I will never own a car (ask me why!)

By David Parkinson

One of the places in the bike's drive train where radial energy is translated into linear energy.

One of the places in the bike's drive train where linear motion is translated into radial motion (or vice versa). Elegant and efficient.

I’ve got a bike,
You can ride it if you like,
It’s got a basket, a bell that rings
And things to make it look good.
I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it.
(Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett [1946-2006])

Sometimes I wonder what percentage of the North American population makes it to the age of 47 without ever having owned a car. 10%? 5%? 2%? I have no idea. Certainly not many, although the number may be about to start rising and never stop.

I got my driver’s license as quickly as I could once I turned 16. I loved having the use of the parental car to get around and see friends, since many of my high-school friends lived all over Toronto. As a boy, I was pretty fascinated by cars of all kinds, and I expected that — like any normal person — I would soon have a car of my own. And then I left home.

For many years, I was too poor to think about buying and maintaining a car. And luckily during those lean years I was living in Ottawa and Montréal, cities which both have excellent public-transit systems which I used extensively. Shortly after I moved to Montréal in 1986, I bought myself a bicycle, an 18-speed Peugeot which cost more than I could easily afford, but I used it a lot to get from Pointe St-Charles, the down-and-out working class neighbourhood between the Canal Lachine and the Fleuve St-Laurent, all the way up to Côte-des-Neiges, where I worked, and then up to l’Université de Montréal, pretty much at the top of the city. I loved that bike. And then it was stolen during some hockey-related mayhem in 1989 (I think after the Canadiens lost the Stanley Cup to the Calgary Flames).

Among my circle of friends and acquaintances who lived in Montréal at that time, I can think of only one who owned a car. For the most part, people were able to walk or take a bus or the Métro just about anywhere and at any time. For longer trips there was the Greyhound buses and trains. I cannot remember one time when I really wished I owned a car. I especially rejoiced in not owning a car when I would hear the sounds of a vehicle being towed away for being on the wrong side of the street and preventing street-cleaning or snow removal.

I bought another bike not long after losing my Peugeot, a very slick Bianchi mountain bike with Biopace chainwheel, which was the newest geeky hardware. Not long after that, I moved to Ithaca, New York, where I lived down in the town and had to get to campus every day up a long hill. Much of the time, though, I ended up walking in snow and rain. But when the weather was nice and not too hellaciously hot, I would slog up that hill in the morning and then get to sail home downhill all the way.

Six years later, I moved to Seattle and for some reason put my bike into storage. There was a moment, right before I made the move, when I was seriously considering buying a car, because I expected that I would need one to commute from home to work. But by that time I was beginning to enjoy the challenge of non-car-ownership: I was becoming more conscious at that time of the serious environmental downsides to widespread car use, and willing to put effort into going without a car so long as that was feasible. So I commuted by bus for a number of months, and then discovered the joys of vanpooling and carpooling. We were lucky to have friends whose cars we could borrow if we needed to do errands requiring something bigger than a backpack. Otherwise, we walked a lot in that very walkable city.

Still, I was not using my bike at all. I tried to bike to work a couple times, but that was about 28 miles and required me to get on the road at an ungodly hour. So that experiment didn’t work out.

And now I live in Powell River, a very small city with very large potential for bikeability. I use my bike to get around everywhere, mainly but not exclusively within city limits. There are some aspects of biking around here that I am not so happy about, one of them being the sometimes inexplicable reaction from car (and truck) drivers. Some of them come up so close beside me that I wonder if they see me at all. Others pull this really irritating stunt where they hang back in my blind spot — or so they think, but I have a rearview mirror and I can see what they’re up to — and then wait for the right moment when they can pull way over to the left, sometimes right into the oncoming lane, pound on the gas pedal, and roar by me. Hey, thanks!

Sometimes I’ll walk into a store or office and someone will say something like, “Good for you, biking on a day like today.” (I usually get this in the wintertime, or during other periods of crummy weather.) But I don’t feel particularly virtuous about riding my bike, since I don’t have much choice. The thing I do feel virtuous about is not having a car. And even that, to be honest, I don’t really congratulate myself for. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to choose not to own a car. It would be different if I had children, or a job which I needed to commute to, or a physical disability, or any number of good reasons to need to use a car frequently. There are real disadvantages to not owning a car, and I simply need to live with those. I believe that for my situation and physical abilities, I have no need to own a car. I don’t expect to own a car, although I might end up owning a piece of a shared vehicle at some point in the future when I can no longer bike everywhere I need to go.

Car ownership provides certain obvious benefits. But the costs are very real too, and assuming that the cost of oil will continue to rise into the foreseeable future, these costs will take a larger bite out of an ever-shrinking average household budget. For some people, the cost of car ownership already exceeds the benefits. I believe that this is going to be the case for more and more people over the next months and years. But not many of those people are ready, able, or willing to use a bike to get around. Ditching the car in a world built for cars is hard. Some can do that, and more will be giving it a go.

I expect to see much more interest in bikes, conventional and electric, over the next few years. A bicycle is far and away the best way of traveling short distances. The drawbacks come from weather, road conditions, aggressive drivers, and people’s physical limitations. But these can be overcome to a large extent. The problem is that all of our attention goes to making the roads car-ready, and very little goes to making the roads ready for alternative, low-cost, healthy modes of transportation.

