Car-Free Goals: How to Succeed Through Failure

Since fall 2019, my family has reduced our vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by car by almost 15%, saved $400 in transportation costs and reduced our transportation-related CO2 emissions by 1,034 kilograms — the equivalent of the carbon sequestered by 1.2 acres of forest in one year. How did we do it?! 

Step 1: Set ambitious goals for replacing car trips with bike trips and prepared to take up winter biking.

Step 2: Completely failed at these goals!

My second-grader told me the other day that the only true failure is if you give up. He was talking about building Lego robots, but it also applies to attempts at reducing reliance on cars! 

How it started

My family made an accidentally well-timed purchase in fall 2019: an Xtracycle eSwoop electric cargo bike from Perennial Cycle in Minneapolis. Luckily this meant when the pandemic started we were already ahead of the game on biking as a socially distanced outdoor activity.

Mom + two kids on the bike our first fall! I was also wearing masks before it was cool — for sun protection.

We started to habitually make any trip less than about four or five miles by bike — and living in the aptly named Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, this gets you pretty far! It turns out that a lot of places were bikeable in 30 minutes or less: all of our regular grocery stores, several playgrounds and all six Twin Cities waterfalls on this list.

Two kids looking out over the Mississippi River after visiting, in their words, “The Disappointing Waterfall,” AKA Bridal Veil Falls.

Once in-person school started again, we easily transitioned to commuting by bike with our two kids. After some initial fair-weather success, I decided to try to get into winter biking and continue the commute year-round. I ordered studded tires and confidently came up with a goal: for school bike commutes to outnumber car commutes, even through the winter. 

“It would make a great article!” I thought to myself.

School year 1: ends in injury

We managed a pretty successful autumn, followed by a winter of failure. Flat tires, broken spokes, dislodged sensors. Once all of the mechanical problems were repaired (thanks to St. Paul’s Cargo Bike Shop), the final bump in the road arrived: winter street maintenance.

Even in fall, biking to school requires warm clothes and a blanket! A big advantage of arriving by bike is getting to zip past the long queue of cars in the drop-off line.

A 1.5-mile, under-10-minute bike commute to preschool (I sometimes win the unofficial race with my neighbor who drives his son to the same preschool!) was taking 30 minutes and required hauling the bike over snow drifts. The four-mile trip to elementary school was no longer 20 minutes or less. Separated bike paths like Ayd Mill Road or St. Anthony Avenue were well-cleared, but not always before 9 a.m. on Monday after a weekend snowfall. Side streets that were pleasant in summer slowly became impassable in winter.

Ski goggles are great for protecting your eyes from the cold air in winter.

On-street lanes became unusable too. After I found myself in the bike lane on Marshall Avenue, skidding on ice in the 4-foot gap between a garbage truck and a line of parked cars (a sad newspaper headline about “local mom and two kids killed while making poor choices” flashing before my eyes) I stuck to the car lanes on larger roads as much as possible, although that often added more than a mile to our regular route.

Finally, that January, I met an unexpectedly deep patch of snow on the only available route to the Aldine Street Pedestrian Bridge (a side effect of the lack of places to cross I-94). I discovered firsthand that a separated shoulder is a common “bicyclist over handlebars” injury, even at extremely slow speeds, and that year’s winter biking career came to an abrupt end.

School year 2: currently failing due to snow, but the winter isn’t over yet!

I was more prepared at the beginning of the second school year: a mostly healed shoulder, warm waterproof boots, better-fitting ski goggles, new helmets, a cool rain poncho, and a homemade rain cover (the kids call it “the bubble”) to protect against wind and precipitation.

Any hobby can be turned into a craft project: for example, a cargo bike complete with fabric sun shade on a PEX tubing frame, covered by a custom sewn vinyl rain cover, all attached with Velcro and zip ties! Since this photo was taken I’ve also added a deconstructed safety vest and blinking LEDs.

The kids had grown (they + the bike now outweigh me) so pedaling was more work even with the electric assist. We again made it through autumn, but riding through the first snowfall of the year involved repeated falls (no injuries this time). After the third fall in the space of a couple blocks, I locked my bike to a fence along Summit Avenue and waited for my husband to pick me up in the car. Thanks to impassable but unavoidable side streets, and some residual fear of falling, I only tried a few more times before giving up until the road conditions improve.

Doing the math on failure vs. success

In terms of bike trips outnumbering car trips, the past two school years have been a failure. On the other hand, almost all of the miles I did manage to bike had directly replaced car trips. And I’m not alone: According to Luke Breen, owner of Perennial Cycle, pretty much all of his cargo bike customers would agree that “every mile on their cargo bike is one less mile in their car.”

