Once a car owner, always a car owner?
A car-less friend recently posed the question, and it prompted me to think more deeply about a life-long commitment to owning a vehicle.
I purchased my first car, a 1997 Ford Escort, two years ago. An astounding amount of freedom accompanies initial ownership, even with a beater like mine. Visiting a friend on a whim, cross-country road trips, even grocery shopping are entirely different prospects. Though the novelty has worn off, I can't imagine living without a car. My desire to remain in the driver's seat persists beyond the cost of repairs, insurance and fuel, or the ride-mooching friends and environmental concerns.
It appears this sentiment reflects a national trend. Since 1956, the number of registered vehicles in Canada has increased more rapidly than the population. The initial wave of adoption ebbed toward the end of the 1970s but the number of cars per person has continued to grow. We own more cars than ever before.
Canada is, of course, a geographically large country with a widely distributed population and expansive highway and road infrastructure. There are often no reasonable alternatives to having a car if, for example, you live in a rural area, work somewhere that’s inaccessible by transit, or have to take care of a dependent's transportation needs. A 2009 study in The Economist found that Canada placed fifth internationally for number of cars per thousand people, with 560.
In some ways, it's surprising that we continue to demand cars at such a rate. There are ample deterrents to ownership that go beyond financial burdens. Canada is becoming increasingly urban and big cities are the one place where people really don't need cars. There’s always room for improvement, but Canadian cities generally have sufficient transit infrastructure. Car share operations such as Car2Go are gaining momentum. And for many people, environmental impact is a deterrent to car use and ownership.
How far will we go to maintain the freedom and independence attained by possessing a vehicle? What is it worth to us?
In 2011, households spent an average of $11,229 for all transportation costs, according to Statistics Canada. This spending consisted of $10,152 for private transportation (purchases of cars, trucks and vans, and their operating costs), and $1,077 for public transportation (taxis, air fares, inter-city buses and trains). The average, after-tax income of a Canadian household in 2011 was $79,600. This means a family is working for a month and a half in order to have a car.
I've worked substantially longer than a month and a half to pay for mine and I don't plan to give it up any time soon. I'm hoping the cost per month will continue to decline as I've only had the vehicle for two years. It seems like a pretty irrational way to think about car ownership.
I bought a car because I wanted to get to places that are unreachable by bus or bicycle: canoeing destinations, provincial parks, the mountains. These are things I want to do, but I certainly don't need to. What is it about the sensation of having a vehicle that is so compelling? Anyone who has ever had to persuade a parent or grandparent that it is time to give up their car can attest to the value attached to ownership and driving.
I could get by without one, the way I did for my first 10 years of driving eligibility. Many activities would be less convenient, and they would require more planning, more time on Greyhound and city buses, and more borrowing from friends and family. I would take fewer trips, and I wouldn't able to get around as easily, or help others move, or take trips to places far from transit.
Owning an automobile – however second-rate – has given me a sense of freedom and independence. I feel empowered as I find myself more often at the helm of my own destiny, and I won't go without one unless it becomes shockingly unreasonable to do so.
Drew Copeland, 27, is a geography and political science graduate at Guelph University. He has guided canoeing trips in the Northwest Territories, taught in Costa Rica, and worked at a lodge in Yoho National Park. He resides in Guelph, Ont.
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