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Traffic moves along West Georgia Street in downtown Vancouver June 4, 2008. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)
Traffic moves along West Georgia Street in downtown Vancouver June 4, 2008. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

Car Free Day in Vancouver is anything but Add to ...

The epiphany came after driving ever-growing concentric circles around my house looking for a parking space last weekend. I said this out loud, to no one at all: “Okay, Gregor, you win.”

While Main Street and Commercial Drive may be car-free on the day specifically designed to further embarrass and vilify owners of personal vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, on the surrounding streets it’s anything but car-free.

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I can’t speak to what happened in the West End or Kitsilano – I was nowhere near there. But I imagine that anyone dumb enough to give up their on-street parking space that day experienced much the same thing.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of Car Free Day – the day when pedestrians take over an otherwise perfectly functional and vital arterial route and are typically rewarded with clouds of grilled meat smoke, cheap retail items pushed out onto the sidewalk, and the 9/11 truthers’ tent.

Here’s the thing: People drive their cars to Car Free Day and, like less observant Jews on the High Holidays, park a few blocks away from the synagogue so they can be seen to be walking.

The epiphany did not arrive, as it should have by definition, as a flash or a bolt; instead, it crept up on me as resignation – the cumulative weight of all the petty frustrations that I have felt on those occasions when I have no choice but to drive a car.

Admitting that Mayor Gregor Robertson has won is an admission that driving a car is now my very last option when it comes to getting where I need to go in this city.

I am very fortunate in that I have many transportation options. It’s one of the advantages of living in the city proper, and one of the tradeoffs of carrying a soul-crushing mortgage and being condemned to a tiny half-a-house in East Vancouver.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nowhere I would rather live.

Just six blocks away there is the SkyTrain, which will whisk me to work in seven or eight minutes, if I am willing to fight my way on to the crowded car and be breathed upon, pressed up against and generally annoyed by everyone around me – and their phones.

I could ride a bicycle, which requires some degree of planning and effort and depends largely upon the weather, how much stuff I have to carry, and what my post-work obligations might be.

I can walk – which is what I most often do. A brisk pace will get me downtown in 50 minutes. I get to wind my way through the tree-lined streets of Strathcona and arrive at conclusions about why the lives of the people who live in these houses are so much more interesting than my own.

But driving a car is the last option, except on the days when I know I’m going to need a car to shuttle kids across town, either before or after work.

Given the distance, it should be an easy 10-minute drive. But inevitably traffic grinds to a halt halfway across the Dunsmuir Viaduct, where I am left to admire banners celebrating the Vancouver Canucks, or comforted on dark mornings by Bob Rennie’s assurance that “Everything Is Going To Be Alright.”

The bottleneck is in part the result of the bike lanes the city installed four years ago as a six-month demonstration project. That’s not the beginning of an anti-bike lane rant – it’s a fact. Dunsmuir Street used to work for cars. It no longer does.

Up until a couple of months ago, if I could see that the viaduct was backed up, I was able to avoid it altogether, opting instead for the low road – Pacific Boulevard. That option disappeared with improvements made to the Union Street bike route.

They’ve even taken away the advanced left-turn signal at Commercial and Venables – the last remaining blink of recognition that people who drive cars, as heinous as they may be, are still people.

So yes, Gregor, you’ve won.

My happiness is now measured by the number of days I am able to leave the car in front of the house and the layers of bird droppings and tree sap that adorn it.

There are still those obligations that demand I drive, but I’ve signed up for a car-share and soon the kids will be old enough to ride transit by themselves.

I’m getting my bike tuned up so the tires don’t need to be pumped up before every ride, and I’m counting the days until you knock down the viaducts.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn

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