Reflecting on my week without a car
Last week I decided to use my vehicle as little as possible and instead focus on walking, riding the bus and biking to get around. You can read more about why I decided to this but in short I’ve always been excited by the prospect of having a well-designed transportation system because it can lead to healthier and happier cities, while providing a broader set of choices for individual and family budgets.
Going car-less let me dive a little deeper into this idea and, as promised, this post shares some of that experience and hopefully lends a few insights into building a city that works for everyone.
Here’s my experience:
The transit system works fairly well for short trips, especially at the beginning (going to work) and end of the day (going home after work); but it is a real challenge for longer distances. The low frequency of buses was difficult to plan for, especially at non-peak periods of the day, and the sometimes meandering routes made some trips feel unnecessarily long. On average, taking the bus took me 20%-30% longer than driving to get around the city, and required much more up-front planning.
I live in Ward 4, by Oxen Pond Rd and Freshwater Rd. In this area, walking was relatively reasonable to get to meetings at MUN or towards the downtown area - but it wasn’t very practical for my work which often involves having equipment or products to move around. At times walking also felt unsafe. Some areas definitely require much needed improvements to lighting, others were missing sidewalks all together, and in some places (like Freshwater and Kenmount Road) there needs to be more distance between the sidewalk and the moving traffic.
I personally really enjoy biking and think that a more connected network of bike routes, more bike racks to lock up on, better signage for cyclists and motorists, and clear rules for cyclists can make a big difference. These are also improvements that don’t carry a high cost and could make biking much safer and more convenient, while providing clarity on how pedestrians, motorists and cyclists can share the road.
Cost was something I thought about a lot during the week. Combining insurance, vehicle payments, gas, maintenance and repairs - Stephanie and I spend on average $800 a month on our car. Right now, having a vehicle is a necessity for us but I’m convinced that this doesn’t have to be the case. With adequate and effective transportation choices, we would seriously consider forgoing a vehicle and its expense. This would make a very significant and positive impact on our monthly budget as a family.
So full disclosure, I ended up having to use the car. Deliveries for the Bite-sized Farm and moving around equipment for the St. John’s Tool Library are the most glaring examples of where I couldn’t find a reasonable alternative. I think ultimately this means that while ownership or regular use may not be necessary for all of us, there are obvious benefits to access to a vehicle when it is needed.
Even after needing to use my vehicle occasionally, I estimate having saved 25 litres of gas over the course of the week. This is huge for my personal carbon footprint and amounts to a reduction of approximately 57kg of carbon dioxide emissions. With a more diverse set of transportation options available to us, I think we’d see a significant decrease in overall emissions caused by day-to-day travel.
The city is currently designed to encourage travel by car. Growing neighbourhoods, new communities and an increase in single family homes are all elements of a growing and thriving city; but I believe there is also an opportunity to balance this with building neighbourhoods that embrace density and offer nearby services, retail, employment, recreation, and park space.
Not driving (mostly) gave me a totally different experience. I found myself noticing new things, talking to more people, and generally just feeling much more immersed in the character and the energy of the city. I also felt healthier and found myself feeling a bit disappointed when I couldn’t walk or bike to get where I needed to go.
Overall, I think St. John’s is well positioned to improve its existing transportation infrastructure while making improvements that encourage diversity in the ways we get around. In addition to the thoughts I’ve shared above, a clear opportunity that comes to mind is a car-sharing service. I imagine this would work really well and connect more people to areas that can be hard to access or fully utilize via transit such as shopping areas on the edges of the city, or unique destinations like nurseries and animal shelters.
On a more macro level, this issue is about inclusion, accessibility and smart design. So how do we embrace these big opportunities? Breaking the issue down into manageable pieces, inviting public input, and setting clear objectives to improve transportation options, is where I’d begin. After that, it’s important that we follow through. Development regulations, municipal plans and investments must match the vision we have for our city; and ongoing decisions must align with the priorities of the people that make up our neighbourhoods.
I’d really love hear your thoughts and ideas around this, or just chat more about my experience last week. If you’d like to talk, give me a ring anytime at 771-4582.