The Suite (of Options) Life in Winnipeg

August 28th, 2018 by Emma Durand-Wood

This past week, my family embarked on something of a new adventure. We sold our car! Yes, I put an exclamation mark there. (I think I mean it.)

Why would we, a family of five who can easily afford a car, and who used to use their car regularly, do such a thing? Well, it’s been a bit of a journey. The short answer is that I stopped driving, and then everything just sort of fell into place.

I stopped driving (our own car, not driving period) because when we bought our last vehicle,  we bought a stick-shift, and I assumed I’d eventually learn and be comfortable with driving it. That didn’t happen. My husband, who’d driven a standard regularly in his younger days, was comfortable with our new car (“it’s like riding a bike! it comes right back to you!”), but for a variety of reasons, it was not a great season of life for me to be learning a skill that made me a nervous wreck just thinking about going out to practice. And so, as I have written about before, I found myself negotiating daily life using my feet, my bus pass, and occasionally a borrowed car.

After about a year of this — during which time I had a third child and discovered that Save-On grocery delivery is one of the best things since sliced bread — I joked to my husband that for Mother’s Day I’d love one of the beautiful used Dutch bikes that were coming over to Winnipeg via the Plain Bicycle Project. Imagine my delight when he signed me up for one right then and there! So last July I got my trusty, kinda rusty, but gorgeous second-hand (or third- or fourth-hand? No one knows!) bike and rediscovered the sheer joy of bike riding. At that point I hadn’t been on a bike since I was a teenager, and as I rode my new bike home from The Forks, a familiar and comfortable feeling washed over me. The breeze in my face, that sense of autonomy and independence, and the pleasure of a leisurely ride on a warm summer evening.

There were new experiences as well:  the thrill of taking an entirely new-to-me route to get to a familiar location, and an unexpected sense of camaraderie (a fellow plain bike recipient zipped by me and told me, “you might need to get your back wheel trued!” — had to look that one up when I got home!). I crossed paths with three other Plain Bicycle Project folks in the coming week, and each time the recognition provided a little zing of happiness. I soon discovered that I could get to the Superstore on Gateway and McLeod by taking the smooth and scenic Northern Pioneers Greenway most of the way. The Forks was a straightforward and pleasant ride as well. Getting to the Henderson Library and the Northdale Sobeys/Liquor Mart/Rexall was also pretty simple, a leisurely 20-minute ride. Once I figured out which streets offered the most pleasant and safe biking conditions, I actually looked forward to running errands by bike. The setting sun was generally the only limiting factor.

Watching me get so much use and enjoyment out of my new bike inspired my husband to start riding his more. He’d bought his mountain bike as a young adult, for recreational purposes, but in nine years we’d been together I think I’d only seen him ride it once. Soon we were both taking our bikes our for leisure rides and errands, often being jealous while one went out while the other stayed home with the kids, or yearning to be able to go for a ride together!

After a great summer of biking–we adults taking turns, and our older kids both riding two-wheelers–our bikes went into storage for the winter. With a stunning lack of prescience, we built a garage in the fall and bought a special shed for our bikes. We got through the winter with our one driver, our bus passes, and our feet for walking, and as soon as the sidewalks were clear enough for the kids to get their bikes out, we were out there every day, chipping away at the ice that had sealed our bike shed shut. We bought a Chariot bike trailer off Kijiji so that we could ride together as a family (and as a bonus, in stroller mode, we could finally navigate those awful in-between partly-bare, partly-slushy spring sidewalks that are a nightmare for both regular strollers AND sleds).

So. From November to May we’d only done 1500km in the car. At this point we started seriously thinking about whether we really needed a car. What would life look like? Well, for me, not much different – I already wasn’t driving it!  We ran the numbers and found that, for roughly the cost of just insuring a car for one year, we could rent a car one day a week (which realistically, was probably more than we’d need).

I heard my mum refer to retired friends of hers who always did their errands on a particular day of the week. That gave me the idea that it would probably be pretty feasible to mindfully consolidate various errands and social engagements that really necessitated a car into one day, while using the bus, bike, or walking the rest of the time. In fact, it would even be better for me that way, since when we had a car, it would be one that I actually felt comfortable driving.  (We love the idea of joining Peg City Car Co-Op — I loved using Zipcar when I lived in Vancouver — but there are no coop cars in walking distance of our house. There is, however, a car rental place in very close proximity!)

I know our lives look a little different than a lot of families’: we both work part-time from home (therefore we don’t have daycare to get to and from), our closest family members all live in the neighbourhood, and over the last couple of years, we’ve been fairly consciously trying to live more local lives by choosing to use services and activities within walking distance of our home.  (I wrote about those things in more detail here.) Our kids are bussed to school in St. B, which makes for long weekdays; we decided when our first kid started kindergarten that we would try not to schedule any activities on weeknights for at least the first few years of school, while bedtime was still early, and the time we had together on weekdays was so scarce. On Saturdays, the kids each have one activity within walking distance (Elmwood Curling Club and Aspire Dance Studios), and on Sundays we hang around the neighbourhood because we typically spend a lot of the day with extended family.

