On November 1st, 2013, I moved into my Brampton Downtown apartment. On the same day, I parked my Jeep Liberty as I have vowed to go a year without a car.
Our reliance on vehicular transport has been increasing. Since the 70s environmental reports constantly say that the damage we are doing is not helping Mother Nature. Our ecological and carbon footprints continue to grow. Global Warming and now Polar Vortex have entered our daily vocabulary. Mother Nature is fighting back … this past winter was a great indicator of how she can fight for survival.
I was raised in Toronto, in the community of North York. My right of passage, though marked with a “Sweet 16” party, was also commemorated with obtaining a “365 permit” – predecessor to today’s G1 licence. Though I could drive everywhere, and enjoyed driving, I chose public transit to commute. It wasn’t because I was ecologically proud or a tree hugger, I preferred having someone else drive, especially when the streets were full and busy. I had mastered reading while walking or standing on a bus or subway and I liked the option of driving to my local GO station and enjoying a quiet train ride into Union.
Eventually, I moved into a condo in downtown Toronto where my husband and I shared one car. It was parked Monday to Friday and only came out on weekends. Living in Toronto afforded us mobility and daily activity. We didn’t go to the gym; we didn’t jog or hike; we didn’t trail bike. We walked and we commuted. We were able to get around without a car.
In 1999, we purchased a house in Caledon. We wanted a simpler, quieter life and had given ourselves two years to eliminate commuting into the city and adopt a lifestyle that sustained us north of Hwy 7. On the eve of Canada Day, our house closed at 1:30pm. At 2:45pm, the dealer called and informed us that our 2nd car was ready for pick-up. At 3:30pm, I was laid off from an advertising agency’s executive position. I had achieved our goal in two hours!
Career choices were limited, but my entrepreneurial spirit afforded me the luxury of exploring options. Country living was supposed to be luxurious, stress-free and prestigious. In the first two years, we couldn’t believe both vehicles had clocked in excess of 20,000km each, and I was living and working locally. As quickly as the miles clocked on our cars, so did the weight on our hips. Within three years, I went from a size 6 to a size 10 and, in another four years, to a size 14. Though I was busy and always on the go, I no longer was on the GO. Although I separated and left Caledon in 2010, wherever I moved, I was still vehicle dependant and could not get around without a car.
In 2013, my life’s journey moved me to Brampton, and my Facebook status stated, “I’m looking forward to parking my car and NOT touching it for at least two months! I’m sooooooooo looking forward to taking transit!”
I couldn’t believe or understand the resistance I received with that statement. It was like I declared I was giving up all my worldly possessions and living on the streets. For nearly 14 years, I had been a prisoner in my vehicle. Though I was out and about, walking or cycling to the local grocer or coffee shop was not an option. Yes, there were nature trails three blocks away, however, I didn’t have hours available to go for a country stroll. My pace of life didn’t afford that. Though my friends couldn’t, and probably still can’t, embrace my excitement, I was thrilled by the fact that Brampton Transit, Züm and GO were available, allowing me to park my car and hop on a bus or train.
In the first few months, my curiosity lead to many discoveries. I didn’t follow route schedules; I just went to the nearest bus stop, hopped on, asked the bus driver where we were going, and then got his help to figure out where I was going. I lived temporarily in Springdale and Heart Lake and then, on November 1st, moved into my Brampton Downtown apartment, put my vehicle into storage, and surrendered my keys to my publisher who has locked them away.
Third week in was my first realization that this wasn’t going to be easy. It usually took me 10 days to get settled into a new place, but now it was going to take months. I had loaned my tools to a friend in Guelph 4 months earlier and was now in desperate need of them. Unfortunately, her schedule couldn’t afford a drive into Brampton. With a little research, on the fourth Saturday of November I jumped on the GO and headed to Guelph, met my friend at a restaurant, and then returned home with my grocery cart loaded with my tool box and power tools.
When the bus driver assisted me, he commented on the weight. “What do you have in here, tools?” he asked jokingly.
“Yes,” I said without hesitation.
“No, seriously….” he quickly retorted.
“Seriously, yeah…” and I pulled out my circular saw as proof. Through the whole drive back, we had a lovely chat and he was genuinely impressed when he realized all my marbles were intact.
The next day, as I started assembling furniture and putting up cabinets, I realized I was a few screws short.
Somehow my upper cabinet hanging hardware was MIA and, without it, I would not be done that day. I needed to go to IKEA. So, back to Google Maps, I discovered that the 501 Züm leaving in 14 minutes was only 6 minutes away. In less than three minutes, I was out the door and, in 50 minutes, I walked through IKEA’s doors. Two hours later, I came back home with my grocery cart full of hanging rods, hooks and cabinet screws. By early evening, I had hung and filled my cabinets.
I couldn’t believe it! In 24 hours I was able to commute to both Guelph and Vaughan, without a car, and for under $20. And everyone had said I was going to lose my independence.
For the last 5 months I have used this approach to anything and everything and, of all winters to start such an experiment, this was not the most ideal. Everything was encrusted with over 6 inches of ice, and both sidewalks and roads were not pedestrian friendly. Heck, they weren’t wheel friendly either, as shopping carts, baby strollers and even wheel chairs were challenged. And let’s not address the consecutive -40C days! While unpacking, I was seriously considering giving away my pistachio heavy winter coat that I had only worn once in the last 7 years, never realizing it would be my prized fashion accessory in this “Ice Storm & Polar Vortex” season.
