Two kids, 291 kilometres, one week, NO CAR
The challenges of the Commuter Challenge in five acts
Before daybreak on Monday, I lie awake listening to thunder and lightning. It isn’t just the weather that worries me. Both girls have dental appointments on Woodroffe Avenue, out past Algonquin College. We live in Westboro. I’ve studied the OC Transpo maps and online trip planner, but I can’t figure out how to get both girls to school (my daughter’s French he Frog was right: it ain’t easy being green. Especially when you have to ferry your kids to school, soccer, language class, gymnastics, dentists’ and doctors’ appointments. Nevertheless, in a crazed moment, we decided we’d park our car last week as part of Ottawa’s Commuter Challenge and tackle the stuff of everyday life using only our feet, our bikes (including one attached to a child’s tag-along) and — horror of horrors — the bus.
My spousal unit has said that spotting me on the bus would be as rare as spotting Bigfoot in the wild. But instead of leaving a trail of a Sasquatch-sized tracks, we were hoping — at least for one week — to leave behind only a kitten-sized carbon footprint.
We’re a one-car family. In any given week, we cover about 350 kilometres in our car. We realized traversing this same distance with alternative forms of transportation would be tough, even if the ultrafit cycle repair shop dude, who replaced my husband’s bent wheel on Day 3, scoffed at our so-called challenge. But to us, it was an epic-sized task, best told in five acts.
Act 1: Can we make it to the dentist at Hunt Club Road and do the kids have to play hooky from school to do so?
Act 2: Will the sting of ice pellets in June force us into a taxi?
Act 3: How will we place in The Tour de Frustration? Eighty-seven kilometres of craziness, one broken wheel and a huge wad of gum on my shoe.
Act 4: Another tire change? Are our kids slashing our tires to stop this nonsense?
Act 5. What happens when Lance Armstrong meets David Suzuki in a dark alley? ACT 2
On Tuesday, another biblical downpour is forecast. The spousal unit stashes the fine threads in the panier, opting to ride to the office in swim trunks, a quick-dry T-shirt and sandals.
I only work part time, so my day is dedi- immersion school is a brisk 45-minute walk), go away for awhile, return to both schools — which are not linked by a direct bus route — get them to the dentist for 11:40 a.m., and then get them back to their schools again, only to pick them up in two hours to go home. I select a plan that calls for 10 buses — I’m not kidding. Hence the predawn insomnia. In the morning, I call an audible. Instead of the multiple bus trips, I announce that the girls will skip school and we’ll take one bus to the dentist and one bus back. The girls don’t cheer. They like school. The whole concept of a commuter challenge is educational enough, I figure, to warrant skipping class.
Minus any side trips, it’s an easy journey. Despite the downpour, we take our time walking to the bus stop, counting worms in puddles and twirling our umbrellas in the wind. Still, I feel we’ve failed on our first day. Missing school to go to the dentist seems lame. I wonder if selecting a dentist closer to home might have helped.
When you have a car, you rarely make such choices. But taking the bus isn’t the problem, it is the location of my eldest daughter’s school. And the fact my daughters aren’t yet in the same school. In the end, what would have taken 90 minutes by car takes 3.5 hours by bus.
My husband’s day also doesn’t go smoothly. He puts on rain pants, a nylon cover over his helmet and a cycling jacket that he wrongly believed is waterproof. Nine kilometres and 35 minutes later, he arrives at the office bone-soaked and miserable, vowing to call off the challenge and take a cab home to change. Mens’ office wear does not do well in the rain. His white dress shirt and pants are blotched with alarming watermarks and his necktie drips on his keyboard. The way home is equally water-logged. cated to a medical appointment to which I would typically have driven my car. After hiking up the hill to my daughter’s kindergarten (three kilometres, return trip), I focus on getting to the old Riverside Hospital, where my doctor is located.
I’m liking the bus so far. Being near the Transitway means I actually get places much quicker and more directly than I imagined. While the price of the bus is steep — $3 one way if you don’t have bus tickets or a bus pass — I didn’t have to pay $13 to park.
Later in the day, however, struggling home with six bags of groceries, icy wind whipping in our faces, I miss the convenience of our car. My four-year-old daughter whimpers. I whimper. We have two kilometres to walk. My pioneering spirit from two days earlier is gone. As a taxi approaches and slows, my eyes meet those of the driver. He nods an invitation. I hesitate. It would be so easy to end this nonsense, flag him down. Only the weight of my grocery bags keeps my arm down.
After supper, the spousal unit and I decide to catch
Knocked Up at the Coliseum. My father-in-law arrives to babysit 45 minutes before the movie is to start. It’s going to be tight. We sprint to the Transitway, a 14-minute walk takes us five minutes. We take the 97 and then the 85, and make it to the theatre in just 25 minutes. (It would have taken us 10 minutes by car.) One problem: The lineup for the movie is out the door. We hadn’t anticipated it was cheap Tuesdays. The guy in front of us gets the last tickets. We get stuck at a serial-killer flick that makes me scared to walk home in the dark. ACT 3 The Tour de Frustration. 8:05 a.m. Wednesday I bike Daughter No. 1 to school along the river-side bike paths, then pedal to work, covering about nine kilometres. My spousal unit bikes Daughter No. 2 — on a tag-along attached to the back of his bike — to her kindergarten, then races downtown to shoot a video for the series he is writing on parking tickets, before racking and riding to the Citizen for a total of 22 kilometres. En route to the paper, he notices his tire is damaged from the Rack-and-Ride. This is the good part of the day.
3:50 p.m. I leave the Citizen and pedal to my eldest daughter’s school, pick her up and we head to her gymnastics club. I have a meeting with her coach. We chain our bikes, duck into the change room to put on dress clothes and stash our biking gear and my daughter’s book bag in her locker.
