Car-free in River City (Part 2, How)

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You know him as “alley guy”. I know him as, uh, me.

How do we, a family of two adults and two children, 5 and 7, live without a vehicle in Edmonton, Alberta?

Location

I discussed my family’s choice of neighbourhoods in this post about our house in Mill Creek. It is virtually impossible to live in the new suburbs without a car. The ‘burbs were created with the “certainty” that cheap gasoline would last forever. They were designed around the car, which means that they were explicitly built without humans in mind.

We chose to live somewhere north of 51st Ave., south of roughly 118th Ave., east of 149th Street and west of 60th Street or so. There may some gem of a neighbourhood outside of those boundaries that I don’t know about. Please let me know about this unicorn breeding ground if it exists.

So location is a deal breaker, and of course it’s where the denial kicks in hard. Edmontonians look at the cheap houses in Rutherford Heights and start making their list of reasons to live in empty, soulless neighbourhoods. They choose to ignore the basic reality that oil is finite, and that some day they will be priced out of the drive-everywhere-you-go market.

If you manage to keep a clear head about you, a car-free-possible house/apartment has the following features:

  • A bus stop within two blocks that has at least two route numbers on the sign. Our bus stop has seven bus routes. We get annoyed if we wait two minutes for a bus during peak hours.
  • A grocery store within a few blocks. We have two small stores within four blocks, and a Save-On foods within eight blocks.
  • A farmer’s market within walking distance. Yes, we are modern-day hippies.
  • Restaurants, a community garden, a library, medical offices, and a bank, all within walking distance.
  • A job or two, that someone in your household works at, within 35 minutes bike ride and 40 minutes on the bus.

Renting

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Not owning a car isn’t the same as never driving a car. A half-dozen times a year, we rent a car for one or two weekend days. It’s incredibly cheap to rent cars on the weekend, presumably because the rental companies make most of their money on corporate clients, and therefore have a surplus of cars sitting around on non-business days.

We rent for $10-$30 per day. $10/day gets you 50 km of mileage, $20-$30 is usually unlimited km.  read more... »

Car-free in River City (Part 1)

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It’s been four years since we sold our last remaining vehicle.

We did it primarily for environmental reasons. I know, I know, making choices based on morality is boring and irrelevant these days. Convenience and “luxury living” are kings. Regardless of the trend, we felt deep concern about the unfolding environmental crises, and we were willing to make changes to our lifestyle to reduce our share of the damage. And let’s get real, the single most destructive thing that humans do is buy, drive, and maintain private vehicles.

So we got real. We sold the old van and waited for the impending doom that must certainly accompany our decision. We have been amazed at the results.

Limits

Four years on, we are thrilled with our decision to break the shackles of car prison. My car-free friend Wendy Allsop, a big inspiration for our decision, said it well in this Edmonton Journal article:

“There is this image of these overburdened granola-eaters making all these difficult choices that make their lives so much work. That’s not a correct view. It’s much more freeing and lighter than people could ever imagine….There are so many things we do because it’s available to us and, as humans, we’re not good at putting restrictions on our own activities. Not having a car is one way of having an extra boundary put on your lives that makes you live better.”

She’s talking about limits, of course. Throughout the industrial revolution we have strived to break through more and more of the limits that energy constraints imposed on us. Now we are experiencing the downsides of having so few limits. The physical and monetary downsides are obvious, but the lifestyle ones are tougher to pin down.

The “limit” of not having a car makes our lives better in these ways:

  • 90% fewer minutes sitting at traffic lights and in traffic. Less dead time.
  • A slower life. This one is huge. It’s super-easy to say no to that event or activity halfway across the city that might be 4% better than the one three blocks from our house.
  • No more “what’s that sound” sinking feeling. You know, the one where your car is trying to tell you that it’s time to open your wallet again.
  • No more car accidents. We’ve all been in one right? Did it make your day better? More convenient? Did you get where you were going really fast?
  • More bike time. We love to ride our bikes. You used to when you were 11. What happened?
  • More time of all sorts. If you convert your time to money, and consider that it costs roughly $7000/year to run a car, we save a huge amount of time by not having one.

