The utter, utter bliss of not owning a car

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

#MeToo: Woman on a Bike

One evening last summer, I was cycling to a meeting in Hintonburg along the multi-user path (MUP) that runs just north of Albert St. I noticed another cyclist, a male, approaching on the path that comes south from the Ottawa River at Bayview. He joined the MUP I was on, and we cycled a little ways until we reached the intersection of Bayview and Scott. He pulled up beside me and said, “Hi. I was wondering when you were going to recognize me.” I laughed and we started chatting. It was a man I have known for more than 25 years, someone who is in fact part of my family. He was going to the same meeting, and we proceeded on our way together.

When he first spoke and I responded by laughing, in my head was the word NEVER, just like that, in large caps. I thought, “That’s weird,” and left that thought to the side for the moment. The next day I took it out to examine it and made a surprising discovery, quite aside from the fact that my internal monologue is rather insistent.  I realized that if I encounter another person, either in a car, or on a bicycle, or on foot, I do a quick scan. If I think that the other person is male, I don’t look directly at him. I keep track of where he is by using my peripheral vision, but I don’t ever look at his face or in his eyes. This is what enabled me not to recognize my own brother-in-law on the MUP last summer.

Once I was aware of this, I noticed myself doing it all the time. In the summer when I leave the house I am almost always on foot or on my bike. Every time I encountered a man-like shape, I averted my gaze. How could this be, that a modern  woman spent her time out in the world not looking directly at men? This did not feel like empowerment. This felt like me scuttling around feeling unsafe.

That’s exactly what it was. What’s more, I can identify the exact moment when this behaviour began. It was one summer when I was in university, so quite a long time ago, more than 25 years. I was working as a gardener at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto. Every morning I biked down Sherbourne St, long before there were any bike lanes, to catch the club launch over to the yacht club on the Toronto Islands. One morning when I was between Dundas and Shuter, something went wrong with my bike. It was the chain, or a flat tire, and I got off to try to fix the problem. Out of the corner of my eye I could see someone approaching. I straightened and smiled, hoping they would be able to help. Instead, the man starting undoing his fly. I drew myself up to my full height of almost 5’4″ and said frostily, “I beg your pardon?”. (My sisters for some reason found this very funny when I told them). But it worked. He was abashed, stopped trying to expose himself, and went away after telling me I was asking for it and gesturing to my clothing. I thought, “I’ve heard that women are always blamed for what they are wearing no matter what they are wearing. But this is ridiculous. Buddy, I’m wearing a Laura Ashley pinafore dress.” (Forgive me for the pinafore. It was the early 90s.) I was wearing a dress to my landscaping job because women were not allowed to wear shorts on the launch and I did my landscaping work in shorts. Sometimes I wore a dress over my shorts, and sometimes I pulled on a skirt right before I got on the launch. I was the only woman on the horticulture team, and the only one who had to dress differently on the launch.

I wheeled my  bike over to the nearest phone booth, found my emergency quarter in my back pack and called home. One of my parents came to get me in the giant burgundy station wagon. I went home, called my boss to tell him what had happened and that I wouldn’t be in that day, and spent a quiet day. I fixed my bike. The next day, I biked back down Sherbourne St. and back to work.

That was a bad summer. Then, like now, I biked almost everywhere. Frequently, when I was out on my bike, men called to me, commenting on my hair, my body. Each time I prayed that my bike would not let me down. It did not. It was that summer that I learned to avoid looking at men, as if doing so would prevent them fixing their gaze upon me. It didn’t, of course, but I suppose it subconsciously gave me enough of a sense of control that I could countenance going out into the world. I just adapted, did not even notice my adaptation, and kept on biking.

