The Joys of Biking to Costco — One Man’s Attempt to Go Car-Free

Our writer ditched the minivan for good and now rides 12 miles to stock up on beer and coffee. But is this new life truly sustainable?

May 31, 2022 6:00 am
Parents hauling their kids on cargo bikes
Sure, you can haul a lot on a bike — but do you want to?

I was riding my bike to Costco on a cool blustery day in March, easing my way up a small hill that separates the Golden Gate Fields horse racing track from the San Francisco Bay, when an intimation of my own mortality suddenly slithered its unwelcome way into my head. 

There will come a day, I thought to myself, in the not too distant future, when I am not going to be physically able to pull this off. 

I was biking the San Francisco Bay Trail, on my way to buy a cartload of groceries. It’s a 12-mile round trip I’ve made dozens of times in the last two years, and it’s a significant workout. I can feel the exertion in my legs and back every time I haul my bike trailer home fully loaded with beer and avocados, eggs and coffee, detergent and toothpaste. I’m also just a whisker away from my sixtieth birthday; so it stands to reason that some day soon I’ll discover that I’m just not up to the task. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, blah blah blah. 

Which is a problem, because I love biking to Costco. It’s when I feel most alive; it’s when life makes the most sense. 

Whatever. I lowered my shoulders into the onshore headwind blasting through the Golden Gate, tightened my grip on the handlebars, pushed with a little extra oomph on my pedals, and laughed out loud, startling some nearby pelicans. Mortality can wait. Today is not that day! 

In November 2019 I traded in my decrepit 23-year-old minivan to the state of California in return for a $1000 clean-air credit. Then I decided to try an experiment, to find out how burdensome life would be if I went “car-free.” 

The pluses: I live around the corner from a BART subway station. As a freelance writer, I enjoy excellent economic incentives to stop paying for gas and insurance and auto maintenance. Relying on my bike for transport would be both environmentally friendly and good exercise. What’s not to like? 

The negatives: getting to those dinner parties in Sebastopol and Bernal Heights and other places not convenient by public transportation would be a pain (Have you looked at rental car prices lately?!) More troubling: how would my sense of self up hold up as a man in America shorn of the pride and freedom conferred by car ownership?  

And what about Costco? 

For the last decade, keeping my budget spreadsheet in the black has required a couple of trips every month to the Costco that flanks the San Francisco Bay in Richmond, California. The deals on Peet’s coffee and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale alone make it worth my while. There are a lot of optional things in my life; low-priced organic chicken wings and cheap vodka are not among them. I need my Costco fix. 

I resolved my dilemma by scoring a battered Burley bike trailer on Craigslist for 50 bucks and making the decision to treat my Costco run as a fitness challenge, instead of a chore. On my very first ride I realized that this new lifestyle was about more than just making financial ends meet. I could keep the whole universe in balance if I burned a buttload of calories every time I purchased a case of beer!  Biking to Costo — just the sound of the words rang with more than a hint of the Puritan ethic. Biking to Costco: it’s a way of life. It’s my way of life. 

I occasionally get a weird look when I pull into the mammoth Costco parking lot. Because, strangely, even in the bike-mad Bay Area, in two full years I am the only person I have ever seen loading up a bike trailer at Costco. This puzzles and disappoints me, because I wouldn’t ever have started down this path without the support of the Bay Area’s ever-improving biking infrastructure. 

Nationally, the number of total Americans who commute by bike started steadily growing in the early 2000s, but it peaked in 2014 and has declined slightly ever since — with the important exception of cities that invest significantly in bike-friendly policies. About 90 percent of my Costco route takes advantage of four different dedicated biking lanes in three different cities, including a splendid bike/pedestrian bridge in Berkeley that spans all eight lanes of the I-80 freeway, the San Francisco Bay Trail, a cool little connecting loop in Albany that niftily dives under two freeways and hops over a set of railroad tracks, and the Ohlone Greenway, a fabulous East Bay bike path that runs parallel to the BART tracks from Berkeley to Richmond. 

None of this is cheap: the Berkeley bike bridge alone cost $6.4 million. But all of it has an impact. My decision to go car-free and bike to Costco is not merely a triumph of my own will; it is also a consequence of my environment.  If you build it, I will bike it. 

So how do I judge the car-free life? The pandemic complicated that question. I’d hardly gotten used to not having a car when all of sudden no one was going anywhere and there was nowhere to go! There was nothing to sacrifice. But as things have opened up, I have occasionally chafed at the limits inherent in not owning a car in a country that caters overwhelming to the driving life. I find that I’m a lot more dependent on the generosity of friends, and much more tied to my immediate locality. I used to regularly throw my bike on the minivan’s rack and head out for epic rides in Marin and Sonoma and the Sierras. Now, all my rides start at my front door. 

I miss that. And yet, the loss is countered by the new depth in my relationship to my trusty steel-framed Bianchi. As a recreational cyclist, I rode only when I felt like it. If rain threatened or it was too windy or the temperatures dropped too low or my legs felt too sore, I didn’t think twice about bailing. 

Costco rides do not bow to the weather or tired quads. Rain or shine, I gotta get my stuff. So gear up — as many layers as it takes! 

I laughed out loud that morning in March because it suddenly dawned on me that, after a whole lifetime of riding bikes, my favorite cycling moments now arrive precisely when things are most inclement, when that headwind is blasting at me and the fog is soaking into every exposed pore of my body and my heart is pounding as I stand on the pedals to get 150 pounds of groceries up that railway overpass. The harder it is, the more I grin. In another era I would be hunting and gathering, but now I’m biking to Costco and I feel fine. There is no question about it: My legs are stronger than they were two years ago. My fitness has improved. 

Yeah, yeah, nothing lasts forever. One day I won’t be able to swing it.  So maybe that’s the day I finally break down and get an electric bike. 

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