Car-free Family: O Bus, Where Art Thou?

We’re going to a party this weekend! If the weather is clear we will bike, since there has been a lot of snow melt recently and the roads are no longer choked with snow. The spouse has already told me that there is no way he is taking transit; the vagaries of OCTranspo are somehow compounded when he waits for a bus. It’s as if the bus system knows that he is impatient, and that he is scarred by growing up in the suburbs of Ottawa, reliant on the bus. The bus therefore takes even longer to come than usual when he is waiting for it. 

I was optimistic at the beginning of our car-free year and tried to take the bus everywhere, as I had done when I was growing up in Toronto. Buses in Ottawa are scheduled far too infrequently; the one that goes past our house and carries on 3+ kilometres to Parliament Hill is scheduled every half an hour. My childhood TTC bus was scheduled every 20 minutes on Sundays and that was called infrequent service. Usually the bus at the bottom of my road came every 10 minutes or more often. When I was a teenager, freedom was spelt TTC. Not so in Ottawa.

I joke sometimes that my main role as a SAHM is to be the medical concierge. Medical appointments for the children are pretty frequent. Last summer, we decided to take the bus to a doctor’s appointment. Afterwards, we did some grocery shopping nearby before going to catch the bus home. We had to catch a bus at Elmvale and take it to Hurdman, and then catch the 9 to get home. This is where one waits for the bus at Elmvale.elmvale

The last time we had been there, it was March, and the wind was whipping past the tiny bus shelters. We shivered as we waited. This time, it was hot, and we huddled in the meagre shade offered by those same shelters. Little pointed out that there was no proper shade, “no tree shade, Mum”. The bus failed to come and failed to come and failed to come. We did see seven number 86 buses come by as we waited. Eventually our bus came, and we proceeded to Hurdman. Little sat on my lap the whole way, and our grocery bags and backpack were disported around us. We chatted and laughed and had a great cuddle. That is what I like about the bus; the children and I can pay proper attention to each other because there is nothing else to do. If we meet a friend on the bus, we have time for a good chat, instead of a wave out of a car window.

We arrived at Hurdman with four minutes to spare before the next number 9. Ha bloody ha. After fifteen minutes I was beginning to regret that we hadn’t walked out to the Rideau River Eastern Pathway and walked along the pathway there. The reason that solution hadn’t sprung immediately to mind was that I had fifteen pounds of potatoes and apples on my back and two more heavy bags and a tired child. A murmuring rose around us as we waited; more and more people got off other buses and wanted the 9, but the scheduled bus never arrived. One of those waiting was a disabled young man with a walker. Instead, the next bus came after a wait of 25 minutes. Hurdman is similarly equipped with shade and places to sit as its sister station at Elmvale: pretty much bugger all. To add to its charms, extensive construction was going on right next to it. On the downside, it was noisy and dusty; on the upside, at least we could watch the men play with their sand toys, sorry construction equipment, as we waited. We arrived at home 90 minutes after arriving at Elmvale. Driving home from there would take about 15 minutes.

On that number 9 bus, one woman changed seats so that Little could sit down, and then a couple nearby vacated their seats entirely so that we could sit together. This is another thing I like about the bus. I am always intercepting kind looks directed at the children, and people are always helping others by giving up seats, lifting strollers and helping newbies open the back doors which do not open automatically. This was a group of people who were hot and grumpy after waiting at Hurdman, and still their humanity remained. I contrast this with the aggressive behaviour directed by most drivers at me and the children, yes, the children, as we cycle around. No wonder the children say cars are mean. But buses make people into equals, and they can see that everyone is in the same boat. Roads and cars make people into haves and have-nots and the have-nots, on foot or by bike, are apparently to be despised. The hegemon loathes the people it dominates, and indeed does not see them as people, but as hindrances to the almighty machine, the car.

Now, I can choose not to take the bus to the doctor again. I can get on my bike if the weather is good, or I can take Uber, because I have the flexibility that time and money afford the middle class. I can walk all over the downtown, given enough time. I can use the car-share, and take advantage of the free parking downtown evenings and weekends. OCTranspo is not free during these times. Talk about undermining your public transit system.

OCTranspo insults its customers with its appalling bus shelters, narrow, unshaded, unheated. Those who work, or have to go to school, or to doctor’s appointments, with, God forbid, babies or toddlers, or who have to pick up children from school on a timetable, are at the mercy of a system that is appallingly underfunded. A properly funded transit system involves frequent, predictable, reliable service, and comfortable, safe place to wait. A properly funded transit system might actually be cheap, or even free, instead of subjecting its passengers to frequent and outrageous price increases. A properly funded transit system might get its funds from the proceeds of parking, which would never be free anywhere at any time. A properly funded transit system might actually have a chance of being on time if it was routed through a downtown in which private cars were not allowed and delivery vehicles could only enter at designated times. Those measures would humanize the city and make it all less smelly and loud and horrible. I want to like taking the bus. City of Ottawa, please help me out.