Fast forward fifteen or so years. I am married, a mother, and taking an evening course at the University of Ottawa. I’m not a young woman any more. I’m a grownup. I bike there, using the Cummings Bridge because the Adàwe Crossing for pedestrians and cyclists has not yet  been built. I have to turn left onto the bridge from North River Road. It’s early evening in the fall, already dark and traffic is very light. I have my lights on my bike. I take the lane. A blue pickup truck turns onto North River from Selkirk St., revs the engine very loudly, close passes me on my bike, screeches to a halt at the intersection. The driver leaps out of the cab, and approaches me, shaking his first and shouting the most foul obscenities. His body is a lot bigger than mine, his vehicle is a lot bigger than mine and he is using both of them to threaten me. Just as the driver got close to me, the light changed and he got back in his truck and took off, speeding up the bridge. I had memorized his license plate, so when I arrived at the university I called the police and made a report.

A few days later, a male police officer called to tell me that he had given the guy a call and given him a warning. He also told me that in a situation like that I can’t ignore the laws of physics. I was legally allowed as a vehicle to make the left turn, but the truck, being so much larger, would always win in a dispute. I thought, but did not say, “I bet you say that to all the gals. Would you say the same thing to a 120 lb woman who had just gotten beaten up by her 200 lb husband? She is also very much on the wrong side of the laws of physics.” But I didn’t say anything. I just thanked him and hung up.

That incident reinforced my feeling of being unsafe and I stopped cycling by myself after dark except on very rare occasions. Of course I’ve had many other encounters when I was spoken to or touched in a way that I did not like and that made me feel unsafe, both inside and outside. Thinking about these experiences made me realize that all who live in a city live in a different city from each other. My city is full of men who might be creeps and vehicles that might run me over. Others live in a city mediated by their own experience of racism, or barriers to the handicapped, or bias against the LGBTQ community, or of being a child. Councillor Diane Deans is perfectly right to call out the city of Ottawa for its lack of gender parity at the highest levels of decision making. The lack of voices other than those of middle-aged white men in cars makes Ottawa a city that responds well to their needs and poorly to the needs of the vulnerable (not white, not straight, not male, not able-bodied, not in a car, not an adult…).

A message urging pedestrians and cyclists to make eye contact with drivers at intersections to make sure that said driver isn’t about to run over you doesn’t work for me. If I’ve identified the driver out of my peripheral vision as male, I’m not looking anywhere near his eyes. If I’m not at adult eye level, could I even see the eyes of the driver? Did the person who dreamed up this strategy not think about the perspective of a woman, or a child, or someone in a wheelchair? What I want when I’m on my bike or on foot is to be nowhere near cars at intersections but on dedicated infrastructure for my mode of choice. I don’t want to be making eye contact with someone who may or may not be a creep.

A campaign urging pedestrians and cyclist to “Be Safe, Be Seen” at night doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t matter how many lights I hang on my coat or put on my bicycle. Being seen outside at night is not the same as being safe. It is the opposite of being safe. Why is there no acknowledgement that the night is not the same place for a white able-bodied cisgender man as it is for the entire rest of the population? What I want when I’m out at night is to feel safe from the depredations of cars, but also safe from verbal assault and threatening by men. “Be Safe, Be Seen” doesn’t even come close.

Each time I urge myself to get out there at night on my own, I remember how I felt each time I was threatened or harassed: humiliated and terrified. Cities need to be designed for the most vulnerable so that they are welcoming to all, day or night.


The Scar

Middle has a scar on his cheek. He got it in the spring, when he had a fall biking home one evening from soccer. Sometimes when I look at it I find myself back on the road, biking with the spouse and Little in front of me, and Middle behind me. Then I hear a crash and a scream, and I brake my bike swiftly, and look around to see him lying on the road. I get off my bike, but my limbs seem to be moving through water and it takes seemingly hours to disentangle them. I run back to him, still lying next to his bike, and as I run, I see a car approaching him from behind. My heart leaps in my throat. The car has time and room to pass, and I lift my boy and carry him to the sidewalk. The spouse runs to get the bike. Middle sobs on the sidewalk. There is blood on his cheek and his leg, and he is clutching his arm.

We get into coping-parent mode, and decide I will take him to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario for X-rays, in the car-share car. Luckily there is a Vrtucar parked about 200 m from the accident. I stop off at home, for snacks and drinks and books and a blanket, because I am experienced in the ways of CHEO and know what I will need in the emergency room. We get to the hospital, he is registered, and finally I can sit with my arms around my boy and the blanket around both of us. Then the images come back, and I am seeing him on the road again, with the car bearing down on us, and I’m trying not to cry. What if? What if that car had been right behind him when he fell?

