Stories The Journey

Living That No-Car Life – What it’s Like

Ever daydreamed about ditching your car and only ever getting around by motorcycle? Learn the highs and lows from two guys who live that life

If you’ve ridden a motorcycle for more than 10 minutes you have almost certainly entertained the fantasy of giving up your car and living life by your own two-wheel code.

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This is especially true if one of the things that got you on a bike in the first place was the ‘it’s so efficient‘ fallacy that mo-jos like to roll out every once in a while (yeah, I’m guilty). You know: the idea that you’ll save money by riding a motorcycle because insurance costs less and you ostensibly spend less on fuel, and everyone will love you for using fewer resources and taking up less space, and so on and so on.

Helmet hair and looking like a nerd (wearing high-vis and an Aerostich R3) are some of the drawbacks to everyday commuting

In application, none of this stuff is particularly true. If you want actual efficiency, buy a Toyota Aygo. It costs less than, say, a Suzuki V-Strom 1000 (£9,500 vs £10,300), is more fuel efficient and decidedly safer, has longer service intervals and lower maintenance costs, has the radio and phone connectivity you’d pay several thousand more to get on a motorcycle, is nice and warm and dry when it’s pissing rain, carries more stuff more easily, and you can sleep in it if your journey turns out to be longer/more exhausting than planned.

But you won’t find hundreds of magazines, websites, blogs, vlogs, and Instagram accounts around the world dedicated to owning an Aygo. There’s something about riding a motorcycle that manages to eclipse the colossal ass-painery of riding a motorcycle. And for a very small minority of motorcyclists that something is so powerful that we choose to live car-free lives.

Two Perspectives

Personally, I have not owned a car since 2011. And up until last month I could claim to be living in an entirely car-free household. Then my wife got a job that requires travelling up to 400 miles a week and not arriving looking like a hot mess. She bought a second-hand Citroen C1 – the cuter, French version of the Aygo (exactly the same chassis and engine). So, I do now have the ability to, say, pick up new tires, but my everyday life remains very much moto focused. I ride to work every day on my Triumph Bonneville T120, in all weathers, clocking a bare minimum of 170 miles a week.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Drew Faulkner of Moto Adventurer is a southern Ohio resident who’s pretty well known for being an almost-all-the-time bike guy. In 2017/2018 he accomplished the feat of riding every single day for 365 days, earning him attention from podcasts, mainstream moto media, and even Triumph Motorcycles. Like me, Drew rides a Triumph to work in all weathers. Well, almost all weathers. He owns a car and admits to having used it once or twice in winter when snow was falling. (I don’t fault him; I usually “work from home” on the rare occasion it snows here.) A while back, he and I decided to sit down and work out a collaboration of our experiences: the good and the bad, and a few tips on how we manage.

“Not long after getting my first motorcycle, I was captivated by the idea of using it as my primary means of transportation,” Drew says. “This is obviously crazy talk for most people. For the vast majority of motorcycle owners, their bikes are toys – weekend entertainment… [but] I love riding so much.” 

It should be noted that Drew and I use our bikes for entertainment as well as commuting. It’s not all drudgery

The Challenges

Drew and I are both obviously in favor of regular riding, so let’s start with the bad stuff so we can end with the good stuff. For both of us, one challenge immediately comes to mind. 

WEATHER

It rains all the damned time in Wales (Cardiff, where I live, is Britain’s rainiest city). Meanwhile, when rain falls in Ohio it tends to do so more heavily, snow is more likely in winter, and temperatures can be a lot greater in the summer. Indeed, the hottest it has ever been in Wales, ever, was 35.2ºC, or 95.3ºF. The average summer high is 16ºC, or 61ºF. Compare this to an all-time high of 42.2ºC, or 108ºF, in southern Ohio, with average summer highs of 30ºC or 86ºF.

“Weather is undoubtedly the first thing folks think about when having a motorcycle as your strict method of transportation,” Drew says.

KEEP READING: The Five Whys – Drew Faulkner

Gear sellers like to use the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear, and there’s some element of truth to this. Having the right gear for the conditions can dramatically improve your ability to deal with whatever Mother Nature’s throwing at you. The key, we both feel, is to focus on getting gear that works, rather than gear that looks good.