Since fall 2019 my family has driven 15,500 miles in our car and put 2,600 miles on our cargo bike. That means just over 14% of the miles we’ve traveled over that time period were by bike! While I may have failed at winter biking, I was still significantly reducing my personal car usage.

Those 2,600 miles by bike instead of by car look even better if you do a little back-of-the-envelope math using this EPA calculator:

2600 MilesFuelFuel costs
(as of Feb 2023)
CO2 emissions
By car116 gallons gas$406 (@$3.50/ gallon)1050 kg
By bike41.6 kWh electricity$6.24 (@15.5¢/ kWh)16 kg

Traveling by e-bike produced 1.5% of the emissions of a car driving the same distance, at 1.5% of the cost. (Comparing the initial purchase costs, ongoing maintenance and insurance costs, and environmental implications of car and bike manufacturing would be a whole other article!)

Rethinking distances and transportation choices

Making bike riding the default, at least for a while, also taught me a lot about my everyday choices. For trips of one to two miles biking is often faster than driving (especially if you include parking time). I learned exactly how much stuff I can carry on my bike: enough to make the Target pickup employees concerned that I won’t be able to fit it all! (And kudos to Target for adding bikes as a vehicle option for the pickup app during the pandemic.)

You can fit a lot on a bike if you use bungee cords.

I learned that as long as the kids aren’t along for the ride I can fit an entire cart worth of groceries on my bike; one year the Thanksgiving turkey came home strapped into a baby seat. Some other things we’ve transported by bike: a portable easel and multiple still-wet oil paintings; a folding wagon full of trash grabbers and several bags of litter; four Type I traffic barricades; another biking parent who got a flat tire on the way home from school drop-off; a seven-foot-tall apple tree.

Cargo bikes can, perhaps unsurprisingly, fit a lot of cargo.

I also learned that any time you stand on the side of the road next to a bike looking sad or frustrated, someone will always stop to offer help.

This is still the most car-heavy my life has ever been (but one person’s car-heavy is another person’s car-light). I didn’t have a driver’s license until I was 27, and I’ve never regularly commuted to a job by car; in the past I’ve gotten to work by bus, subway, bike or on foot.

Going completely car-free in the Twin Cities is possible. And winter biking can even be fun — although riding an expensive, heavy bike with kids on the back doesn’t really align well with most winter biking advice.

Climate change and choices

Choosing to go car-free can sometimes be difficult and inconvenient. But for a lot of people going car-free isn’t a choice, it’s just the everyday reality. According to 2017-2021 data from Minnesota Compass, about one-in-seven households in St. Paul and Minneapolis doesn’t have access to a personal vehicle.

MnDOT’s Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council proposed a goal of reducing Minnesota’s total VMT by 20% by 2050, which for the average Minnesotan would mean driving one hour less per week. Other jurisdictions have even more ambitious goals to reduce VMT and reduce use of single-occupancy vehicles: 40% by 2040 in St. Paul, 38% by 2050 in Minneapolis, 26% by 2050 in Hennepin County.

None of these changes will just magically happen. Many of us, particularly those who drive cars regularly, will have to start making different transportation choices. Some of us will have to make the harder choice when we can manage it, the less convenient choice when we can make it work or the more expensive choice when we can afford it. The reality of climate change means that if we all continue to make only those choices that are personally most convenient, eventually those choices will be taken from us and we will all pay the price as a society.

Making changes to your transportation habits doesn’t have to be a sacrifice! It can be a way to find joy in your commute (or at least make your commute a little happier), turn a work trip into an adventure, take a direct action to combat climate change despair, or see a neighborhood from a different perspective.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed almost all of the 2,600 miles I’ve biked, and my only regret is that circumstances have prevented me from biking even more. As soon as the roads are clear enough, we’ll be back on the bike!

Indoctrinating the next generation

In addition to spending less on gas money and reducing our CO2 emissions, my kids have been growing up on bikes. They now enjoy riding their own bikes as well as riding as passengers. Their classmates (and their classmates’ parents) have seen them being picked up and dropped off via bike on a regular basis. They’re learning to love biking and think of it as a transportation choice as well as a recreational activity.

In the parking lot after school, making biking look cool.

Recently my four-year-old was playing with his wooden blocks, and started lining up a path. 

“Are you building a road?” I asked.

“No!” He responded, “It’s a bike lane!”

My four-year-old building his bike lane.
Lisa Nelson

About Lisa Nelson

Lisa Nelson spends a lot of time thinking about community, streets, and art in various permutations. She lives in St. Paul, is co-chair of Union Park District Council's Transportation Committee, organizes a lot of block parties, and loves her electric cargo bike. You can see some of her paintings at