The story of how I fell out of love with driving

When I got my current car, a 2005 Honda Civic, my Dad bought me a gas mileage book and told me to record each and every time I filled up. I have been diligently recording the date, odometer reading, number of litres, gas price per litre, and total cost of each fillup ever since. I also record notes on some fillups, such as out-of-town trips. A couple of weeks ago, inspired by Nora Young’s trip to Edmonton to discuss self-tracking, I finally decided to digitize the records. It occurred to me that this was the first bit of self-tracking I ever did. I know that I drive far less today than I did when I got the car, and I wanted to be able to visualize that. You can see the charts below, but to really understand them, I need to share a bit of history with you first.

The moment I turned 14, I was ready to get my learner’s permit. Like most guys my age I desperately wanted to drive, even if I needed to have an adult with me. I got the study guide, but didn’t spend too much time with it. As a result, when I went to write the test, I failed by one question (it was something to do with uncontrolled railway crossings if I remember correctly). I made sure to not let that happen again, and the second time I passed with no problems. I was living with my Grandma at the time, and she was great about letting me drive. Whenever we went to the grocery store or if she was dropping me off somewhere, she’d happily take the passenger seat.

I took lessons from AMA to learn how to drive a manual transmission, and took the driver’s test soon after I turned 16. With only a few minor hiccups I passed, and was free to drive on my own (fortunately I got in just before the GDL program took effect, so I had no limitations). When I was in high school, I drove a lot. I thought nothing of crossing the city to get somewhere or to drive a friend home. Gas prices were quite a bit lower at the time than they are today, but looking back it still seems incredibly wasteful how much I would drive.

When I started attending the University of Alberta, I would frequently drive. Sometimes I’d park at campus, other times I would get a ride with a friend, but most times I would park at the Stadium LRT Station and take the train the rest of the way (also handy because my office was downtown). I would sometimes take the bus, but I never made that a habit.

Shortly after I graduated in the spring of 2007, I started working at Questionmark. Our office was located near The Brick warehouse in the northwest part of the city, and I was still living with my Grandma in the southeast. That meant driving about 60 kilometers every day, and it meant driving the very busy Whitemud. I looked at taking the bus, but it would have taken about 45 minutes and required a transfer.

In May 2008, I moved into an apartment in Oliver with my sister. That cut the distance to work significantly, though I still drove every day. Roughly a year later, with our local team growing at Questionmark, we decided to move the office downtown to the Empire Building. I started taking the bus to and from work every day, because it was just a short trip (about a 15 minute ride) and I didn’t want to pay for parking.

In the summer of 2010, Sharon and I moved into our current place on 104 Street. I’m now just a short walk away from the office (Google estimates 9 minutes), which means I walk to and from work every day. As we have written before, I absolutely love it.

To recap quickly:

  • June 2005 to July 2007: I drove pretty much everywhere.
  • July 2007 to May 2008: I drove across the city to get to work every day. I regularly drove other places.
  • May 2008 to May 2009: I still drove to work every day, but the distance is much shorter.
  • May 2009 to July 2010: I took the bus to work, and drove only on evenings and weekends.
  • July 2010 to present: I walk to work, and avoid driving whenever possible.

Here’s what that behavior looks like on a graph:

distance by year

I think the four big shifts are pretty evident in that graph. Slowly but surely, I have been reducing any dependence on my car to get around.

Out of interest, here’s what that behavior cost me at the pump:

spend by year

I wish I had kept records prior to 2005, because I know the price of gas was quite a bit less when I first started driving.

What’s not captured in this data is how my attitude toward driving has changed over the years. It sounds counterintuitive, but the less time I spent behind the wheel the less I enjoyed it. I remember arguing with Sharon back in my university days about how terrible our public transit system was (she has always been a regular user). I loved driving and wanted nothing to do with the bus. Today we use the car maybe once a week, for trips to Superstore, to visit family, or to get out of town, and I regularly complain if I need to drive for pretty much any other reason. I would much rather walk or take the bus. I now find driving quite stressful! I’m sure that the shift from driving to walking has positively impacted my health. It has no doubt lowered my carbon footprint by quite a bit as well.

