on November 10, 2013 - 12:01 AM
The Bisker-Patterson house in the University District is abuzz with activity on school-day mornings.
As 3-year-old Oliver rubs the sleep from his eyes, his three siblings race through the house as they get ready for school along with Eiki Sakugawa, a 17-year-old exchange student from Japan.
Stacy Bisker and her husband, Brent Patterson, whip up breakfast as he gets ready for work at SUNY Buffalo State.
Soon, there will be a scramble out the door – and onto several bicycles.
That’s right, even in November. Because this clan doesn’t own a car, by choice, and family members plan to spend their first winter in Buffalo looking to find out if they can continue an auto-less existence that keeps them physically and financially fit.
“We found ourselves slipping into that lifestyle where we had two cars, four or five things going on every night, different directions,” Patterson said. “It was just getting too complicated and, in addition, too expensive.”
“So we backed everything up,” said his wife. “We wanted to sit at the dinner table together. We wanted to know what the kids did during the day. We wanted to be connected with ourselves and our neighbors.”
The family spent the past seven years in Huntington, W. Va., a community of about 50,000 near where West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky meet. They got several inches of snow along the banks of the Ohio River, not several feet.
The family moved to Buffalo in August so Brent Patterson could take a job as assistant professor of digital media in the Buffalo State Communications Department.
By the time they arrived, husband and wife had become rock stars in the international family biking community. They’ve been featured in Kiplinger Personal Finance News and Bicycle Times magazine, where they’ve talked about their purchases of long “cargo bikes” capable of hauling kids and gear.
They’ve shared the story about how they decided two years ago to give away their 2000 Chevy Cavalier to friends, help make Huntington a more bike-friendly community, and support worthy local causes with some of the money they saved on car insurance, repairs and gas.
Bisker also set up a growing online presence with a blog, asimplesix.com, which extols the virtues of the year-round biking life.
They ramped things up when they got to Western New York. The couple sold their 2005 Honda minivan before they arrived, and see the city as a land of opportunity when it comes to plugging into a substantial, and growing, bicycling community.
Summer and fall have been fun. They discovered the old railroad bed at the end of their block which is being converted into a bike and pedestrian trail, the bike trail along Humboldt Parkway and many a placid city side street where the biking is relaxing, safe and visually appealing.
“It’s like being in the forest in the city,” Bisker said of the Rails to Trails project. “It’s like this little cove, this getaway. We can stop anytime we want and look at the animals, look at the leaves and pick stuff up.”
But does the family know about the winter weather here?
“My favorite temperature for biking is 50 degrees,” said Patterson. “I like quiet routes, and half my ride to work is through Delaware Park. It’s a great part of my day. I probably won’t say that when it’s 10 degrees out …
“People tell me, ‘You can’t bike in the winter here,’ and they’re probably right,” he said. “I’ll do it as much as I can, but I won’t do anything that will put the kids or me in any sort of danger.”
The kids – London, 11, and her brothers, Elliot, 9, Avery, 6, and Oliver, 3 – enjoy their new lives and schools, and embrace the challenge.
The drive to ride
Necessity was the mother of the Bisker-Patterson conversion to bikes.
A medical emergency with Avery when he was 3 years old forced the couple to re-evaluate their family life.
Avery was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease. Buffalo plays home to one of 10 national centers of excellence for Guillain-Barre syndrome, where Avery undergoes rehabilitation.
The illness struck several months before the couple got the biking bug.
“We had medical expenses and we’ve got four kids,” said Bisker, a stay-at-home mom. “You start looking at one income, four kids, trying to live somewhere in that middle-class arena, so it was either sell the house or sell the car. We can’t eat less, so what do we do?
“We started by walking more, biking more and driving less. I did a car-free month experiment in October two years ago and said, ‘Let me see what I can do, what’s possible,’ and I documented the whole thing.”
It wasn’t as bad as the family thought, so they got rid of one family vehicle. Afterward, with the greater focus on bike travel, monthly gas costs plunged from $400 to $50.
“Money was the initiator, but we enjoyed biking,” Bisker said. “We felt healthier, we felt more connected to our community, more self-confident.”
The couple and others helped convince leaders in Huntington to add bike lanes on local streets and take other steps to make the community more bike-friendly. Then, about a year ago, they had the chance to help film producer Liz Canning shoot a documentary on cargo biking.
Joe George, who lives in the Buffalo Allentown neighborhood and manages a blog, urbansimplicity.com, is one of the subjects for the documentary, called “Less Car, More Go” and yet to be released.
“That was our first experience with Buffalo,” Bisker said. “Every other time, we’d take I-90 through town and stop in Niagara Falls, and on the way we’d say, ‘There’s abandoned factories and warehouses. We’re not stopping.’ ”
George introduced the couple to the Elmwood Village and several other neighborhoods. They liked the vibe, and wondered if Buffalo might one day join Portland, Ore., as a top U.S. bike-friendly community.
The opportunity for Patterson to work at Buffalo State, and the chance to live in a larger community, sealed the move north for Bisker, an Ohio native, and Patterson, who grew up in West Virginia.
They thought about moving into the Elmwood Village but discovered a more affordable two-story, frame house in the University District, along a dead end street off Englewood Avenue.
A library, four grocery stores and a shopping plaza with a movie theater were all within a mile. So was the University at Buffalo South Campus subway station and a nearby CarShare program at St. Joseph Catholic Church.
