Advice from readers around the world on how they make it work—and when they can’t.
There are lots of ways to get around a city with a little kid and no car. But for many of you, it’s not easy.
In a CityLab survey about your challenges raising kids in the city, many of you told us that you would prefer not to use a car for transportation, but struggled to figure out how to make a car-free life manageable.
So we tapped into the wealth of knowledge from you, our readers, and asked: To those of you who are carless, how do you make it work? We heard from readers around the world, and are sharing here some of the wisdom and challenges from your fellow readers.
For some of you, being carless with kids is a privilege. You have gone to great lengths to design your lives around your choice, including the accessible neighborhood where you chose to live. For others, of course, being carless is a financial necessity—or at least, in many cases, a cost-saving decision. And many of you helped us to expand our definition of “carless” to incorporate “car-light” families.
Read on for tips—and perhaps some commiseration.
Biking our son home from school led to magical moments—until we had to move closer to my parents
Eight years ago, my wife and I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for graduate school without cars but nine months pregnant. For the first eight years of my son's life, my wife and I stayed car-free, relying on bikes, buses, Zipcar, Lyft, and grocery delivery services.
We bought a German-made bike trailer that kept out the wind and kept our son warm inside. Biking him home from school, all bundled up, often led to magical moments, such as the time we unexpectedly found ourselves under a festival fireworks display or shared the path with a red fox who seemed to race alongside us before darting back into the trees. For longer trips we took the bus. My son loved to sit near the front of the bus where he could face forward and pretend to be the bus driver.
I valued the diversity of riders my son saw and spoke with on the bus, especially in Milwaukee where the racial makeup of transit ridership shifts dramatically as you cross neighborhoods. I even appreciated the opportunity to have meaningful conversations with him about people we encountered on the bus who appeared homeless or spoke to themselves. My and my son's appreciation and empathy for our neighbors and our city was enriched by not getting around in a car. My son even enjoyed "shopping" for which Zipcar or Turo car we would check out for weekend trips out of town.
Recently, to take advantage of child care help from our parents, we needed to move closer to them, which means living in a car-dependent community. We miss the financial and lifestyle simplicity that came with being car-less.
My two-year-old plays “carry the stroller up the stairs” on the subway
We bike, use transit, and rent from a car-sharing service. My two-year-old plays “carry the stroller up the stairs,” just like mom and dad do at the subway. Many subways, trains, and streetcars are not accessible, or it isn't easy to find the elevator entrance. One of the transfers we routinely do requires three elevator rides just to get from platform to platform. One time my spouse fell on the bus because she didn't have time to secure her stroller. If the bus is full and you have a stroller, it’s very hard to even get on.
Using transit with kids is fun, because they actually like it and are excited about it. Biking with kids is really great, but there are places you just can't get to because you'd have to ride in traffic.
We use a cargo-bike to carry young kids, but I can't imagine letting my kids bike on the road when they are older. Sometimes we rent a car, but that means we need to have a car seat and bring it with us to the rental car. And sometimes we travel by bus or train to visit family, but we have to bring a car seat for when we meet them.
I had to get comfortable asking for help
Manhattan, New York
I'm the mom of three-year-old twin boys and live in the Washington Heights neighborhood in upper Manhattan. I feel like traveling in a city with one baby is challenging, but manageable. You can wear the baby strapped to your chest or back, and hauling a baby in a (lightweight) stroller up a flight of stairs is not fun but still doable for many parents. But two babies? I never felt I was capable of taking them on public transit by myself when they were one or two, and I would just stay local on days off with the kids if I was the only parent on duty.
I can't carry a double stroller with two babies up a flight of stairs, I can't wear two babies around the city, and so I felt stuck.
I took my twins on the subway by myself recently. At age three, they can comfortably go up and down stairs by themselves, so I figured they could walk and I could carry the stroller. But one twin ended up falling asleep in the stroller and I was stuck, standing at the top of stairs of an entrance to a subway station, with no accessible stations nearby. I tried to relax, and waited for a good samaritan to offer to help, which thankfully only took about a minute. I wasn't overly concerned because I knew I would get help going down into the subway, but I don't like the feeling of being dependent on the good deed of a stranger in order to get home.
I have friends who are fine with this—they'll plan outings knowing full well they'll need a hand somewhere along the way—and maybe I should try to be more chill about this, too. There's something beautiful about putting yourself in a position where you'll need a hand, about being okay with being dependent, and viewing as natural or no big deal to need and accept someone's help. It still makes me nervous, though!
—Yael Brodsky Levine
We don’t have a car because there is no real need for it
Our eldest son, since he was 4, commutes to his school (4 kilometers one way) on his own bike through the city center. We parents of course assist him while cycling along with our youngest on the back in a child seat. Cycling culture is big and infrastructure is well developed. Everyone feels safe and we as a family find it the fastest and most convenient way to get around the city (door-to-door benefits). Children get their daily dose of exercising and are not afraid of “bad” weather.
We don't have a car because there is no real need for it.
