I received the phone call just as I arrived at work.
"Honey, the car won't start," my wife tells me.
"Ya, I turn the key and the dials all go haywire and the lights start blinking on and off, but the engine isn't doing anything, and there's this really bad noise...."
This isn't the first time this has happened. A few years ago, we purchased a 2005 Chevy Grand Caravan against the advice of my mechanic, Mike. Mike told me that Grand Caravans from that year tend to have electrical problems. Two years in, we've got a busted radio, a window on the driver's side that rolls down but won't roll up again, and a number of emergency lights on the dashboard that are either on all the time, or blink on and off whenever they feel like it (which can be a little unsettling when you're behind the wheel). Just before Christmas, we were getting ready to go to volunteer at the Salvation Army Kettle at the LCBO in New Sudbury when the van refused to start. Two out of three of our kids, my wife and I had no choice but to take the bus - which was actually kind of fun, especially since I was dressed up as Santa Claus - but it the cost was probably pretty close to what we might have paid for a cab.
Anyway, the van isn't going anywhere at the moment. I don't know what's wrong with it (although I suspect it might just be the battery), but to get it looked at, we're going to have to get it towed to the shop. If I had a clue about cars, maybe I could figure it out - but I don't have a clue about cars, and I don't seem to know anybody who does. As an aside, one of the interesting things about being a long-term member of the Green Party is that one tends to develop friendships with like-minded people - and since so many Greens don't drive, or like me, try to minimize their driving, most don't have the first clue about the mechanics of the internal combustion engine (maybe because we secretly think it's the Devil's Work - just joking. Or am I?).
When I returned home from work last night, of course I had to try it out myself. Turns out my wife gave a really accurate description of what's going on, although a simple, "It's f*%#ed" probably would have sufficed.
"It's time we talk about this," says Sarah, my wife. "We've put a lot of money into this van - are we going to keep doing that?"
"Of course we are. This might only end up being like $300 bucks or less, plus a tow."
"You know, maybe it's time..."
"Time for what?" I ask, as it hits me. She's talking about going carless. It's something that we had discussed - fantasized about really, the way a hungry person might think of apple pie and ice cream when you know you're having broccoli with tofu for dinner. But there's fantasy and then there's reality.
We've got three kids. Veronica, our oldest, is 6 years old. Alice will be turning 5 next week. Brian will be turning 4 the week after. Veronica and Alice go to St. Denis school in the City's South End. Brian stays at home with Sarah right now. Sarah works part time at Food Basics in the South End, usually on weekends. I work downtown, across the street from the bus depot. Since I moved to Sudbury more than 15 years ago now, I've never taken the car to work - always transit - or lately, on foot - although sometimes on my bike, although given how close I work to where I live, I find taking even taking the bike to be a little bit of overkill.
After living in the Valley for a few years, we purchased a house on Riverside Drive, between Douglas and Broadway - so closer to the underpass and downtown than to Regent Street. My family refers to our home as "Riverside Manor", perhaps out of irony, I'm not sure. Anyway, it's in a great location. It usually takes me less than 10 minutes to walk to work, although I've made a habit of stopping in at the Old Rock on Durham in the morning to get by Bubba refilled with their excellent dark roast coffee (they roast the beans at their other location on Minto). For me, being without a car is easy - as long as I'm just going to and from work.
But Sarah's day has typically been a little more hectic. Recently, her circumstances have changed, and she hasn't been driving as much. We've noticed a real reduction in the amount of gasoline we're using in the vehicle. Previously, we were putting in about $350 a month.
Veronica and Alice are bussed to school in the morning - their bus stop is just down the road from our house. In the afternoon, the bus drops them off at our front door. On Saturdays, along with Brian, they both attend dance and gymnastics programs at the YMCA downtown. That's just a short walk from our house, through the underpass beneath the rail yard and up again into the downtown. Some days, the walk proceeds normally. Other days, little legs get tired quickly, and what would normally be a 5 or 7 minute walk turns into a zombie march. Anyway, I'm at the Y right now - so we made here again this morning, on time. I always insist that we be on time.
But besides the school bus for the kids, walking to and from work for me, and walking to the Y, for just about everything else, the van was meeting all of our transportation needs. Ok, sometimes we'll walk downtown for whatever (usually to attend one of the many festivals that go on in Sudbury's downtown during the summer) or to go to the Farmer's Market at the Elgin Street train station where the trains don't stop any more (ok, there's the Budd Car - but that's it).
Can we really get by without a car? I mean, I realize that having the van was an expense. It runs about $450 a month, I estimate, between gas and insurance - and that's if nothing breaks down (which would be a rare month, lately) or when at my own peril I ignore the little sticker in the top left corner of the windshield that tells me when I should be changing the oil. And then there are extra travel costs, should we decide to go out of town. So sure, car ownership is an expensive way to get around.
But in Greater Sudbury, what are the alternatives? Sure, there's the school bus, and walking, and maybe biking (I took my bike down to Stack Brewery on Kelly Lake Road this past summer, just to see if I could do it and survive. I refilled my two growlers, slung by back pack over my shoulders, and took the Trans Canada Trail from Kelly Lake Road all the way back to Riverside Drive, just a few feet from Riverside Manor). But what about for everything else?