5 p.m. We walk to the Westboro Transit Station, hop on a 95 to head to the Chinese Embassy for an International Children’s Day celebration.
5:05 p.m. The spousal unit leaves work to pick up Daughter No. 2 from the kindergarten after-school program. He has 45 minutes to get home, shovel some K-Dinner into her, and get to soccer.
5.25 p.m. We can’t find Bus No. 1 because of Bank Street construction. We walk from Bank and Slater to the Rideau Street bus mall. A drunk man approaches us no less than five times to demand cigarettes, money, a lighter, food, a drink of our water. I’m rooted to my spot by a wad of gum.
6:10 p.m. The Chinese ambassador shakes hands at the door. I deek around him. My hands are covered in bike grease.
6:15 p.m. Husband and Daughter No. 2 set out again, this time with lawn chair attached by bungee cord to the tag-along. This is a mistake. They stop at Mountain Equipment Co-op to purchase a spoke wrench and get a 30-second lesson in wheel repair.
6:30 p.m. Dad doesn’t watch the soccer but instead tries to fix his wheel, which he makes considerably worse.
7:45 p.m. Although I won’t find out until later, they arrive at Bushtukah, where they are told there is a one-week wait for bike repairs. Dad pleads Commuter Challenge, explaining we are trying to live without a car for one week. The young bike dudes, who probably ride 500 kilometres with ease, are nonplussed. “Should be easy,” one says.
Daughter No. 2, wearing a Kazoo helmet and full soccer kit, pipes up, “We are not using our car for this many sleeps” (she holds up five fingers and a thumb on the other hand). They’re sold. The mechanic takes 40 minutes to put on a new wheel. He forgets to put on the Chariot attachment, so there is further delay. One hour and $77 later, they are back on the road. It’s well past bedtime.
8 p.m. I call home repeatedly. I have no idea where the other half of my family is.
8:23 p.m. We leave the embassy. Having had such good luck with the Transitway, I forget connector buses don’t come every five minutes. We walk through the Byward Market, passing half-naked drunk girls with Senators emblems painted on their faces. We flag down a No. 3, get off at Albert Street and grab the 95 home. There is still no answer at home. Daughter No. 1 and I have to get back to the gym by 9 p.m. to pick up her school book bag and our clothes.
9:05 p.m. We burst out of the Westboro Transit Station ready to run to the gym. The streets are empty because all of Ottawa is bunkered, watching the Sens game. Looking down Scott Street, I see a man who seems to be carrying something large on his bike. A lawn chair? It takes a few seconds to realize it’s the other half of my family peddling up the road.
9:06 p.m. All four of us stand in front of the Westboro station bewildered to have found each other. Daughter No. 1 replaces her sister on the tag-along and she races up the street with her dad to rescue her school bag. We follow on foot, unlock the bikes and head home.
9:38 p.m. My husband has to return to the Citizen to work on his series. It is dark, he is too exhausted to ride. He feels like a failure, but picks up the car keys and slips out.
2:30 a.m. He returns for four hours sleep.
It’s the bus for me today because I have another medical appointment. I wouldn’t have booked so many if I had known I wasn’t going to have a car. I rifle through our donation jar, which is getting low. Our foster kid in Africa will have to wait because we have to feed OC Transpo. I am incredibly tired and very hungry all of the time. Cars makes us incredibly lazy. If we dedicated some of the time we spent in the gym to commuting, we’d probably all be further ahead. It’s funny how you don’t notice people and neighbourhoods when you’re zipping along in the car. I have the time to look out the window and enjoy the city. Not for a moment do I forget that I’m in a position to choose bus and bike over car. Many people don’t have that luxury and the bus is filled with those people: students, recent immigrants, young families. Taking the bus reminds me of this.
But we’re feeling the stress of this challenge.
After dinner on Thursday night, the spousal unit prepares to again ride nine kilometres to work but finds the new tube on his new rim is inexplicably flat, less than 24 hours after its purchase. He attempts resuscitation with a pump but the patient is DOA. He borrows my bike for a quick trip to MEC. He returns, covered in chain grease, and attempts to install a new tube. When the old tire won’t come off, he finally snaps. A string of high-volume expletives erupts, alarming the neighbours and puzzling the children. We hide, giggling, upstairs. The rim is tossed across the living room in frustration several times before the new one is squeezed into place.
1:50 a.m. He returns from work for a few more hours of sleep.
Total kilometres: 61
We really do feel a bit like Lance Armstrong (only not dogged by a controversy over the use of performance enhancers) and a tad like David Suzuki (only less pedantic). The ride along the river with my daughter to school, and then work, is beautiful and warm. The sun shines and everything is green from the rain earlier in the week. We feel alive and would choose this over our car any day.
At lunch, my husband and I walk to a nearby restaurant and contemplate the coming weeks. Will we ride our bikes or buy a second car? After all, it ain’t easy being green. DENOUEMENT
We’ve always prided ourselves on only having one car. But it doesn’t matter, our entire lives are arranged around this one car. To wean ourselves, we would have to make major changes, in particular, move our daughter out of the rather distant public French-immersion school to the nearby English-only school. That would make the pickups easier and the logistics more manageable. This has been a strange week, too. The spousal unit usually doesn’t work in the middle of the night, nor do we frequent the Chinese Embassy. Rather than defeated, we’re enlivened. We resolve to keep it up as best we can for the rest of the summer. We’ll plan better, buy bus tickets instead of raiding the donation jar, know the schedules so we’re not trolling the Byward Market after dark. We’ll also buy our groceries and take them home in the child-carrier instead of dragging them by hand.
In all, we travelled 291 kilometres by alternative forms of transportation. Not bad for a week’s work.