Car-free in a car city

One of the hardest parts of Buy Nothing Year so far has been changing my transportation habits. Prior to BNY, I relied a lot on my trusty prairie Porsche – a white ’97 Chevy Cavalier. I drove almost everywhere: school, work, yoga, groceries, errands, meeting up with friends, to the mountains. A lot of my lifestyle was based around using my car as my primary mode of transportation; it allowed me to fit a lot into a day and I definitely made the most of the flexibility owning a car allows.

Prior to starting this project, my office moved and parking downtown was expensive so I started biking to work. When my car broke down over the summer, I had become accustomed to cycling almost everywhere and I decided not to repair it in order to test what it would be like not to have a car in anticipation of phase 2 of our experiment.

For the first three months of BNY, I mainly cycled but periodically took cabs and borrowed Geoffrey’s car, especially if I was going out late at night or wanted to do something far from our home. We also used Geoffrey’s car to pick up friends, groceries, take people to the airport and transport large/heavy objects.

When we entered phase 2 on Nov 3 and stopped paying for services, we also cut out all costs associated with transportation (gas, taxis, transit passes). At first, I still rode my bike but as soon as it started snowing, I stopped (no winter biking for me!) and have relied mainly on walking and transit since then. Thankfully, I was able to barter some web services for transit passes, otherwise I don’t know how I would have gotten through last week (some days down to minus 40 C with a windchill!).

Walking and biking have been a welcome adjustment in many ways: I feel healthy physically and mentally. I have never felt so in touch with nature and the changing seasons while living in a city. I like the mental break and taking my time instead of rushing around.

“Anywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright

But it’s been hard too. We’ve been in this experiment over four months and I still feel like I’m still figuring out how long it takes me to get places. Everything just takes longer. I find that I can’t fit as much into my days as I’m used to and there have been times when I have declined event invitations because it was too far away. For a busy bee like me, it’s been a huge shift and while I do feel like I’m gaining a stronger sense of my priorities, I can’t help but feel like I’m missing out.

I’m also incredibly mindful of what I take with me. I used to keep everything in my backseat – a few pairs of shoes, change of clothes, gym stuff, snacks. Now I’m limited to just what I can carry. Also, in a way, it’s helpful that we haven’t been shopping because I don’t know how I would transport furniture or large items with me on public transit. Even simple things like going to friend’s party on the other side of town, doing a big grocery shop or wanting to donate unused items to Women in Need requires planning. And then of course, there’s the weather…

Going car-free has changed a lot for me, from what I carry around to who I see to what I do.

Of course it is possible to exclusively walk, cycle and use transit in Calgary. The bike and pedestrian trails are excellent and I have found the transit to be reliable and fast. As well, Geoffrey and I live close to downtown and we are aware that our close proximity where we both work (it takes me about 40 minutes to walk to work) and socialize has made this transition much easier. Many of our friends and family live close by too, which also helps.

Calgary is a car-centric city known for urban sprawl and in my experience, it is not only our urban design and transportation infrastructure that reflect this, it is also embedded in our cultural experiences and social expectations. Take for example the PechaKucha Night (PKN) Geoffrey and I spoke at a couple weeks ago. The event took place at WinSport at Canada Olympic Park. If one of the PKN committee members hadn’t kindly offered us a ride, it would have taken us over an hour to get there on transit and almost 2 hours to get home that night.

Taking transit in that instance would have been totally doable, but the transit rides alone would have easily taken up half of our evening, time we were instead happy spend with our friends. I haven’t researched this but I expect that many social and community activities in Calgary are designed with the expectation that the people participating have access to a vehicle. I would be interested in hearing about other people’s experiences.

When I think about my life pre-BNY, I think that part of why I was able to have such an active social lifestyle, floating easily between work, gym, errands, classes, events and other engagements, was the fact that I had a car. It has taken me over four months to really adjust to car-free life and honestly, I still resent it sometimes. Of course I miss it on the freezing cold days and late at night when the buses don’t run as frequently, but I mainly miss the flexibility of being able to travel when I choose, go to the mountains, pick up friends and do things outside of my neighbourhood and daily routine more easily. Indeed, I expect that of the first things I invest in after Buy Nothing Year is going to be a car…

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