“Fashion be damned,” says Drew. “You’ll quickly discover that being warm and comfortable starts to trump any sense of looking cool… Ski masks, latex gloves, Carhartt bibs, and Hippo Hands are just a few things I’ve used to get from point A to B. All of this may seem rational to fellow riders, but it’s really your family and coworkers that start pushing you ‘talk to someone’ when you roll into work dressed like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”

Drew is a little more hardcore than I am. On the two days that it snowed in Wales last winter I insisted on working from home
FINANCIAL STRAIN

Frustratingly, talk of gear runs quickly into the second biggest challenge of riding regularly – a challenge that hangs over and meshes with all other challenges: the financial aspect. Gear costs money.

By and large, Drew relies on Icon’s DKR jacket and pants, paired with a Scorpion EXO-AT950 helmet, and myriad bits and bobs to counter specific weather conditions – such as Nelson Rigg rain gear for dealing with downpours. Whereas my go-to gear includes the Aerostich R3 Roadcrafter, Shoei Neotec II helmet, and Keis heated vest. I switch out no less than four pairs of boots and four pairs of gloves depending on conditions. This stuff costs A LOT of money – especially the stuff that won’t wear out quickly. The starting price on my R3, for example, is $1,247 (about £1,017 at the moment). If you want to customize the thing or add the spiffy back armor that I use, you’re going to see the price shoot up considerably. Yeah, it’s definitely worth the money in the long run but there’s no getting around the fact you’re facing some pretty heavy initial outlay. Add, too, the cost of base layers, etc. None of it is cheap, and none of it fully guarantees a comfy, stress-free ride to work.

“Dealing with a significant illness whilst trying to ride a motorcycle takes endurance to a whole new level,” points out Drew. “It’s one thing to pile on layers, plug in heated gear, and even stud tires to get to your destination. It’s something completely different to pull over to the side of the highway to handle a coughing fit, clean your visor, and continue on your way. Moreover, you’re in the elements – you’re already battling additional distractions with constricting gear and sketchy road conditions – and now you’re further distracted by the sniffles, a nasty cough, and splitting sinus headache. A recipe for disaster.”

MAINTENANCE

If you’re riding year-round you may also want to kit out your bike with accessories like tall screens, hand guards, heated grips, and crash protection. That’s more money spent. But even if you’re happy to keep your bike stock, it’s a simple reality that bikes go through parts more quickly than their four-wheel alternatives.

“A 40-mile roundtrip commute is typical where I live, which means you’re racking up miles on a bike a lot faster than you realize,” says Drew. “An oil change and a set of tires every season is something most riders think about, but when you start throwing in multiple valve adjustments each year, the cost in time and money of maintaining the machine climbs several notches.”

ALSO FROM DREW: An Ode to the Scrambler

For my part, I generally switch tires every 7,000 miles or so, and will replace brake pads at the same time. Triumph says the Bonneville T120 only needs to be serviced every 10,000 miles but I changed the oil at the 5,000-mile mark anyway, because I’m paranoid. There is also the far more frequent cost of chain maintenance. Spurred by the negative experiences of my friend, Jeff (who also commutes by bike most days), I clean and lube my bike’s chain once a week.

If you’re paying someone else to do all this maintenance you are probably rich and this whole section about the challenges of being car-free is largely irrelevant to you. Congratulations on your success; skip down to the section on the benefits of riding for some inspiration, then go out and buy yourself a Gold Wing. Most of us, however, want to avoid astronomical garage fees by tackling as much of this maintenance as possible on our own.

“Maintenance is arguably a more daunting task than enduring the weather in my locale,” says Drew. “Most (standard) motorcycles are easy to maintain, it’s simply that the maintenance is much more frequent than most modern cars. If you have a professional do the major service work for you, you’ll need a transportation contingency [in addition to swallowing the cost]. Embrace your mechanical aptitude and save that extra dough for all the consumable items you’ll need to keep that bike on the road. In the end, when you include the round-trip commute time, you’re likely to get the work done faster than waiting on the average motorcycle shop anyway.”

I spend A LOT of money on sprays, cleaners and lubricants to keep my bike clean and running well

Drew is more mechanically minded than I am, and therefore seemingly more willing to go ripping his bike apart with little more than a rough idea and a positive attitude. I do my own work because I can’t afford to pay someone £70 an hour to do it for me (the standard rate in the UK). Still, I generally find it stressful and, because I have to do almost all my work outside, mucky and cold.

