Dealing with illness while maintaining a car-free or car-lite lifestyle can be a challenge. Michael and I were both sick with the flu this past week, and now she’s developed pneumonia, so we’ve been depending upon our one car much more than usual to keep the household running while doing our best to rest up. She’s at a point where even a short walk up an incline causes her to be winded, so she’s totally off the bike; this is somewhat shocking considering her usually high level of fitness and bike-dependence.

We were talking about how difficult it would be, and what strategies we would have to employ, if we were totally car-free while dealing with illness. Renting a car would be one solution, as would asking for help from friends and family. Public transportation is always a possibility, though it’s questionable whether someone should expose others to their illness in tight public spaces. Of course, if we lived closer to work, health care, shopping, and other essentials, this would be less of an issue for us.

This has been an interesting week; dealing with illness while living car-lite has provided copious food-for-thought regarding our housing and transportation choices. We were wondering how you cope with illness while maintaining your car-lite/free lifestyle? Have you had to resort to renting a car or asking family members for a lift? Do you live close enough to work and essential services that it’s not an issue? We’d love to hear from you.

40 Responses to “Illness”

  • DerrickP says:

    I live car-lite. So most times I just end up driving where I need to go. But my mileage those months are terrible. You can see when I’m sick, then the recovery time afterwards (when I’m no longer sick, but still wimpy).

    As a father of three, I can’t afford to be sick for long periods of time. So rest and meds are the only option.

  • Torrilin says:

    The grocery store is out back. Literally. The doctor’s office is out front. The sub shop, Korean grocery and Chinese buffet are a smidge further, but still less than 3 blocks. The big missing shop is a pharmacy… WI has a clinic system, but the pharmacy in our local clinic is not full service. No OTC medications and no first aid gear, just prescriptions.

    With that level of services, if we can’t get by without a car, we should be in the hospital. The hospital is about 4 or 5 blocks away. If we’re not up to walking that distance, an ambulance is a pretty rational solution. So’s a cab.

    A lot of being car free is location. Most of the time, I can run errands a lot further afield. But in a real emergency, this location is perfectly functional.

  • chibikegal says:

    had to make it through a year bike-free before and after spine surgery (three cervical vertebrae fused, probably due to long-ago whiplash). so I agree with the comment on location – I had picked out my house a few years back for its proximity to trains, buses, and shopping, and picked out my husband because he is so helpful… so we made it through by bus, train, and walking. once I started working again, I relied on the train and rides from friends, as I couldn’t turn my head to bike or drive. luckily, I’m also able to work at home a couple days a week. ironically, my bike (upright, dutch) is more comfortable for me than my car (small), but there are days only heated seats will do (I live in Chicago) … or delivery

  • alan says:

    Can identify. Commute to work as often as I can, 12 miles one way, but last month had an upper respritory infection that lasted 3 weeks and could barely work. So totally care free won’t work for me, as it doesn’t when it is raining (sorry). Frustrating, but I have to drive sometimes.

  • Helton says:

    I’m more a “car-less” than a car-free one ;o) But when my 5 mile round trip (a bit uphill) gets a little heavy when I’m sick, I’ll take the bus. The nature of my job allows me to rest if really needed, or work at home, as I often do even when healthy, that said because I wouldn’t like to expose other people to my viruses. For light illness, I think leaving home earlier and go very slowly might do it, but the traffic around here wouldn’t be that forgiving for the not-hurried…

  • Doug R. says:

    Feel better you guys! Cars are a necessity, and I have to use it more than I like, however, Mini Cooper is introducing 500 “E” cars this year and more to come next year. I would love to just plug it in at night. If I must drive then an “E” car is the best answer for me. Good luck with the recovery!

  • Herzog says:

    Haven’t yet been seriously ill. If I catch a cold or the flu, then I don’t leave home for a few days. If I’m well enough to leave the house, I can ride my bike.

  • Herzog says:

    Forgot to add: I don’t have any kind of crazy commute. No offense alan, but I think 12 miles one way is craaazy!

  • Ant says:

    We have fair bus service that will get me most places, if I could wait for it. If I’d needed to get to the hospital there is always cab or ambulance. I wouldn’t have any problem with renting a (very small) car for an extended illness. For the occasional issue, renting really wouldn’t be that great of an expense. I haven’t had any illness in the past couple years where I was still willing to go out and couldn’t ride.


