A phantom presence haunts most discussions of urban transportation in Ottawa and indeed most of North America. It is the unspoken dread of not owning a car. If the city puts in more protected infrastructure and devotes more space to active transportation, how will I drive there? The flip side of increasing modal share for active transportation is of course decreasing modal share for driving. This does not in fact mean that driving will become impossible. It just means that the universal access that drivers enjoy now will not be possible. But how accurate is that word enjoy anyway?
The spouse and I got rid of our car almost two years ago. We weren’t using it that much and figured we could use the money to support our ridiculous lifestyle which involves raising three children on one and a bit incomes in urban Canada. It is absolutely a stretch to raise a family like it’s 1977. Because it’s not. We both had student loans, housing is much more expensive, and so on. One way to eke out this existence was to eliminate the budget items of car maintenance, gas and insurance, and the eventual looming cost of a new-to-us vehicle. When we were making the decision, it seemed like giving up the car would be a sacrifice, but worth it to have a primary caregiver and household major domo running things at home.
It has turned out to be the opposite of a sacrifice. It is complete bliss. And I’ll tell you for why.
- We never worry about the cost of gas. It can go up or down and we pay no attention. We vaguely notice people complaining on the radio or in the paper or on Twitter. We really notice how boring actual face-to-face conversations about the cost of gas are. We have a Vrtucar membership, and gas is included as part of the per kilometre charge. I suppose if the cost of gas doubled our fees might go up, but not so far.
- We never worry about traffic. Commutes to school and work are by bike, on foot, or by schoolbus. On days that are too snowy and icy, the schoolbus doesn’t run, the kids stay home and I don’t worry about them being delayed or crashed into as a result of black ice. Traffic reports on the radio are as irrelevant to us as discussions of gas prices. They are like reports from another planet almost. Why is it news that huge roads, extending the false promise of an unimpeded drive in a personal motor vehicle, are congested with traffic at rush hour? And why do cities keep believing and promoting that false promise?
- We never worry about unexpected repair bills or complete death of the car. Our first car up and died one day. The clutch seized and it would have been more than the car was worth to have it mended. We had very little money and I still remember that horrible sinking feeling. Or the horrible sinking feeling at the mechanic’s when told that the suspension job would cost $1200.00. Now we are impervious. Lots of other nasty surprises can come our way but at least not that one.
- I never have to take the car in for servicing ever again. Since I am the major domo, oil changes and trips for repairs fell to me. I recently read that many men don’t like taking the car in because they have little technical knowledge, and fear being shown up by the mechanic. I have some technical knowledge and hated being condescended to by people in repair shops. There was a strong flavour of “hey, little lady” about most interactions. No longer.
- A whole category of irritating, time-consuming boring chores has been eliminated from the to-do list. I especially loathe paperwork. We don’t have to: renew the car insurance; renew the license plate stickers; fill up the washer fluid; change the windshield wipers; and best of all, clean out the car! I do enough housework in the house. I hated all the Cheerios stuck in the back seat, and hated cleaning them out even more.
- I feel good. (I thought that I would). Last spring I kept thinking, why do I feel so terrific? My whole self felt lighter, as though I were floating. Then I realized it’s because I spend so much time out in the world. I no longer leave my little burrow at home and get into another enclosed space for transportation. All the little walks and short bike rides to run errands all add up to a lot of physical activity. Every time I book a Vrtucar I have to walk at least ten minutes. It’s not just the physical activity. It’s also that all this walking and biking takes place in the outdoors. My head is in the sun, or I’m feeling rain on my face, or I snuggle down inside my coat and hat against the winter wind. The internal debate about whether to drive or bike/walk rarely arises, since the active option is the default. On rainy days I used to have endless wittering arguments with myself justifying taking the car. Now there is no car, so I just put on the rain suit and go. Last fall I realized that I felt cozy biking home in the rain, protected by jacket and pants and helmet cover, and laughed at myself for really having drunk the KoolAid.
To my surprise, the joy of being free of all these chores and worries far outweighs any disadvantages of not owning a car. Thinking about gas and traffic and repair costs and patronizing gits and tedious tasks took up an enormous amount of energy. Debating whether to take the car or not added further burden. Until that burden was gone, I did not realize how onerous it had been.
Utter, utter bliss.