Last year our ’99 Ford Escort finally kicked the bucket. Yep, we’d been happily driving a practically vintage vehicle, maintaining it diligently so as to squeeze out every last possible kilometre, until finally we got a $2000 transmission repair estimate that we couldn’t justify – that was worth way more than the value of the car itself, so off to Teen Challenge it went, and we got a nice tax receipt as a souvenir.
And so we embarked on a quest for a new-to-us vehicle. Anticipating another addition to our family, we knew we’d need a slightly bigger vehicle, and armed with the wisdom of Mr. Money Mustache and his concept of automotive inventory, we knew we’d be buying used. The only thing that was a tough decision was whether we’d get an automatic or a standard. Mr. Money Mustache makes a pretty good case for going standard, and we discovered that apples to apples, going with a car with standard transmission would save us about $1000. So we got exactly the car we wanted, and at a great price. Only trouble was I didn’t know how to drive it. I was willing to learn to drive stick, but it didn’t turn out to be so easy.
I’m still not sure whether I was smart or crazy. It is almost a year later and I still am barely driving (in fact, I haven’t driven our car at all since the snow came last fall). There are a few reasons for this. One, we don’t drive a lot, so I don’t get a lot of opportunities for practice. Both my husband and I work from home. Most of our family lives in the neighbourhood. Our older child takes the bus to school and the kids don’t have a lot of “activities”. We often carpool with family members to our various shared commitments like yoga, baseball and curling. Much of this is intentional, and we are glad it works this way. Over the past many months my generous in-laws have been very accommodating with me borrowing their automatic whenever I need it, which is wonderful, especially on cold, slippery days like today. And since Save-On-Foods arrived in town it’s been grocery delivery for me almost exclusively!
Also, I find it basically terrifying driving in Winnipeg traffic. As I’ve written about before, I take driving extremely seriously. I don’t need driving to be pleasurable or fun or enjoyable, I just need it to get me to where I’m going, preferably with some good music I can sing badly to. I actually don’t dislike driving at all. I don’t mind running errands and love going on road trips. But I’m totally one of those nervous passengers who is silently freaked out that you are tailing someone too closely or bracing myself because you are braking way too last minute. I can’t help it. Driving is a necessity but we should never forget that lives are at stake around us.
A few people have asked me what it is about driving standard that makes me so nervous. And honestly, it’s not really my own driving abilities. It’s drivers around me. They ignore the rules of the road (which I thought applied to everyone?) and common sense. They text. I fear not knowing the combination of motions needed to make a quick manoeuver if required. Now, I know that this is muscle memory, and it will come with time. I also remember feeling very nervous when I first began driving as a teenager, and that was in an automatic. I know practice makes perfect. But I can only get so much “comfortable” practice in the safe and relatively slow side streets of my neighbourhood before getting out onto major streets is required. And others’ impatience and unpredictability is not making it more enticing.
So, what of all this? The unexpected upside for me has been that I walk and take the bus a lot more often that I used to! There are a couple of things that make this so easy. One, our neighbourhood of Glenelm is extremely well serviced by transit. A #11 goes down Henderson every 10 minutes, so getting downtown is a cinch. (Transferring on to other destinations is another story.) If my husband or I has a downtown appointment, we almost exclusively take the bus. No parking to find and pay for – woo! (Some people’s bus dread is my parking dread.)
And happily, the introduction of Peggo electronic fare cards coincided nicely with my limited driving phase. I used to buy bus tickets, but have found the Peggo card so much more useful since there’s no need to keep returning to the store to buy more tickets. And since they upped the auto-reload threshold from $7 to $12, the system works really well for me as a occasional rider.
Another little bonus of taking the bus: I actually like the “me time”. I read or listen to podcasts and enjoy the fact that someone else is behind the wheel and no small voices are demanding “that song on repeat!”. Sometimes I wind up chatting with a stranger or an acquaintance I happen to run into, which often feels like a nice little bonus.
Sure, taking the bus is less pleasant in the winter if you have to wait around for a bus or a transfer. Not all the stops have shelters, and those that do aren’t always heated (and don’t always smell great). Though, honestly, I despise being behind the wheel in a cold car, and to me the unpleasantness of waiting outside for a bus is about on par with that. No big loss.
On a more practical level, not necessarily being able to jump in the car at the drop of the hat has caused me to be much more deliberate with choosing to spend time on the road and the purpose of the trips I do take. Given that nothing about car travel (in and of itself, aside from the end destination of the trip) is good for human health, this is good thing, even when it does feel inconvenient. There’s no downside to walking and standing a little more, and sitting a little less.
And from a financial standpoint, being less spontaneous and more mindful about impulse outings is an excellent thing. Not gonna lie, I love a good “just to look around” Ikea trip. I love just browsing (with a coffee shop drink in hand, even more) almost anywhere. Late night ice cream run? Yes, please! But, as I’ve discovered, it’s a lot easier to resist the urge to use shopping/consuming as entertainment when the logistics of getting there need to be planned in advance. And when I do get out for this type of trip, I savour and enjoy it that much more.
To me the biggest disincentive and barrier to taking the bus is when all the possible trip plans clearly take much longer than just driving. And that is something that probably won’t improve until system-wide increased frequency becomes a priority (I’m especially looking at you, any route that serves St. Boniface!).
I’m now approaching my 9-year Pegiversary and my time in Vancouver — during which I never had a car and relied fully on transit and walking, with the occasional cab, car co-op booking, or traditional rental — seems further and further away. But one thing that I still really do miss about that time of my life was the ease of getting around without a vehicle. Between the excellent public transit system and the mild weather, in most ways, it was easier not to have a vehicle in Vancouver.
Of course, I rode my fair share of overcrowded busses, my high-heeled feet in aching as I stood wedged and clinging to a small section of handrail after a long day of work. I cursed as the Skytrain shut down after a light dusting of snow, causing crushes of frustrated, backlogged riders at every station. But most of the time, transit was was so functional and easy that it was basically invisible. That is what Winnipeg should be aiming for. Making transit easier than taking a vehicle.
It drives me crazy to see the city investing in more road infrastructure when we can’t even afford to maintain what we have. And I noticed a while back that they’re now reporting gas prices along with morning traffic conditions. Why? Like it even matters. No one is going to stop buying gas if they need it, and for most people (not talking people who drive for a living), it’s a matter of a few dollars’ difference. All it does it make drivers feel hard-done by. I’m not anti-car by any stretch. I’m glad we have one, for when we need it. But I am okay with paying for what it costs: not simply to operate it, but also for associated costs to the environment and the road – if I were ever asked to.
If we want to ever move away from being a car-reliant city, we need to making driving LESS appealing and pleasant, not more. And for that reason, I have found an unexpected gratitude for my “no driving year”.