On Waterloo Region's Car-Dependency

Grand River Transit

I must admit to a bit of shame as I write this: I, James Bow, own a car.

Based on what I’ve said in the past about the merits of public transportation and pedestrian friendly urban design, I’m not exactly hypocritical. I’ve always said that I believe that car ownership is a wonderful luxury and should stay that way. I like to drive. I actually enjoy getting behind the wheel and heading off to some new place that is otherwise just a dot on a map. Our car has even allowed us time to write. Back when Vivian was an only child, Erin and I would pack her in her car seat and take off to London or Burlington or Ancaster — some place an hour or two out of town with a Chapters or Indigo bookstore. Vivian would sleep enroute, giving Erin a chance to write on the computer. At the bookstore, Vivian would occupy herself with the Thomas the Tank Engine display or Dora books, or the wheelchair ramp, while I’d sit in the coffee shop and write. It was a wonderful arrangement, and I’d like to get back to that.

What I have consistently criticized, however, is urban design which transforms the automobile from a luxury to a necessity. When it becomes physically impossible, or gravely inconvenient to access your stores, your libraries, your schools, your places of employment without an automobile, then how much freedom does the automobile truly represent?

From August 2003 to February 2006, Erin and I lived car free, and I cannot help but notice that it was easier for us to make ends meet even though we were working at part time jobs then, than it is today with Erin working her full time job at the University of Waterloo. Think of all the expenses we did without: insurance ($150 per month), car payments ($304 per month), gasoline ($100 per month), maintenance (about $100 per month). Sure, it’s more convenient to have a car ready for you in the driveway, but until the children came along we could make do with public transit, even for our groceries, and if we really needed a car, we had only to rent one.

At present, the Region of Waterloo is on the cusp of enabling its residents to do without the automobile. If you are single or a young couple without kids, or possibly a family with older kids who can take the bus on their own, you can get around this city without too much trouble. Yes, trips take longer, but they’re still manageable. But if you are carrying your children wherever you go, the car remains a tempting necessity. Currently, the Region of Waterloo and the Province of Ontario are considering a number of initiatives to improve public transit options for the residents of region. I find myself in the odd position of being able to assess the success or failure of these measures by my ability to consider whether or not I can finally ditch our car. The initiatives are, frankly, tempting, and I am impatient to see them developed.

Over the next few posts, I’d like to talk about the public transit options now available to the residents of the Region of Waterloo. I’d like to talk about the improvements that are being planned, both within the region, and to parts outside the region. And, of course, I’d like to talk about the frustrating gaps in public transit service, and the likelihood that these will be closed.

There is a lot to be proud of in this region. We have a very livable and walkable community, well connected to other attractions in the Greater Toronto Area. However, there is a lot that is missed if you don’t have access to a car. Some of the proposed changes offer up the hope that I’ll be able to shed this $1000 per month expense. I hope I see these changes occur before I reach retirement age.

The photograph above is entitled Last Bus, and is by Jeremy Ladan. The photo is used in accordance with his Creative Commons license.

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