Car bound in Calgary: a thought experiment

Friday, February 8, 2013

Recently I ran across a story about a car fanatic's week of living in Calgary without a car. I think it's a well-written story with some interesting observations and I admire his commitment to the challenge, which included some awkward transit trips to places like Kincora. However, a couple of things struck me, one of which was mentioned by a commenter: number one, he never biked anywhere, which can be a great alternative to transit; and number two, his life is set up for car-centric living, which led to a conclusion that people in Calgary need to own cars.

All of this got me thinking: what if I were to perform the opposite experiment? What if I were to suddenly make a drastic change in my life, which is well set up for car free living, and do everything I would normally do using a car? I hypothesize that my conclusion would be similarly definitive; I would conclude that the only way to live in this city is the manner in which I am accustomed to living.

I'm not as dedicated as Mr. Kwan of the beyond.ca article, so I'm not actually planning on renting a car to prove my point (or raise money for the food bank, though I think that was a great idea to give more purpose to the experiment). Rather, I'm going to perform a ``gedankenexperiment'', or thought experiment, to steal a word from Dean Mensa, author of my new favourite paper. Having owned a car while living in my current home, I have a bit of an idea of what it's like, though I didn't use it as often as I'm about to describe.

Gedankenexperiment: getting around by driving instead of everything else

Groceries

I usually go to both Co-op and Community Natural foods (5 blocks away). Let's say it's winter, so I have to go out, scrape ice off my windshield, and warm up the car a bit. To get to Co-op, I first have to go East on 12th ave, then loop back around to 11th ave due to the one-way streets. I usually go at the end of the work day, so traffic is heavy and parking chaotic. I find a spot to park and walk into Co-op a few minutes later than I would if I had walked the 5 blocks.

I do my shopping, and since I've got a car I can buy more and heavier stuff. I wheel it out to the car, put the cart back, and fire up to drive the 1 block to Community Natural Foods. The parking situation there is a bit tighter, so I have to wait a bit before finding a spot.

Returning home, I have to wait for a gap in traffic on 10th ave before gunning it across to go southbound on 12th st. When I reach my apartment building my parking spot is gone, so I have to circle the block and park on an adjacent street. Now, since I bought lots of heavy stuff at the store, I'm in a bit of a bind - I'll have to make two trips and leave half my groceries in the lobby. I get back to my apartment and put the groceries away, then collapse on the couch after all the stressful traffic, parking, and grocery carrying.

Total time driving: 10 minutes driving + 5 minutes scraping/heating + 5 minutes parking/waiting + 4 minutes shuttling groceries = 24 minutes.

Total time walking: 20 minutes.

Total time biking: 12 minutes biking + 4 minutes locking/unlocking = 16 minutes.

In this example, driving comes out on the bottom, but I've perhaps bought more stuff. That's arguable, as I can haul a whole lot of groceries on my Long Haul Trucker, but let's give driving the benefit of the doubt. However, I'm a fan of fresh fruit and veggies, so I'm going to have to go back to the store in a couple of days anyways.

Winner: Biking. I often suck up the extra 4 minutes and walk though, as it is the most relaxing option. You might cry foul and say that my example is rigged to be during rush hour and in winter, so let's look at the middle of the day summer option. That would bring the time down to about 14 minutes. Wouldn't you rather budget an extra 2-6 minutes to enjoy a nice bike ride or walk in the middle of summer?

Work

I'm a grad student, so I ``work'' at the University. I have a myriad of options to get there, my new favourite being riding my Brompton to Sunnyside and taking the train the rest of the way. I can also bike the whole way there, taking between 30 and 45 minutes depending on route and conditions. I can also walk to the train or if I'm really feeling lazy, take the bus to the train.

Let's look at the driving situation. I walk out to my car, hop in, and start driving to the University. 14th street is a bit busy, but as soon as I hit Memorial I'm going against traffic so the drive isn't too bad. Let's even pretend that I'm not a cheap student, and I'm willing to pay to park in lot 10. Once I arrive, I stare into my phone on the walk to my office, catching up on emails that I would otherwise have read on the train.

