Dissension simmers in the Bisker-Patterson family these days. A key member of the bicycling clan – which has shunned a motor vehicle during its first Buffalo winter – isn’t seeing eye-to-eye with the others after the Blizzard of ’14.
Mom and the kids enjoy their days cross-country skiing, tunneling through the backyard snowdrifts and rolling through their University District neighborhood aboard mom’s Bakfiets cargo bike and other two-wheelers.
Dad has been cruising Craigslist for used cars, and last week, after the blizzard quieted, he test-drove a 1998 Volvo passenger van. “It rode perfect,” he said.
When it comes to the potential for a new family vehicle, banter between Brent Patterson, the dad, and Stacy Bisker, the mom, has been respectful and passionate – and no doubt understandable to many in a region that has weathered about a foot and a half more snow than average so far this 2013-14 winter season.
“I check the weather a lot,” Patterson said. “I’m not concerned about changing my commute, it’s just that in a pinch I’d like an ace in the hole when I need it. I had that when I had my van,” which the couple gave away when they moved to North Buffalo last August from Huntington, W.Va., along with their children, London, 11, Elliott, 10, Avery, 7, Oliver, 4, and Japanese foreign exchange student Eiki Sakugawa, 17.
Patterson – an assistant professor of digital media at SUNY Buffalo State who makes a 10-mile round trip workdays on his cargo bike, regardless of the time of year – has seen enough Buffalo winter to suggest a Plan B might be in order.
“I would prefer not to have a car,” he conceded. “I don’t like the responsibility, the cost, but being a family of five kids in a town where everything’s spread out by 10 or 15 miles, some days it would be convenient.”
Bisker, a stay-at-home mom, is determined to press ahead with a goal set when the family arrived: to make it through snow season using only bicycles and public transportation.
“I try to determine what we need that car for?” she said. “I still want to go and bike anywhere in a 3-mile range. Anything longer, we can take transit.”
She said she used CarShare during a recent snowy day. “It took me 35 minutes to get where I needed to be and then I couldn’t find a place to park. I could have taken the train and walked the two blocks in the time it took.”
So far, at least, she is winning the family argument. The clan will stick to its bikes, Metro Rail and buses, though Bisker plans to look into the cost of three-month rental car lease.
Meanwhile, the family is not alone in its winter wanderings. Justin Booth, executive director of GObike Buffalo, had no estimate on the number of winter bikers in Western New York, but believes it is growing, and greater in the City of Buffalo than the surrounding region.
Booth is among those bikers. He, his wife, Lily, and their three children rarely use the family’s 2003 Honda Civic. They live on the Near West Side and spin almost exclusively to jobs, schools and shops within three miles of home.
Same goes for Allentown resident Joe George, a chef at the 20th Century Club who gave up his Toyota a few years ago rather than plow several hundred dollars into repairs. He rides a Torker Cargo-T bike through city streets this time of year.
Also among them is software designer Jesse Smith, who compiles the Buffalo Family Biking Facebook page, and like Patterson has a 10-mile round-trip to work. Smith empathizes with Patterson’s desire to have a back-up car. He and his stay-at-home wife, Thomasina, who have two young sons, use a Toyota Prius on the most blustery of winter days.
“For us, this is a choice,” said Smith, underlining that this is an important distinction in one of America’s poorest cities, where about 30 percent of families don’t have cars.
That’s why all of these winter bicycle lovers lament some of what they’ve seen across Buffalo this stormy season:
• Many unshoveled sidewalks, which force pedestrians, bikers, those pushing strollers and those in wheelchairs onto city streets.
• Bus shelters, sidewalk intersections and bike racks plowed over with snow.
• Unplowed paths and pedestrian bridges in many city parks, including Delaware Park.
“One day, they were shoveling the snow off Hoyt Lake, but not the paths,” said Patterson, who can’t take his preferred ride to work through Delaware Park when the snow piles up, and instead is forced onto the bustling stretch of Elmwood Avenue that includes the Scajaquada Expressway ramps near Buffalo State.
Patterson said he hopes the lack of attention will change as the number of winter bikers grows, but also understands the reality of living in a city where local government has limited means and many needs.
Smith and other bikers who have been here longer are less understanding, and wonder why such a poor city makes things the easiest on the weathiest, most comfortable of winter travelers.
Bicycle enthusiasts also must weigh safety with a desire to live the winter lifestyle they have chosen. Patterson is willing to take some calculated risks while riding alone aboard his Yuba Mundo cargo bike, a “longtail” bicycle, but that changes when his children and wife are in tow.
Year round, in most cases, he prefers to use side streets and parklands to get from Point A to Point B, as does Smith, who uses the same strategy to get to his software development job at Maple Road and North Bailey Avenue in Amherst from his North Buffalo home. On days when the weather is just too much, his wife takes him to and from work.
Patterson takes a bus.
Booth and George use their bikes more often, stepping off and pushing their preferred modes of transportation in otherwise impassable spots along their journeys.
“Fresh snow is surprisingly easy,” Smith said. He and the others said their tires – some studded, some not – can slice pretty easily through snow even several inches high. Slushy snow presents more problems, as does street plowing in really cold conditions that leaves pockmarked, uneven street surfaces.
“I’m a creature of habit,” George said. “I take the same routes and you learn every crevice, every pothole.” Snow-packed streets can add an air of unpredictability, he said.
The bikers said they’re also warm enough, and so are their children, as long as they dress in layers and the temperature remains above the single digits.
Bisker takes it all in stride. Living without a family vehicle takes more thought and planning, but she’s willing to invest the time to save on a car payment, gas and car insurance – the average U.S. driver spends $9,122 annually on those things, according to the AAA – and to enjoy the feeling that she’s doing her part to help the environment.
Along with its bikes, the family has nearby access to the University Metro Rail station, bus routes and CarShare stop where you can rent a Toyota Yaris for $8 an hour. This time of year, the kids also generally take the bus to and from school, though in better weather Bisker will pick them up.
What’s more, she said, new neighbors have offered the family a ride in a pinch or an emergency.
The kids are on board with the family plan. “I want more snow,” said London.
Still, Brent Patterson, who admitted he’s more anxious than his wife, longs for the added security and convenience that comes with motorized transportation in the driveway, particularly since the family has room for an inexpensive used car in its budget.
As the couple continues the friendly disagreement, Patterson harbors no illusions about his wife giving in to his winter automotive desires.
“She’s not going to let me.”
On the Web: See how Stacy Bisker’s new cargo bike keeps her kids warm and cuts through the Buffalo snow at videos.buffalonews.com and find out how the family weathered the blizzard at blogs.buffalonews.com/refresh