To that end, I’ll offer an aside on the challenge of storage. Drew has a garage large enough to store multiple bikes. I have a shed and a famously tricky bit of maneuvering to deal with. Both of us are arguably in an advantaged situation; a lot of riders will not have particularly secure parking. Equally, you may face similar security challenges at work. I’m lucky enough to work for a place that has allocated covered parking for motorcycles, with ground anchor bars to which a rider can secure his/her bike with a chain.

Back to maintenance, though. There are also the costs involved in regularly forking out for weather-fighting measures.

KEEP READING: The Five Whys of My Motorcycling

“Beyond the challenges of riding in brutal winter weather, the real bear is dealing with the slow, unforeseen consequences of said weather,” says Drew. “I’ve replaced the aluminum brake pad retaining pins in both of my calipers after they seized from oxidation; likely accelerated by road salt. Rust is mother nature’s Loctite, and it’s 10 times more effective. I can’t count the number of fasteners I’ve replaced because they were stripped and dismembered… Geography, storage, and commute distances, among other things, will have a huge impact, but in the end a lone motorcycle is going to show its age a lot faster than its four-wheeled counterparts.”

One of the best ways to fight your bike’s weather-induced atrophy is to keep the bike clean and covered in protective sprays like ACF-50 or GT85. Doing this regularly can be a chore, though, eating up a lot of time (and a lot of money spent on Muc-Off, wax, WD-40, and other protective sprays). Doing an intensive clean of a bike can take up to two hours (note that when I do a full clean I’ll usually loop in the act of cleaning/lubing/adjusting the chain). The payoff, though, is that my bike looks brand new, which will be to my benefit in a few years if/when I decide to sell my bike (history shows that I feel the need to switch bikes every two years). 

LOGISTICS

You’re also going to face more logistical challenges than with a car.

“There’s no question – ultimately the greatest challenge of riding a motorcycle every day is the shocking amount of planning involved,” says Drew. “You watch the weather religiously, you keep track of your mileage, you’re maintaining a stock of consumable parts, and you’re scheduling 10 extra minutes to get dressed before each ride. You’re setting aside time to do chain maintenance, looking over tires, and replacing headlight bulbs. All the odds and ends chip away at your schedule bit by bit. It’s not that these activities are overly taxing (sometimes they’re downright therapeutic), but it’s a matter of being prepared to ride the next day and the next day.

I had to think creatively recently when my wife made cupcakes for me to take to coworkers. Tupperware and Kriega bags did the trick

“Gearing up, I don’t mind getting my spaceman on for most rides, but it gets taxing when you’re stomping around the grocery store where the heat is cranked up for grandma. You’re dressed for a blizzard.”

And when you leave that store, there’s the logistical challenge of carrying home the stuff you bought. If you’re the aforementioned Gold Wing owner, you might not be too concerned; you’ve got those panniers and voluminous top box. Most commuters, though, are going to opt for smaller, more maneuverable bikes, which means less space for luggage – especially if you filter through traffic. The thinner you are, the easier it is to squeeze between cars, which means leaving the humongous aluminum panniers at home. I use Kriega bags strapped to my bike’s seat. They’re great but I generally don’t have extra room if my wife asks me to pick something up on the way home.

Perhaps I need to be more inventive. Drew tells a story of picking up a new tire at a dealership then wearing it “like a hula-hoop through rush-hour traffic in Dayton.”

“I’m completely unfazed by this kind of absurdity, but it’s representative of the extent you’ll have go to in order to transport groceries and the like with only a motorcycle,” he says. “When those situations come up, you start tapping friends on the shoulder and see if they can give you a hand with their truck. That or you get real crazy with a roll of twine.” 

The Benefits

OK, enough with the doom and gloom. Drew and I can moan all day about the challenges of living car-free, and yet we still do it. Why? Well, to paraphrase what I said at the start of this article, if you’ve ridden a motorcycle for more than 10 minutes you probably have a sense of what motivates us.

SAVING MONEY

Let’s start with the weaker ‘pro’ arguments: those appealing to sensibility. I disagree, but Drew insists that despite the financial challenges a motorcycle can still be a good idea for those looking to pinch pennies.