  • Sara says:

    I am a teacher, and am thus exposed to lots of germs etc.. I really try as much as I can to eat foods, and drink teas that boost my immune system. I have yet to be sick to the point that I cannot ride to work/store/around town etc.. It seems that if it were possible, I would employ the help of my close friends and significant other to bring over whatever it is that I might need. That way, it is only necessary to drive/find a ride to/from work once per day.
    I hope you all are on the mend, and are back on two wheels very soon.

  • Perry says:

    Car-free is not doable where we live and I would not like to even try. Having aging parents in far-off locations adds a layer of complexity to our transportation that no public transportation or car rentals can overcome efficiently. But at least I’m averaging 37+ MPG on the Fit and we drive considerably less than the average American so I’ll take a little consolation in that.

    Get well you guys!!!

  • Herzog says:

    Even though I don’t own a car, I don’t harbor any delusions about being car-free. Let’s ignore the fact that all my possessions and all the food I consume were transported using vehicles. Even still, I rely on my family and friends to drive me around at key times: when I need to purchase a bike, when I’m moving, when I’m going to the airport, etc.

  • Brad says:

    I’ve been sick all week and lost my voice but my body didn’t feel too cruddy so I just biked and went a little slower. Oddly, the slower pace didn’t really show up on my commute times. It’s all the same.

    That said, I was in the emergency room a number of times last year and found that an ambulance helped get me there and a taxi took me home. I even took a bus a couple of times and MRSA didn’t keep me from riding my bike to the emergency room either.

    On one occasion, I did get a ride from a neighbor and I’ve since paid them back in home made bread, but it can be done. I’m about 2.5 miles from the hospital so a taxi is about $10-12.

    Sorry you are sick

  • Lexica says:

    My experience has been that car-free with injury is easier than car-free with illness.

    About three months after we went car-free, I had a bad foot injury (walking down the sidewalk past some workers moving furniture into a building when a bookcase fell over and landed on my foot — the x-ray tech couldn’t believe no bones were broken). Luckily we live in a city with reasonably decent public transit, and everywhere I needed to go (including home, work, supermarkets, multiple small Asian groceries and bodegas, the main branch of the library, and my HMO’s medical center) was within a few blocks of a bus stop.

    I found that while I was on crutches I had no trouble getting a seat on the bus. When I upgraded (downgraded?) to a cane, it became much less certain. Interestingly, teenagers were the most likely to get up and offer me their seat; the people who resolutely Did Not See Me standing in front of them with my cane were all adults. (If I was actually in pain at the time I would ask somebody to yield a seat. Otherwise I found it interesting to see who would choose to notice the woman balancing unsteadily on her cane in front of them, and who would ignore me.)

    Incidentally, I still have very fond feelings for the young man who gave his seat on a full bus to me one morning. We chatted as the bus continued on, and at the next stop when an elderly woman climbed slowly aboard, he looked down at the teenage boy sitting next to me and pointedly said, “What, you not going to offer your seat to the lady?” Much love to you, sir.

    With illness there’s the issue of not wanting to infect one’s fellow transit-riders. Wearing a mask would probably be considerate to avoid spreading germs if one’s coughing and sneezing. I’ve had a couple of colds since we’ve been car-free, but have found that the Chinese herbal formulas my acupucturist recommends (Yin Chiao and Zhong Gan Ling/Gan Mao Ling) help a lot. (My experience is that without the herbs a cold means a week or more of coughing, sneezing, congestion, and feeling miserable. With the herbs a cold means two to three days of taking large handfuls of horse-sized pills and sleeping 16+ hours a day.) And doing the sneeze-into-your-sleeve thing is just considerate in general, I think.

  • Logan says:

    Wow! Well at least the sunshine and fresh air of spring should help with the healing process! Being sick is a tremendous hardship. Especially for parents I think who are used to being the rock and the one everyone depends on. I’m sure its difficult being dependent on others but I hope the kids and the neighbors are helping out! Its also tough that you have had to work while sick. Hope y’all can find the time to slow down and heal up. A crisis of any kind can put a long distance commute in perspective. Being car-free and car-lite is definitely a privilege for the healthy and enabled. You shouldn’t feel guilty about using the car to help you through a rough patch.

    We have always been very lucky to have family and a reciprocal community that we can rely on when we have needed a little extra assistance. Get well soon and if you need a break from blog posting to heal up I don’t think your readers will hold it against you. ;)

    Logan & Tammy

  • Adrienne says:

    I find I just do less. Going car lite has been surprising in this instance. Instead of doing the same things but using my car, I find I don’t “need” to do so many things and spend more time at home. I drive more in those times, but it is still less than before I used my bike as my primary transportation.