So during the week, our family transportation needs are actually pretty minimal. The biggest impact that not driving had on my life was social – I do have a few friends and family members who live in areas where transit service isn’t great, and I definitely have not seen them as much during the time I haven’t been driving. That’s a loss to me and something that is important to me to find a way to solve.  Another challenge is accessing French-language activities and services in St. Boniface, which is a priority for us as a bilingual family. Transit service in St. B is atrocious. We would go to the St. B library as much if not more than the Henderson branch if transit was higher frequency.

Anyway, when we took our car for its pre-summer road trip checkup this past June, we wanted to get some strange squeaks checked out. After taking a look, our  mechanic told us we were actually not driving enough – that parts were not working properly because of disuse. He actually suggested maybe we shouldn’t own a car. And that sort of sealed the deal… when our summer travels were done, we’d get the car safetied, put it up for sale, and see if we could make life work without owning a car. A couple weeks later, the perfect buyers came along, and we said farewell to our Mazda 5.

If the car hadn’t felt like a bit of a burden to me from the start, I might have gotten sentimental. Oh, the car we brought our third child home from the birth centre in! Instead I felt a combination of nothing and of an albatross being peeled from my neck. We haven’t set any goal or timeline for this “not owning a car” experiment. If we discover that we do need to own a car, we’ll get one (and it will be an automatic, FO SHO).

It’s now been a week. So far, so good. Mostly it’s been a pretty normal week, but we had one really awesome family bike adventure. We knew from a few previous rides that the kids (age 8 and 5) could handle a distance of about 5km per direction, with stops for rests and water. So when we heard that there was an arborists’ tree climbing championship event at Kildonan Park on the weekend, we thought it sounded like a great destination! We left our neighbourhood via the Redwood (sorry – Lazarenko) Bridge, headed behind the Redwood Centre complex, through St. John’s Park, and then took the amazing Scotia Street route (a Sunday/Holiday bike route) all the way to Kildonan Park! I couldn’t believe how beautiful a ride it was, how little traffic, and how straightforward a route. It was a beautiful morning, and we had a great time riding together as a family in an environment that was calm enough that we could actually hear each other talking, there were lots of people outside walking and biking to greet as we passed by, and man – did we ever get a lot of smiles!

I also was thrilled to realize that finding this bike route opens up access to so much on Main St as well — it would be my last resort to ride on Main itself, but I could see myself taking Scotia Street and then heading west on a side street to access any number of places on Main (Baraka Pita, A l’épi de blé, Pollock’s Hardware, etc.).

Summer is drawing to an end, and I’m definitely not at the point where I feel prepared to bike in the winter (I’d need  a different bike for that, to boot), so we will see how long I can ride in the fall before it’s time to put my bike into hibernation. For now I feel like this is a good thing, not a hardship, but just enough of a challenge to keep life interesting and testing our comfort zones just a tiny, healthy bit.

If you’ve read my last couple blog posts, or if you follow me on Twitter, you will know that I’ve become pretty passionate about the idea that cities are for people, and that cities that have succumbed to designing themselves for cars, not people, are bad news. Bad news for human health, safety, and quality of life; bad news for cities struggling to keep up with maintaining existing infrastructure; bad news for our one and only planet Earth.

Our decision to try out a life not owning a car represents kind of a combination of our values: to be the change we wish to see in the world (we would like to see a world where people didn’t HAVE to own cars to experience true freedom and mobility in their own city), to offer one small sacrifice in the name of the environment (by simply not defaulting to taking the car every time we go somewhere), and to live a life that values people and relationships and (cheese alert!) enjoying the journey, not just the destination.

I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that it’s because of our relative privilege that we can “choose” this. For many people, walking, biking, and taking transit are their only options, no matter how much a car would make their life easier. I’m sure there are folks who would roll their eyes at my lengthy explanation of our “lifestyle choice”. In fact I feel like a bit of an idiot having spent so much time pondering it, worrying what our friends and family will make of this puzzling, unconventional choice. But I think the fact is that for most middle-class families in cities like Winnipeg, owning at least one car is a given. And I’m encouraged that the response of some people has been, “Cool! I wish we could do that too!” (Pssst… you probably could!)

A tweet I saw a few months ago has been turning over in my head pretty constantly:

And it’s that idea–a “suite of options” for transportation–that has been my encouragement and inspiration in attempting this new way of living. If you’re still here, thanks for reading. I’m excited to share more about this experience in the coming weeks.

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