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Car-free family

Turlockers turn to bikes for transportation needs

Car-free family

The Claes family — Elizabeth, John, Jack and Elliot — take a ride on their primary modes of transportation. The Claeses have been car-free for two years.

POSTED October 9, 2012 7:02 p.m.

Just over two years ago, John and Elizabeth Claes’ only car broke down – permanently.

At first, there seemed to be only one option: buying a new car.

But then, Elizabeth Claes said something that surprised John.

“What if we didn’t look for a new car?” John Claes recalled Elizabeth saying. “What if we just tried to do it by biking?”

Elizabeth Claes wasn’t a cyclist. John Claes had been biking for a year and a half at that point, commuting to work and cycling for fun, but had never considered a completely car-free lifestyle.

But the Claeses decided in September of 2010 to give cycling a three month test run. In preparation, Elizabeth Claes said she stocked up on food and supplies as if the apocalypse was coming, unsure of what to expect.

Now, more than two years later, the Claeses have come to an unequivocal conclusion.

“We don’t own a car, and my life is so much better because I don’t,” Elizabeth Claes said.


More gain than loss

In transitioning to a car-free lifestyle, the Claeses didn’t “lose” anything, Elizabeth Claes said.

Sure, there were some changes.

The Claeses stopped shopping at some stores which they found unsafe to bike to. They switched to a new bank, closer to home. And they’ve ordered a few more things online than they did before.

And the Claeses faced additional challenges because of their two children, Jack and Elliott, now age 7 and 5.

After the three-month trial, the Claeses purchased a cargo bike – essentially a bike with a wheelbarrow between the front wheel and the handlebars – where the two can carry children or shopping bags. Cargo bikes are exceedingly popular in bike-friendly European countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, where as much as one-fourth the populations of some cities own the bikes.

“That bike changed our lives,” John Claes said.

But there was never the dramatic change Elizabeth Claes was expecting.

Unless you count the positives, that is.

The two said they sleep better since selling their car. They spend more time with their children. And the Claeses have lost weight, nearly 100 pounds between the two.

The Claeses have fallen in love with Turlock in a new way, they say. They see the homes, the people, the yards and flowers, passing by at a pace where they can be appreciated – an average trip taking about five minutes longer by bike, they say.

The money savings is appreciated, as well – nearly $8,400 in year one, not factoring in the cost of a car payment. That calculation is from when gas was $2.70 a gallon, Elizabeth Claes said.

Now, they spend that money on taking big vacations, and on eating better food. It all translates into an increased quality of life, the Claeses say.


Turlock roads not ideal for bikes

Bicycle travel can, at times, be dangerous.

“Cars are big and heavy,” John Claes said. “Bicycles are not.”

“We’re vulnerable,” Elizabeth Claes said.

Their extensive cycling has led the Claeses to a simple conclusion – the roads of Turlock are not as bike-friendly as they could be.

Bike lanes appear and disappear, seemingly at random. Intersections rarely accommodate cyclists. Transitioning from residential neighborhoods to commercial areas is nearly impossible, in places.

It’s a chicken-and-egg sort of situation – not enough people cycle, so the city doesn’t plan roads for cyclists, yet the roads aren’t built for cyclists, so people don’t ride bikes.

“Guess what – they’re not going to do it until they feel safe,” John Claes said.

The Claeses point to San Francisco as an example. There, road improvements to accommodate cyclists correlated with a 58 percent increase in cyclists from 2006 to 2010.

Turlock’s road issues detract from what would otherwise be a nearly-ideal city for cycling. Turlock lacks elevation changes, is less than five miles square, and has wonderful weather. Summer months can be a bit hot, though, the Claeses noted.

A few simple improvements – painted lanes on more streets and “bike boxes” showing where bikes can stop at intersections – would make a major difference, the Claeses say. Increasing awareness is a major first step to increasing safety, and encouraging more Turlockers to cycle.


An experiment worth trying

Today, the Claeses are quick to note that they aren’t “anti-car.” They’ve simply found that, for their family, cars are unnecessary in Turlock, where most trips are just a mile or two in duration.

And the benefits are undeniable.

“It slows me down,” Elizabeth Claes said.

“In a good way,” John Claes said.

Turlock has a long way to go to become known as a cycling city. Only about one percent of trips are made by bike.

The Claeses hope that their experience might encourage other Turlockers to try biking.

“It’d be great to double it, but that would still only be 2 percent,” John Claes said.

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