Parenting on two wheels
Local family goes car-free with baby
Friday, March 28, 2008
• For more tips, check out the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s Web site at www.biketraffic.org.
For every ton of paper that is recycled, the following is saved: 7,000 gallons of water; 380 gallons of oil; and enough electricity to power an average house for six months.
For almost a decade, Michael Burton and Gin Kilgore have been living without a car and getting around the city primarily on their bicycles.
Some of their friends were doubtful that the two-wheeling couple could stay carless with a baby in tow. "Everybody’s always said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, once you have a family, you’ll get a car in two seconds,’ " says Kilgore, a Chicago Public Schools teacher. "I was like ‘Really? I hope not.’ But I didn’t want to make an assumption. I didn’t know what it was like to be a parent."
In October 2006, the Logan Square couple became parents. A mere nine days after they completed their adoption application, they were matched up with a newborn named Miguel.
The couple’s first challenge came shortly after Miguel was born. The hospital, car or no car, would not discharge Miguel without a car seat. So Kilgore, heading there, was "the crazy lady on the bus with the empty car seat." When Miguel stayed another night at the hospital, Kilgore and Burton walked home with the car seat. The next day, a friend drove them back to the hospital and they brought Miguel home in a taxi.
During their early months as parents, the couple walked or took buses with Miguel, carrying him either in a stroller or a baby carrier because he was too young to ride in the child’s bike trailer they’d inherited. (According the American Academy of Pediatrics, a trailer is preferable to a child seat mounted on the bicycle. Children riding in a trailer should be at least 1 and "have sufficient muscle strength to control head movement during a sudden stop, even with the additional weight of a helmet.")
Kilgore had a rough time forgoing bike travel until Miguel was old enough to ride along. "I love the CTA, but getting on and off the bus with the stroller was stressful," she says. "I became the person who’s like, ‘Excuse me, I need a little help here.’ And now, whenever I see anybody getting on the bus with a stroller, I’m always like, ‘How can I help you? What can I do?’ "
Sometimes the buses arrived late, or not at all. One 90-degree day last summer, Kilgore and her son trekked out to a garden center on Kimball and the bus to
take them home didn’t come. "I knew he was getting hungry and it was naptime. And we walked the whole way home, two miles in the middle of summer, because by the time the bus is going to come, it’s going to have so many people on it that I don’t want to get on there with the stroller."
Another sweltering day found them missing tot swim at the Holstein Park Pool because the bus they were waiting for never came. "That’s when I was like, ‘That’s it. I have got to get back on my bike,’" says Kilgore.
Now Miguel rides in the bike trailer (equipped with tail lights and a flag to alert motorists) the half mile to and from day care and on longer outings around the city. Kilgore says she feels safe traveling that way, but cautions that it might not be for everyone.
"We are very skilled so we know how to maneuver," she says. "It’s a little stressful because basically, you’ve elongated yourself. However, if I fall, he stays upright. Even if you had an accident, there’s a lot of metal tubing there."
She says she takes her time getting places and stays away from major streets without bike lanes, like Western Avenue, and intersections where smaller streets intersect with bigger streets.
The couple does much of their grocery shopping at a small store a couple of blocks from their home. For bigger trips, one parent stays home with Miguel and the other hauls groceries home on a cargo trailer especially designed for bicycles.
"Riding with people and seeing how they’re in the front seat and their baby’s in the back seat, seems very disconnected," says Kilgore, who grew up in mostly a carless family in Hyde Park.
"I guess we’ve lived our lives for the last 10 years without a car, and it’s hard to imagine the hassles," adds Burton. "I don’t want to deal with city stickers and insurance and moving for street cleaning."
The money they’ve saved in car payments, insurance and other car-related expenses has left them with more financial options than many middle-income people, they say. They own their three-flat, living on one floor and renting out the other two to car-free tenants. And they’re considering either replacing day care with a nanny or working fewer hours to be home with Miguel more.
"I’ve never had the expense of a car, so I don’t feel like I’m saving money," says Kilgore. "But if there are people out there who wish they didn’t have that car payment and insurance and gas, then this is definitely the way to go. If your car is causing you financial hardship, get rid of it if you can."
He recommends that families interested in going car-free start by considering "a couple of trips that you usually do—whether it’s to day care or shopping—and think about ‘How can I do this without a car?’ And then take a shot at it. If it’s not that hard, do it without the car next time."
Much like parenting, when you’re biking, every day brings new excitement, says Kilgore. "I don’t think people who are stuck in traffic in a car are saying ‘I’m on a mini-adventure.’ "
Laura Putre is freelance writer living in Chicago and is enjoying her second year of parenthood as Jane’s mom.