On Living Car-Free in the City as a Family

I live in downtown Toronto (which is the fourth largest city in North America, after Mexico City, New York, and Los Angeles). I love a lot of things about raising kids in the city—the parks, the festivals, the museums, the cultural diversity—but what I appreciate possibly most is the same thing my friends who live in the ’burbs find the strangest: that it’s possible to live as a family of four without a car.

I admit there have been some cold rainy mornings when just popping the kids into the backseat would have made our family’s life a little easier. But travelling through the city by foot, bike, and public transit has some serious perks (beyond the major cost savings). We meet people, notice our surroundings, and experience all sorts of things we’d miss if we travelled by car.

Whether you’re a diehard city dweller or planning a family vacation to a big city without your vehicle, here’s how to survive—and thrive—as a family in the city sans car.

LIVE LOCAL

Unlike our friends with cars who do one big grocery shop or trip to the mall every week, our family tends to do a lot of little errands—sometimes several per day—on our way to and from work and school. Sometimes buying local is a challenge: our hardware store doesn’t have the selection of a big box store, and buying large heavy items requires creative transport solutions (like last week when I balanced a six-pack of beer on the sunshade of our stroller all the way home). But for the most part, we can find just about everything our family needs somewhere in the neighborhood—and it feels good to know that by shopping local we’re helping other families keep their small business afloat.

START ’EM WALKING YOUNG

As soon as our kids could make it down a city block as toddlers, we’ve slowly been encouraging them to walk further on their own. When our oldest reluctantly ceded the stroller to her baby brother, we installed a “toddler board” (like a little skateboard attached to the back of the stroller) to give her a rest on longer walks. Now that she’s kindergarten age, she can walk a mile on her own without complaint, and when I’m in a hurry, we have fun racing to the next lamppost or street-corner. I’ve also learned that when we have time to spare, it can be relaxing to move at kid-pace, spotting dandelions in the cracks of the sidewalk and taking inventory of the neighborhood dogs.

GET PEDALING

We started cycling—sticking mainly to designated bike lanes and side streets—with both children around their first birthdays. We have a single bike seat that attaches to a rack on the back of our bikes, and we have a double bike trailer with a full sun- and rain-cover as well as cargo area. I’ve recently been coveting our neighbor’s cargo bike—the equivalent of a tricked-out SUV for us city-types: it can carry two kids and a load of groceries on the extended rack over the back wheel, and has a Scandinavian-cool aesthetic that makes it fun to ride to work after dropping the kids off at school.

KNOW YOUR TRANSIT SYSTEM

To really explore the city, getting the hang of public transportation is essential. In the baby stage, I opted for a baby carrier on most public transit trips—or, if I had to bring the stroller, studied the map for wheelchair-accessible subway stops and buses (which usually means stroller-friendly elevators and wide doorways). Now that my daughter is four, the crowds, delays, and strange smells do little to deter her enthusiasm for a bus, streetcar, or subway trip. And she lives for the thrill of dinging the bell to announce our stop.

CHEAT A LITTLE

When we want to get out of town or make a quick trip across the city, we use rental cars, taxis, or a car-sharing service. With our membership for the latter, we use an app on our phones to reserve one of the cars in a garage at the end of our street and we pay by the hour, gas included. The best thing about renting the occasional car is that we get to try out different vehicles: a mini-van for an airport pick-up, an SUV for a road-trip, or a cute convertible for a parents’ weekend away. And the other huge benefit of driving a car once in a while is being reminded of the annoyances of traffic jams and parking in the city, which only makes us feel free more fancy-free the next time our little entourage is out on foot.