Living the Car-Free Life


The Jennings Family owns many bikes, but no car. - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig
  • The Jennings Family owns many bikes, but no car.

Shambra Jennings' ride gets more than a few second glances outside the Monon Coffee Company in Broad Ripple. Her tricked-out Yuba, tethered to a bike rack, musters admiring comments as she nurses an iced tea and talks about what it's like to live car-free.

In a city that's becoming increasingly bike-friendly, it's no surprise to see cordons of spoked vehicles chained to racks outside coffee shops, restaurants and grocery stores. More and more Indianapolis residents are making the bicycle their vehicle of choice.

But few have dumped their autos for monogamous bike relationships. And even fewer are families with young children. Shambra and her husband, James, have a fleet of bicycles, but there's no room in the garage — or their lives — for a car.

The family travels by bike to and from work, the grocery, play dates, the park, band practice, museums and even baseball games at Victory Field — year-round, 24/7, rain or shine.

Shambra and James Jennings - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig
  • Shambra and James Jennings

Steering clear of cars

Shambra and James have never been car people. When the two met about 10 years ago, they both lived directly on bus routes — back when bus fare was 75 cents a trip. Both grew up in small Indiana towns (Shambra in Center Point, James in Richmond) where cars were a necessity.

"We both moved to the city hoping for a more community experience," recalls Shambra. "My husband and I have never been big fans of the oil industry, so when we moved to the city, riding the bus was a big part of it. Neither of us owned a car."

After the two married, they continued their lives sans autos, until their twins, Claire and Paul, were born. "We tried our best to stick with public transportation," says Shambra.

But with all the accompanying infant paraphernalia — times two — it was too taxing, she says, so they bought a used car.

The car may have made things easier for the new parents, but Shambra recalls, "It put our lives on a downward spiral. The car was expensive to upkeep, it constantly needed work. Gasoline was outrageous. It was surprising how our carefully budgeted life was falling apart."

The Jennings Family fleet. - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig
  • The Jennings Family fleet.

Cold turkey

Then, when the twins were 2 years old, the car was stolen. As the couple tried to find a car they could afford, they drove a loaner from Shambra's sister. And all the same negatives they'd suffered with their own car became constant passengers in the borrowed vehicle, as well.

According to Shambra, "We found that we spent more time at stores and in restaurants. There was fighting in the back seat. It affected our health, too. We were buying more fast food, and gained weight. And it always felt as if we had no time."

The couple made the dramatic decision to kick the car habit cold turkey. They returned the vehicle to Shambra's sister, and relied solely on their bicycles — with the occasional bus trip — for transportation.

The Jennings' transition to a no-car household hasn't always been a smooth ride. Meetings with teachers sometimes require a taxi trip, and some destinations necessitate circuitous routes because of road dangers.

But they've found that the challenges that keep most of us from embracing the bike lifestyle — traveling with children, carrying groceries, time overload, weather — are easily surmountable and sometimes even preferred.

Bringing home the groceries

First, thanks to their Yuba cargo bikes, it's no problem to strap both kids, now eight years old, on the back carrier and pedal off to the market — with plenty of room to carry home the groceries. "My bike will hold the kids and as many bags as I used to fit into the trunk of our old car," Shambra says.

And James, who plays in the band Carnosaur, can strap his amp on one side and drums on the other and head off for practice on the city's Eastside.

Admittedly, it took them a couple of iterations of bikes before they found the best for their lifestyle. When the kids were smaller, they used a cart, then a tandem. James, described by his wife as a gearhead, researched all the options before the two settled on the Yubas as their optimal choice.

"Cargo bikes are relatively rare here [in Indy]," Shambra says. "They're used a lot more in Europe and other areas of the U.S. where the bike movement is strong."

They ordered the Yubas from California and turned to the Bike Line in Broad Ripple to put them together. The Longtail model with the back cargo area extends two feet longer than a standard bike and carries 500 pounds of cargo. The Jennings added a host of components, upping their purchase from a just over $1,000 for the basic model to $3,000, to optimize their utility.

But their decision to live where they live — Rocky Ripple — has been a critical part of their bike-style success.

