life with just a bike in the country

photo: nimblescooters.com
Groceries on a bike — it IS possible! (photo: nimblescooters.com)

My favourite coffee shop has recently changed hands, sold to a young man named Jon who has worked there for a while. Yesterday, while sipping my latte and working on a post, I found out that he doesn’t own a car. I’m embarrassed by my own disbelief.

“But how do you do your grocery shopping?” I spluttered.

“Bike,” he replied. “People probably think I’m crazy, but I’ve got saddle bags for carrying everything I need.”

My jaw almost hit the floor. The reason this was so surprising to me is because we live in southwestern Ontario where towns are spread out and far apart. It’s normal to drive a half hour between towns without seeing anything except small farms and lots of cows dotting the countryside. There is no public transportation except for a daily bus that leaves at 7 a.m. going to Toronto. The nearest Greyhound bus station is in Owen Sound, forty minutes to the north. Sometimes it feels like I live in the middle of nowhere. Cars, I’ve always assumed, are an absolute necessity for living here. In fact, I went from being a sworn carless urban-dweller to buying one within three months of moving here because I couldn’t stand not being to get anywhere. It’s easy not to have a car in the city, but it’s another kettle of fish here in the boonies.

And yet, in one fell swoop, Jon showed me how flawed my assumptions have been. This guy, I realized with a jolt, has a totally different perception of distance than I do because mine has been warped by car-dependency. It must be possible to live without a car in a small town in Ontario, because he does it. Not only that, but he said he thinks nothing of hopping on his bike and riding to and from Kincardine for a coffee — nearly 40 kilometres. I know that’s not a particularly long distance for people who do a lot of road biking, but that’s just for sport and exercise. Imagine it being your only means of transportation and you had to use a bicycle to get to that coffee in Kincardine. Suddenly looks pretty different, eh?

Perceptions of distance are interesting. My uncle Harold does a lot of walking and spends every April traversing the south of France on ancient footpaths that were established by peasants back in the days before vehicles. He lives in the Niagara region and, like Jon, thinks nothing of taking an entire day to walk for 8-10 hours across the peninsula for dinner, returning home the next day. My aunt walks 7 km each way to work. Uncle Harold has told me that North Americans have a skewed concept of distance and a perverse reliance on cars. If we’d only take the time and make the effort to walk, we’d be surprised at how many places are accessible to us.

Realistically, I can’t do my family’s grocery shopping on a bicycle, though I guess I would if I had no choice. While I’m not considering giving up my car, I am inspired by Jon’s lifestyle to rethink distances in my life. I don’t want to be so quick to assume a place is too far to walk to, such as the grocery store, if I need to do an emergency run for milk. I usually always drive to the store, but realistically, it’s probably only a 15-minute walk each way. Why would I not do that? As my kids grow older, that will help, too. Right now they walk soooo slowly!

I have to say, while Jon’s announcement made me feel a bit like an inferior, negligent, gas-guzzling human, it was also terribly exciting to meet someone who actually lives without a car in a rural environment. I didn’t know people like that still existed. It’s refreshing, not to mention hopeful for a future that is likely going to force us to change our perceptions of distance, like it or not. Jon could probably teach us a lot.

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8 thoughts on “life with just a bike in the country

  1. Have you forgotten how many miles your sister rode her bike up North? For a job! I love walking, the only reason I don’t use a bike is because I not comfortable balancing.

    1. That’s true!!! I’d completely forgotten about that summer that SJ rode something like 30 km to work every day in hopes of losing weight (and lacking transportation, too). She ended up with gigantic muscular thighs from all the pedalling!

  2. It’s definitely possible to be car free in Port Elgin, and it helps that Bruce Power has a bus service, but it is way more convenient to have access to a car – especially in winter! Does Jon have winter tires for his bike?

  3. “Realistically, I can’t do my family’s grocery shopping on a bicycle, though I guess I would if I had no choice.” – One of my favourite aphorisms is that “small fridges make good cities”- Again, in Europe or New York City where a lot of people do not own cars, people shop every day for whatever is fresh, instead of doing the big shop at Walmart on the weekend. It supports local shops and keeps the community vibrant. It used to keep the main streets of small towns like Port Elgin alive.

    Have a look at this hilarious video of Oprah looking at an apartment in Denmark: http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/small-fridges-make-good-cities-oprah-tours-fridges-in-copenhagen.html

  4. That’s a fascinating video (and great article that you wrote). It makes me feel encouraged in our choice to live in a small house and, even if we decide to have another child, not at all bad for squeezing three kids into a small bedroom. If that Danish family can do it, so can we!

    As for grocery shopping daily in the downtown core of the town, how I wish I could do that. It would be such a wonderful use of time being a stay-at-home mom always looking for outdoor activities to do with my kids. Sadly, there simply aren’t the right stores on the main street to support that kind of lifestyle, probably because of lack of demand. As it is, I do spread out my grocery shopping among local vendors (butcher, egg farmer, CSA veggies), but most require me to use a car.

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