Shifting to under-drive

So who would be foolhardy enough to attempt to navigate Ottawa without a car? A surprising number of us, it turns out.

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Published January 21, 2007 by the Ottawa Citizen
By Bruce Deachman

In comparing Ottawa to London in 1867, newspaperman, politician and Father of Confederation Joseph Howe said, "London is large enough for me, and you will no doubt prefer London with its magnificent proportions to Ottawa with its magnificent distances." Around the same time, historian and journalist Goldwin Smith described Canada's newly minted capital as "a sub-arctic lumber village."

While neither Howe nor Smith had the automobile in mind, their statements speak volumes, 140 years later, about the factors that make Ottawa a car-friendly city. The second-coldest capital in the world, we nonetheless manage to shed the more than two metres of snow and ice that accumulate over the winter so that we can enjoy a spell of scorching humidity.

Furthermore, compared to folks in larger Canadian cities, Ottawans have a lot of space between them. Ottawa's urban area, with just over 3,000 people per square kilometre, is only half as densely populated as Montreal's, while Toronto jams about 900 more souls than Ottawa into each square kilometre.

In short, Ottawa meets many of the criteria for a city in which owning a car is vital — long periods of inhospitable weather, acres of land between points A and B, and noreal rapid transit such as a subway by which to expedite the journey. Kanata's Centrum and Place d'Orleans shopping malls, for example, are separated by just over 40 kilometres, about twice the length of Manhattan. By car, the journey takes almost 30 minutes. On OC Transpo, the trip takes about an hour and 20 minutes.

So who would be foolhardy enough to attempt to navigate Ottawa without a car? A surprising number of us, it turns out.

According to the latest Statistics Canada figures, almost a third of Ottawans get to and from work by public transit, bicycle, foot or other means not involving a private motor vehicle. If you discount Montreal and Toronto, where the presence of a subway system skews the number of non-car commuters to 52 and 42 per cent respectively, Ottawa fares very well as a city of pedestrians and public transit users. Winnipeg and Calgary hover at about 22 per cent, while more than 80 per cent of Edmontonians favour some sort of car, with two-thirds of all commuters there driving alone.

There are numerous reasons for not owning a car, not the least of which is money. The Canadian Automobile Association says it costs $9,300 annually to own and operate a car (based on driving a Chevrolet Cavalier Z-24 18,000 kilometres), while a minivan costs an additional $1,000.

As well, doing without a car is environmentally more friendly. The website Carbon Footprint estimates that driving a car 19,000 kilometres adds a little over 3,500 kilograms of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, while a similar distance travelled by public transit contributes only 2,000 kilograms.

Taking the Lessons of Tokyo to Alta Vista

Couple's experience in Japan helped change their mindset about cars

Who: Sean Jorgensen and Cindy Termorshuizen

Where: Alta Vista

Quote: 'If you situate yourself right, you can do everything without a car'

Sean Jorgensen and Cindy Termorshuizen, both in their 30s, have designed their lives around not owning a car, and chose to buy a house in Alta Vista because it was close to work, shopping, public transit and other amenities. Both commute by bus or foot to their government jobs — a bus ride to his workplace at Riverside and Heron takes Mr. Jorgensen 20 minutes, but he prefers to walk, which takes 25. For Ms. Termorshuizen, it's a 30-minute bus ride downtown to Sparks Street.

According to Mr. Jorgensen, their decision not to own a car was largely an environmental one, honed by the realization, after living in Japan for five years, that they could get along nicely without. When necessary, the couple will accumulate errands until there are enough to warrant renting a car.

"Once you live in a place like Tokyo," he says, "you get it out of your system and lose the idea that a car is necessary. Maybe if we had a kid we'd change our mind, but neither of us feel the need to own a car." According to Mr. Jorgensen, the high cost of cars, gas and parking in Tokyo, coupled with the city's fast and convenient public transit — for which employers pay the cost — make owning a car there more of a nuisance.

The trick, he says, is in changing your mindset to adapt to not owning a car. He and Ms. Termorshuizen don't cross-country ski as much as they'd like, for example, instead planning activities to which they can easily walk, bus or cab.

"It's like having a TV," he adds. "Once you have a TV, you think, 'Oh, god, I could never do without it.' But if you do go without it for a couple of months, you realize just how unnecessary it is.

"If you live in a big city like Ottawa, Toronto or Montreal, I really think it's possible to live without owning a car. We've done it for eight years now, and it's never been a problem.

"In short, you just get used to the idea that if you situate yourself right, you can do everything without a car."

Giving Up a Car-Free Life in Frustration

How having children and Transpo woes convinced this family to plan to buy a car

Who: Keith Denny and Jennifer Henderson

Where: Old Ottawa South

Quote: 'I've become used to feeling helpless and abandoned and stranded at bus stops'

Keith Denny and Jennifer Henderson, 41 and 39 respectively, moved from Toronto two years ago. They chose to live in Old Ottawa South largely because of its proximity to Carleton University, where Ms. Henderson is an English professor. Mr. Denny works at an office on Richmond Road, slightly west of Westboro, as a consultant with the Canadian Population Health Initiative at the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Unlike Mr. Jorgensen and Ms. Termorshuizen, though, they have a four-year-old son, Arthur, and another child due in May. They've never owned a car.

