How Our Family Kicked the Car Habit (1999)

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen DATE: 99.03.04 EDITION: FINAL SECTION: City PNAME: City Editorial Page PAGE: D4 COLUMN: Point of View BYLINE: Chris Bradshaw SOURCE: Citizen Special

[Chris Bradshaw retired from the Regional Municipality Planning Department three years ago and is active in Ottawalk and the new Green Modes, Healthy Nodes Network.]

HEADLINE: How our family kicked the car habit

After a year’s trial, the 10-year-old Honda wagon was signed over to a new owner who had answered our want ad. The $2,800 went into the bank, with the expectation that it would be used up in car rentals in about two years. Four years later, there’s still some money left.

We had moved closer to downtown in order to drive less. We knew it would allow us to avoid adding a second or third car when my wife returned to the workforce and our two daughters reached the age of majority. But never did we think that we could live without any car.

Even our two daughters, one living on her own and the other about to, do not drive. This change of heart is not the result of a road tragedy, dread over a spoiled planet, or even a way to face economic hardship. It came from a realization that we simply drove very little. We realized that we were taking care of the car more than it was taking care of us. It also occupied half of our small back yard.

One of the things we have realized is that location is so important. We would not expect those living in neighbourhoods without a well-rounded and integrated central core to get rid of their car. Also, if your children are enrolled in a plethora of courses and sports leagues, a car is pretty necessary.

We should be expecting those living in areas similar to ours to dump their cars first. But more and more I am hearing those who live too far from things and don’t have very good all-day, all-week transit say that they wish they didn’t have to drive so much. It’s not the cost (since they don’t see lower car ownership accompanying central-area living), but the fact that driving in the city is stressful and actually time-consuming, especially to run their kids around.

The solution is, in all neighbourhoods, to find a way to provide, within walking distance, the full range of goods and services that residents need fairly regularly (but not big-ticket items that are brought infrequently): bank, drug store, smaller food store, kids clothing, hardware, cleaners, etc. If these are packed tightly and straddle a pedestrian-friendly main street that is linked to the adjacent residential streets, and buses run by every five to eight minutes, the car won’t need to exit the driveway very often.

This type of neighbourhood shopping area is the natural last leg in the daily transit or bicycle commute to get things before dinner. Many suburbs have the clusters of stores, but they are spread over several strip malls on pedestrian-unfriendly arterial roads. There are no walking links to the nearby streets, the arterial on which it is located is utterly impossible to cross on foot, and bus service is poor. The result is too much driving and “intersections from Hell,” such as Woodroffe and Baseline and Jeanne d’Arc and Montreal Road. Too many local trips are made on regional roads.

These are conditions that the new Regional Official Plan, approved by the province last September, is trying to change. It calls for developing mixed-use community cores, infilling empty or poorly used lands, redesigning arterials to function consistently with the adjacent lands, and finally to upgrade transit service as well as the facilities for walking and cycling.

If they succeed, walking, cycling and transit will be more comfortable and convenient and the length of the average trip will decline, making car use less “natural.” This would all add up to a halt in road-expansion projects, or at least allow them to be postponed for decades. That would result in increased quality of life, and a budget that would not need to grow, but in fact could shrink.

To succeed, planners and transportation engineers need to work smarter. They need to involve the local municipal staff in developing new zoning rules and urban design guidelines. They need to develop a vision that will show retail interests that stores that are located and sized for walk-in trade will be successful, such as Starbucks, Edward Jones financial services, and the McDonald’s Expresses.

And they will need to engage the residents in developing a new vision that will allow their neighbourhood to become more of a village, reducing neighbours’ use of cars by increasing convenience. But they will need to explain that this will require permitting small-scale stores and offices to locate in what are currently residential-only areas, on the expectation that they would serve only nearby residents, not attract those in cars from further away. Image being able to send your seven-year-old to get bread and milk, or the comfort of such a setting for one’s retirement years.

On Feb. 24, regional council narrowly turned down a transportation committee recommendation to fund three new positions to ease the shift away from automobile accommodation by openly encouraging walking, cycling, and transit. That’s a shame.

The next time you talk to your councillor, tell him or her that you drive more than you want to and you expect local government to improve freedom of movement without a car, that you want conveniences that are, well, convenient, as well as streets that are safer and more civil.

Emphasize that you want to use kinder, gentler ways to get from place to place, and kinder gentler ways to make changes through planning. There is a better way.

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