For a long time, Mel Marginet’s car sat in her driveway, unused.
She had started biking and taking the bus to work, and was making a conscious effort to be an active commuter.
"I knew the heavy environmental impact driving a car as your primary mode of transportation has, and I knew (Manitoba) had a really high rate of people driving alone," says Marginet, who now, fittingly, works in workplace commuter options at Green Action Centre. "To me, you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. I didn’t want to be a person who complained about things, then did nothing."
And so, two years ago she got rid of her car.
Marginet is part of a small but growing segment of Winnipeggers who are ditching their cars — a move that might seem incongruous or even illogical, depending on who you ask. Winnipeg, after all, is a city built for cars. Many people can’t imagine living here without one. Some might be able to picture a car-fee life during those days when the bus-scheduling gods have smiled down upon us and everything is running on time, or during an idyllic summertime bike commute under the city’s sun-dappled elm canopies. But when it’s February and freezing, busing seems unappealing and biking seems "extreme," to borrow a word from Coun. Jeff Browaty.
Marginet, who’s in her 30s, felt similarly once upon a time. "I thought people who biked in the city were crazy," she says with a laugh. The more she did it, though, the easier it became. "I actually found owning a car more stressful," she says. "I always had to be concerned about finding a parking space, whether it would start or not, shovelling out the drive or, ‘Am I going to get stuck in the backlane?’"
She’s seen other positive upshots to active commuting, too. "I haven’t had a gym membership since I’ve started commuting by bike," she says. "If I had to go to a gym to put in those kilometres, I wouldn’t have time." She’s saved a pile of money, too.
But her biggest motivator is the environment. Transportation makes up the biggest piece of our province’s carbon footprint pie, and she wanted to do her part by reducing hers. Active transportation, she points out, does not have to be all-or-none. It is also possible to develop a transportation plan, as Marginet has, that incorporates biking, Winnipeg Transit and, yes, even driving.
"Peg City Car Co-op was the final push for me to get rid of my car," Marginet says. "There’s always those trips where you have to have a car in Winnipeg; getting big, heavy bulky shopping done, or there’s just parts of town that are impossible to get to."
Peg City Car Co-Op is Winnipeg’s only car-sharing program. Through a membership, people access to a car when they need it. When Peg City launched in 2011, it had three vehicles; it has since grown to 33 vehicles, and 1,200 members.
"In the past 12 months, we’ve seen a growth in our fleet and membership of 30 per cent, and we’re continuing that trajectory," says Philip Mikulec, operations manager at Peg City Co-op.
"Besides the laudable environmental goals, people who are joining car-sharing are largely doing it for economic reasons. This speaks to the change in the way people use our service and the kind of demand we’re seeing in our fleet. As we mature, we’re seeing more and more people joining because I think they see the economic benefits to themselves of not owning a car and having a reliable service they can use."
So who uses car-sharing? At first, Peg City’s membership base was mostly the early adopters, or "avid non-car owners." As the idea of a car co-op has become more accepted and mainstream, that base has widened to include people from a wide cross-section of socio-economic backgrounds. Based on Peg City’s data, the co-op’s core membership is made up of young, highly educated professionals who live in six-figure households. They tend to live and work either downtown or in the Exchange District. "They’d rather not spend $300 a month on parking alone," Mikulec says.
Car-share users tend to be under 40, and generally have no children or one child. "The whole industry is trying to figure out how to do better on dealing with the child gap in car-sharing," Mikulec says. "There are people who like the service, but they find there are a lot of barriers, especially if they have a child who still uses a car seat or booster seat."
Car-sharing doesn’t just help reduce household budgets by lessening the financial burden of car ownership. It also helps reduce carbon footprints. Carshare vehicles tend to be newer, more efficient and better maintained. Mikulec says industry data show that for every car-share vehicle put on the road, 10 to 15 vehicles are shed.
Mikulec believes Winnipeg has the potential to become a 100 to 200-car sharing city.
Even avid drivers are coming around on the idea of car-sharing. "We’re still speaking the same language — it’s about cars," Mikulec says. "Many people who are avid car owners have positive attitudes toward what we’re doing. There isn’t a sense of getting their back up over what we’re doing."
And then there are people such as Tim Brandt, who hasn’t driven in 18 years. He’s a year-round cyclist, and happier for it. His wife still drives, but the couple no longer owns a car. He’s a vocal advocate for car-free living; he also appears in Winnipeggers Janine Tschuncky and Kenneth George Godwin’s documentary on this subject called, Carfree: Stories from the Non-Driving Life.
Brandt, who’s in his 60s, used to drive — and professionally at that. "I owned cars, I drove a taxi in the ‘80s, I drove a courier car. It was through reading and more and more interest in environmental issues that I weaned myself off cars."
Brandt biked to school with his son throughout elementary school; when he got older, they took bike trips together. He got involved in local cycling culture, participating in Critical Mass rides. "I was older than a lot of the riders but I made a lot of friends." He started organizing car-free events, and found it empowering. He says he hasn’t experienced a lot of animosity between himself and motorists.
As he fell in love with biking, he fell out of love with driving. Katie Alvord’s 2000 book, Divorce your Car! Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile, was "a real eye opener" for him. Brandt’s main motivation for living car-free is the environment. He’s concerned about society’s reliance on cars, and car culture’s environmental impact.
Making space for other modes of transportation in our car-forward city requires a shift in thinking and priorities by individuals as well as those who make decisions for our city.
"I have really mixed feelings about actually building infrastructure for cycling, lanes and stuff," Brandt says. "My No. 1 wish would be to lower speed limits for cars just to make it safer for everyone — not just cyclists but pedestrians and motorists too. I feel lowering speed limits would do a world of good and make it easier for cars and bikes to get along. But I know that’s a tough hill. I also think that change has to happen to help wean people off their cars, to show them they can’t just speed around all the time."
"My wish would be that for every infrastructure project the city does, they place priority on the health, safety and comfort of people who are walking, biking, or using Transit ahead of personal vehicles," Marginet says. "Right now, we place the convenience of personal vehicles first and everything else is just an afterthought."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.