Car-free Family: Party like it’s 1928

Car-free Family: Party like it’s 1928

It’s a chilly day in February and about a year since we adopted a life without owning a car. This morning Little and Middle put on snowsuits, boots, ski mitts and balaclavas and went off to catch the schoolbus, chatting. The spouse and I walked together as far as the Rideau Canal (a bit over 2 km) and then I kissed him and walked home again. As we were walking, the teenager passed us, cycling on the winter bike, on his way to high school. Just another normal winter day.

Last week the wind chill was -28 and on Sunday 28 cm of snow fell here in Ottawa.It was this part of the year that most made us hesitate when we were considering giving up the car. It can be brutal.

But it turns out that it really is not difficult at all, and we love having no car.I am delighted every time I see the empty driveway and realize once again that oil changes have no power over me any longer.

Just because we have no car doesn’t mean we never drive. It’s just that driving is now for special occasions and there is a faintly festive air to it. We joined a car-sharing service about a year ago and if I need to do errands that take me far away or to places that are dangerous to bike to, I book a car and walk to the car-sharing station to pick it up. This is the first part of the new normal that makes me think of 1928; novels of that vintage are always having the manservant garaging the car, often in a rented space in a mewsnearby, and then getting it out again when the master wants the motor. Bunter did it for Lord Peter Wimsey, for example. The difference for us is the sad lack of servants in the slow lane.

The closest car-share station is about 1 km away, which initially I found a bit far to go to get a car. It’s about a fifteen minute walk. I got used to it quickly and now I love that there are two walks built into every car journey. The children are quite accustomed to the walk as well and recently Little remarked that we were lucky that the car was so close. Our nearest car is a Toyota Yaris; it’s a very nimble little car and reminds me of our late lamented Tercel. I can park in the tiniest space and the trunk space seems enormous, especially in comparison to a pair of panniers, my usual cargo solution. We booked an SUV for the trek out to the countryside before Christmas to cut down the tree. Now that was luxury, and the tree farm was gorgeous.


Friends and family sometimes offer us their cars when they go on holiday, to our mutual benefit. Their car gets driven occasionally, keeping the battery topped up in our vicious winters, and I am spared the chilly walk to the carshare.

For camping holidays  and to visit family in Toronto we rent a car. The first time we rented we had our eyes opened by the incredible luxury of modern car design. USB plugs! Heated seats! Backup cameras! Back when we bought out last car in 2007, such things were not available, or at least not in the Mazda5.  The best van for camping was a Chrysler Town and Country; we got three tents and associated junk into it without much effort. Note to self: the Ford Flex is a reverse Tardis. It looks huge on the outside and is a beast to park, and the interior has strangely little useable space. When we rent a vehicle, we enjoy the treat of the tons of room and millions of cupholders and return it with thanks at the end of the holiday. camping

The other solution that involves driving is to have things delivered, instead of us running errands in the car. Our pharmacy, in Old Ottawa East, makes deliveries. We get our vegetables from a local supplier and those too are delivered. This is an especial blessing in the winter when lettuce fetched on foot is liable to freeze. Online grocery-shopping in Ottawa is not that useful yet. It tends to be expensive and to offer foods that I never actually buy. Having food and medicine delivered seems delightfully old-fashioned and reminds me of accounts in novels, again, of the butcher’s boy coming on his bicycle or the milk float arriving early in the morning. Remember Father Christmas encountering the milkman in the Raymond Briggs book? Of course all these literary references to a less car-dependent time are grounded in actual fact.

A sort of delivery that in no way is reminiscent of 1928 is e-commerce. More and more I am liable to order things online. Instead of making the trek out to Westboro I can get Mountain Equipment Co-op to deliver for free if the order is over $50. I just save up the order until it’s that much. I try to buy local as much as possible, but sometimes that doesn’t work, as with the recent hanky purchase.

Now to the nitty-gritty. Even with all this renting and car-sharing, we spend less than we would if we owned a car. The total cost of car-share last year was $878.39. Gas is included in the per kilometre charge we pay. Insurance is covered by our credit card insurance. That was with me not skimping, getting a car whenever I thought I needed one, and frequent drives on orthodontist days out to Orleans (about a 40 km round trip). The amount spent on rental cars and gas last year was $1,382.25. All that driving occurred on vacation. Along with the car-share that means auto costs for 2016 were $2260.64. The amount spent on the car, car insurance  and fuel in 2015 was $4136.06. That is a difference of $1875.42. This year I am more used to being car-free and aim to reduce my use of the car-share. Mercifully the orthodontist visits are over for now.

Of course, one of the reasons that had us giving up owning a car was that the Mazda 5 was starting to show its age. Expensive work on the suspension was looming. Buying a new car was just around the corner. If we had bought another Mazda 5 GT in January 2017, and we did like it as a car, that would have cost us about $28, 000. Another car loan — no thanks.

Often we feel like we are cheating and not really doing the genuine car-free thing since our access to a car when we need one is so easy. If we were really hard-core we would never drive anywhere. That’s not quite possible for us in Ottawa yet. More on that later….