Moving from Munich to the outskirts, the biking landscape is totally different
We just moved from Munich, Germany to a smaller town just outside. We've never had a car because we never needed one. The bike lanes and infrastructure for cyclists in Munich are fantastic. My son was cycling 5 kilometers a day to kindergarten and back from the age of four. Now that we are in a smaller town, the change is drastic. No cycle lanes, the kids cycle on the pavement, I'm on the road, and it's petrifying. Cars are not as aware of cyclists and the infrastructure is totally absent. As a cyclist, I, for the first time, feel very vulnerable and we will be getting a car in the next few weeks. We only need to cycle a short distance to my son's school. But it's too dangerous—so we need a car.
Every day is a memorable experience, but it helps if you buy the right stroller
We can't afford a car on a single salary. Even if we were able to afford a used one, we would have to park on the street, which presents its own challenges.
It has been both a challenge and a perk to not have a car as a parent. Ride-hailing services have been to the rescue in inclement weather and in case of health-related emergencies for us. We had to buy a car seat from the get-go for our baby and switched to a toddler car seat now that he is 3 years old. However, it's the mass transit that takes the cake when it come to getting around in our Brooklyn neighborhood. It's been a blessing living next to a train station and a bus stop. Getting around is so much easier for me as the stay-at-home parent.
We had to research very extensively when it came to upgrading our baby stroller. The one I have now weighs less than 15 pounds. We live on the second floor of a building with no elevator. Our train station also doesn't have an elevator and the bus that we take almost every day is mostly crowded. The single-handed folding stroller again has its perks. It's not an umbrella stroller.
All in all it's been a memorable experience to raise a kid in these circumstances.
We use a carrier instead of a stroller on the subway—and everywhere we go
When my husband and I decided to have a baby, I was adamant that we not also add a car to our lives. For us, not having a car is a choice; it reduces our carbon footprint, but it also reduces hassles. We never worry about parking or traffic jams. It's quite freeing really. Friends suggested I would change my tune after Stella arrived, but for us, it hasn't been too difficult. We live in West Philadelphia, and before she came along, we mostly walked, biked, and took the trolley or subway. When she arrived, we used a carrier to walk around the neighborhood with her and to carry her on the trolley to doctor's appointments and short trips around Philly.
As she has grown (now 20 months), she does a lot more of her own walking. We still take the carrier, but it's more of a back-up if her legs get tired. There are not many occasions when we genuinely need a car. But when we do, we use a ride-hailing service. We just bring along our own car seat like we do when taking her on an airplane.
The transit system in Philadelphia, and especially the trolley system that serves West Philly, makes not having a car pretty easy for us. One stumbling block for some is that strollers do make matters a bit more difficult. I often see parents struggling to lift them up onto the trolleys and for that matter to find space on crowded sidewalks. We have chosen to avoid this altogether through reliance on the carrier and encouraging the little one to love walking around town. For those without cars worried about baby changing things, give it a try. It might not be as hard as you think!
In a city where formal transit has collapsed, just buying groceries is an ordeal
Getting around a major city with young children can be difficult nearly anywhere in the world, but in Zimbabwe’s capital city, those ordinary challenges are compounded by a tiered, informal transit network; high costs of getting around; rampant sexual and physical harassment from taxi and bus drivers alike; and the knowledge that, in the memories of most residents, Zimbabwe once had a functional, even robust, urban transit system.
One of the biggest challenges is something that many people take for granted: shopping for groceries. For me and my six kids, the biggest concerns about traveling to buy food are cost and safety. Today, I’m mostly worried about harassment from drivers and conductors on the privately run transport vehicles known as kombis.
The sexual harassment and petty crime are so prevalent that a spokesperson for Zimbabwe’s National Police, Charity Charamba, recently told a summit against gender-based violence, “The police are aware of random thefts, touting, and uncouth conduct by commuter omnibus drivers that pose danger to the general public and affect women and children in particular.”
Still, when I take the kombi home with all my groceries, I’m glad the older kids are with me. The kombi stop is down a long, dusty, potholed road, and I need help carrying the load.
I went car-free when I became a single mom. It was easier when the kids were younger.
I am a single mom of an 8 and a 9 year old. We have been car-free for two years now. Before that (when I was still married) we were a one-car family, and for another two years before that, I barely drove that car which is what led us to selling it.
Car-free was easy when my kids were young. Sure, the stroller on the bus was a no-go, but I just put one kid in a carrier on my front and one on my back. That was fine. I missed having a stroller at the zoo for the slightly older child to fall asleep in, but instead I got really strong. Our car-free challenges came later, once they started joining activities but weren't actually old enough to get themselves to and from those activities alone. Hockey. Ballet. Girl Scouts. Speech therapy. Occupational therapy. Play practice. After one year car-free, I upgraded to an electric assist on my cargo bike, and we are golden now. I don't see us needing to get a car anytime soon. We can bike to most places, and if we don't have time we use car share. Now that they are out of car seats it's easy, because have inflatable booster seats they can carry themselves.
The novelty of the bus wore off. We needed a more predictable schedule—or at least a bus app.