"We've lived together in Montreal, London (England), Toronto, Liverpool and now Ottawa," says Ms. Henderson, "and we've never needed one because the public transportation systems have been so good. And we've lived fairly centrally, so (owning a car) just didn't make sense. We just didn't want to spend money on a car and it just didn't seem necessary."

While both grew up in car-owning families, Mr. Denny's father was a cycling advocate, and so he developed an anti-car sentiment early on. And although he's content to cycle to work in fair weather, and ride the two required buses on inclement days, he's not entirely won over by this city's public transit.

"I've travelled to other cities in Canada," he says, "and I have to be careful about complaining about Ottawa's transit system, because I might find myself in a city where it's significantly worse. So it's relative.

"However, compared to what we've been used to, Ottawa is not great. I've become used to feeling helpless and abandoned and stranded at bus stops … Sometimes you feel stuck, and that's when you think, 'I'd rather get myself a car.'"

For Mr. Denny, a bus ride to work can take as little as half an hour, but has also been known to take twice as long.

"The bus schedule," says Ms. Henderson, "seems fictional. The main thing in Ottawa is that the buses aren't frequent enough to make you feel you can rely on the system to get you to doctor's appointments and things like that."

Not owning a car in Ottawa is about more than just getting to and from work. There are groceries to contend with, Home Depots from which to haul lumber and kitchen sinks and whatnot, early-morning hockey practices for the kids, and a host of outdoor activities that lie beyond the area served by OC Transpo's buses and O-Train.

"Ottawa has more of a positive incentive to own a car because of how easy it is to get out of town," says Mr. Denny. "It's not like that in Toronto."

For things like groceries, Ms. Henderson and Mr. Denny shop in their neighbourhood, and every couple of weeks hit the Loblaws at Billings Bridge and take a cab home. For those larger Home Depot-type trips, they'll sometimes catch rides with friends who are going, or rent a car through Vrtucar, a co-operative through which members can rent vehicles for as little as an hour or an afternoon.

"But we don't go as often as we need to," says Ms. Henderson. "We have more jobs than most people, piling up."

And, at only four, Arthur's schedule doesn't yet require him being ferried from one organized event to the next. But with a second child on the way, the family have decided to end their streak of car-free living, and will be buying a car before the May due date.

"We've walked hundreds of miles with a stroller," says ms. Henderson, who has never had a driver's licence, "but with two children, I can't imagine making it work.

"I fear the feeling of being cooped up at home in Ottawa with a baby and without a car. I didn't have that feeling in Toronto because the city was my oyster — I could go anywhere with my baby on the subway. But I can't imagine it here."

Making the Most of a Cycle-Friendly City

Even bus trips are rare for this bicycle commuter and father of two

Who: Richard Guy Briggs

Where: Centretown

Quote: 'I don't remember my parents playing taxi for me. They basically handed me a bus pass and said, 'Get yourself there''

Richard Guy Briggs doesn't own a car and rarely uses public transit, a service for which he has mixed comments.

"Ottawa's transit system is widely touted in North America as being one of the best on the continent.

"The idea of having a continent-class transit system is, I guess, something to be proud of, but at the same time dismaying, because if that's our reference, this continent really sucks.

"On this continent, it's good, but on others, it wouldn't be," he adds. "In places like Europe, Japan and Brazil, public transit is exemplary, and very much taken for granted by the people who live there."

Mr. Briggs, 40, lives in Centretown with his partner, Carole Sauve, 36, and two children, age three-and-a-half and three months, and cycles 25 minutes to his job at Lumenera, which builds surveillance cameras, near Prince of Wales Drive and Hunt Club Road. A colleague who lives in the same neighbourhood takes the bus to work, which, according to Mr. Briggs, adds about 20 minutes to the trip.

A former Green party candidate (federally in 1997 and provincially in 1999), Mr. Briggs found himself involved in the mid-'90s with Auto-Free Ottawa, an organization dedicated to reducing car use in the capital.

"Driving is one of those life skills that's useful to know," he says. "But unfortunately, I think people depend too much on it."

Mr. Briggs has a number of bicycles, tricycles and trailers on which his family can get about. One can even accommodate sheets of plywood. As a cycling-friendly city, he says that Ottawa, along with Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria, is consistently rated high.

"In terms of numbers of bicycle-commuters, Ottawa ranks pretty high at three per cent. The national average is something like one per cent."

He cycles year-round, has his groceries delivered, and occasionally rents from Vrtucar. His partner, a stay-at-home mother, is "more or less cool" with the idea of not owning a car, he says. "It can be frustrating at times, but there are fewer headaches."

Mr. Briggs also believes that people need to change their attitudes about driving. "One big impediment is people's mobility expectations of me," he explains. "They expect me to be as mobile as them. So if we relax those and give people more time to get places, then it becomes easier to use alternatives."

Another problem with not owning a car, he says, is the organized schedules we set for our children, whether it's 5 a.m. swimming lessons or hockey tournaments at relatively distant city arenas.

