In the news…  Thank you Beth Macy and Eric Brady for revealing my antics to Roanoke!  This is a photo album of the governor’s ride yesterday.  In the first photo you can see me (red t-shirt) and Elsa (blue tie-dye and pink helmeted blond kid).  It is with sadness and irony that this too is in the news.  Woman hit by truck, killed on bike.  She was here visiting from Portland, Oregon, the biking capital of the US.  She was killed in Blacksburg, our bike-friendly neighbor to the south.  My condolences for her family are extended, and with sorrow and frustration do I wonder how this happened.

One mom takes up a ‘car less’ challenge with kids on bike

Chris Howell followed the lead of River Laker and ditched her car, but she’s doing it with some additional cargo.

By Beth Macy

Ivy Howell, 4, smiles after her mom puts on her bike helmet. Ivy said her mom  

Ivy Howell, 4, smiles after her mom puts on her bike helmet. Ivy said her mom “makes everything fun.” 

Chris Howell says the experiment is teaching her daughters Ivy (left) and Elsa (right), that it is possible for everyone to do their part to make a difference.ERIC BRADY The Roanoke Times

Chris Howell says the experiment is teaching her daughters Ivy (left) and Elsa (right), that it is possible for everyone to do their part to make a difference. 

“Shy, awkward girl rides bikes with kids in tow.”

That’s how the English teacher and mom of two announced her plan a few weeks ago. She was accepting the challenge of that gregarious, cycling librarian-turned-carbon-emissions activist, River Laker, who’d made his six-month experiment as the “Car Less Brit” a Roanoke cause celebre.

But Chris Howell raised him one when she started blogging last month about her own six-month experiment to give up her car in favor of two-wheeling it instead.

Howell, 40, isn’t just grocery shopping and generally running a household from the back of her bike. She’s also pulling along her daughters, 4-year-old Ivy and 6-year-old Elsa.

She’s reducing the family’s carbon footprint, meeting neighbors and getting into shape.

“This is different because I’m a normal mom with two kids, not some elite cyclist,” said Howell, who also rides intermittently to work at Northside Middle School. “People have said, ‘You’re endangering your children.’ But if you ride in a car, you’re endangering your children. … And the girls are getting so much more out of it, which outweighs the risk in my opinion.”

The girls are learning that people can get around without using resources, that “it’s good to care and in some small way try and make things a little better,” she said.

They’re learning, too, that sometimes it’s best to plunge into a project rather than wait for the perfect gear and equipment — and weather — to present themselves.

It also helps, as Howell has learned, to have an in-the-know friend on call.

For that, she turns not to the “Car Less Brit” but to someone who’s been bike-commuting to work even longer than Laker. And to his son’s school. And even to the tennis lessons he gives at Roanoke-area parks — with ball hoppers sticking out of his panniers.

Howell calls Rob Issem her “bike guru.” He’s the one she called when things weren’t rolling along smoothly with her initial ride — a $300 used tandem, with a pull-along trailer for daughter No. 2 attached to the back.

Early in the experiment, the handlebars on the tandem came loose not far from their house in Old Southwest, causing a near-miss with an oncoming car.

They walked the rest of the way. Issem suggested they buy an Xtracycle, a safer contraption that better suited their needs: It has room for two children, with the little one seated in a regular child’s bike seat and the older one in front of her, holding onto Mom for support.

Issem has been commuting to work on his bike for 12 years — even when he lived on Bent Mountain, though the distance now from his Oak Grove area home to his job in Southwest Roanoke is just three miles.

“I love what Chris is doing,” he said. “For my son and the future of the Roanoke area, projects like hers really stand to raise awareness that families like ours really are interested in this, and when they’re building roads or creating legislation, we should be considered.”

Roanoke’s cycling culture may not be as ingrained as it is in bike-friendlier cities like Portland, Ore., but support is picking up, advocates say.

