Alumni Profile • Norman Vandervelde ’93 and Jeannie Merkel ’95
A car-free life

Norman Vandervelde, Jeannie Merkel and their daughter, EstherTo choose such an unconventional way of managing the logistics of American life, one may suspect that the choice resulted from a long and agonizing decision process. But Norman Vandervelde ’93 and Jeannie Merkel ’95 say of their 10 years without a car, “We kind of fell into it.”

Now, Vandervelde said, it’s become “a challenge we make for ourselves. With every change in our life so far, whether it’s having a baby or moving to a new house, we’ve realized, ‘We can still do this.’”

He has never owned a car. At Calvin, where they met, Merkel owned a car — her first and only — during her senior year. When they married and moved to Fort Collins, Colo., for Merkel to attend graduate school, they found they didn’t need one.

Fort Collins’ master street plan includes bike lanes on main arteries and connectors so that, Vandervelde said, “Anywhere you want to go, you can get there on a bike lane.” In addition, there are three citywide trails for nonmotorized traffic.

But even in a bike-friendly American city, living without a car, the couple said, “takes a lot more planning.” When they moved in February, they based their choice of a new house on its proximity to Vandervelde’s job (a 20-minute bike ride), their church and a grocery store (each a 15-minute walk). Every trip requires checking the weather report and planning how to carry bundles from or back home, including, since November 2004, daughter Esther. For very long or especially cumbersome trips, they book a rental car.

But because a lot of life arrives on short notice, Vandervelde and Merkel have come to accept with gratitude the help of friends who offer to pick them up for events or loan them a car — for the week their baby was due, for example.

Though they have generous friends and though they are equipped to bike at night and in every kind of weather, Vandervelde and Merkel concede that choosing to be car-free has affected their social life. “Sometimes it’s easier to stay home,” Merkel said.

That choice, though, has brought the couple many pleasures. Besides the obvious money saved, they enjoy time together on their tandem, whether running errands (two carry more groceries than one) or training for daylong and weeklong rides through Colorado’s beautiful landscape. And biking, they feel, helps them be good stewards of that creation.

For all the pleasure it brings them, Vandervelde and Merkel are well aware of the danger inherent in biking. Though they pride themselves on being good cyclists — wearing helmets, using lights and following the rules of the road — both have suffered an accident with motorists.

“So,” Vandervelde said, “we’re not evangelists for a car-free lifestyle.” Instead they think of themselves as an example. “When people see us maybe they think about using their cars less. It’s like, ‘If they can do without a car, maybe we can do with just one.’”

Paradoxically the couple speculate that if they do buy a car they might become more of an example. “If we have a car we’re not going to use it a lot. Then we become not so extreme — ‘that crazy cycling family’— but more of a realistic model for other families,” said Vandervelde.

For now Vandervelde and Merkel still enjoy their car-free status and continue to ask, “Have we challenged ourselves enough?”