  • Michelle Craig

Picking the right locale

"We made a conscious choice to be in the center of the activities we need access to. We try to stay local," she says. James works at Kincaid Meats at 56th and Illinois; they shop at Kroger and Good Earth in Broad Ripple.

With easy access to the Canal Towpath and the Monon Trail, they're able to travel Downtown and as far as Fountain Square for family outings. They can schedule play dates at the Indianapolis Museum of Art or Broad Ripple Park.

The Jennings make exceptions, however, when safety demands. Claire and Paul ride a bus to school, and because the route to their school near Kessler and Michigan Road presents all sorts of traffic hazards, Shambra takes the bus to parent-teacher meetings. They keep an emergency cash stash at home for taxis for the occasional pickup of a sick kid or a bike breakdown.

Shambra stresses that although they've happily adapted to their two-wheel lifestyle, it's not necessarily a ride in the park. "You can't do this with a family without looking ahead and planning your travels. Proper gear is also critical."

But she insists that it doesn't require expensive or high-tech: "Keep it practical. Accessories are accessories and necessities are necessities."

For the Jennings, necessities include reflective vests, lights, good headgear, and items as basic as water bottles and rain ponchos. Nice to have are rain-resistant pants and jackets, goggles to protect against precipitation, reinforced shoes that make for easier pedaling, and various saddle, trunk and handle-bar bags.

Raising bike-wise children

Proper gear and good planning are important components of safe cycling. Dangers include everything from blind intersections and shoulder-less streets to road-raging drivers. Years ago, James was even shot at.

"There are drivers who do believe that cyclists should not be on the road," Shambra says. "When I have my children with me, people are clearly more cautious with me and I'm grateful for that. But there have been many situations when I or my husband have been alone without kids, and people aren't as cautious.

"Some locations are worse than others," she adds.

Locations such as the intersection at Kessler and Westfield. "For some reason, that intersection is incredibly notorious for drivers to just turn pell-mell without any regard. My bike has been hit, my trailer has been hit, and I've been in near collisions at that intersection more than any other place in Indianapolis."

Teaching their kids to be good bike citizens is a priority. Although both children have their own bikes, to date, Claire and Paul never ride alone outside their immediate neighborhood.

"Paul is already begging us, 'Can I please go to Kroger by myself?' Not gonna happen," Shambra says. "But we've been told that tandems and now the Yuba are one of the best ways to teach a child the rules. They see you making the hand signals, they see you wearing the helmet, they see you riding on the side of the road. The kids make hand signals along with us, they're involved in it as much as possible. I'm excited for the day that I can say, 'Yes, you can ride your own bike to Broad Ripple alongside me.' But it's not today."

As the kids get older, the Jennings recognize that the city's bike scene is maturing, too.

"We've been growing alongside the family bike movement in Indy," Shambra says. "We're starting to see more carts and tandems. You can pick up any major bike magazine, and there is almost always some article about our city. We give a lot of props to [Indianapolis mayor Greg] Ballard. We've been on a couple of sponsored bike rides, and he's always there."

The family biking along Indy's Central Canal. - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig
  • The family biking along Indy's Central Canal.

A case for the bicycle

The barriers to car-less living for most people are viewed as benefits by Shambra and James. Take weather: "It's nice to be touched by the rain rather than running away from it. And if you're working as hard as you can carrying 125 pounds of cargo, it can even be refreshing."

Or physical demands: "I don't have a gym membership because I don't need one. Going to the grocery store is a workout for me."

Or time. Sure, travel for outings to the Children's Museum, Victory Field, and other city landmarks may take longer, but it brings a broader dimension to quality family time. "When we're on our bikes, we're talking about the things we see, we're talking about what we're doing, we're talking about everything that's around us. We're actually communicating with each other. It may take 30 minutes to get there versus 15 minutes, but the ride is half the fun. It's part of the adventure."

And then there's the environmental component. "I don't even know how much gas costs right now," Shambra says. "It's just not on my radar. Our infrastructure is set up for cars. But when someone decides to pursue this lifestyle, they're deciding it's what's better for their children, better for their community, and better for the environment.

"It's not just apersonaldecision. It's going to improve quality of life, but also quality of life for entire community over time. I can't think of anything more inspiring than not being a slave to the oil industry, which is causing havoc all over the planet."


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