  • Karen says:

    Sorry you guys have been so ill lately. I also do not think you should feel any guilt for using the car while feeling ill. I use my car to get to the vanpool when it rains because I know that many folks are de-fogging their windows and running their wipers… and aren’t really paying attention to me in the wet, dark rain. I don’t feel even a tinge of guilt for that, and I sure wouldn’t feel bad about not riding when sick. Even if you rent a car when sick, you’re probably still “ahead” (at least financially) than if you were paying insurance, gas, maintenance etc on a car year-round. One can even make an argument that you shouldn’t work when sick… or go out and expose others to germs. I either work from home if I’m sick, or call in sick and don’t work at all.

  • Saddle Up says:

    Becoming car free was not something we planned. We owned a crappy Ford Tempo that suffered a transmission failure. The estimated cost of the repair was going to be $1200-$1800, the car was not even worth that much. We became tired of the expence of maintaining a vehicle so we thought we would try living without. We live in the core of the city and at first used public transit to commute to work.

    That was eight years ago, eventually our lives evolved into one in which we live, work and and shop all in the same neighborhood. My job is 8 blocks away, a medical clinic is accross the street, grocery stores are 4 blocks away, restaurants are everywhere, everything we could possibly need is within walking or cycling distance.

    When people learn that we are car free they sometimes feel sorry for us because they wrongly assume that we cannot afford a car, the opposite is actually true. Not having the expense of a vehicle for eight years has given us the freedom to do more important things with our money, like continuing to be able to live in the city’s core. We have been able to save so much money we could rent a car once a week and still be ahead finacially. Most importantly it’s given us time, my daily commute is less than 5 minutes by bike.

    If one of us were to get ill we need to just walk around the corner. We can’t imagine ever owning a car again, choosing not to repair or replace the Ford was one of the best decisions we have ever made.

  • Chris says:

    I’ve been sick on long term bike tours before. When you have to get somewhere, you have to do it. Sometimes you can’t though, and you end up camping beside the road for 2 or 3 days while you’re getting strong enough to ride to some town! I’ve had to deal with everything from bad head/chest colds, flu like symptoms, giardia, diarrhea, fevers…most of them can be ridden through, and even keeping up small to medium sized rides (sub 50kms)…it’s not fun, but it can be done. Of course, now that I have a car, it would be tempting to skip the bike commute (or just not go in to work!)

    I feel like if I’m too sick to ride a bike for a few miles, I’m too sick to work! I often find when I do something like pull a muscle in my back, my commute makes it feel better!

  • Donald Bybee says:

    I have had similar problems the past few weeks also, and basically I am a baby and just drive the car. I got bronchitis first and then after a couple of weeks of that got the flu. I was just feeling good enough to get out and about yesterday. I was wondering how a person would deal with transportation issues in the middle of the flu. I did not feel well enough to get out of bed and get to the car, let alone try to use the bike to go somewhere. If you are completely car free I think a rental is probably the solution. It seems expensive on the surface but after a few calculations you realize you can rent a car fairly often in a month and still be way below the cost of ownership.
    Sacramento, CA

  • Carl in San Angelo says:

    During the week I am car-light, however my wife lives in another city and either I drive there or she drives here every weekend. I haven’t had any major illness lately, but if I do I figure all I have to do is hold on until the weekend when she comes home. Since I have plenty of sick leave saved up, it’s pretty easy to take off work if I’m too sick to ride. I have family and friends nearby if I ever needed help during the week.

    My only notable health issue is an improperly functioning valve in my heart, so I have to go to a cardiologist every 6 months. I’m quite proud of the fact that I ride my bike to his office for my semi-annual stress tests.

    Take care of yourself,


  • Roger says:

    Sorry to hear of Michael’s illness, my best for a speedy recovery, being sick sucks regardless of what type of transportation you use. Cheers, Roger

  • Doug R. says:

    I hope you folks are well by the time for the “Tweed” on May 1st.? Hang in there!

  • Stephen says:

    Car-free is a wonderful goal for some who live in spatially integrated cities or neighborhoods, but car-lite is actually doable for the vast majority of urban and suburban Americans. (Woe to those who live in the country in the middle of nowhere.) Although I don’t have numbers at my fingertips, my strong hunch is that we could strongly diminish the quantity of oil imported and burned by going car-lite, instead of using the car (or, more often in affluent areas, the SUV) for every trip.

