My Car Died in Toronto

Image Alla Podolsky

My car died in Toronto, three days before Christmas, 2000. Desperate to get to Ottawa, my home for over a decade, I scoured the city for a rental, miraculously securing the last available one anywhere.

Just before New Year’s Eve, I drove back to Toronto to collect my old car. But the garage had been short-staffed over the holidays, hadn’t ordered the promised part, and—of course—the repairs would cost more than anticipated.

Usually I’m Ms.-make-everything-last-longer. Now, I suddenly found myself asking the mechanic to take off the plates. I arranged for the “body” to be sent to Car Heaven (donate your car remains and get a charitable receipt—all of $80 Canadian for my heap!), called a friend, and caught the bus home. I did reflect that, had the car failed in Ottawa, I no doubt would have asked my local repairman to eke out a few thousand more kilometers of use. Perhaps my ability to bite the bullet and bury the car was enhanced by being away at the time of its death.

I spent December 31 with a group of friends who like to sing in the New Year together. After our usual potluck feast, we had a post-midnight snowy walk, making New Year’s resolutions. I declared I wanted more exercise in general—that walk itself augured well.

Another resolve was—and is—more complex. I need to stop trying to cram so many activities into my life—worthy or satisfying as they may be, I need to find a way to move more slowly, savoring each day more thoroughly. Laughing, that night I promised to slow down and smell the snowflakes.

However, January 2 found me checking out car buying and leasing options. Then I thought, “What’s the rush? It’s the dead of winter, my month to hibernate and write—I’m not going out very often. So. . . maybe I’ll buy a bus pass, and take my time deciding.”

In my previous incarnation as a married mother of two, living near Toronto’s busy College and Bathurst intersection, I biked and used the public transit avidly. We had sacrificed car for mortgage when the kids were old enough to jump from stroller to streetcar, and only bought another car when my husband’s new job necessitated commuting, and then moving, to Ottawa. Here, the children bused to high school, and if I needed the car, I arranged to drive my husband to work. When he died unexpectedly, the car became mine, and I grew to rely on it.

Five years of middle-aged spread later, I drove more often than I liked. So with my car gone, I bought a bus pass. No sooner had I collected schedules and photo ID, than I was waiting interminably at a January bus stop, laden with groceries. Two “quick errands” ended up taking two hours! Nonetheless, I generally felt good about my new mobility. Soon I surprised myself by thinking, “What if I gave up keeping a car altogether?”

I calculated that owning even my ancient VW cost $400 Canadian per month (averaging purchase price, insurance, repairs, and gas)—and that was worth fleets of taxi rides! I am single, without children or even many groceries to transport now, and my neighborhood is serviced by rush-hour expresses, as well as by local half-hourly buses. I figured I would get more reading done and have more exercise. Not owning a car freed me from hateful headaches like renewing my tags. My life would probably be both more efficient (no more dashing to buy forgotten items) and more peaceful (less cramming two events into one evening). Voila!—my New Year’s goals met.

I started feeling virtuous. After all, I believe in public transportation and want to help reduce pollution. So, “I’ve gone car-less,” I’d smugly announce. But there were also times when I left too late, missed the bus, and hadn’t called a cab. I confess I swore at myself, lied about my lateness for appointments, or in desperation, hauled out my bike and pedaled furiously (only twice, both when roads were dry and temperatures reasonable).

I found two households willing to car-share and began to pay per kilometer of use when I needed a local car for my freelance work. I took trains to jobs in Toronto, and rented cars for long trips. Overall, my car-free life was carefree. I read loads, and lost five pounds.

Spring arrived, I bought a comfier bike seat, and cycled to the nearest transit station. By May I discovered the “rack and roll” program: bike racks on the front of the main transitway buses. I could bike over, load up, ride downtown (enjoying the green views), and then pedal onward, rather than sprinting to connect—particularly helpful on Sunday mornings. The racks were installed here in 1998, following the lead of cities like Seattle, but I—in my car-driven world—hadn’t noticed. I spent all summer and fall racking my bike and flexing my muscles. To be honest, though, biking was helping me achieve a pace close to Toronto’s style once more.

By last December, though the weather was still remarkably mild, the bike racks were gone for the winter. I not only had to invest in new rain gear, but had to think about doing less again. I was anxious about storing my bike and switching to slower feet and more buses, yet I became increasingly committed to my green stance. I’m aiming at a right sharing of world resources, at simplifying.

The books I want to read accumulate, and I know I savor watching the river from the transitway. I can use my car-less state as a reason to cut back on some committees I could do without, anyway. And even though it will be hard to choose which of two gatherings to attend on a Sunday afternoon this coming winter, I will only be able to get to one. I will remind myself of my new motto, “When in doubt, do less,” and stride up the road to catch the bus. Then I will take a deep breath and smell the snow in the air.

I’m even looking forward to hibernating, come January. . . .

Caroline Balderston Parry

Caroline Balderston Parry walks, bikes, and buses in Ottawa, Ontario, where she is a member of Ottawa Meeting and works for the local Unitarians as interim director of religious education.