"I don't remember my parents playing taxi for me," he says. They basically handed me a bus pass and said, 'Get yourself there.' Now here we are, three decades later, and I'm not sure how that's going to play out."

Going Against the Suburban Grain

In the kingdom of the car, a couple gets around by bus, taxi and foot

Who: Anu Bose and Barry Rosenfeld

Where: Kanata

Quote: 'The cab drivers in Kanata love me. I know them by name, and give me credit if I don't have enough money'

If living car-free downtown is possible, though sometimes challenging, then what about those who live in suburbs such as Orleans, Barrhaven and Kanata? With greater distances to travel and more sporadic bus service, not to mention large, car-enticing garages attached to their homes, is a car-free life even an option?

For Anu Bose and her husband, Barry Rosenfeld, both in their 60s, it's the only way.

Ms. Bose, who ran unsuccessfully for the Kanata North city council seat in November's municipal election (canvassing the entire ward, incidentally, on foot), lives near the OPP station at Eagleson Road and the Queensway, and works downtown on Argyle Street.

"Every morning I get up and go down to the corner and take the 60, 65 or 68 bus, and it takes me to Slater and Bank," she says. "And if the weather is good, I walk from Slater to Argyle, or I hop on a No. 7 or 1 or 4, and I go to work.

"I got there once in 22 minutes," she adds, "if there's no rain or fog and our brothers in the transit union got out of the right side of their beds and didn't fight with their wives.

"But it's also taken me an hour and a half."

Ms. Bose has her own reason for not owning a car — she confesses she's a "bloody bad" driver — and adds that she's an avid walker and, when necessary — returning home from grocery-shopping, for example — takes cabs.

"The cab drivers in Kanata love me. I know them by name, and give me credit if I don't have enough money."

Yet, despite her enthusiasm for foot-traffic, taxis and her bus rides downtown — the latter during which she passes the time reading her Bible — she doesn't think the job OC Transpo is doing is entirely praiseworthy.

"Only for getting in and out of town," she says. "It fails within Kanata. You can only get from Morgan's Grant (at the north end of Kanata, at March Road), for example, to the Park & Ride every half hour."

Options: Infrequent Drivers Try Car Sharing

What Is Car Sharing

At an Ottawa car sharing organization, Vrtucar, members can rent cars on an hourly or daily basis. Founded in 2000 by Wilson Wood and Chris Bradshaw, the business got its first car in May of that year. Since then, it's grown to include 800 members. Ottawa was the fifth city in Canada to have a car-sharing group, following Quebec City (the first in North America), Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. The model originated in Germany and Switzerland in the 1980s.

How Does It Work?

Members pay a refundable deposit of $500 and pay fees from $100 to $400 annually, or $10 to $40 per month, depending on how much driving they expect to do. Cars cost $2.50 an hour Mondays through Thursdays, and $3 per hour on weekends. The mileage fee varies from 29 cents to 41 cents per kilometre. Fuel costs are included.

Where are the Cars?

Vrtucar's fleet is spread across 25 locations in Ottawa to try to make pickup and drop-off convenient. The farthest south is at Bank Street just south of Billings Bridge Plaza. The westernmost Vrtucar is in Britannia, the easternmost at Beechwood and Marier, near New Edinburgh. Each location — typically at a service station, condominium, parking lot or convenience store — is on an OC Transpo route, with easy access and good lighting.

Who Uses Vrtucar?

The average age of its members is 38, with a 60/40 split that favours women. Many, Mr. Wood says, are environmentally concerned. "It's got to be affordable, it's got to be reliable and it's got to work, but the environmental component is really important." The top three reasons that members use Vrtucars are: grocery shopping; trips to stores where larger items are purchased, such as a Home Depot; and trips to Gatineau Park, where members park for free.

Is It Right for You?

Vrtucar was not designed with daily commuting in mind. "Over the course of a year, you're driving, what, 18,000 kilometres a year?" he says. "At that amount, owning your own car makes sense. But there are many, many people driving under 10,000 kilometres a year, and when you get below that mark, the economics of owning a car get very, very pricey. It becomes no longer a convenience or a mandatory item — it becomes a luxury."

Is There Car Sharing in Gatineau, Too?

Yes. A Quebec organization called Communauto runs a car share in Gatineau. See www.communauto.com

Where can I get more information on car sharing?

– www.carsharing.ca

– www.vrtucar.com

80% of Canadian households own at least one vehicle.

10,000 or more Canadians belong to car-sharing groups, up from 5,000 in 2002.

– In Ottawa: More than 800

– Worldwide: 200,000

31% of Ottawans get to and from work by transit, bicycle, foot or other means not involving a car.

52% of Montrealers

42% of Torontonians

22% of Calgarians

$9,300 Annual cost to own and operate a car (based on driving a Chevrolet Cavalier Z-24 18,000 kilometres)

$769.50 Cost of a regular annual adult OC Transpo bus pass

3,500 Kilograms of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by driving a car 19,000 kilometres

Sources and links

CarbonFootprint.com

www.carsharing.ca

www.vrtucar.com

www.communauto.com

www.caa.ca

Statistics Canada