Porto Alegre, Brazil
My stint as a bus rider in Brazil began in July 2015, when my wife, Rachel, and I moved from Virginia to Porto Alegre. It was the first time in my adult life that I’d lived in a big city—metropolitan Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, has a population of around 4.3 million—and for a while, the thrill of conversion to a car-less, city-dwelling lifestyle made the bus system’s inconveniences tolerable.
I took Alex to daycare every morning, and Rachel and I traded afternoons. It was less than two miles away, but on a bad day, just getting Alex to daycare could exceed an hour. We’d walk about a quarter-mile to the bus stop, wait anywhere from two seconds to 30 minutes, ride a little more than a mile, then walk another half-mile to his school.
The end came abruptly. On Rachel’s birthday in early March, it was pouring. Streets flooded, buses were even more delayed, and a taxi was impossible to hail. After waiting more than an hour in the rain, Rachel finally caught a bus, then walked the final stretch home juggling Alex, both their bags, and an umbrella. She got in soaked and demoralized, and a serious reevaluation of our commitment to public transportation ensued.
Eleven days later, we bought a used car.
The biggest thing the bus system could have done to keep us would have been becoming more predictable. An app, for example, that would tell us just how far away the next bus really was, would have been wonderful. There had been talk of that sort of app since before we moved to Porto Alegre, but when we left three years later, it still was just talk.
The only thing that makes this work is being in walking distance of daycare, and even then it is completely ridiculous
Brooklyn, New York
I have an 11-month-old who I strap on in my baby carrier and walk to our daycare every morning. Also on me is my laptop, all my meals for the day, pump supplies, her meals for the day and three bottles, my water bottle, wallet, gym clothes, as well as all of the flotsam and jetsam that one accumulates when you have a baby.
We are in a walk-up so even the [high-end lightweight stroller we purchased] is more trouble than it is worth. The only thing that makes this work is being in walking distance of daycare, and even then it is completely ridiculous. I am originally from California and my friends and family all think this is insane. They are right.
We are carless with three kids, but we still haven’t figured out how to take the suburban babysitter home
We are a middle-class family of five living in a downtown-adjacent neighbourhood in Winnipeg. A few months ago we decided to sell our car and try out a "car-light" life.
We get around by bus, foot, and bike, and once every week or two we borrow or rent a car. So far this has worked really well for us, in great part because we have consciously designed our life to work for public and active transportation.
There have been a few challenges. They've mostly been because of special circumstances, not regular everyday occurrences, but they still cause some grief. The one that I did not at all anticipate was “the babysitter issue.” Our teenage babysitter lives in another part of town, and when she sits for us, we need to drive her at least one way; often both. So the challenging part is that usually when we get a sitter, we're just going downtown, and we bus or bike to and from our plans. But when we get back, we need a car simply to drive our sitter home! I suppose we should really ask her and her parents if they'd be okay with her taking a cab home alone, but somehow that feels inappropriate. I'm not sure I'd be okay with my young teen daughter taking a cab by herself late at night. That mindset may be a product of our car-centric town, where people seem to avoid taking a taxi at any expense.
The other is the “one-way” issue. Our kids go to school in another part of town and get school bus service there. Sometimes we want to meet them there after school for an event, and then come home as a family. Because public transit service to the school isn't great, we like to bike, but how do we get their bikes to them while simultaneously riding our own? We really can't. So we take the long bus ride instead.
In the end a lot of the challenges for me are only half logistical. The other half is finding solutions that don't make me feel as if we're crazy or strange or “going without” for deliberately choosing to live without owning a car.
Our compact electric cargo bike is much more reliable than public transit
San Francisco, California
My wife and I have two kids, ages 2 and 4, that we're raising in a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. When we moved here seven years ago, we left our car in Texas, and we've been car-free ever since. We use pretty much every mode of transport at our disposal: bus, train, bicycle, and occasionally but rarely taxi/[ride-hailing services].
San Francisco MTA makes parents feel like second-class citizens. I can't count the number of times we've stood on an accessible platform waiting for a J train, stroller and impatient kids in tow, only to be passed by with an apologetic look from the driver. Waits like this can make the difference between a good day and a cascading failure of fits thrown by over-hungry or over-tired children.
Since our building doesn't have a garage, storage space is at a premium. But we were recently able to find a compact electric cargo bike big enough to fit both kids on the back that we can barely get into our place, and it's been a lifesaver. We now use it regularly to go pretty much everywhere, from preschool drop-offs to swim class to doctor's appointments. It's expensive (though cheaper than a car), but having a clear expectation for the amount of time it will take to get somewhere makes things so much easier. No more padding an extra 30 minutes each way just in case the bus doesn't show or doesn't stop.
All this changed when we found out we were having a third child.
It pains me to admit it, but we've bought a car. We had to take a hard look at the logistics of my wife picking up our oldest from a school all the way across town in the fall with a toddler and newborn in tow. The car is a last resort, and we still intend to walk/bike/bus for the vast majority of our trips. My hope is that in a year or two, we can transition back to a bike for school pickups.
Funding was provided by the Bernard van Leer Foundation to support our project, “Room to Grow,” about raising tiny humans in the city.