Resisting the call of the car

A bus waits near New Westminster SkyTrain Station. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd (via Flickr)
A bus waits near New Westminster SkyTrain Station. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd (via Flickr)

This week is I Love Transit Week, a celebration of public transportation hosted by TransLink’s The Buzzer blog. Join Buzzer blogger Jhenifer Pabillano and other transit-lovers Thursday, July 15 at The Heritage Grill in New Westminster for an evening meetup with food, games and fun! You can also enter to win a Summer Commuter Prize Pack from TransLink & Tenth to the Fraser.

Odysseus stopped up his ears with beeswax because he knew alone, he would not have the strength to withstand the lure of the sirens’ call. I did the modern green equivalent.

I never intended not to get my driver’s license. When I was eight years old, my mother bought a new Honda, and I remember asking her to hold on to our old car for me, so that I would have my own car to drive when I turned 16. I remember counting down to the magic day when I’d be allowed to get my driver’s license. But a funny thing happened when I finally did turn 16. Life got busy, and I put off writing my learner’s test. Then, at some point after that, my environmental conscience became activated. Suddenly not driving became a point of pride.

Thirteen years later, as I come up on my 29th birthday, it looks like I will finally submit to the pressures of my husband, mother, friends and countless busybodies who have nagged me over the years to get my license. It irks me that people count it as a deficiency not to drive. While there are times when it certainly would have been more convenient, in my mind the karmic debt of adding to the plague of single occupant vehicles in the Lower Mainland outweighed the occasional frustrations. Now, with two kids and an increasingly complicated schedule of to-ing and fro-ing, I am forced to admit that the convenience of driving is sometimes a necessity, and that it is unfair for my husband to always play chauffeur.

Guiltily, I am looking forward to having the freedom to go alone to places not well served by transit. I imagine gaily whisking my children off at the spur of the moment to do wild and wonderful things, singing happy road songs and stopping at a drive-through for cheeky treats along the way. But at the same time, I am fearful of giving in to this perception of ease, forgetting that there is a cost beyond the total at the pump and taking the car for granted.

I’m afraid that freed of my self-imposed limits, I will turn into the kind of lumpen lazybones that drives to the corner store. I get little exercise as it is. I don’t see the sense in driving to the gym so I can spend time on a treadmill when I could be walking my children to Moody Park Pool or muscling the stroller up and down hills to the SkyTrain station. As satisfying as those walks can be, I know if I had the choice to take the car, I would. It’s just too easy to indulge.

Taking transit encourages frugal trip planning. If I can’t bus there, I don’t go. I live only in walkable neighbourhoods. I apply for jobs only on major transit routes. I  plan to complete multiple errands per trip, and challeng myself to use only one bus ticket per trip whenever possible. In a car, the incremental cost of gas isn’t enough of a disincentive to really change transportation behaviour. But even an extra 15 minutes by bus can seem too much to bother. To some people, this might sound a bit masochistic, but it’s no different than a shopaholic freezing credit cards in ice. Sometimes it hurts, but I am convinced that taking the bus is good for me.

And this is (partially) what brought me to New Westminster. When the cost of an extra bedroom priced my husband and I out of the rental market in downtown Vancouver, our relocation choices were constrained by my reliance on public transportation. New Westminster, nexus of the Lower Mainland, was the next best thing to downtown for easy access to the places I needed to go. I miss walking to work, but in a city of just six square miles, I can walk almost anywhere I want to go (though here it really can be uphill both ways!). And yet there are five SkyTrain stations and buses every 15 minutes or less to all the main commercial districts. The commuting time to Vancouver is the same or faster by SkyTrain than by car at rush hour – and I can relax by reading or playing Bejeweled at the same time.

I really do love transit. What can I say? I like to cheer for the underdog. I don’t think people give public transportation the credit (and funding) it’s due. I consider doing without a private vehicle a public good. I am hoping that the 13 years I spent doing without will help fortify me against the lure of easy driving. I may have to swallow my pride and drive the damn car, but I hope to continue my transportation diet of buses, SkyTrains and my own two feet.

12 Replies to “Resisting the call of the car”

  1. Great post, Briana.

    In my experience, if you are "trained" to use public transit, it does become hard to over/mis-use a car. Much like if you've ever lived with a tight budget, you find it hard to squander money, even when you have LOTS. I have been carred and not carred and semi-carred (with the Cooperative Auto Network..there is a car very near you, actually) and I find that I still consider my options and weigh the pluses and minuses before getting in our vehicle.