“Motorcycles are expensive but they don’t have to be,” he says. “When a motorcycle stops being seen as a status symbol but more as a tool, affordable, year-round motorcycle transportation becomes more realistic. Single-cylinder dual-sports, lightweight nakeds, or ‘standard’ street bikes make great commuter motorcycles – both in terms of purchase cost and, often, maintenance. When looking cool and having the latest gadget is no longer a priority, most reliable used cars will cost more than smaller displacement bikes. I can probably pin down a handful of KLRs locally on Craigslist for $3,000 right now.

Cheap thrills?

“I sat down and did a little back-of-the-napkin math, comparing the last few years of my Triumph ownership against my wife’s Jeep Patriot, both of which are sitting on over 60,000 miles. Taking in payments, maintenance, insurance, and registration costs over a 12,000-mile year, my Scrambler surprisingly costs less to operate,” he continues. “Those costs become adversely lopsided as soon as you factor in the car payment versus the loan-free motorcycle. If you’re looking to “downsize”, and “live small”, you’ll be amazed what you can save by riding a CBR250 or a CRF250L every day.”

Notice Drew doesn’t factor in gear costs. 

SPECIAL TREATMENT

Let’s move swiftly on to other practical benefits, such as the ability to filter through traffic.

As far as I’m aware, there is still only one US state where so-called lane splitting is fully legal: California. But Hawaii offers a strange version of the practice, a number of states (including Oregon and Washington) are constantly flirting with making it legal, and other states (including Texas and Ohio) are vague in their laws. In states like New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Florida, you’ll find cities where the practice is de facto legal in the sense that just about everyone tolerates it.

Meanwhile, in Not America it’s quite common. Here in the United Kingdom it’s actually taught to beginners. I filter through traffic regularly, using the technique to spare myself time and stress that would be spent sitting in a car. Meanwhile, as in the United States, it’s generally the case that motorcycles are allowed to use bus/taxi/carpool lanes, meaning that even when we’re not filtering we’re still beating traffic.

“A motorcycle can escape bad situations on the commute,” says Drew. “The power to weight advantage of a modern motorcycle means I can reach and fit through gaps that cars simply cannot. In the space between exit and on-ramps, I can circumvent that woman putting on her makeup in the fast lane. Ohio is a grey area where lane splitting is concerned, not condoned yet not illegal, but folks in the UK and California will tell you how their commute can be slashed in half.”

Again in Not America, most businesses and facilities cater to motorcycles. Most road tolls in the UK are free for bikes, whereas costs are noticeably reduced on toll roads in other European countries.

Where I work, motorcyclists have a special place to park – safe from cars and with a certain amount of weather protection

I mentioned my workplace parking situation. Most European car parks (‘parking lots’ for those of you playing along in the United States) have specific areas for bikes and it’s most often the case that they can be had for free, while cars (or, at least, ICE cars) may have to pay. At many shopping centers and airports, the benefit of free parking is boosted by the presence of ground anchors to which you can chain your bike. Some places go even further to accommodate bikers: at Gunwharf Quays shopping center in Portsmouth, for example, motorcyclists are welcomed with free, covered parking in special bays that provide chains with which to secure your bike, and lockers in which to store your helmet/gloves.

In most major British cities, motorcycle parking is the only kind you’ll find on the street that’s free. The city of London often provides security rails at bike parking spots where riders can chain their bikes. Outside of London, it’s very common for motorcycles to simply park on the pavement (ie, ‘sidewalk’).

IT’S GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN BOX

“Not too long ago, with a completely straight face, my buddy Tim said: ‘You are bat-shit crazy man.’ He was probably right,” says Drew. “Despite the weather, I genuinely prefer to ride than drive 99 percent of the time. I’m not joking when I say, it’s actually a sanity thing. Being in a car in gridlock urban traffic is down right claustrophobic for me. The motorcycle brings sanity.”

This is a pretty well-established benefit of motorcycling. Earlier this year, a study by UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior found that motorcycling increased metrics of focus and attention, and decreased relative levels of cortisol, a hormonal marker of stress. The study, funded by Harley-Davidson, was largely focused on recreational riding but similar mental health benefits are to be had when using a bike to commute.

RELATED: Built for This – 2,200 Miles Across Europe on a Harley-Davidson Street Bob

At the very simplest level, I often feel that one of the strongest benefits of riding is that it puts truth to your misery. Here’s what I mean by that: sometimes sucky things just suck, and it can be helpful to acknowledge that. Being stuck in traffic on a cold, wet November commute for example, sucks. Being on a motorcycle will not change that. As you shiver and slip about in the orange and red gloom of street lamps and taillights, you’ll find yourself thinking: “Man, this sucks. It’s dark and I’m wet and cold. When I get home I’m going to have an enormous mug of tea.”