Some of the infrastructure we’ll need to put in place:

  • Dedicated bike lanes;
  • More places to buy and repair bikes;
  • A community cooperative workshop with parts, tools, and skilled technicians;
  • More and better ways of integrating bikes and buses, cars, light rail, etc., so that longer journeys are feasible;
  • Incentives for shared car ownership and/or regular bike use.

A good place to start would be a regional bike club. Anyone want to start one?

As car ownership becomes less feasible for more people, they will be looking for alternatives. Increased bicycle use is one of many likely avenues worth exploring. The days of single ownership of fossil-fuel-burning vehicles are numbered. And we’ll be doing well to start investigating the options which will allow people to get around, work, and take care of their families. It will be a slow transition, but a steady one, and we’re not ready yet.


This recent podcast from Vancouver Cooperative Radio‘s Redeye program has an interview with one of the curators of the Velo-City show at the Museum of Vancouver, which runs until September 7, 2009. Worth a listen, and the show sounds worth seeing if you’re in Vancouver.


6 Responses to “I will never own a car (ask me why!)”

  1. 1 Wants change too..... June 16, 2009 at 07:48

    Great new website with Slow Coast and the purpose is what should be, but articles written from this point of view of; look at the sacrifices I made or if I can do it why can’t you do it quilt trips (eg: how many cars does the average Powell Riverite own, and how many V8 engines per person) don’t help much (yes, IMO). What happens is the intended audience that know that changes are going happen and talks more about what they will do than actually change, reads countless articles like this as self promoting, preachy dribble. And of course they don’t measure up, and since they stopped using plastic bags, what more can they do. I write sustainability articles in a Buddhist part of the world, and at the start my work was harshly edited if it was focused on myself, which can be shown here not to be approved by the reading public – unless you’re a celebrity.

  2. 2 David Parkinson June 16, 2009 at 08:43

    Hey WCT,

    I tried to avoid the preachy self-promoting tone and focus instead on the challenges and some ideas about solutions. Maybe that didn’t come through enough, which is my fault. The last thing I wanted was to lay a guilt trip on my readers.

    One thing I’ve noticed (which your comment reinforces) is that we all find it very difficult to talk openly about how we are dealing with the various crises we face. There is always that little voice inside our heads (or in the comments section of the blog) that tries to dissuade us from simply noting where we’re at, how we got there, and what we think other people can do in a similar situation. I think many people feel this way, so we struggle to figure things out on our own, nervous about talking to other people about them in case they think we’re just puffing ourselves up.

    I think that this separateness and isolation are real societal problems which are slowing down some of the positive changes that we need to be working on together.

    (I feel a post coming on, on that very subject. So thanks.)

    I’ll keep writing what I want to write from the perspective I choose to write from. But thanks for taking the time to respond.

  3. 3 margaret June 19, 2009 at 09:03

    I was thinking just last week that I should get a bike..and then I found your blog and now I really have to get a bike, your post is very inspiring.
    I live in Wildwood, perfect for biking, but that hill getting up here, how will I manage???


  4. 4 David Parkinson June 19, 2009 at 09:13

    Hi Margaret,

    Thanks for your comment. Nice blog (yours!)… I’ll subscribe and stay tuned in to what’s going on in your garden.

    I know a surprising number of people in Wildwood who bike to town and back regularly. I’m a bit of a wimp, so if I have to cycle up there I usually go up the switchback trail. I’ve never tried going up the road. Often, though, I’ll put my bike on a bus to get up there.

    There are new and better electric-assisted bikes available, and that might be the best solution. I don’t know enough about them to have any good advice, but if you email me I’ll see what I can dig up from a local expert.

  5. 5 Ryan July 7, 2009 at 04:04

    Great blog! I just happened to stumble across it when I was looking for something related to Powell River and Texada Island.
    Currently I live in southern Ontario, although next year (hopefully) I’ll be heading West, most likely to the Comox Valley, which from what I hear is quite bike-friendly, although I haven’t discounted Powell River.

    Anyways, I’m now 23 years old and have never owned a car nor have I even my drivers license. When I was 16 I was just too pre-occupied with other things to bother with getting my license. Then at 17 my Dad suggested I start riding a bike. And ever since then that’s how I’ve been getting around. I do everything via bike. As it stands now, I can’t see myself ever owning a car.

    I suppose the easiest way for people to dump the car in the future, is to start at a young age to encourage kids to ride a bike for transportation, NOT recreation.
    I don’t really know “what I’m missing” not owning a car.

  6. 6 David Parkinson July 7, 2009 at 08:10

    Thanks, Ryan. I think that things would have worked out differently for me if I had happened to get a car early on. I was just lucky that I could always walk, bike, or use public transit in my teens and twenties. Once I got through that, I was motivated to see whether I could continue to live without a car (so far, so good). And you’re exactly right: parents and society in general should be working to make biking the rational choice for as many young people as possible. There could be programs to make bikes affordable for all, offer free or low-cost workshops on bike repair, educate the general public about respecting the safety of bikers on the roads, etc. Some larger centres have some of this going on, but so far here in Powell River there is no bike advocacy group (that I’m aware of). It’s just a matter of time, though

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