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I Love Transit Week 2010: Briana Tomkinson on resisting the call of the car

The SkyTrain crosses the SkyBridge from New Westminster to Surrey.

It’s I Love Transit Week from July 12-16 — because even though there’s things we don’t like about transit, there’s much we do like! All week I’ll be sharing essays, stories, and more to celebrate transit. Come to I Love Transit Night on Thursday July 15 too – full details here!

In this essay, Briana Tomkinson, co-founder of New Westminster blog Tenth to the Fraser, reflects on how transit has shaped her life so far as she comes to a new milestone: getting a driver’s license for the very first time. (This post is cross-posted over at Tenth to the Fraser — make sure you enter their I Love Transit contest!)

Odysseus stopped up his ears with beeswax because he knew he alone would not have the strength to withstand the lure of the sirens’ call. I did the modern green equivalent. 

I never intended not to get my driver’s license. When I was eight years old, my mother bought a new Honda, and I remember asking her to hold on to our old car for me, so that I would have my own car to drive when I turned 16. I remember counting down to the magic day when I’d be allowed to get my driver’s license. But a funny thing happened when I finally did turn 16. Life got busy, and I put off writing my learner’s test. Then, at some point after that, my environmental conscience became activated. Suddenly not driving became a point of pride. 

Thirteen years later, as I come up on my 29th birthday, it looks like I will finally submit to the pressures of my husband, mother, friends and countless busybodies who have nagged me over the years to get my license. It has irked me that people count it as a deficiency not to drive. While there are times when it certainly would have been more convenient for me to drive, in my mind the karmic debt of adding to the plague of single occupant vehicles in the Lower Mainland outweighed the occasional frustrations. Now, with two kids and an increasingly complicated schedule of to-ing and fro-ing, I am forced to admit that the convenience of driving is sometimes a necessity, and that it is unfair for my husband to always play chauffeur. 

Guiltily, I am looking forward to having the freedom to go alone to places not well served by transit. I imagine gaily whisking my children off at the spur of the moment to do wild and wonderful things, singing happy road songs and stopping at a drive-through for cheeky treats along the way. But at the same time, I am fearful of giving in to this perception of ease, forgetting that there is a cost beyond the total at the pump and taking the car for granted. 

I’m afraid that freed of my self-imposed limits, I will turn into the kind of lumpen lazybones that drives to the corner store. I get little exercise as it is. I don’t see the sense in driving to the gym so I can spend time on a treadmill when I could be walking my children to Moody Park Pool or muscling the stroller up and down hills to the SkyTrain station. As satisfying as those walks can be, I know if I had the choice to take the car, I would. It’s just too easy to indulge.

Taking transit encourages frugal trip planning. If I couldn’t bus there, I simply didn’t go. I lived only in walkable neighbourhoods. I applied for jobs only on major transit routes. I would plan to complete multiple errands per trip, and challenged myself to use only one bus ticket per trip whenever possible. In a car, the incremental cost of gas isn’t enough of a disincentive to really change transportation behaviour. But even an extra 15 minutes by bus can seem too much to bother. To some people, this might sound a bit masochistic, but it’s no different than a shopaholic freezing credit cards in ice. Sometimes it hurts, but I am convinced that taking the bus is good for me. 

And this is (partially) what brought me to New Westminster. When the cost of an extra bedroom priced my husband and I out of the rental market in downtown Vancouver, our relocation choices were limited somewhat by my reliance on public transportation. New Westminster, nexus of the Lower Mainland, was the next best thing to downtown for easy access to the places I needed to go. I miss walking to work, but in a city of just six square miles, I can walk almost anywhere I want to go (though here it really can be uphill both ways!). And yet there are five SkyTrain stations and buses every 15 minutes or less to all the main commercial districts. The commuting time to Vancouver is the same or faster by SkyTrain than by car at rush hour – and I can relax by reading or playing Bejeweled at the same time. 

I really do love transit. What can I say? I like to cheer for the underdog. I don’t think people give public transportation the credit (and funding) it’s due. I consider doing without a private vehicle a public good. I am hoping that the 13 years I spent doing without will help fortify me against the lure of easy driving. I may have to swallow my pride and drive the damn car, but I hope I will continue to enjoy my transportation diet of buses, SkyTrains and my own two feet.

Thanks so much, Briana!


  • By Cliff, July 15, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    In an ideal world we would only use our vehicles when transit isn’t readily available. Right now, this is almost a reality for Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster.

    The problem is that transit is being promoted to all the wrong groups. Someone in Langley can’t honestly be expected to use transit to get to their jobs in Abbotsford, White Rock, or Ladner. Some of the buses out there only make several trips a day. Punishing those people because they refuse to take advantage of it is the wrong way to go about it. Transit is great, but only if you live north of the Fraser.

    What should really be getting pushed are things like ride sharing, carpooling, and park and rides. Such solutions are cheap and easy to implement. Want to see how determined drivers south of the Fraser are to keep their vehicles? When the new Port Mann Bridge is open and it costs $10 a day to get to and from Vancouver, they will STILL drive out there.

    So while the author of this essay believes that they are putting forth a valiant fight by not using transit, they’ve never had to live south of the Fraser. Thoughts of “saving the environment” go right out the window when you need to do a week’s worth of shopping and the grocer is 5km away and transit is either non existent or limited for the trip.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, July 15, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    Cliff: Well yes, you’re right of course about transit access being far different south of the Fraser, and how not everyone has the same transportation choices across the region. But I think we should bear in mind that this is a personal essay and really just reflects one person’s struggle with their car use, based out of New Westminster. Though point well taken than it is not necessarily everyone’s situation.

  • By Tim, July 15, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    But if you live closer to the grocery store than 5 km you may want to consider getting some good side bags for you bike and maybe a small backpack and doing your grocery shopping a couple of times a week by bike. Most people wouldn’t do that but it isn’t too bad!

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