    I bought my first (used) car when I was 25 (?) and had been unemployed for almost a year. I got a job offer, finally, but it was in Richmond, I lived in downtown Vancouver and the transit was on strike. Until then, it had been transit and hoofing it all the way.

    The world doesn't need more cars. But the world does need more drivers who have also been pedestrians. So there's that.

  2. Thanks for this post! I'm 19 and got my license the day I could, but I still don't have my own car. We have a family car but I never, ever drive it unless it's with someone else in my family.

    Driving to the gym is something I always thought was ridiculous, paying all that money for something you could do free. Even in the dead cold of winter, biking or jogging works up such a sweat in no time.

    I grew up in Singapore where the public transit is just fantastic and efficient and I hope BC's transit can take a leaf or two out of their book in the near future!

  3. What an excellent post! I don't have my license either and I can totally relate to everything you wrote about (except the kids part – I don't have any). Good for you, and keep it up!

  4. I got my license just 3 months after turning 16. However, I did so at the urging of my mom who insisted I should know how to drive both 5-speed and automatic for emergency reasons.

    This, alone, is an excellent reason to know how to drive and has proven itself over and over. Emergency trip to the vet? How about an emergency trip to the hospital ER when an ambulance ride is too costly? How about being the one to take over for an overly-sleepy driver? Or driving a friend home who didn't show self-restraint at the bar?

    Yes, of course, I've had to make single-driver car trips. Such is the life of someone in the lower mainland whose job takes them outside major transit routes. But, I've always done what I could to reduce my environmental debt:

    -when I lived in uptown White Rock (another walkable neighbourhood), I used a van pool to UBC for 3 years

    -I choose now to live in New West (love the walkables!) and always do my shopping on foot (even on rainy days, the car stays here at the apartment)

    -I choose jobs and activities nearby so I can do as much without the car as possible

    -Rather than opt for a sometimes much-needed second car, I go for the bus and my husband gets the car

    -We choose to drive a small engine model and maintain it well. Better on emissions!

    I also try to pay my driving debt in other ways. I regularly "RECYCLE, RE-USE, REDUCE, REFUSE" and my chosen forms of exercise are walking and cycling.

    If you're trained to use transit, you may find you're giddy about going off-transit-route places in the car…at first. And then the novelty of driving will wear off and you'll be back to your planning ways.

    Oh, and there's no magic trick to getting exercise if you're a driver. That Nike slogan was catchy for a reason: JUST DO IT.

  5. Our individual contributions to reducing global warming surely do add up to make a difference.

    Unfortunately, our government still chooses to ignore the message sent by our efforts, and promotes driving by investing in bridge construction, oilsand development, air travel, and offshore imports.

    I'm hoping here to address the guilty environmental conscience that seems to lurk in the hearts of most of us. The guilt has a valid cause, but unless our government changes its path right now, our best individual efforts are overshadowed by the lack of supporting infrastructure development.

    Environmental change is our "slow emergency". Our behaviour as a civilization today, will drastically influence the way we live in the not-too-distant future.

    It's shamefully ironic that Canada's reputation as a responsible global citizen is being unwittingly eroded, while its citizens agonize over how to responsibly care for their families, under an administration that squanders its future.

  6. Transit is a challenge if you are trying to get around with kids. Life is more hectic, and the longer the trip, the more likely you'll hear that one of them is bored, sick, tired, hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, or is in need of a bathroom (now). Hopping off a bus to find a bathroom, knowing that there won't be another one for 30 minutes, and that you have to get home to make dinner, just doesn't work well.

    We looked at the Car Co-op as a possible replacement for a car. It has the advantages of pay-as-you-go, but there were a few big drawbacks for us.

    The first was lugging car-seats to them. Last I checked, the closest was Moody Park, which is about 1km from where we live. Lugging two car-seats, two kids, plus supplies (in the rain) was not terribly feasible.

    The second was that if you wanted to go away for a weekend, the cost got prohibitive (around $500). We go to the family cabin four or five times a year – 60 minutes of driving each way, and then the car sits there for the weekend.

    To travel on transit (monthly passes) would cost about $300 per month

    for the family.

