’s life is tied to a car.

5.  When you see the gas prices climbing, see and/or hear about the realities of Global Warming, and other political concerns around oil consumption, do you feel that you’re making a difference?

Michael:  In a small way, yes. However there is so much more that we do directly and/or indirectly in our lives that has a negative effect on the environment that riding a bicycle is, in reality, small potatoes. I do feel that we set a healthy example for our son.

Wendy:  It is strange that after 2 years of living car free I hear about the gas prices going up and I comprehend the impact of this, but I really don’t feel it in relation to the car. The gas pump is so foreign to me now. Feel good that we live this way so easily and our ‘carbon footprint’ is so low. In terms of Global Warming and oil consumption, this switch to living car free really makes us want to go further to reduce our own personally dependency on oil in other aspects of our lives.

6.  You’ve clearly stated that your lives have been greatly enhanced by your choice to live without a car.  Can you clarify what “greatly enhanced” means?

Michael:  We deliberately take things slower. We take the quieter, less direct routes. We cut through parks and back alleys exploring the city. We take time to stop, sometimes quite literally, to smell the roses. On a bike it’s much easier to stop if we something of interest, no hunting for a parking space. We can be much more spontaneous. When I ride around with my son in the Bakfeits we talk constantly in response to what he is observing in a way that would be impossible in a car. We are constantly engaging and being engaged by people in the wider community, again in a way that just doesn’t happen in a car. The exercise alone has benefited our family both physically (we don’t need or want a gym membership) but also emotionally. Cycling makes us closer and happier as a family.

Wendy:  Financially, we don’t spend as much. Health, we exercise more without having to make time for it, it is just a way of life. Through riding a bicycle and taking public transportation we feel much more connected to the city and it’s people. As a family we interact and function more as a team as you have to think about the way you go about daily life a little differently. I guess you are dependent on each other a little more.

7.  You’ve also stated that there is a misconception about the sacrifices of living without a car and that some of these misconceptions are exaggerated.  Concerning your situation, what were the biggest sacrifices and how are they exaggerated?

Michael:  It is often suggested that the physical challenge will be insurmountable (it is not), that cycling five miles is somehow a herculean feat (it isn’t..not even close) or that sharing the road with traffic is akin to juggling chain saws blind folded (there are some risks but as always they have to balanced against benefits). Invariably these claims are made by people who drive all the time. There is also a tendency to portray people who live car free as being on the fringe. Worthy but, like Vegans, ultimately eccentric. I would say people’s preconceptions are a huge barrier. From a personal viewpoint I can think of nothing about my car free life style that I see as a sacrifice. When I really need a car I rent one or use Zipcar. The nice thing about renting a car by the hour is that it forces you to be much more efficient with your driving. No frivolous trips to the supermarket to pick up some floss. We calculated that the money we saved not owning two cars was the equivalent to 40 car rentals a year. There is no way we would ever need to rent a car even ten times in a year.

Wendy:  Not sure I said that misconceptions are exaggerated, but I do believe that there are misconceptions and that there are sacrifices.  [Editor’s Note:  Wendy is correct, she did not say the misconceptions were exaggerated.  This was more of an inference in a conversation I had previously with Michael].  One misconception is that it isn’t possible, but it is and it isn’t that hard to make the change. One sacrifice is without question, the spontaneity of going somewhere further afield. You have to plan it out a bit more by either renting a car, booking the Zip car, or figuring out another way.

8.  Can you describe the worst incident where you REALLY thought it would be nice to have a car right now?

Michael:  Well fortunately it hasn’t happened yet but in case of serious injury or illness I could imagine that a car would be useful. But in truth could we get to an ER quicker than paramedics could get to us in an Ambulance? Indeed, would it be safe or even practical to drive in a panic, at speed through town to get to that ER?

Wendy:  There really hasn’t been a worse incident and I hope that never comes. My biggest want of a car has been on those cold, really rainy days when I really don’t want to do the grocery shopping and don’t want to spend the $18 on a Zip car. We are on a tight budget.

9.  How do you get out of town?  Do you use Zipcar?

Michael:  Zipcar really only works in town for short durations like doing the grocery shopping on a soggy weekend in January or picking someone up from the airport. Anything over four hours like a day trip to the coast then we rent.

Wendy:  We use Amtrak a lot, almost always when we head North to Seattle. Otherwise we rent a car. Rent 5 times and get a free day. But as we are on a tight budget, we really look at the expense of the trip, (this is easy when you don’t have a car) to see if we can truly afford it.

10.  If a family is considering getting rid of their car, what might you say to them to convince them they’re making the right choice?  If you think that’s a bit aggressive, what might you say to inspire them?

Michael:  I would just quote the sticker that I see around Portland on bikes: ‘live free or drive’. Seriously, the biggest challenge is not physical but mental. Cyclists love to ride because every moment (well okay..not every moment but most of them) are filled with joy and connectedness and because of that they are happy to adjust their lives around cycling. I often make up excuses to get out on the Bakfeits [Editor’s Note:  The “Bakfeits” is the bike in the family picture inside this article] because it’s such a blast.  There is so much more to gain than there is to lose. Sure, there are risks and you need to be smart and safe but the benefits far, far out weigh those risks. Living car free you will live longer, healthier and happier and that is a statistical fact. Last of all? There is no law that says you have to wear Spandex if you don’t want to.

Wendy:  It really is a personal choice that they should at least try. For me, having a bicycle makes a huge difference. When my mom comes into town and doesn’t ride a bicycle it seems to take a lot longer to get around. I really like the freedom to just go that the bicycle gives me. Not sure how happy I would be if I were dependent only using public transportation. But living car free is great for me and my family.

Technorati Tags: Car free living, Portland, Oregon, family, biking, bike-friendly

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Holly Farm Park on May 2nd, 2012


  1. Thank you so much for this article, makes me think we really could do it!
    Very inspirational!

  2. Thanks for the comment Heidi. Yes…these two make it look easy! 🙂

  3. We’re a family of four and have been car-free for about a month now; love it!

  4. Wonderful insight. I live in Guatemala City and I'm looking forward to moving to Portland, Oregon to live my life without a car and enjoy life!

  5. Love this article! Great to read such a down to earth account of living car free. There's a very practical point of view in here, that resonates so well.

    We're strongly considering a move to PDX, and I'm wondering if there are areas of the city that are better suited for this car-free lifestyle. Seems like most of the city is pretty well connected, but seriously, are some areas (neighborhoods) better than others?

    • Thanks for the comments Marc. It sort of depends on what type of lifestyle/amenities you’re looking for. We live in North Portland, and I like the fact that the Max Train is close, and we have plenty of biking lanes up here. However, things are a bit more spaced-out in North Portland. In Southeast Portland, everything is closer together, but there is much more traffic on the side streets. Also, we could not afford a house in SE Portland.

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