    Going car-free or -lite is a process. It starts with realizing that it is an option and that it can be done in many circumstances, and then it’s making small steps towards doing so (e.g, buying a bicycle, fitting it for daily trips, etc.). Finally, you start riding around and realize that it isn’t as hard or dangerous as feared, and with that newfound confidence, you internalize the change, while externalizing your habits and showing others that it is a real option.

    Riding a bicycle with the flu or with a back injury (both of which I’ve endured) is not really an option. We’re car-lite at best.

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  • Justin N says:

    I had a bout of the flu last year, and while I didn’t feel too sick, I couldn’t breathe as well as I usually do- and that put bike commuting on hold for a week or so. I catch the bus when I can’t ride, for whatever reason (broken bike, torrential rain, illness)- two bus lines, both more often than every 30 minutes, stop within a block. If I need to get to the clinic or hospital, that’s two buses, but do-able. If I can’t afford the time to sit on the bus across town, then it’s probably time to call an ambulance.

  • cycler says:

    I was sick on and off all spring, and while I was still able to bike, I was pretty weak, and was significantly more uncomfortable practicing “Vehicular cycling” on the parts of my route which require a bit more aggressive cycling. I just didn’t feel as comfortable taking the lane because I was going much slower than usual. My solution was to ride a lot further on a bike path where I could go as slowly as I wanted, but wouldn’t it be great if there was infrastructure everywhere so that sick bikers, weaker bikers, newer bikers- everyone could feel comfortable biking?

  • Fergie348 says:

    Commuting to work – when I’m sick I take the bus or ride my motorcycle. Other things are easily walkable or we use our car. It’s never been much of an issue, and I find that when I’m bike commuting regularly I am better rested (I sleep better) and much less frequently sick. My family of 4 has a single car and a motorcycle and I won’t consider another motor vehicle for the rare instance when it might slightly increase my comfort.

    Personally I think a 12 mile commute one way is just about perfect. My one way commute distance is 23 miles which I like to ride about 3-4 times a week when the weather’s nice. I have a nice ride shortener called a ferry which is about 7 miles from my house. A light day is both ways on the ferry for a 14 mile per day total. If I ride in or home and ferry the other way makes it about 30 and a full day on the bike is about 45. I have a goal of commuting solely by bike at least one week this year. That’s building up miles..

  • Brian says:

    I’m really nervous about this issue. I’ve been carfree for 8 years and will soon start an 11-month chemo treatment. Not sure what this will mean for my lifestyle. Hope I don’t have to get a car. Frankly, I’d rather die than be part of that culture again.

  • Andy says:

    If I’m too sick to ride my bike, I’m too sick to work.

  • Ann says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your illnesses; I hope your wife recovers soon. When thinking about changes in lifestyle, i.e., changing locations and choices such as going carfree, considering “what-if, worst-case scenarios is good to do, but such considerations shouldn’t completely control your decisions. Happiness and contentment are good for your emotional and physical health, too. I intentionally retired to a remote area far away from large urban areas, definitively out-of-reach of good trauma care within the golden-hour rule. However, I was so stressed out from spending my career in a too-large, east-coast city, I was willing to take the risk of living away from good trauma care. I’m car-lite, but really can’t be car-free in this area due to a lack of public transit, rental cars or taxis.

    Even residing in a city may not be the answer if certain illnesses strike. For example, my mother lost her sight before she died. She was also on hemo-dialysis due to kidney failure. She moved in with me and, although I lived in a city with several million people, the number of dialysis facilities was limited and as fate would have it, none were near my residence. I had to arrange for medical transportation 3 days-a-week for her treatments.

    You just can’t over-plan. We’re all subject to the whims of fate. You can only do what’s reasonable, balanced against your current priorities.

  • Wannes says:

    I don’t think I’ve read anything about an e-bike in this topic?

    I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in Belgium, I see them more and more. I haven’t tried one yet, but I suppose it could be an interesting solution. My opinion is that when you’re really sick, you should rest and focus all the energy on recovery.

    But for those colds that make you feel weaker and tired but not really sick enough to stay home, an e-bike might be the solution. In Belgium they are limited to 25km/h; if you want to go faster than that, you’re on your own…

    So even when you’re sick, you could commute without exhausting yourself.

    @Alan: love this blog, keep up the good work!