    With a paid-off car, it's cheaper to drive (we only put about 8000 km a year on the car). I would guess we spend about $3500 per year on gas, insurance, and maintenance.

    Personally, I like transit for commuting – aside from the occasional puddle of vomit on a sky-train seat, it's quick, and gives me 45 minutes a day to read a book or listen to music.

  7. I remember getting my drivers license.

    Emancipation !

    I'm sure that's what your husband will feel after he is released from the heavy burden of chauffeuring you and your children !

    Why not make a trade off and ensure that your car is as efficient as possible with properly inflated tires, empty trunk as to not carry additional weight and a well tuned fuel sipping motor used for only necessary trips ?

    It's unfortunate that you where priced out of Vancouver, and found yourself here in the Wild West. I wonder how much additional costs in car ownership are attributed to your husbands use compared to the additional floorspace if he was to loose his wheels and join your green efforts.


  8. Hey Norman,

    I'm sure Will would agree with you! He's very eager to have me get my license, and as I wrote here, I have reluctantly come around to the idea. Will doesn't chauffeur me around much. I usually bus if alone and if we're going as a family he's already on board to go. But there are certainly some occasions when it would be handy to have an extra driver.

    As for your other comments: We have done as much as possible with the car within our budget. We bought the most fuel-efficient car we could afford with enough seats for all the kids. If Will was working downtown he probably would SkyTrain too, but his workplace isn't on a well-served transit route.

    New West is really good for transit service. I certainly don't think of it as the "Wild West"! As for additional commuting cost on Will's part, it's actually cheaper to live out this way. As I mentioned, he's not downtown, and when we lived there he did a reverse commute, driving out to the suburb where his office was.

  9. I agree, transit in my neighborhood runs about every 15 minutes in either direction, but I still need (or believe I need) the car. I would like to get one of those all electric ones that plug into your house but I'm going to wait till the prices come down or there is a really cheap do-it-yourself conversion. I drive a 4 cyl car but use it like a truck.

    I have a friend who live downtown and commutes out to ladner in a huge truck that is totally unladen. He like the idea of living in the 'big city' and has a 'big truck' and a 'big budget' on rent, fuel and insurance. Lives paycheck to paycheck. What a waste I tell him.

    you should write about getting your license, and the driving test. I wanna know how many times you fail !!!!! I failed like 3 or 4 times didn't get it till I was 20 or 21. Never been in an accident, so fluf on those driving inspectors ! You'll see !

    Good luck !


  10. I was 31 before I got my driver's license. I had started learning to drive earlier, but my first (volunteer) driving instructor's idea of how to do this was to get me to drive her car while doing errands in Toronto's downtown core during Friday afternoon rush hour – after a particularly hair-raising moment when I was making a left turn near Bathurst and Queen and hit the gas pedal rather than the brake, she reconsidered.

    One of the reasons I finally got my license was because of what my mother went through went my dad got sick. They were living in a small town 40 miles from Halifax with no regular bus or train service into the city, and when he had to stay in hospital for an extended period of time she was suddenly helpless – not only could she not get into town to see him (and ended up staying at a hotel for months!), she couldn't even get groceries. She'd had her license when she was young, but after a series of accidents (people hitting her) lost her nerve and let it lapse. I got her to take lessons from a driving school that specialized in 'nervous and mature drivers' and she got her license in three weeks – and, to my surprise, became not only a very good driver but an incredibly enthusiastic one (I tried very hard not to roll my eyes when she'd say how much she wished Canada had its own Autobahn).

    When I finally started learning to drive in earnest, it took me only three weeks to get my license – although I did have to fire another (real) driving instructor who seemed to think the lessons should consist of just driving forward (after three requests on my part to teach me how to back into a parking space, I'd had enough! Besides, I was starting to worry I might actually CALL him 'Dirk the Dork' to his face). My top tip for you: learn the route near the examination centre like the back of your hand, especially if you're taking your test in summer, when leaves can obscure stop signs.

    Learning to drive is both an adventure and a rite of passage in North America, and you won't regret it. I celebrated getting my license by going to the drive-in near the cottage to see a VERY odd double bill (I think it was Harry and the Hendersons and Platoon!). So I'm looking forward to celebrating your good news with you when you pass your test.

    1. Aw, thanks Ruth! I didn't know there were driving schools that specialized in "nervous and mature" drivers! Maybe I should look into that 😉

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