Well, how much "everything else" is there? Especially in the winter. Besides Sarah going to and from work, there's Sparks on Tuesday night, where Sarah and her good friend, the other Spark Leader, car pool out to Chelmsford. There's groceries (although there is a grocery store fairly close to our home, we tend to shop at the Food Basics where Sarah works, because it's a really good store, and we like the prices. And the customer service is fantastic! At least that's been my experience). And church on Sundays. And Science North and Dynamic Earth for the kids whenever we can find the time (we've got a Family Membership and I have to tell you, it's one of the most worthwhile things I've ever purchased. The kids just can't get enough of Science North, and I am always finding something new, ever time I go - I love it too. I am so lucky to live in a City that cherishes science to the degree that Greater Sudbury does).
"Sarah, you really want to go car free?" I asked. "You think we can do this?"
"I think we can. Do you want to try?"
My first reaction - like most people's, I think - something that I take a degree of comfort in - is to resist any and all change. This despite having a background in urban planning and having learned about how change happens regardless of what we want, and about how we can best manage and shape change to suit our needs better. But when push comes to shove, it's easy to ignore what the text books tell you. Do I really want to try going without a car? "No, Sarah, I think this is a bad idea." I say.
Wrong answer. She's been thinking about this all day, whereas it was something frankly that hadn't occurred to me. Car broken. Get fixed. Wait til it break down again. Get fixed again. Spend money. Use Visa.
"You know, we can save money here - and that's something we've been talking about trying to do a little better." She then proceeded to lay it all out for me. That's why I know we would save about four hundred and fifty bucks a month from just eliminating the regular use of the car. Turns out, the real savings might be closer to around $700 a month, when additional travel and vehicle repair are added in.
But leave it to me to put a negative spin on something as good and exciting as 'saving money'.
"But how much will it cost to save that kind of money?"
For one thing, we're going to need to take the bus a little more often. And that's a problem. Greater Sudbury's transit system has two major issues with it: it's expensive, and it's inconvenient. Those issues aren't unique to Greater Sudbury transit, mind you - but that's no comfort. Anyway, at least it's generally reliable, and the bus drivers are courteous. And if buses would stop burning to the ground, I'll add "pretty safe" to the list (see: "Sudbury bus catches fire," the Sudbury Star, January 27, 2017).
One of our problems is we won't be taking the bus enough to justify a monthly pass ($84 a month for a 31 day pass - you can activate it at any time throughout the month, which is cool). So we'll be relying on the use of 5 and 10 ride passes (10 rides is $24.50, so $2.45 a ride - a much better deal than the $3.10 paid at the fare box). For Veronica, a 10 ride pass will cost $18.50 - so a buck eighty five a ride. And since Alice has her 5th birthday next week, she'll also have to start paying the same fare (in Greater Sudbury, kids under 5 ride for free, so we won't need to start paying for Brian until next year). By using 10 ride passes, a one-way trip for the family to whatever destination that we can access by bus will cost $8.60. There and back again = $17.20 (see: "Greater Sudbury Transit - Fares," for a complete list of transit fare prices).
Whoa. $17.20. Seems...kinda high for a single trip. Greater Sudbury has a daily family pass - unlimited rides for a family of 5 like ours, for $15 bucks. I went to the Transit Terminal yesterday and bought one. This might be a help - but the fact is, most of our "other" travel by car was spread out throughout the week. If we want to make this work and save money, it looks to me like we're going to have to change the way that we do things - somewhat.
Tomorrow will be the first test: Getting to and from church. Luckily, our church is on a transit route. Unluckily, church service is on a Sunday - which makes sense from the church's perspective, but it means that we'll be using transit on a day that transit services are reduced. I'll offer up for sacrifice on the alter of Greater Sudbury transit that family pass I purchased yesterday, so we'll still save some money at the fare box. But we'll have to arrive at church 45 minutes early (the May family early for church? Unheard of!), and may need to leave church before service ends, which is a little embarrassing.
"We're going to try this," Sarah told me yesterday.
"But only as a pilot project - just for one month," I respond.
"We'll see how well we've done, how much money we've saved."
"We'll see how much it cost us in terms of time and money."
But I'd already given the game away. The moment the words "pilot project" were out of my mouth, I thought of my friend Matt Alexander, he of Sudbury Moves. Matt likes to tweet about 'pilot projects', because he knows a little secret. Once you start a pilot project, it's hard to stop it. Sure, they run for whatever the length of the pilot is, but by the end of that time period, people have made their adjustments. Their complaints and reasons for resistance - their very natural resistance to change - has been worn down or has just evaporated. The pilot project has become the new normal. And that's why Matt loves pilot projects for things like new bike lanes.
Of course, Matt is going to be my inspiration throughout this one month pilot project (Car free? In Sudbury? In FEBRUARY? Craziness!). After all, Matt and his spouse lived in Greater Sudbury for a number of years without a car. And while close to the downtown, they weren't as close as my family lives. They made it work. They've since moved to Toronto, where Matt has a new job - a job that, ironically, where he needs to have daily access to a car - despite living on top of a subway line! Sure, Matt didn't have 3 slow-moving little people with little legs who cost additional bus fare - but if Matt did it, why can't I?
So, here we are. We're going Car Free. In Sudbury. It's my hope to continue to write about my experiences throughout the month, while exploring the City and how it treats people who - like me, now I guess - are getting around without a car. Since I already walk a fair bit, I've been storing up my observations on what really works here - and what doesn't. This new car-free experience will give me a reason to share them.
I look forward to you joining me and my family on this car free journey.
(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Canada and Ontario)
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