His arm was not broken and neither was his cheekbone. The scrape on his cheek didn’t look deep at the time, but still it left a scar. The doctor who examined him asked me several times whether he was wearing his helmet. Yes, yes, of course, but that is not the question, I kept thinking. The question you need to ask is, what sort of infrastructure was he biking on? That would yield you some useful data. But I didn’t say any of this.

He was biking on North River Road south of Montreal Road. There was little traffic and there was no collision with another vehicle. His wheel hit something in the road a bit askew and suddenly he was off his bike. There is no painted or segregated bike lane there. Usually on the way home from soccer we would all be biking on the Rideau River Eastern Pathway, a National Capital Commission multi-user path. It’s a lovely safe route right along the river, well away from the road over most of its length, and the children have been cycling there since they learned to ride. It’s our route to the wider world spring, summer and fall.

It was a very wet spring in Ottawa, and the path was closed because of flooding. Earlier that day I had seen lots of bike traffic on that stretch of road, including our very own city councillor biking to work. I thought to myself then that it might be a good idea to put out some pylons to make a temporary separate path for the cyclists on the road. All over Ottawa this spring, while the MUPs were flooded, so many cyclists were forced onto roads. I don’t think temporary segregated lanes were provided on any of those roads.

I recently read that a (segregated, protected) cycle track along a road is one ninth as dangerous for cyclists as a road with no marked cycle lane at all. That statistic is one good reason to keep asking for safe transportation infrastructure for all, including children. A lot of my motivation for bike advocacy is based on statistics. There is a good solid evidence-based case for why safe cities are better, and cheaper, for us all. But now, in addition, I remember that feeling, the feeling as I looked up and saw 2 tons of metal bearing down on my own child.

I didn’t cry at the hospital. I held it together and took my boy home and was in bed by 1 a.m. Then I cried. I wept my fear and terror into the spouse’s shoulder. I know now that I did not weep it all out that night. Every time I see the scar on Middle’s cheek, the fear is back. Please make the city safe for all. Please.

Dear Adam van Koeverden

Dear Adam van Koeverden

I recently saw you race your last Olympic race. I always forget how fast you are, and how totally earnest and Canadian you are in interviews. I remember you racing in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. I was in the hospital after giving birth to my third child, our daughter. I watched you in the middle of the night, while I was feeding her. I had never bothered to get a TV in my room when I had the boys, but they were not born during the Olympics. It was totally blissful to have mandated time in bed and nothing to do except look after one baby (the two-year-old  and six-year-old were safely at home with Dad) and watch Olympics.

I remember that there was something in that Olympics about you not doing as well as expected in one of your races, but that is very vague in my mind. What is very clear is an image of you in your boat, racing like the dickens, the picture of health and capability, and let’s face it, good-looking like crazy. I initially felt envious, like you were capable of so much more than I. I also felt surprised that I was able to appreciate your physical beauty not long after a Caesarean section. There was still life in me yet, it seemed. I felt the opposite of capable, with a wound in my abdomen. This was my second C-section. You see, it turns out that when I am pregnant, my pelvis separates, front and back. All three times. My first labour exacerbated the damage, because it lasted 52 hours. I had 9 months of physio, and had another baby boy three years later, by C-section to bypass the pelvis. After that pregnancy, I had 16 months of physio. Our baby girl was born 33 months after our second boy. I had a year of physio, and that was the last baby.

I lay there in my bed, feeding my baby and feeling totally battered. One sweats a lot after giving birth, and I was really itchy after the drugs they gave me for the C-section. I felt lumpish, and could barely walk, and I looked upon you as someone almost from a different species.

But then I realized that our project was really the same: to do something that was not easy for the human body to do, and to keep doing it even though it hurt. I realized that the human body was astonishing in its capabilities, and that your body and my body and the body of my little girl shared that quality. You helped me realize that, and I want to say thank you. I too am super-earnest and Canadian.