Our life is better without a car than with one.

Next post, I’ll write about some of the tricks we’ve learned on how to live car-free.

Planting Grass (or, Just Say No To Sod)

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We decided to add a patch of grass to the Mill Creek NetZero Home’s yard. Although xeriscaping has become popular among Edmonton homeowners who don’t want to do any yard work (shouldn’t they really just buy condos?), there’s a problem with it: it can be ugly and uninviting. Too often, it involves yards full of itchy scratchy rocks:

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Anyone feel like sitting down and having a picnic?

Grass has its place, and it can have a minimal impact while at the same time providing an inviting space to sit and/or play soccer.

(Not) Watering

I have never watered an established piece of grass turf. Not watering is the key to grass being a benign, easy-to-care-for piece of a yard. When it’s dry in Edmonton, I just let the grass go brown. Of course, this is easier in my neighbourhood than in most. You see, we’re dirty hippies in Mill Creek. We elect communist politicians, and we care more about how much food you grow in your yard than how immaculate your monoculture front lawn is. That said, I would take the same stand anywhere. Grass is not a good enough reason to use up drinking water.

I have also never fertilized grass. If you really want a yard to be a lot of work, fertilize and water your grass often.

Planting Grass (Just Say No To Sod)

The two major ways in which we "greened" our little patch of grass was to plant it from seed, and to choose a drought-resistant variety.

Sod production uses a lot of chemicals and a lot of diesel fuel. It then uses more diesel to transport the pieces of sod to your yard.

Instead of phoning the sod guy, I picked up a bag of Scotts Pure Premium Heat & Drought Grass Seed Mix from Home Depot for $17. Containing "varieties of Chewing Fescue, Creeping Red Fescue, Kentucky Bluegrass and turf-type Perennial Ryegrass", it will look and feel better than regular grass on the rain-only diet that I intend to feed it.

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I seeded the grass in early spring following the instructions from one of the many grass seeding videos on Youtube. I did ignore the boilerplate advice to fertilize the soil before seeding. Grass will grow just fine without ever being fertilized. The city has great advice on grass' ongoing maintainenance.

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We're happy with how our grass turned out. The kids will finally have a place to play soccer, and the cheapskate in me is enthused that we only spent a few bucks to get it.

Landscaping - Sidewalks, etc.

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(Mill Creek NetZero House backyard)

Ron Berezan of Urban Farmer fame designed and constructed our yard. He thoughtfully helped us create a beautiful space with as little environmental impact as possible (I’ll discuss the permaculture aspects of the design in a future post).

We wanted a sitting place in the yard, as well as paths, sidewalks, and a large window well to let sunlight into the basement. We also wanted to minimize the use of concrete in the yard. Concrete has a huge carbon footprint, and is rarely reusable (it can be recycled, but only with a major downgrade in utility – it basically becomes gravel).

To achieve our goals, we used paving stones, reused sidewalk blocks, reused bricks, field stones and wood chip mulch.

Paving Stones and Reused Sidewalk Blocks

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(sidewalk blocks and red paving stone sidewalk, Mill Creek NetZero Home)

We used sidewalk blocks that I salvaged from the yard (before we built the house) in combination with red paving stone to create our outdoor patio and sidewalks. The humble sidewalk block has a lot of potential to save concrete in Edmonton. It is found piled up in back alleys across the city in virtually the same shape as when installed in the 60s and 70s.

We chose paving stones for the front sidewalks as well. Although they are very energy-intensive to produce, they are extremely durable, and they retain their value as a reusable product for many years. A properly-made paver can be pulled up and installed elsewhere 50 years after it was first installed, and still look and act as good as new.

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(paving stone sidewalks, Mill Creek NetZero Home front yard)

Actually, if we had known how well the sidewalk blocks would work, we would have used them in the front yard as well.

Field Stones

To build a retaining wall and a window well, we chose to use field stones.  read more... »