Sunday, December 15, 2013


Behold, my friends, the form of self-inflicted brain damage called the rush-hour commute. Is there any single greater waste of time, productivity, and money that our society has imposed upon itself?

Well, my wife and I have rarely had to contend with anything that bad, but we've spent our share of time accomplishing nothing but raising our blood pressure and the global temperature while sitting in an expensive automobile going nowhere. 

So we've made an important decision. This week, we’re getting rid of our car. It’s an experiment. It might fail. I doubt this will be our last car, and we’ll be renting occasionally, too. But there’s no harm in trying it for a while. We're three-quarters of the way there, anyway. In four years we’ve put a paltry 25,000 kilometres on a car that, all told, costs us around $500 per month. 

Still, people look at us like we’re crazy. Getting rid of the car! It’s like we told them we’re getting rid of our heads. Some people have told us that not owning a car is irresponsible: the automotive industry being one of the cornerstones of our economy, after all. And a couple of people have actually gotten angry. Actual anger. The problem, you see, is all that fancy book learnin’ we’ve done. Don’t know what the real world is like.  No common sense. Them degrees are just expensive bits of paper. Can’t see the forest for the trees.  One wonders how we function at all, boneheads that we are.

Speaking of forests and trees, they’re one of our major concerns. I’m convinced that the overwhelming majority of peer reviewed scientific evidence proves that climate change is real, potentially catastrophic, and that human beings are the major contributor to it.  So one way or another, sooner or later, we’re all going to be driving less, or at least driving vehicles that are less polluting. But there I go again, with my fancy-pants evidence-based thinking.

An interesting thing: for millions of people, there is an astonishing invention that offers inexpensive, reliable, emission-free transportation. It can hugely reduce urban traffic congestion if properly utilized. It can even help its operator lose weight. It’s called a bicycle, and in some cities it’s just taken for granted that it’s how huge numbers of people get where they’re going.

My wife and I are bicycle commuters for about nine months out of the year, and in snatches for the winter months, too. We're fortunate to live near bike paths and most mornings can beat the rush-hour traffic to work. People always ask about the rain and cold, but it’s a mild inconvenience next to the stress of the morning commute for drivers. Seriously: when is the last time you enjoyed driving to work? By contrast, our commute is stress-free and nothing quite matches that feeling of smug superiority when you ride up and your colleagues avert your gaze, simultaneously envious of you and humiliated about the hideous state of their own decrepit and decaying carcasses.

The bicycle has been a mature technology for a better part of a century now. This bike might look like a revolution in design but fundamentally it’s not that much different than sometime your grandfather might have owned. And yet there was a time in North America, not long ago, when bicycles were considered something for children and a small number of adult hobbyists. In the last three decades, however, a huge adult bicycle culture has emerged. For a while, the industry floundered around trying to find the right bikes for ordinary people. The bike shops are full of beautiful, featherweight carbon frame bikes that cost thousands of dollars, but for the average person looking to commute those are like buying a Ferrari to go to the mall and back. Thankfully, for a few hundred dollars now you can get a very good commuter bike (and I don’t mean some ten-ton hunk of junk purchased at Canadian Tire) that will suit your needs perfectly.

Now have a look at these. They’re breathtaking, decadent, handmade titanium bikes from a company called Budnitz. They’ll cost you about $8,000. Seriously: have a look. The bike community has its share of snobs and on the message boards these have generated a lot of hate, mostly about the cost. But really it’s just expensive in the way that a luxury car is. Now, I’m not endorsing this particular brand, just using it to illustrate a point: even one of these sumptuous machines, the Rolls Royce of commuter bikes, is actually a pittance compared to what people spend on their cars.

In 2012, the CAA estimated that a car on average costs its owners $10,452 dollars per year – that’s the cost of payments, insurance, gasoline, maintenance, and depreciation factored in.  Consider, too, that after ten years most cars are hunks of junk ready to go to the scrap yard. By contrast, a good bicycle frame will last forever and a day. Maintenance and replacing parts on most commuter bikes will set you back a couple of hundred bucks per year.

So, we have a means of commuting that is cheap, environmentally sound, and makes us healthier: the bicycle. Why do more people not use it? Well, some people just can’t. I get that. It’s hard to haul your tool kit to the job site on your panniers. Or they have kids to get to soccer practice. Or maybe their commute is too long, or it’s just not practicable to show up at work and have to shower and change. And heavy snow is a big obstacle, though perhaps not to these. There are safety issues, because cities don’t often factor cyclists well into their transportation plans. But the biggest problem for people with short commutes is simply a psychological one. They can’t quite imagine getting where they’re going without their cars. But millions of people do, every day. The way I see it: we’re going to do what we’ve mostly been doing anyway, and get paid $500 a month to do it.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by a fast bicycle commute!

Alison Hunter said...

Love, love, love this. I am amazed that ANYONE is giving you a hard time - but I guess that's because I lived in a city where many people don't have cars for the last 15 years? I do think that it's shameful that a city the size of London has not adopted an autoshare program - Guelph doesn't either, but Kitchener/Waterloo does. I think that autoshares are the way to go - at least many families could go from having two cars to one.