How I Unexpectedly Became Cool by Not Buying a Car

Alex Baines-Buffery is a regular contributor to the Transition Dorking Facebook group, sharing details of his car-free life, showing that it is possible to shop, commute and go on holiday without owning a car, even with young children and luggage. He kindly agreed to write a longer post for this website to help inspire others to get out of their cars and onto their bikes!

How I unexpectedly became cool by not buying a car

I will never forget leaving London and moving out to the sticks. I was driving behind our removal lorry and I had my wife and our 2 week old baby in the car. The car was a small red Toyota and I can’t for the life of me remember where I parked it. All I know is that we never saw it again because it was a hire car.

To this day I can’t remember if I cycled or took the train to pick it up in Dorking and then dropped it back, or if I picked it up in London and took it back when we were done. It is a detail that has slipped my mind. I do however remember at the time that I was certain that we would need our own car some day. My mum had assured me this was the case. My in-laws and friends had assured me this was the case, everyone who I knew with kids that had already migrated out of London had assured me this was the case and I felt certain at some point, despite hating how cars blight all our lives, family life would not be possible without a car.

But cars do cost a lot of money. So as we neared our new home, I said to my wife, look can we just see how we get on without one ? And cos I’ve married the coolest woman in the world the answer came back ‘Ok’. That was it. We didn’t know it then but we had refused to play by the rules. We had departed from the ‘Western Lifestyle’ and we had charted our own course.

So you have a wife, a kid, this baby and you want to go places. What do you do ? The truth is this has kinda faded from memory as well, but I basically think in the early days we walked a lot of places. We didn’t need to. I could have bought the cargo bike we now own and just used the Maxicosi attachment to mount a car seat to the bike. But I think in those days, I zipped around on a road bike and my wife pushed the pram around to get places.

Then at about 9 months, my wife’s friend who is Dutch gave us this front mounted bike seat. I already owned a few bikes and the only one I could get the seat to fit to was a Hybrid that was almost destined for the skip. But that was the one that could take the seat, and that seems to have set the direction for the rest of our lives.

Since then every problem that has come up we’ve just solved. Firstly, we’ve never lived entirely without a car. Since the point when we moved to Dorking we’ve used Enterprise car rentals. In the early days the branch was in Leatherhead and we were in Dorking but they do a free pick up and drop back service. Nowadays the branch has moved to my town. So I use a Brompton to get to the branch and then chuck that in the boot. There is also a car club in Dorking. We use that too.

Day-to-day we don’t own a car. The commute for both my wife and I is a cycle to the station, then get the train into London. This required forward planning and compromising on the size of house we could afford.

When we had one kid we used bike seats on an ’normal’ hybrid bike. Although I found my eldest used to drop off to sleep on the front of the bike. So soon we bought a reclining rear seat which would allow him to doze.

It rains so we got him the Hamax rain poncho.

Eventually my wife muted the idea of having a second child. I refused to pro-create again until we had a bike that was big enough to carry two children. Many nights I’d lie awake wondering what was the right bike to buy. I knew a 2 wheel box bike would work best for me. That would allow us to go on single tracks and keep the kids warm and dry inside the box. But Hayley worried about the weight. She had tried one in the past and couldn’t ride it.

We found a lady in Portsmouth who drove three or four different Cargo bikes up to us and we gave them a go. Turns out neither H nor I liked trikes. They work very well for some, but not for us. H had another go with a two wheeler and it turns out this time it was fine. That was it.

Had we bought one from the Lady that came to our house, the cost of the tester session would have been deducted from the purchase price of the bike. Still not sure that this would work for us, I was keen to keep costs low. A second hand, non-electric bike came up on gumtree so I negotiated a fair price and went to buy it believing that I could retrofit a Chinese motor kit to it.

It turns out I could. Our cargo bike in effect became our little car. £1500-£1800 and a bit of my time. It got us to a point where we had a vehicle that could transport two kids and a week's grocery shopping. We spend roughly £2.50, yes two pound fifty pence, per year on ‘fuel’ for the e-bike and hop on trains or use hire cars to go further afield. My trusty old hybrid bike with 2 child seats usually joins us on our train journeys so it can act as an iron horse at the other end.

Car rentals are in the region of £600-£800 per year and I’m afraid I don’t know what trains cost us. Not much.

We spend £200-£300 a year on bike maintenance.

While we do fine with the Boxbike and a hybrid, over the years the fleet of wheeled things has increased. I refuse to walk past a wheeled product without considering if it could be useful to me. On a recent weekend away to Bath my wife towed me around town on a micro scooter with our Brompton folding bike.

Hardly a day goes by where a stranger doesn’t tell one of us in the family how cool we are. It has got to the point where I’ve decided to relent and believe them.

I do the work on our bikes. Which is good. I’ve learned a lot about bikes and about life, but I envy the people who are jumping in and buying the current generation of electric assist Cargo bikes now. I think a lot of the bugs have been worked out by us early adopters and the bike makers are now shipping fantastic products. If you want to tinker there is a world of cool people on the internet who will help you. If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, here is a lesson from me: If you buy a cargo bike the only regret you will have is that you didn’t buy one sooner. Your kids will love it, so will your wallet.

The four big personal actions that we can take to reduce our carbon emissions are: insulate your home, reduce meat consumption, stop flying and dispose of a private car.

Some of us can do all of those things in their entirety, some of us will really struggle. Perhaps your work requires you to travel and you can’t risk not being able to book a club car? Perhaps work won’t pay for the car. But I think all of us can, and should, do some of those things. We’ve insulated the house and try to do 90% on the other three. It doesn’t matter to the atmosphere how the carbon is saved. We’re all starting from different points, and want to help. I’m not so much interested in where people are at, but rather where they are going.

The world is in real trouble. We have to gaze on it as it really is. That means having a proper honest conversation about the benefits and costs of motor vehicles, our priorities and where cars fit. As you will discover when you start openly talking about air pollution, tyre particulates, Child Death, mutilation, obesity, and diabetic foot amputations caused by cars, people will freak out.

Speaking as someone who accidentally discovered that aged 34 ish through no fault of my own I had suddenly become really cool after settling down to buy a house in the suburbs and have kids, I can tell you what I understand ‘cool’ to be:

Cool is being optimally weird in an effortless way. It is impossible to be cool without being different. To be cool is to stand out from the crowd. But it's no good just being a bit odd. It has to be effortless. So the way you are cool has to appear to come naturally to you. That means you have to be able to do it autonomously. In my case, I ride these funny bikes, but I’ve ridden them all for so long now, I have developed a level of speed and precision on them that leaves people stunned. The simple act of guiding my bike with two kids on board through a chicane designed to slow cyclists down is enough for women’s jaws and arms to drop and for them to say to me ‘that was cool.’ “Pff’ I say as we glide by.

There are many ways to go car free. As many ways as there are people who wish to do it. Not all, but I’m sure many of those paths will be cool. The only way you will know is to give it ago AND keep at it until it comes naturally to you. You never know, you might wake up one day and realise you are your post code's Robert Downey Jr.

About the author

Alex Baines-Buffery is a Producer currently working on a family cycling Podcast. Alex studied at Imperial College London where he received a BSc in Zoology and an MSc in Science Media Production. From there he went on to work in Factual TV production. Credits include Origins of Us for The BBC and the BAFTA award winning Sir David Attenborough’s Flying Monster’s 3D for BSkyB and IMAX. Alex used to be a pretty good rugby player, an adequate tango dancer and a fairly terrible bee keeper. But that was when he had spare time. These days he can usually be found chasing a 2 year old around a play ground.