Mindful Word: 
Issue 2, Spring 2008: Car-less in Ottawa

Since relinquishing my car over a year ago, radical new horizons have appeared, though there was an initial period of grief and frustration.  Every time a winter green Subaru Outback drove past I would weep, especially if I was clambering over snow banks to get to a bus stop.  I would often get on the wrong bus, discovering parts of the city I had no intention of visiting.  I must also add that relinquishing my car was not quite as virtuous as it may seem.  My car insurers refused to renew my insurance policy due to the frequent, yet small, crashes that had cost them oodles of money.  The most notorious incident was when I collided with my neighbour’s mini-van.  I still believe he was on the wrong side of the road, but just perhaps it was I.  His insubstantial mini-van crumpled and buckled while my beloved Subaru Outback had minor damage to the front fender.

My neighbour cheerfully, and without realizing the risk, got into my car and I drove both of us to the nearest police station to report the collision.  The police sergeant who took our particulars was another neighbour and as I stood there looking somewhat sheepish, he put up his hand with an air of authority and said: “I don’t want to hear anything from you – I will put this down as a no-fault collision.”  I was about to point out that “no-fault collision” was an oxymoron, when my neighbour (not the police sergeant but the one whose mini-van I had crumpled) said OK and hurried both of us out.  He had to meet his daughter at a shopping mall and asked if I would kindly drive him there.  Quite a risk taker he was, given the circumstances.  I happily agreed and mused that just perhaps my absence from driving would make it safer for every other car on the road, quite apart from the obvious environmental benefits.  All this being said, I was not prepared for new vistas that were suddenly there when I became car-less in Ottawa.

I learned how well served my city of Ottawa was with bus and light rail services.  Furthermore, had I continued driving a car I would have missed out on one of the most hilarious and refreshing bus conversations I have ever had.  Riding home one evening on the 117 bus from my university to Baseline Station, I noticed a young man with a 12 pack of beer sitting opposite, staring very intently at me, obviously three sheets to the wind.  Finally he blurted out: “Hey, aint you the ecology guy on TV?”  To which I mildly demurred that indeed I was - not really wishing to get into a conversation with an inebriated young man.  But joyfully he exclaimed: “Hey, me and the boys have a pack of beer every Monday night when we watch your show.  It’s cool man.”  I felt immediately humbled by his openness and that surprisingly I was making a difference.  As was he at that moment, as he chatted away about ecology and recycling until his bus stop. He offered me a bottle of beer before leaving the bus, which of course I accepted graciously.  I did not drink it, leaving it in the bus driver’s bin to dispose of as he saw fit.

I had discovered that between Baseline Station and my home, there was a kilometre walk along Pinecrest Creek that constantly stunned me with its beauty.  As it was a bicycle path the snow was ploughed in winter, which made walking that much easier.  To have mother nature dance for me in such unexpected ways led to my often carrying a camera, with stale bread and grain for the mallard ducks that wintered there.  The sunsets over the ice rimmed creek and snow covered field leading to it would take my breath away.  They could not possibly be there in the middle of a busy city!!  As were red foxes, one lonely coyote, song birds, owls and the occasional pedestrian.  My walking meditations between Baseline Station and home made me smile as I slowed down and hummed Pooh Bear type hums.  If I had a car this wonder would have been denied to me.

I also relocated essential services close to home, finding doctors, dentists, eye specialists (and camera shops) within walking or biking distance.  They had been there all the time, just waiting to be discovered.  I now re-arrange appointments locally within bicycle range, rarely going downtown unless absolutely necessary.  Driving a car, I could not stop to fully be with moments of stunning beauty for as long as I liked; or say hello to rabbits that boldly appeared; or leave contented ducks well fed on bread and grain murmuring their approval of the two legged who listened to what they wanted.

The bus drivers on the 117 bus route have got to know me and younger passengers offer their seats to the greybeard with the jazzy umbrella and funny black hat.  Would I go back to driving a car and lose all this?  Well, talk to me about an environmentally friendly Mercedes and a kind insurance broker, then perhaps we’ll see.