So then you go home, towel off and sit there with your enormous mug of tea, thinking: “Ahh, this is better. My mood has dramatically improved since I ceased being wet and cold. When I finish my tea, I think I’ll pet my dog, or make out with my wife, or build a scale model of the Mayflower with popsicle sticks, or engage in some other activity that I find enjoyable and rewarding.”

Meanwhile, the person getting home in a car is vulnerable to being confused. In the dry and warm of his car, he might tell himself that he is not bothered by the dark sadness of a wet November evening. However, as he inches homeward, blinded by the LED headlights of oncoming Audis, breathing in his own air, the natural ache induced by his external environment still finds its way into his soul. But because he’s not immediately wet and cold he doesn’t correctly identify these things as the source of his unhappiness. His brain starts searching for life experiences and memories to serve as the cause.

The weather isn’t always great but riding still gives you a better and more honest connection to the world around you

Soon, he’s tearing himself up because Emma Carrbridge turned down his invitation to junior prom some 20 years ago. He becomes convinced that she was prescient in her rejection – somehow knowing he’d never amount to anything more than working as marketing manager for a company that makes plastic-wrapped muffins for roadside cafes. She knew he was useless, damn it. She could see all his future failures and missteps, all the opportunities he would miss, all the chances he would fumble, all the times – seemingly daily now – that he would fuck up. By the time he arrives home he’s ready to throw himself off a bridge, so he doesn’t interact with his dog or his wife; he doesn’t pick up a single popsicle stick. He slumps on the couch, watching 24-hour news and thinking: “All this hurt in my heart must be the fault of someone else. The government. The rich. The poor. They. Them. Others. Those people out there. They’re creating obstacles. They’re trying to derail my life. Trying to control me in subversive ways. That Greta Thunberg, for example, who, distressingly, looks not a great deal unlike Emma Carrbridge. She makes me furious for reasons that I can’t articulate. I’m not going to do anything constructive. I’m just going to sit here building hate in my heart for people I’ve never met. And when I finish my microwaved dinner I’m going to spend the rest of my evening criticizing former co-workers on Facebook.”

Or, well, something like that. What I’m trying to say here is that motorcycling offers a sense of connection. In riding every day you realize that you are a part of the world, rather than some kind of external observer. The great golden thread of the universe runs through you.

“Even casual motorcyclists will understand that feeling of freedom on a motorcycle,” explains Drew. “For some, it’s being ‘unchained’ or having the means to go anywhere they want. For me, it’s more about the connection with nature. The sights, the smells, and – unquestionably – the way you’re completely in tune with the elements, for better or worse.

“When dressed for the occasion, I feel very much connected to the road, the machine, and nature itself. Riding a motorcycle means you’re experiencing the weather and, more importantly, nature unfiltered and unobscured. These are things you may see in a car, but they’re not like the events you witness on a motorcycle.”

KEEP READING: How to Ride in the Rain

I feel the same way. Saint Thomas Aquinas posited that the purpose of evil is to help us identify good, and when people ask me about motorcycling I find myself giving a similar sort of argument. Being on a motorcycle in all weathers helps you fully appreciate the good days.

No, “appreciate” is the wrong word. You know that babbling, euphoric state that people work themselves into at a revivalist church? Not only do they believe in God, they know him; he’s standing right there pouring lightning into their skull. Being a year-round motorcyclists gives you that perspective on good days. You don’t worry about what Emma Carrbridge, or anyone else, did 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago because you are alive and living in this moment. You can smell the coconut aroma of gorse, feel the sun warm in your jacket, hear the implacable burbling of an engine that wants to go all day, taste the freshness of air delivered at 60+ mph, and all around you everything beautiful, golden and idyllic.

It is in those perfect moments that you feel the sense of peace and connection strongest, and you realize that all those rough days through which you have ridden were just as important and necessary as this one. The cold hands, the soaked-through crotch, the bloody knuckles, the fogged visor, the shivering, the sweating, the gasping for air on boiling hot days, the road-salt-coated gear, the oil and grease, the drained bank account, the traffic dodging, and on and on – all building toward and laying the foundation for those incredible moments when everything comes together and you think: “This is it; living. I’m doing it right.”

I enjoy living life without a car