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!

Speeding just isn't what it used to be!

Post ImageNormally when I hear someone talking about GPS, I think directions. You know, the gadget you have in your car that tells you where to turn left. Like most electronics however, there are cheap GPS units and top-of-the-line GPS units. Like the one Shaun Malone’s parents installed in his car:

GPS tracking systems like the one in Malone’s car are becoming an increasingly popular way for parents to keep tabs on their kids, an outgrowth of the initial use of such devices in car fleets and trucking. Many consumer-oriented GPS navigation systems also have these capabilities, but Malone’s was hardcore: the system would even e-mail his parents in the event that he drove too fast.

Try explaining that one when you get home! Your parents would know you’re speeding before you do!

Anyway, the great part about this story is that Shaun and his retired sheriff father are using data from the GPS unit to contest a speeding ticket:

While many GPS systems don’t log travel details extensively enough to be used as a defense against a moving violation, Malone’s car was outfitted with a device that could do just that. According to Rude, all recorded plots on Malone’s route show him to be driving under the speed limit.

Kinda takes the fun out of speeding, doesn’t it? I don’t really care if they win their case or not, but I do like it when new technology challenges the status quo!

Who knew GPS units could do so much?!

Read: ArsTechnica

2007 Honda CR-V

Post ImageIt’s not often I blog about vehicles, but I just love the brand new 2007 Honda CR-V. And as far as I can tell, it’s not yet available in Canada. I think it’s a damn sexy SUV, and I really like the marketing campaign too – “something new to crave” is catchy and works well given the cryptic model name. Here’s the little blurb from the website:

The all-new 2007 CR-V has been dramatically transformed, with a sleek new exterior and amenity-rich interior that are unlike anything else you’ll find in a crossover SUV. As always, the CR-V is big on safety with new features including Advanced Compatibility EngineeringT (ACET) body structure to help you feel secure. Pamper yourself in the EX-L and you will get leather-trimmed seats and the available Honda Satellite-Linked Navigation SystemT to help guide the way. Get in to the all-new CR-V-it’s the SUV you’ve been craving.

I’m craving it! If I was going to buy an SUV, I’d seriously consider the new CR-V.

Read: Honda CR-V

Roadcasting

Post ImageMy “wireless everywhere” mantra is becoming more and more of a reality every day. The latest wireless technology (and also the latest “add -casting” buzzword for 2005) is Roadcasting, a project developed by current and former master’s students at the Human Computer Interaction Institute.

Roadcasting uses a variant of the popular Wi-Fi technology to create ad hoc networks between vehicles. Each vehicle then acts as a “node”, extending the network’s reach a mile at a time. Essentially you get to have your own little radio station, and instead of tuning to a frequency to listen to music, the system will find music that you’ll like from other people’s collections.

The system — still largely theoretical — will also feature a collaborative-filtering mechanism that compares music in a recipients’ collection to that of the broadcaster. The filter will pump out a mix of songs matching the listener’s tastes.

“What’s really cool about this is that while you’re busy (driving), Roadcasting will just pick songs that you enjoy,” said Mathilde Pignol, one of the Roadcasting developers, “and then it will let you influence the songs with your music taste without you having to do anything.”

Makes one wonder what the RIAA would have to say about this. Considering that in Canada (and perhaps elsewhere) doctors offices and similar entities must pay a yearly fee to play music for their clients, I can’t see how the RIAA would let something like Roadcasting slide. I suppose stranger things have happened though!

I rather like the idea of Roadcasting. Their process page has a really good description of some of the positives and negatives of both radio, and of being a DJ. Apparently the system is in the prototype stage, though its unlikely to take off without major automobile manufacturer support.

And I thought podcasting was cutting edge!

Read: Wired News

China's Next Cultural Revolution

Think we’re advanced with our hybrid electric cars? Think again, and read the hook for a new article in Wired: “The People’s Republic is on the fast track to become the car capital of the world. And the first alt-fuel superpower.”

China has a both a huge problem and a huge advantage over Western nations when it comes to energy sources. The big problem of course is the gigantic population. A population as big as China’s, which is expcted to hit 1.5 billion by 2030, means that “pollution-related illness will suck up as much as 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product” by the same time. Rising GDP means that more families have disposable income and thus money to spend on cars, seen as a sort of status symbol much like North America of a few decades ago. The big advantage of course, is that China lacks an entrenched energy industry.

For hydrogen powered cars to work in North America, one has to deal with the oil companies. They don’t want to see the combustion engine go – that’s their bread and butter. China doesn’t have such an industry. There are no oil companies to deal with. They could very well leapfrog the entire combustion engine era and go straight to alternative fuel automobiles. And that’s probably a good thing for the rest of the world too because as Yang Yiyong, the deputy director of the Institute of Economic Research says, “If you pump for oil, you have to fight wars for it.” China is already the world’s second largest oil consumer after the United States, so anything to avoid confrontation between the two when reserves run low is a good thing.

And in North America, clean fuel sources are being developed out of interest and a desire by a relatively select few to protect the environment. In China, the same technologies are being “created by people desperate enough to imagine it.” There’s a big difference there, and I think that’s the reason China will become the world’s alt-fuel superpower.

Read: Wired