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How a Car-Free Calling Led to a Healthier, Fuller, Smaller-Footprint Life

Tami Traeger, photo by Daniel Wovcha

Tami Traeger, photo by Brian Martucci

Tami Traeger grew up riding horses in rural North Dakota. Today, she still gets around without a car. As Nice Ride MN’s director of outreach and sponsor relationships, Traeger walks the talk, using Metro Transit’s light rail and buses, occasionally Car2Go, and her own bicycle and Nice Ride’s bikes as part of her car-ownership-free lifestyle.
It wasn’t always this way.
When Traeger first moved to the metro area in 1999, she lived in various suburbs and relied on a car to reach her workplaces. When she moved to Minneapolis in 2010, the avid cyclist felt for the first time that “it was possible to live without a car,” she says. “One of the things that excited me most about moving to Minneapolis is that I knew I’d be biking more.”
She still didn’t bike to work, though. After a recession-related downsizing, Traeger found steady work in late 2010 at the Coon Rapids campus of Anoka Ramsey Community College. She sometimes worked irregular hours, and with her one-way commute clocking in at half an hour, a personal vehicle felt essential.
But fortune intervened. In January 2011, another driver totaled Traeger’s car. Given the commuting distance and the season, immediately switching to a bike commute wasn’t realistic. And though Traeger was friendly with many of her colleagues, conflicting schedules meant that she wasn’t able to hitch rides from Minneapolis to Coon Rapids every day.
So, on days when she couldn’t get a car ride to Coon Rapids, Traeger would become a bona fide bus commuter. She’d ride two Metro Transit buses about 90 minutes one way, sometimes leaving home as early as 5 a.m.
Traeger thought the arrangement would be temporary, pending an insurance payout for her totaled vehicle. But by the time the money came through, a few weeks after the accident, bus commuting “had become very comfortable,” she says. “It was great to be able to read or catch up on sleep and not have to deal with the stress of highway driving” or traffic.
With most of her friends close by in Minneapolis and no regular, non-work obligations taking her afield, Traeger came to a simple, life-changing revelation: She really didn’t need to own a car.
Settling into a car-free routine
By late 2012, Traeger had settled into a largely car-free rhythm. She’d walk, bike or bus to where she needed to go, relying on friends for car rides primarily for grocery shopping and other activities that produced lots of cargo.
“I really enjoy going to the grocery store with friends,” she says. “It sounds weird, but some of the most fun evenings I’ve had over the past couple years have revolved around shopping trips.”
The 2012-13 season was Traeger’s first as a winter cyclist — previously, she’d hung up her wheels when the snow started flying. The transition to all-weather riding wasn’t easy. “I know a lot of people who really enjoy winter and just love getting out on their bikes in the cold and snow,” she says. “I prefer to curl up under blankets with hot tea.”
Her first winter as a year-round cyclist wasn’t bad by Minnesota standards, but “I’m still somewhat scarred by last winter [2013-14, one of the coldest in memory],” she laughs. “Once it gets into double-digits below zero, it’s dangerous to be outside no matter what you do.”
Over time, Traeger’s car-free lifestyle has gotten easier — and not just because she’s acclimated to riding year-round. Once Car2Go arrived in MSP, for instance, Traeger’s camaraderie-building grocery runs became less frequent. She uses Car2Go a few times per month during the cold season, typically for trips that take longer than 30 minutes by bike, and rarely or never during the warm season.
Though she doesn’t see Car2Go as a crutch, “it’s important to consider and use all the resources at your disposal” if you’re serious about getting by without owning a car, she says.
Finding a car-free calling
Traeger’s multimodal existence isn’t just a lifestyle choice. It’s a passion. In 2012, she found the perfect venue to exercise that passion: Nice Ride.
Traeger’s Nice Ride journey began when a friend, all too familiar with her affinity for cycling, passed along a job posting for a part-time job at the nascent organization. The gig involved leading Nice Ride users and interested members of the public on bike rides through various parts of MSP — a near-perfect fit for Traeger. Though she didn’t get the posted job, she was offered a modestly paid, open-ended internship as an outreach coordinator.
Traeger jumped into the job with abandon, working two weekdays, weekends and some weeknights, while juggling other part-time work the remaining three weekdays — “to pay the bills,” she says. She was one of the only Nice Ride employees responsible for publicizing the organization in its early days.
“The most important part of my job was going to events around town and educating people about how Nice Ride works,” she recalls.
When Traeger started at Nice Ride, the organization had 65 stations and 700 bikes. Nice Ride has since grown to 170 stations and 1,500 bikes, with 20 more stations on the way in 2015. As Nice Ride expanded, Traeger’s internship blossomed into a legitimate career. She was vocal about wanting the full-time outreach and sponsor relationship job that she now holds, convincing her bosses to promote her into the position rather than hire externally.
Though the final count may fluctuate, she expects to supervise four part-timers and one full-timer through the 2015 season. With such resources at her disposal, Traeger can focus on more than educating the public about the basics of Nice Ride. 

"Thanks to the ongoing support of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, as well as our other local business sponsors, we've expanded programming to support individuals who are learning to make biking a part of their lives," she says. "We are building communities of bicyclists using additional tools beyond the urban bike share program. These efforts seek to both encourage recreational riding and get people to consider biking as a primary form of transportation."
Living car-free life to the fullest
When Traeger isn’t at Nice Ride’s office in the Seward neighborhood, or evangelizing about her employer around town, she practices what she preaches at work. Now four years removed from owning a personal vehicle, her lifestyle has evolved — and downsized — beyond recognition.
Her old shopping habits were the first to go. “I no longer buy clothes that don’t work on a bike,” she says, “but I also don’t buy specialized bike clothing.” It’s a simple approach: Wear practical, comfortable, breathable (and, in winter, warm) clothing that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
“It’s important for people to understand that ‘bike clothes’ are within reach of the average person,” she adds. “You don’t have to buy specialized clothing to be a successful cyclist.”
In fact, Traeger buys most of her clothing secondhand, at smaller shops that source responsibly — not more traditional sources of cheap but high-impact clothing, like Walmart. “One thing led to another as I aligned my lifestyle with my values,” she says.
Another key to “small-footprint” living: healthy, local eating habits. Easy access to Minneapolis’ thriving co-ops makes it easy for Traeger to replace fast food with fresh, home-cooked dishes, which she occasionally supplements with meals at Birchwood Cafe and other farm-to-table mainstays in her area.
Eating and buying local has numerous benefits. Aside from being healthy and environmentally friendly, the practice keeps more money in the community. And investing in South Minneapolis is particularly important to Traeger now that she owns a home — bought in the fall of 2014 — in the area.
Driven by the reality of living without a car in Minnesota, Traeger made location the deciding factor in the home-buying process. “I wanted a place within walking distance of where I work,” she says, “so that I don’t have to worry about getting there in bad weather.”
But Traeger isn’t sure that any of her recent life decisions would have been possible had she continued among the ranks of car owners. Eating high-quality meals, purchasing non-mass-produced products, and buying a home in an up-and-coming part of Minneapolis all cost money — often more than “easier” choices, like eating fast food and shopping at big-box stores.
“If I was still paying for gas, insurance and car maintenance, I simply wouldn’t have been able to buy a house,” says Traeger. “I’m really happy with my decision.”
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