  • David osullivan says:

    We have been car free for about 6 months before that I did more kms by bike than car. Only prob being I have ross river fever which is a mosquito bourne virus here in australia with symptoms more or less a cross between cronic fatigue and arthritis. This time round I have been sick for nearly 3 months and have not worked since febuary and dropped down to part time at Uni. Because of this and with great sadness it looks like I will start looking for a 2nd hand car this week.
    I say all of this because yes you can get around on public transport and renting cars for short term illness but for longer term recoveries I can either put my life on hold and stay at home or get on with it, even if that means in a car instead of on two wheels

  • Bob says:

    Funny, I’ve always approached it from the other direction. Serious illness, as well as old age, can make it difficult or impossible not just to ride bikes but to drive as well. Living in a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented community makes life much better when those things inevitably happen. My parents retained their home in downtown New York for this very reason.

  • Doug V says:

    I’ve been car light for over 10 years and car free for the last 11 months………I love it……I did ride through a case of pnemonia last year and it was very tough……I use LightRail and live close to shopping and all basic neccesities, which is the key!

  • DrMekon says:

    We’ve recently been through a similar thing – no car (recent development, but car lite for 2 years), reliant on bikes / cargo bike to move a 5 month on and 4 year old around / live 6 miles out of town. I tried to keep up my commute (120 miles plus a week) with a chest infection. It didn’t go well, and I ended up taking a week off and working from home.

    Through this period, the kids didn’t get to go to groups, we used a combination of the local store (it’s awful) and home delivery from supermarkets, and we went without.

    The upshot of the experience is that we’ve signed up for Zipcar. The downside is that the nearest car is still a 5 mile ride away.

    My wife is concerned that it will be tough during the winter, so we’re putting aside money in case a car is required. Obviously, if it’s not, that money becomes bike money. Yes, I am already looking at Ti audax bikes and recumbents.

  • peteathome says:

    I agree with another poster. Typically, when I’m too sick to ride a bicycle, I’m too sick to go to work.

    I live in an urban area and my kid is grown, so it’s pretty easy for me. While we currently have a car ( it’s little used but I enjoy having it) I have been car free in the past. If I was too sick to ride but had to go somewhere like the doctor’s office, I’d call a cab. The bus would have been too much if I was that sick as I’d have to walk some distance to a bus stop, wait a while and then walk again at my destination.

    Lately I have had a chronic disease similar to MS that makes it hard at times to put out a lot of exertion, especially in hot weather. I went “Dutch” and converted to “slow bicycling” where I’m only bicycling at 10-12 mph. Never tried that before and it works for my shorter distances. I’m only 4 miles from work and speed simply doesn’t make much difference at these ranges. It was hard learning to slow down! But I can ride at this speed even if I’m really feeling badly.

    Recently I got a Bionx 350-PL electric assist wheel for one of my bikes, for longer trips. Most of the time I use it to lightly assist me and help with hills. Keeps me from getting too warm and I can travel MUCH faster. Great fun and still great exercise. I can travel about 40 miles at 18+ mph with this level of assist. But if I’m feeling really sick I can just use the throttle and get home with minimal pedaling. It can support a range of about 12-15 miles as a pure electric. Typically I’m out on an errand using the light assist when I realize I’m feeling very badly, so I throttle home. It’s great knowing I have a rescue if I need it.

  • Andy says:

    I agree with the E-bike proponents – For those of us who are still relatively young and healthy, and don’t have small children depending upon us, “too sick to ride = too sick to work” works pretty well. Later in life, however, as I start to weaken, either due to age or chronic illness, I expect that an E-bike could add 10 or even 20 years to my cycling lifespan.

  • beth h says:

    Location is key. So is what you demand from the location in which you live. When we went house-shopping seven years ago, we told the realtor we couldn’t live more than seven miles out from where I work — the farthest I was will to ride one way. We also told her the house had to be close to at least two major buslines (we are a block from two and about half a mile from a third).

    As someone living with a chronic illness in which symptoms can flare unpredictably, I give myself permission to go multi-modal (ride part way and toss my bike on the rack for the rest of the trip) when Crohn’s-related fatigue sets in. A few days a year I leave the bike at home altogether and take transit the whole way there and back. We do use my partner’s car, but not a lot because she works from home and I’m content to run errands on my bike.

    Whenever I get really sick (like with the flu), I’m usually too sick to work anyway so I stay home. That doesn’t happen a lot and I think part of it is because I ride a bike most days.

    Feel better soon you guys! Rest and recovery is not a bad thing to make time for, so take your time getting back to the bike.

  • Alan says:


    Thanks for the excellent advice and kind words; they’re much appreciated.

    Best regards,
    Alan & Michael

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