If they didn’t want to bike to these places, they could walk. And if the weather got really nasty, or the family got really busy on school days, mom and dad could put their kids on a school bus, as they often do. Most of the time, however, mom picks up the boys at school.
Bisker used CarShare to take Eiki to Niagara Falls in September. It cost $8 an hour, including gas and car insurance. There’s also a CarShare at Buffalo State.
“So we’ve got trains, we’ve got buses, we’ve got a car share,” Patterson said, adding that two colleagues in the neighborhood also have offered him rides on the most blustery of Buffalo days.
“But if it’s too bad to clear the streets for a bike,” his wife pointed out, “it’s probably too bad to clear it for cars.”
Cargo bikes are far and away the Bisker-Patterson family’s preference, and other Buffalonians share their passion.
George doesn’t own a car, either, and rides his bikes in Allentown and throughout the city in all kinds of weather. He’s told the new arrivals that there were only three days he couldn’t make it through Queen City streets all of last winter.
Justin Booth, executive director of GObike Buffalo, also has encouraged Bisker and Patterson to try biking year-round.
Booth his wife, Lily, and their three children normally keep their 2003 Honda Civic locked away and bike throughout the year in Buffalo, too.
All of these families – George has a teenage son – use cargo bikes: contraptions up to 7 feet long, with room for several riders, and lots of stuff, on the same two-wheeler. “They’re not built for speed but utilitarian purposes,” Bisker said.
Such bikes come in several varieties. Among them: “midtails,” which have a $1,000 base price and feature step-over frames, upright handlebars and can carry about 200 pounds, plus the driver; “longtails,” also about $1,000, can carry up to four children and principle rider, and about 600 pounds combined total weight; and “Long Johns,” which cost $2,500 or more and have a platform in front with linked steering and a cargo bay. Booth has one of the latter.
The Bisker-Patterson family has seven bikes, including two cargo bikes, three standard adult-size bikes, a 24-inch bike and a smaller kid’s bike. Patterson paid $1,000 for his Yuba Mundo longtail cargo bike and Bisker’s longtail cost $1,700. “The maintenance costs,” said Patterson, “are profoundly low.”
Accessories for the bikes include baskets, as well as “panniers,” a kind of waterproof saddle bag that can carry groceries, work gear and spare clothes for sloppy riding. You also can buy weather canopies to protect a rider and several passengers from rain, wind and … snow.
London, the family’s oldest child, used to pack her cello when the family lived in West Virginia. She’s also stashed her backpack, lunch, stuffed animals, knitting and library books.
“Cargo bikes are really stable when there are a few inches of snow on the ground,” Patterson said. “I’ve got some new tires I’m anxious to try out.”
Bisker, too, looks forward to the winter driving challenge. “I’ve been reading about it,” she said. “There’s people in Canada and the Netherlands and Norway, China, this is what they do, and they get around. It’s all about gear. We have a big online community and we share information about how to get around” in all types of weather.
The family decided during the move to Western New York to add a foreign exchange student in on the fun.
Eiki, who lives in the Okinowa region of Japan, this school year attends Bishop Timon St. Jude High School, about 9 miles from his Buffalo home.
“We’re still working on clothing needs for him,” said Bisker, “because Okinowa would be similar to Hawaii.”
Eiki starts his school day riding his bike to the University Station subway and onto a Metro Rail car, then takes the No. 19 Bailey bus closer to school and peddles the rest of the way.
“My house and my school are very close” together in Japan, he said, so the commute is different.
“Now he gets more exercise,” said 9-year-old Elliot.
Brent Patterson rides to Buffalo State five or more times a week. He packs his school equipment and a change of clothes on his cargo bike. He’s even dropped off the family cats, Kitt and Cocoa, at the vet. He takes side streets into Delaware Park, admiring the Darwin Martin House on Jewett Parkway along the way.
“The people at the Buffalo Zoo are starting to know me because I pass by every morning,” he said. “I see so many (bike) commuters every day, about 20, and it’s not always the same ones.”
The enjoyment of his commute is worth the extra time.
“Cyclists see each other face to face and know they’re in it together,” he said. “In the car, you’re separated, you’re watching the landscape go by like you’re in a living room, and you’re in a climate-controlled environment. On a bike, you know where the bumps are, you know where the sewer grates are, and you’re much more involved with that landscape. You’re aware of seasons, you’re much more aware of nature and your environment. You’re much healthier.”
The bottom line
Bisker tracks all of the family’s off-bike transportation in a journal to see if owning a car will make more sense, particularly during a Buffalo winter.
She hopes to get by with $100 a month on metro buses, the subway and CarShare. That’s not much with four kids and a foreign exchange student “on one art teacher’s salary,” she said.
September was an expensive month. Non-bike transportation costs totalled $160, which included a $30 taxi ride, the CarShare trip to the falls, and $10 to park at Niagara Falls State Park. It was worth the expense to give the family a better taste of their new community.
If winter proves insurmountable, Bisker said, the family has saved enough money to buy a used car.
As it stands, the family is all in on bikes. They’ve left a “red state” that was starting to see the wisdom of more biking for a “blue state” they hope will embrace their lifestyle in an even more meaningful way.
“I have a tree-hugger streak in me,” Bisker said. “I’ve tried to suppress it, but I can’t help myself.”
She said she felt completely at home recently when she attended a community meeting in which several others didn’t have cars, including many students and a mom who said, “I got rid of my car. I really love biking.”
At least, before winter strikes, her husband shares that joy.
“I bike because I save money,” Patterson said, “but I also think it’s going to save the world.”