Also missing from the above charts are the other changes that have made my move away from the car possible. Without question, being able to use Google Maps to lookup bus routes has been hugely beneficial. Text messaging at bus stops has also made the experience of using the bus much more positive. My experience traveling in other cities has no doubt had a big impact on me as well. The are lots of things to consider.

As much as I would like to go car-free, it’s just not a very realistic option in Edmonton at the moment. I’m hopeful that will change however, and that our next car will be our last (though I recognize that other life changes may significantly affect that plan).

In an effort to better understand my behavior and potentially change it, I have been tracking my travel habits every day this year. In January, I’ll be able to show you a full year of data, including how often and how far I traveled by foot, bicycle, automobile, bus, train, plane, etc. Stay tuned!

18 thoughts on “The story of how I fell out of love with driving

  1. The exact same thing happened to me, although I would describe it differently. Based on the way I grew up (in the suburban U.S.) I couldn’t imagine not driving, so I drove. When I moved to Edmonton in 1997, though, I lived in very central urban neighbourhoods (first downtown, then in Strathcona), and slowly but surely stopped driving often enough to make it worth having a car. I sold the car in 2006, but I still borrowed my partner’s car once a week or so right up until the time I went to live in the Netherlands in January. Eight months there, and the habit is thoroughly kicked. It’s been a year since I’ve been behind the wheel, and I’m not in a hurry to try again anytime soon.

    1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing! I wonder how different it would be if you had moved to a suburban neighbourhood in Edmonton instead. I have been reading quite a bit about transportation systems in Europe lately, would love to check out the Netherlands!

      1. Well, I wouldn’t have chosen to live in a suburban Edmonton neighbourhood, so that’s really a moot point. 🙂 But even though I deliberately chose the urban core for its quality of life, I still didn’t foresee just how much less I would end up driving. It was definitely more gradual with me than with you, though, and wasn’t prompted by particular job changes.

        I’m back in Edmonton now, by the way (I’m an academic, and my stay in the Netherlands was part of a sabbatical), but completely miss the Dutch bike paths and urban streets with no traffic! We’ve got a long way to go in Canada on that front, that’s for sure.

      2. This conversation (and blog) has really caught my attention. More and more as I live in the South West suburbs of Edmonton I’m finding that it would be so nice to depend less on a vehicle for a number of reasons that I won’t get into right now. I’ve begun a feasibility study on moving closer to the core with access to better transit. With four kids I doubt this will be an easy endeavor but I’m looking forward to see if it can be done. I applaud those who have been able to depend so little on their vehicles.

      3. Depending on the age of your kids and where they need to go, you might be surprised at how well you all would do without a car in one of Edmonton’s core neighbourhoods. If you need to get to the suburban areas of the city on a regular basis, public transportation isn’t very feasible, but if you’re able to arrange your life as such that you stay in the core neighbourhoods most of the time, it’s not only feasible, it kind of happens automatically. But you’d probably have to have kids of a certain age, who you were willing to give the responsibility to for riding the bus (or taking their bikes) for their own transportation, like families do in Europe.

  2. Hey Mack,

    Google Maps has also changed the way that I think about commuting, despite the fact that I have always been a huge public transit user. With an app like that, I feel that there really is almost no excuse for not taking public transit anymore if your main destinations are on big bus routes.

    People still tear ETS to shreds over lack of coverage, inaccuracy, and general discomfort. I’d say that the coverage gripes are warranted for some, but their arguments don’t really hold weight if they knowingly pursued a suburban home that is off of the ETS radar. And despite what people may think, ETS always does a great job of keeping up with their text and Google Map schedules.

    I’ve found that the greatest benefit to taking public transit is that, although it “takes longer,” I’m far more productive. I can read a few dozen pages of a book on my way home. I’d like to see somebody pull that off in their car…

    I take it you don’t have iOS 6?

    1. ‘knowingly pursued’ I think is key there. I haven’t had a car since 2007 and only sporadically for the years prior since I got my license at at 18 (I simply didn’t care enough to get one at 16). Point being I knew I wanted to take transit so I planned accordingly and moved downtown (after living on Whyte, in Oliver, and downtown Ottawa). I don’t necessarily think that more or better transit is necessary if we can build more and better housing in the core neighbourhoods.

      p.s. good on you Mack for living and working so close, really makes it easy, right?

