Life Without a Car

raising a family that’s carless and carefree
family of four smiling and sitting on bicycles
© Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images

“How do you do it?!” That’s the reaction you might expect if you’re doing a great magic trick, like making a spoon levitate. It’s also the reaction I sometimes get when I tell people that our family of four manages life without a car.

The decision to live without a car was initially about the environmental impact of driving. After all, for the average Canadian, regular car use will produce more carbon emissions than all other activities combined. But what I’ve come to realize is that my quality of life is actually better without a car.

Managing the challenges of being car-free

In the right conditions, going carless is easier than you might think and it doesn’t have to feel like a sacrifice. We live in central Ottawa, so we mostly get around on foot, bike, or public transit. And even though our 14 and 11-year-old kids have the usual activities — soccer, piano, ultimate frisbee, and basketball — they mostly manage to get to them without a personal chauffeur.

Is it perfectly convenient? Of course not. It does take longer to get to some leisure activities. Consequently, we choose, as much as possible, ones that are close to our house. For those that are farther away — for example, our kids play winter soccer and ultimate frisbee in domes that are sometimes deep in the suburbs — we belong to a car sharing company. Yet, for a decade we managed parenting just fine without even that luxury.

The privilege of having no car

But this additional time it takes to get to places is made up for by the quality of the commute. My wife and I enjoy being outdoors all seasons, so we value being able to walk or bike to work. Taking the bus is saved for especially cold winter days. And for me, every minute spent doing something — anything — rather than sitting behind the wheel of a car, especially in traffic, is golden.

Then there are the benefits of living in a walkable and public-transit-friendly neighbourhood. We’ve been able to walk our kids to school and home from after school care. We can walk, take a short bike, or bus ride to many friends’ houses. Within a stone’s throw, I can find great coffee, a few neighbourhood pubs, and any number of diverse restaurants.

I am very aware of the privilege we have of being able to make ends meet while living close to work, play, and amenities. I certainly understand that, for some, the cost of living close to downtown is prohibitively expensive, especially in more pricey cities like Vancouver or Toronto.

The cost of driving

But if one does the math, living far from downtown can also be expensive. The money families save on mortgage or rent might be lost by owning a car. A Global News article suggests that it costs between $8,600 and $13,000 per year to own a vehicle. You can check your own costs with the Canadian Automobile Association Driving Costs Calculator to see what you’re shelling out. How much closer to downtown or reliable transit could families live if they had $900 more to put towards their home every month? For two-car families, the finances improve even more. The amount our family spends on car sharing, plus car rentals when we want to get out of town, is a small fraction of those costs.

A hectic urban life isn’t for everyone, and I know people who see their car as a refuge. But for its climate and lifestyle benefits, a car-free life is the only one for me.