When I first moved to Calgary at eighteen to pursue my Olympic dreams I had little need for a car. I had a bike and a small circle of destinations that made it relatively easy to get around. I was also student-athlete poor and had no money for an extravagant thing like a car. But as I got older and Calgary got bigger my desire to be able to go where I pleased on a moment’s notice grew. The mountains beckoned, as did shopping malls and interesting places to go.
So when my grandfather passed away and I found myself with a small sum to spend on whatever I wanted, I set out to find a good, small, reliable, used car.
I settled on a light blue 1985 Toyota Tercel hatchback. It cost me $1350. At the time the price of gas was $0.44/L and I could fill it up for $17.00. The tank would last me a month. Grocery shopping was a dream; I could go hiking in the mountains or toss my bike on the roof and ride wherever I wanted. I still rode my bike a lot and didn’t rely on my car too much but just having it was akin to freedom.
I became rather attached to that little car – Herman – as my friend Dave named him. We took to calling him ‘The Herm’ for short. He was cute, practical and would dutifully start, unplugged, with just one turn of the key on frigid winter mornings in Calgary. He seemed to have some personality and in some odd way I felt like he reflected mine – practical, efficient, understated, humble, and at the time, frugal. He also represented my becoming an adult and reaching the threshold of making my own responsible decisions about what I wanted in my life.
I kept the car in good shape, although it rarely needed work. When it did I would take it to a local high school where I knew the automotive teacher and they would fix it up for a dime. I ran out of gas a couple of times, got a couple of flat tires and once broke the windshield wipers after a heavy snowfall, but year after year he just kept on going, doing his job of keeping me mobile.
I drove that car for almost nine years. Near the end there were a few issues that made it somewhat unsafe, like the driver’s side door no longer worked and I had to get in and out of the car on the passenger side (I did this for nearly a year), and it got to the point where a) my Dad didn’t want me driving it anymore and b) I’d saved up enough money to replace it with something better.
There was a tinge of sadness in my heart as I said goodbye to The Herm. I dropped him off at the junkyard for scraps and in return received a voucher for $300 towards a new bike. This eventually became my touring bike, which I christened The Herm Reincarnate.
That spring of 2006 I went to a car dealership and bought a brand new Honda Fit. I once swore I would never buy a new car, but I easily broke that rule by justifying to myself that I would do it once and drive the car until the end of time.
I tried to think of a name for it but nothing ever came to me. This car had zero personality. And while it had a nice stereo, with FM radio no less, air conditioning and power steering, it felt boring and utilitarian. Meanwhile, Calgary continued to expand at a blistering pace and sitting in traffic was increasingly common.
Six years went by before I topped the 35,000km mark on the odometer. My boyfriend and I had moved in together and both of our cars were sitting in the parking lot 95% of the time. We started biking more and discovered the benefits of public transit. Increasingly, the justification for keeping my car weakened.
I no longer felt that this car reflected who I was, that instead it represented all of the things I didn’t want in my life. It drained my hard earned dollars and left me feeling like a caged animal stuck in the now routine Calgary traffic jams. It was the opposite of what I wanted – it was stifling, expensive, inefficient, and unnecessary.
After some contemplation, like nearly a year’s worth, I finally made the decision to sell the car that had no name. I got about half of what I paid for it six years ago and I put every penny into a huge lump sum mortgage payment. I will save $90 a month in insurance and $45 in gas. That adds up to saving $1620 a year.
This time there was no tinge of sadness as I watched the new owner drive away with my car. I will admit to a few moments of panic when I irrationally suspected that the bank draft he gave me was forged (it wasn’t) — but no sadness. It was more a feeling of relief, like my life had just become simpler.
The best part about having one car less is that in many instances it eliminates choice. I can no longer choose between bike and car, my only option is bike. It’s no longer possible to cop out and resort to the ‘easier, faster’ option (although that is mostly a fallacy) of driving. It’s odd how I feel the same sense of freedom now that I did 15 years ago when I bought that first car.
While we are not car-free we are one car less. It will require some creative planning from time to time but for the most part I don’t think we’ll notice the difference. Unless you count less time sitting in traffic, more time outside on our bikes and more money in the bank. We might notice that.