  3. I just got back from a month in Belgium and the rail system is great (and inexpensive to use). You can get practically anywhere. The transit system in Brussels is also very good, as is the system in Paris. Edmonton has a long way to go. It’s no wonder I barely use transit here. If I were to move there, I would use it, but would still have a car and probably a scooter.

    What Alberta should do is develop a higher speed rail system (not high speed like the TGV in France). It would be far cheaper and still moves at a pretty good clip! We might actually get somewhere if we started with that.

  4. My issues with ETS are mostly to do with off-peak frequency (even on
    major cross-town routes like #2), and certain disconnects between
    central destinations. Having to make one transfer to get accross the
    city is fine, but when traveling from Oliver to Strathcona is a
    2-transfer, 45 minute hike, it’s beyond absurd.
    Car-free in Edmonton is really only practical for cyclists, and at least
    for now, cycling in Edmonton is not likely to become a truly mainstream
    activity…the city’s infrastructure is just too car-centric and
    alternative-hostile. Transit dependence is really not a feasible
    option.

    1. One of my biggest pet peeves is traveling from downtown to Old Strathcona. It’s the kind of trip that feels like it should be serviced by a regular bus every 15 minutes at most. Often it is faster to take the LRT to the U of A and then take a bus to Whyte. Ridiculous!

  5. I love this story. It’s a great example of using self-tracking in a conscious way to shed light on behaviour, albeit through a rear view mirror, as it were.

  6. Great story, Mack. I myself grew up in St. Albert, where the pressure to own a car at 16 was enormous. While my peers were all getting licenses and cars, I went through the motions and took driver’s training. But by the end of that course, I realized that I hated cars and hated driving and frankly hated other drivers (collectively, nothing personal).

    Basically I decided that I would just go car-free. Everyone thought I was crazy. After all, Edmonton is a car-city, you can’t get anywhere without one, and St. Albert was even worse.

    I got around by busing, biking, and walking everywhere I needed to go. Things only ever got easier as I moved into Edmonton proper, living within just a couple minutes’ walk from bus stops with night service.

    When it was time for my wife and I to buy a house, we chose to spend a bit more up front to be close to downtown, where we both work (we might have actually bought in Oliver had suitable product been available at the time). We both bus in (I also bike during the nicer weather months), and the SE LRt will have a stop not far from us, soon, too. My wife does have a car, but we only really use it for groceries, occasional outings, and trips out of the city. People still think I’m crazy for not owning a car, but as Ken Cantor has been known to say, you don’t miss what you never had. Taking transit, biking, and walking are just ingrained in my lifestyle.

  7. Going car free is definitely a possibility for us in Edmonton, but it’ll require some smart zoning and encouragement of densifying the city.

    The biggest change in your driving less was actually being closer to what you need in life; being close to work, groceries, and entertainment. Without stopping urban sprawl the incentive to switch from vehicles to public transit doesn’t happen.

    And you’re a perfect example of someone responding to incentives. High gas prices didn’t change your driving behaviour, it was your place of work now being conveniently located to where you live.

    You can see it happening that more businesses and places of work are moving downtown creating the incentive for people to be willing to pay more to live closer to downtown but gain an increased quality of living without the car.

    1. I don’t know if I would say “conveniently located”. It was a conscious decision to live where I do and to move the office. That’s the challenge though – getting folks to consider proximity to work and other amenities/activities when they buy a house with as much weight as they give to the big yard or the extra bedroom.

      1. You’re right that it was your decision to make the move. You made it a priority to make the distance from home to office a convenient one. It gets interesting on how people don’t make a very good decision regarding a convenient commute time and buying a bigger house.

        “Swiss economists Frey and Stutzer discovered a new human foible, which they called “the commuters paradox”.
        They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute. This leads people to mistakenly believe that the big house in the exurbs will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional hour to work.” (Source: http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/03/30/commuting/ )

        City planners and developers need to be aware of this commuters paradox and make sure more people make the right decision when it comes to the size of houses and commute time.

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