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  • Writer's picturearandomwalkwithmj

Sustainable Living: Being a No Car Family

Throughout my life, learning about, or trying to live in a way that is sustainable for the earth

and other living things around me has been a constant. The ability though, ebbs and flows with where I have lived and options that are available in that area. For example, the last place we lived it was very easy to eat locally, with a large portion of our food coming from within 60 km. It was only in the winter months with the fruits and vegetables that it was more difficult. However, in that location we also were a two-car family, putting 50,000 km or so on the cars a year (25,000 km per car). Between driving our kids everywhere, and my husband’s 60km round trip commute to work, it made it very difficult to consider having only one car. Today’s post will be about how becoming a no car family has worked for us.

My husband and I have lived in quite a few places since we met in University, 28 years ago. Until two years ago we had always had at least one automobile. Depending on where we lived, the automobile was hardly used, or used quite a lot. For example, while he did his Master’s at the University of British Columbia we lived in Vancouver. There we only used the car for trips out of the city and the occasional grocery shopping trip. We walked or used the transit system almost everywhere we went. When we lived just outside of Guelph (a city that didn’t have a wonderful transit system, and it wasn’t very accessible from our area), we put the most km on the car of anywhere. Commuting, children’s activities, and access to a grocery store, made it very difficult to do anything but use a car.

A few of the books I've read on Sustainable Living, but missing is another good one

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate by Naomi Klein

In 2013 our family decided to move overseas, to The Netherlands. We wondered if we could get by with just one vehicle as we knew The Netherlands was known for its excellent bike paths, and the easy to use the transit system (going even beyond the city limits). As well, The Netherlands is an expensive place to have a vehicle. Fuel, road tax, and the cost of buying a vehicle are all much more expensive here than it was in Canada. So, we sold one vehicle and shipped our beloved 2003 Volkswagen Jetta Wagon (Golf Wagon if you live in Europe) to The Netherlands.

In The Netherlands my husband began biking the 18 km round trip distance to work. We bought a house where our children were able to bike to school, safely, and with friends. As well, the children’s activities were almost always within a couple of km from home, making biking or walking to them an option. Our main grocery store is only 1 km away and we can get almost everything we need/want within 5 km of the house. If we want to travel within the country there is excellent train service, though if more than two of us are travelling, renting a car is usually cheaper.

Our car on it's last European Road Trip - Tuscany

What we found in our first 6 years or so here was that we were putting 7000 km on the car a year (a drop of 86% just by living close to everything we need and my husband being able to commute year-round on his bike). Only 500 of those km were daily life, the other 6500 was our vacations – our ‘European road trips’, which were sometimes weekends away but mostly 3-week summer vacations to Portugal, Italy, Scandinavia…

When it came time to have the emissions tested in 2019, we were told it was going to be a very expensive fix which, after 16 years, I guess was to be expected. We sat down and crunched the numbers and talked about the emotional attachment of having a vehicle sitting in the driveway. We concluded that it was not worth having the vehicle and we could just rent one when we needed it for far less money.

With trepidation, on my part more than my husbands, we sold the vehicle and decided to try being a no car family for 6 months. During that period, we rented a car for 3 weeks for our summer vacation to Scotland and 3 weeks back home in Canada settling our son into University life. After the 6 months were up, we decided we didn’t need a vehicle, though I was still worried as we were entering the rainy season here. Some days can be so grey and rainy, it is just nice to drive to pick up the groceries, or to take the kids to school.

When we reached our first year without a car there was no consideration, we knew we didn’t need a car here. We had only rented a vehicle three times, and used the bike and walked most of the time. We only rarely even used transit and not a single taxi. With regard to the car, we had definitely improved our sustainable living.

My Dutch Bike

Then came Covid times, no travel, suggestions to stay as close to home as possible, and no visiting family or friends. During this time having a car would have been a huge waste of money. We have hardly been 5 km from our house in the last year.

During this period, I will admit, there was one very windy and rainy day that our daughter needed to have a Covid test done. The testing site was about 5 km away and if one has Covid symptoms a taxi or transit aren’t an option. As well, I know if I asked, we could borrow the neighbour’s car (which we haven’t done either), but that also seemed irresponsible with a potential Covid case. Therefore, we resorted to biking, and it was the only day in almost two years that I really wished we had a vehicle.

Armed with this information, I went to calculate our carbon footprint based on no car versus having a car (I used because I couldn’t get the World Wildlife one to do the calculation a second time). For the purpose of comparison, I kept all other variables the same, house size, energy efficiency, and travel via airplane.

The results:

· Global hectares used: 2.5 times higher with a car than without car

· CO2 Emissions: 3.2 times higher with a car than without a car

The results of our carbon footprint calculations. The top one is with 2 cars and travelling

50 000 km a year. The bottom is with no car. In both I have left in one flight a year which accounts for the mobility in the 2nd picture.

My conclusion was as expected; it is more sustainable to not have a car than to have one. However, with the success we have found in not having a car, I do know that if we ever move back to North America, or even another country, the likelihood that we would be able to live as easily without a vehicle is low. Possibly in cities like New York, Tokyo, or Toronto that have great transit infrastructure. However, not on the peaceful and quiet waterfront property we dream of. Perhaps our experiment here will allow us to consider other options, or the possibility of having only one vehicle. Also, the possibility that working virtually after this pandemic has passed will also make it more likely that we could continue to live with no car or just one.

I’d love to hear your stories of sustainable living. Sharing ideas and successes always provides thought.

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Mar 16, 2021

Thanks for this great post. I've always admired your ability to live in a minimalist way, and living without a car is such a great endeavour! Living in suburban Canada, we are two people with 2 cars, and it seems like a loss of independence to sell one of them, now that public transit requires people to wear masks, etc. It's such an unhealthy environment. Considering the financial cost of keeping a car, and looking at how many kms I've driven over the past year, I'd rather share a car between 3-4 families, similar to a co-op concept. Cars are awesome but there are far too many of them in the world.

Mar 16, 2021
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I agree your location and lack of good transit options make it difficult to live without a car. The car share idea is great. As well, depending on the distances you need to drive, an electric car.

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