Nobody bikes to the dentist

It’s an ongoing joke on #ottbike Twitter. People post a photo of a bike in front of dentist’s office, or a clinic, or a hospital and marvel that it is actually possible to reach healthcare on a bicycle. This joke is a jab at the people who claim that the new hospital being built here in the next few years needs masses of parking.

We chose our dentist and our doctor and our optometrist with an eye to biking and walking and transit. It’s easy to get to all those places from our house by bike. It’s easy for the spouse and the teenager to get to work and school afterwards as well. What’s complicated is getting the youngest two to the dentist and to school on the same day.

I’m sharing this riveting tale not because it’s so fascinating to examine the minutiae of our everyday life, but to show that zoning decisions taken by our institutions have effects on people’s lives every day. Schools are far apart because of the implicit assumption that every family has easy access to a car. But not every one does.

The reason it’s complicated to get to school and the dentist on the same day for us is that the children aren’t zoned to go to the closest primary school to our house. That would be perfect on dentist days, since that school is about 1.5 km away, between our house and the dentist. We could bike to the dentist and I could drop them at school on the way home. Instead, our zoned primary school is five kilometres northeast of our house and is not walkable or bikeable. I’ve tried to bike with the children, but all the options were so stressful that we gave up after we started having anxiety dreams about the trip. Bike Ottawa has this nifty new set of maps in which you can do bike route planning with different settings for stress. Level 1, the lowest stress, is listed as suitable for children, and the levels up to 4 increase to highest stress. The routes I tried with the kids are either Level 3 or 4. I tried to get a Level 2 route, but the site told me it was not available. When I tried to find a Level 1 route, the site had me starting at our house and then biking to some pleasant place in Quebec along segregated bike lanes. It reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Well, on second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.” Indeed, but it is their school. So we don’t bike and they take the school bus.

On dentist days I can either take them to the dentist and then to school, or pick them up from school and then go to the dentist. Or I can take them to the dentist and abandon the whole school day. This latter seems rather extreme, but all the options are complicated and/or expensive. When we had a car, I just got in the car and drove where I needed to go. Now that we don’t own a car, the project is rather more involved.I started to write an explanation, but it got so detailed and confusing I drafted this flowchart instead.

If we look at the flowchart we can see that the cheapest and fastest option is Option 3, which involves biking to the dentist and biking home, and ditching school. Options 1 and 5 involve the Vrtucar, and cost about the same in terms of parking and car fees. In Option 1, the kids get a bike ride out of it too. Options 3 and 5 involve public transit. These options cost both time and bus fare.

I have tried all of the options and can freely state that the public transit options are the worst. One day I used option 5 and got home at 1.30 p.m. from a 9 a.m. dentist appointment. All of the buses that day did not come according to their schedule, and because they’re not that frequent I racked up more than an hour just waiting for various buses. I gave up on the last bus, the delightful route 9, and walked the last 2.5 km. The cost of the fares is not negligible either.

The car options seem all right, at first blush. There is the cost of the Vrtucar, but the travel time is pretty quick. Last time I drove to the dentist, however, I parked on a street on which parking was forbidden after 3.30 p.m. The dentist was running late, and I was looking at the time and paying the bill and feeling a bit panicky. Then I went outside and found a $100 ticket on the windscreen. Of course I disliked getting the ticket, but the city is perfectly within its rights to give it to me. I also disliked worrying about parking. I was sitting in the dentist chair thinking that when I’m on my bike I don’t have to worry about such time limits.

I decided after that to resort to Option 3 on all possible occasions. Little had to have a filling done recently, so I excused her from school for the day and we biked downtown. We went to buy wool for some mittens and a hat for next winter, we passed a little free library, we smelt the scent of the locust trees that were blooming at that time. We went to the dentist. We biked home, did some baking and read some books. Total cost of transportation: $0.00. Time spent together: priceless.

 

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.

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.

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.

tree-farm

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….