Can I Go Car-Free? My Velomobile Journey



Can I Go Car-Free? My Velomobile Journey

Author: Ben Parke





I have always been a fan of alternative transportation. While several members of my extended family are really big into cars and auto racing, I am not. I was introduced to the European public transit system while in high school and really liked the idea of having someone else worry about not running into things or being run into on the road, or in this case, the train tracks. I may have been the only one in my high school class that did not get excited about getting my driver’s license.


One of the best things about moving to Minneapolis for college was finally having access to public transit. For most of college I commuted by bus, and once on my heavy old huffy mountain bike. Note I said once… At one point I went so long between car use, that my car ended up getting towed because it was parked in the street during fall street cleaning.


When I moved to the suburbs after college, I no longer had access to great public transit and ended up driving quite a lot. I always found driving in heavy traffic really stressful and ended up trying to arrange my schedule to avoid the busiest times of day.


This past fall I realized I needed to do something to help manage job stress better. I also wanted to be able to do more cycling, especially since I know that’s something that helps me manage stress. I started thinking about commuting by bike. I have a short 4.5 mile commute each way to the local high school on weekdays, and a 7-9 mile commute each way on weekends to the rehearsal I conduct. I decided to give it a try.


I started out using my homebuilt wooden velomobile with electric assist thinking it would cut down on sweat since I wouldn’t need to pedal so hard. The not needing to pedal so hard part was true, but it turns out that it doesn’t take much to make me sweat. However, it gave me a taste of what going car-free could be like. In March my Bülk arrived and I decided to try commuting with it.


Ben CarFree


At first I just used it when the weather was nice. It’s easy to get motivated to go cycling when it’s sunny and pleasant. Some of my appointments are also before 9AM and I don’t particularly like getting up in the morning, so I would sleep in and take the car instead and just cycle to the later appointments. In April I decided to challenge myself to use only the Bülk for the month.


I was surprised the first day that it wasn’t so hard to get up 30 minutes earlier so I could cycle in. I was even more surprised to find that I was fully awake pretty quickly once I started pedaling and a lot more awake for the early lessons. By the end of April, cycle commuting had become a habit. But what about running errands? Could I do that in the Bülk too?


My biggest concern with doing everything with the Bülk was leaving it unattended. At the local high school I know the parking lot is under constant surveillance. Putting a motorcycle tarp over the Bülk is sufficient to keep it safe there. But what about the grocery store and other places I needed to go for errands? And how would I get there safely since so many roads around here are 4-6 lanes of heavy traffic?


The art of routing


One of the things I learned early on with commuting to the local high school is that if you study the maps well enough, you can almost always find a quieter alternative route. There are quite a few grocery stores here in the suburban area where I live. I decided to try commuting to one a bit further away that could be reached with side streets. It didn’t have a bike rack to lock the Bülk to, but it did have some posts and trees. The first time was a little stressful, but with the lock and the motorcycle tarp, it was as secured as it could get. So far after a summer of grocery shopping by velomobile, I’m happy to say that no one has bothered it. I lock it up in a somewhat remote protected corner and I’m not sure anyone even notices it’s there. In fact, the more I run errands by bike, the easier it gets to find places to secure the Bülk. I’ve been surprised by just how many stores have bicycle racks.




One of the biggest concerns in the US as a cyclist is safety on the road. Our vehicles here keep getting bigger and bigger. A velomobile is admittedly small in comparison. I’ve chosen to do a variety of things to make myself as visible as possible such as choosing bright colors (red for the W9 and orange and white for the Bülk), running bright flashing lights front and rear along with mounting bright lights up high in the hotspot (which I highly recommend), choosing quieter routes and riding when possible at times when there is less traffic, running an incident camera, and keeping a close eye on my mirrors and my finger near the horn button. It also helps that I ride a lot of the same routes pretty often, and generally at the same time of day. I think drivers are probably getting used to seeing me on the road. I’ve also been getting stronger and better able to ride close to the speed of traffic. I try to choose times of day when the weather is less extreme (not absurdly hot or crazy cold).


Health benefits


The main point for me of going car-free was to be able to ride my Bülk more and reduce the stress of driving. So how has that worked out for me? Better than I expected. I choose quieter routes and plan more travel time. I don’t feel rushed, I’m able to avoid fast-moving roads full of drivers in a hurry to get places. It’s helped me slow down the hectic pace of my life and given me time to chill. Even though I was cycling just as much before when I rode my basement trainer bike daily, I push myself more in the velomobile and I’m getting a lot more benefit from riding outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine. I’m motivated to eat better, I sleep better, and I’m almost always in a much better mood when I cycle.




These benefits alone would be enough to motivate me to keep cycling everywhere, but there’s also the benefit of not having to pay the rising price of gas. Maintaining a velomobile is pretty inexpensive. Maybe once a year a new set of tires, occasional oiling of the chain, washing down the interior, all things that are pretty inexpensive compared to the wear and tear on a car. Then there’s the rising price of gas to factor in as well. I’ll be honest; I feel pretty smug when I cruise past a gas station and see the current gas price.


I still have my car. It sits in my garage and every couple weeks goes for a short drive just to recharge the batteries since it’s a hybrid. I know from last winter that it’s possible to ride my velomobile through the snow and cold, but I want to give myself one more winter just to be sure, then in the spring I will make the final decision about selling it and freeing up space for velomobile parking.


Concluding thoughts


When I first got a velomobile, it was with the intention to have something to ride on weekend joy rides when the weather was cold or wet (or both). I never imagined that it would lead to going car-free, especially in a suburban area of the US. It’s easy to look at a velomobile and think it’s intended for racing or just a curiosity, but I’ve found that a velomobile is useful for so much more than just going fast. I now understand why people that go car-free are so passionate about it and the health benefits physically and mentally that come from making such a big life change.


If you’ve ever thought about going car-free, or even replacing some of your commuting with riding, I strongly encourage you to give it a try for a month. It’s a decision I’m really glad I made.

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