Instead of a ticker tape parade for my new found abilities, I received resistant and opposite reactions, from both friends as well as strangers. Whether it was my journalistic nature or a stubborn streak, I found myself taking the defensive and over-explaining why I would willingly give up my vehicle to take public transit. At times, I would experience outright prejudice, like racism, not for my cultural heritage, but for joining a car-free cult.
I kept notes, and the conversations at times were mean and laced with traces of bullying. I can’t believe how people are so anti-transit based on personal points of view dated by their own experiences from years prior. They are quick to retort the fact that I live in Brampton Downtown and I have options.
Well, yes, but everywhere has options. I don’t have a set Point A to Point B travel plan in my position as Editor of Enrich Magazine. I have meetings everywhere in Brampton and outside of it. I even went to meetings in Oakville using Züm, GO and a 7 minute walk and, both times, I beat everyone who came by car as they were late “due to traffic.”
Each time, no matter what transit I use, or where I am going, or how horrible the weather is, or dense the traffic, my buses are usually on time. Now, there were some seriously FREAKING FREEZING days that delayed buses, trains and even grounded planes so, yes, there were some extraordinary circumstances encountered which caused delays. But even in those “extreme” days, people with cars were complaining it took them 2 hours, while I was often on time.
There is a big public misunderstanding of the transit system. People complain that the system shuts down, yet seem surprised when I correct them and say there is bus service after midnight. They honestly believe that the system should revolve around their own personal schedules, and miss the point that their schedules need to evolve, sometimes only by minutes, up to an hour. Do we not schedule our vacations around flight times?
The moment anyone supports my admiration for the transit system in Brampton, they too are quickly chastised. And when we express our points of view regarding the LRT extension or the lack of GO rails from Bramalea through Brampton stations, my goodness, you would think we were reenacting the Hatfields and McCoys.
So, since November 1st and for at least another six months, I am car-free in Brampton. Considering the winter we had, I am pleasantly surprised by how awesome the system is.
I’ve probably used every option available for getting into Toronto, including travelling to York University and hopping on the Rocket Express to the subway. I travelled to Oakville twice and, both times, weeks apart, beat everyone who travelled by car and blamed traffic for their tardiness. I commuted in the same rush hour, so how did I make it, not only on time, but thirty minutes early? With investigation, I slowly realized that Google Maps, which plans and provides all possible options between set Points A and B, does not surpass the transit, which was in fact faster than what the Google gods and their satellites scheduled. This has happened to me on several occasions, no matter the destination, when somehow, at a point of transfer, a bus that was supposed to arrive in the near future was already present. Was it the previous bus running late? The opposite … often the buses are running early.
Though the transit system in Brampton has boasted a 38% increase in ridership in recent years, it is under-utilized. At times the buses are full, but often they are empty or not at capacity. Schedules are set based on the bus stopping at each stop. Yet, time after time, my scheduled bus arrives early, thus allowing the driver to wait patiently at big intersections for transferring commuters.
Just yesterday, the Google gods told me my #7 would arrive at 4:48pm, but it whizzed by at 4:46 when I had only 30 seconds left in my 13 minute walk to that stop. The next bus was due at 4:56, so I decided to walk another stop. The bus I missed was waiting at the main intersection. If I ran, I could have caught it, however I remembered what a personal trainer advised me after I told him about the numerous shades of red I turned when I first tried that, “You should not run for a bus, for there will be another one shortly. It is not worth hurting yourself unnecessarily.”
Lack of passengers had brought my Züm 502 into Square One faster than scheduled, thus allowing me to catch the 6:10pm GO bus into Oakville instead of the 6:35. Though the system is scheduled to factor stopping, it is not always stopping. For those who complain that the buses are running late, they are in fact running early in most cases.
I’m pleasantly surprised by how easy the current system truly is. Please don’t get me wrong, I do believe there is room for improvement, like building that missing rail link through Brampton Downtown to complete the Kitchener to Toronto line, thus allowing all day GO service. But in the meantime, I am okay with the GO buses that are available all day. I just have to remember to stand on the right platform at the terminal, but now I know, “Out in the air for Airport, and under the pass for Downtown.” Yes, I have made this mistake on more than one occasion! But I just hopped on the 501 Züm to Bramalea and then the 115 Express and, you know what? It was faster and cheaper than the GO Bus … go figure!
Not everyone should give up their vehicles, but everyone should start considering alternatives. Yes, maybe a bad experience with transit pushed you towards vehicle dependency, but today’s transit is not the same as you remember it. It is not just for the poor or underprivileged, but for everyone’s privilege of choice.
I am very proud of myself after the WORST. WINTER. EVER. in my life. Having survived the first six months of this adventure, the next six months will be a breeze in comparison. Now to explore the political side of transit and call all governing bodies concerned to learn what is planned for future expansions and to understand the decisions being made. I have my own personal point of view and I’m in a position to ask questions and report back. This study will also include cycling and walking. On a personal note, I lost weight this winter. Adding this little bit of activity to my daily routine was all I needed. Now, to get back to size 6 … okay … size 8!
In my humble opinion, the only thing wrong with the current transit system is the fact that more of us have to get off our bucket seats and start using transit more often.