Howell has even inspired her lawyer-husband and former Roanoke Times reporter, Isak Howell, to ride to work at his downtown law office — in a business suit. “I look ridiculous probably,” he said.

He wraps a reflective band around the legs of his dress pants to keep them from snagging in the chain.

He worries for his family about inattentive drivers but added that he and his wife spend evenings mapping out low-traffic routes she can take. She’s also careful to keep most trips within a mile- or two-mile radius of their home.

“It’s been great to put biking back into our lives,” he said. “And I think the kids are going to have great memories of it.”

Judging from a recent outing to the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op, they will. The only complication the threesome had on the 15-minute ride was when Elsa dropped Esmerelda, her yard sale doll and boon companion (a tagalong reporter was dispatched to pick her up).

Halfway there, the trio stopped to talk to Tiffani Reynolds, who also recently committed to a car-free existence, though this time she was pushing her two small children in a stroller, not on a bike.

River Laker, now in his second six-month stint as the “Car Less Brit,” said he’s been heartened by the response to his community challenge. When he asked his Facebook friends and blog followers to join him in giving up their cars last month, Howell was the first to respond. Since then, he’s learned of at least two other families participating, including Reynolds’.

“Chris is strong-willed in a very good way,” said Laker, whose experiment has garnered media attention from as far away as Prague.

“The core thing is that it’s fun,” he said. “We’re doing this for the right reasons, but we’re not trying to do it with the dry and preachy tone that some green people have.”

No cycling snobbery allowed, either, he said, referring to hard-core cyclists who insist on Lycra everything and top-of-the-line gear.

While Laker broke down and finally bought a pair of padded Lycra bike shorts, he was too embarrassed to wear them.

“I think it looks stupid and immodest,” he said. “We want to show people that you really don’t need all this gear or knowledge to get out there and do the right thing.”

For her part, Howell prefers regular shorts, T-shirts and Keen sandals — and has been known to sport a skirt on the Xtracycle.

Besides their helmets and copious amounts of sunscreen, the girls wear whatever they want — lots of pink and purple, sparkly Tinkerbell sunglasses.

“I love riding to the science museum,” Elsa said.

“I love Mommy,” Ivy said. “She makes everything fun.”

They’re making more friends in the neighborhood, their mom said.

“This has really connected us to people. I’m fairly shy, but now I find myself stopping to talk to people more and visiting, all the things you don’t do when you’re driving,” she said.

(Just so you know, the two mile radius is often greater and many days is several times a day.  We live in Old Southwest, chose it purposefully for local urban living, and can get downtown easily as well as to the Grandin area.  But kids are active, and trips often involve going here, then there, then back home, then back later.  I also have a 16 mile round trip commute to work, so I plan to get in great shape very soon! 🙂 )

3 responses to this post.

  1. Chris and Isak,
    John sent me a link to the article in the paper, and I just wanted to applaud your efforts on the bike. I’m not sure if you’ll remember us, but we are Ella’s parents from Blacksburg. We met you at the Ralph Stanley festival a few years back and then in Floyd and at various festivals. Ella is
    seven now, John is about to turn four, and we have added a thrilling little third, Miss Ruby June, who turned one on June 12.

    I love your bike! I’ve been reading for a few years and she peddles a modified Xtracycle with three small boys on board.

    Maybe we’ll see you at Floydfest this year. Or peddlijng the streets of Roanoke.


    • Posted by roanokecarfreewithkids on July 6, 2009 at 3:55 pm

      Oh, we’re so happy to hear from you guys! Congrats on the babe, great name! Elsa always asks about our festival buds. We’ve got to get the kids together again soon. Thanks for keeping up with us! c


  2. Posted by carrie bailey on July 8, 2009 at 2:25 am

    your blog is wonderful! i am thrilled for you and your family not only to be getting well deserved press, but that you have gracefully taken on a remarkable challenge and the benefits will long outweigh all the headache and problem solving you have endured!
    keep up the great (and hard) work!
    hooray for you!


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