On the return trip, traffic is again mostly against the flow, though things get a little backed up at Crowchild and Memorial. Again, I am prepared to circle the block looking for parking, but I'm lucky this time - rock star parking right in front of my apartment building. Also, there was a Chinook today, so I didn't need to scrape or warm up the car. Perfect conditions.

Total time driving: 18 minutes + 10 minutes walking from car x2 = 56 minutes.

Total time on transit: 20 minutes + 5 minutes waiting + 10 minutes walking x2 = 70 minutes.

Total time walking/transit combo: 15 minutes + 5 minutes waiting + 20 minutes walking x2 = 80 minutes.

Total time biking or combo biking/transit: 35 minutes x2 = 70 minutes.

In this case, it looks like driving is the winning way to get to work. However, having spent an hour in the car, I'm feeling rather sluggish and lazy, so I go for a run or a bike ride, completely reversing any advantages of driving.

Winner: Biking or combo biking/transit. The one time where driving has the clear advantage is if I take transit the whole way. I'm not getting any exercise (other than the walk from the train, about equivalent to the walk from lot 10), and it takes 14 minutes longer round trip. This could increase to a 20 or even 25 minute difference if the bus is extremely late, but even then, I'm free to read my phone or book. Also, if the bus is that late, it's likely because traffic is terrible, and I'd be slowed down while driving as well.

Fun

It's 4:30 pm on a Friday, and my friends are gathering at the Rhino for a taste of a delicious cask of IPA. I hop in my trusty car (of course!) and motor on down 12th ave. I circle the block a bit and find a parking spot not too far away. The beer is delicious, but since I'm driving and it's a fairly strong IPA, I only have a half-pint.

The cask runs dry pretty quickly, and we decide to move down the street to Beer Revolution. I hop in my car, and can take a couple of passengers, but most people end up walking. I drive with my one passenger for less than 3 blocks and find the Brewsters parking lot full. We end up having to cross 11th ave to park at Safeway, and by the time we walk across the street and get in to the bar, the rest of our friends have arrived. Again, I abstain from any more than a half pint of beer, but nonetheless enjoy spending time with my friends.

At the end of the evening I drive some friends home and then relax on my couch, finally able to enjoy a beer. I'm pretty wired from being inside or in a car all day, and I have a hard time sleeping. If I had walked to and from the bar, I would have had my beer a little earlier and chased it down with some fresh air, a perfect recipe for a good night's sleep. Or, if I didn't feel like drinking that night, I could have biked to the bar as fast as driving and parking (I live downtown, after all).

Winner: Walking. Let's face it, I like beer, and driving is counterproductive to beer drinking. For sober nights out, biking and driving come out pretty even time-wise, so I'm willing to give the edge to driving as there may be inclement weather that makes biking slightly less pleasant.

Weekend trips

Now it's 7 am on Saturday morning, and we're going skiing. The forecast was for plenty of snow, and mother nature did not disappoint. I have offered to drive, so I go out to warm up and sweep off the car.

After removing the layer of snow, I am stunned to see that my car is crumpled in, the wheel bent, the mirror torn off... it's utterly undrivable. I make some calls and arrange for someone else to drive, then give up on my day of skiing to call my insurance company, file a police report, and get the car into a shop. I depend on it, after all, so I need it fixed up ASAP!

Winner: Okay, this is a bit of a straw man. I'm not going to walk or bike to the ski hill, so driving is the clear winner despite the potential for car trouble. I'm still just bitter from my two hit and runs last summer. In addition, I just noticed that I wrote that blog post the night before the third car headache of the summer: a hail storm causing a further $3000 of insurance claims. Altogether, that poor car suffered almost $8000 of damages over the course of summer during which I didn't even use one full tank of gas. But getting back to the point...

Conclusion

From this little gedankenexperiment it certainly seems that options other than the car are the best in most day-to-day situations, particularly if you care about exercise, fresh produce, and beer. I will concede that a car is useful or even necessary in some cases, but I'm not sure that the owning and maintaining a private vehicle is the best way for everyone to have access to a car.

I think the real conclusion, which meshes with Mr. Kwan's conclusion, is that when one's life is optimized in a certain way, trying to do the opposite is frustrating and inefficient. Not everyone can be car free, but neither must everyone be car bound.