My favourite coffee shop has recently changed hands, sold to a young man named Jon who has worked there for a while. Yesterday, while sipping my latte and working on a post, I found out that he doesn’t own a car. I’m embarrassed by my own disbelief.
“But how do you do your grocery shopping?” I spluttered.
“Bike,” he replied. “People probably think I’m crazy, but I’ve got saddle bags for carrying everything I need.”
My jaw almost hit the floor. The reason this was so surprising to me is because we live in southwestern Ontario where towns are spread out and far apart. It’s normal to drive a half hour between towns without seeing anything except small farms and lots of cows dotting the countryside. There is no public transportation except for a daily bus that leaves at 7 a.m. going to Toronto. The nearest Greyhound bus station is in Owen Sound, forty minutes to the north. Sometimes it feels like I live in the middle of nowhere. Cars, I’ve always assumed, are an absolute necessity for living here. In fact, I went from being a sworn carless urban-dweller to buying one within three months of moving here because I couldn’t stand not being to get anywhere. It’s easy not to have a car in the city, but it’s another kettle of fish here in the boonies.
And yet, in one fell swoop, Jon showed me how flawed my assumptions have been. This guy, I realized with a jolt, has a totally different perception of distance than I do because mine has been warped by car-dependency. It must be possible to live without a car in a small town in Ontario, because he does it. Not only that, but he said he thinks nothing of hopping on his bike and riding to and from Kincardine for a coffee — nearly 40 kilometres. I know that’s not a particularly long distance for people who do a lot of road biking, but that’s just for sport and exercise. Imagine it being your only means of transportation and you had to use a bicycle to get to that coffee in Kincardine. Suddenly looks pretty different, eh?
Perceptions of distance are interesting. My uncle Harold does a lot of walking and spends every April traversing the south of France on ancient footpaths that were established by peasants back in the days before vehicles. He lives in the Niagara region and, like Jon, thinks nothing of taking an entire day to walk for 8-10 hours across the peninsula for dinner, returning home the next day. My aunt walks 7 km each way to work. Uncle Harold has told me that North Americans have a skewed concept of distance and a perverse reliance on cars. If we’d only take the time and make the effort to walk, we’d be surprised at how many places are accessible to us.
Realistically, I can’t do my family’s grocery shopping on a bicycle, though I guess I would if I had no choice. While I’m not considering giving up my car, I am inspired by Jon’s lifestyle to rethink distances in my life. I don’t want to be so quick to assume a place is too far to walk to, such as the grocery store, if I need to do an emergency run for milk. I usually always drive to the store, but realistically, it’s probably only a 15-minute walk each way. Why would I not do that? As my kids grow older, that will help, too. Right now they walk soooo slowly!
I have to say, while Jon’s announcement made me feel a bit like an inferior, negligent, gas-guzzling human, it was also terribly exciting to meet someone who actually lives without a car in a rural environment. I didn’t know people like that still existed. It’s refreshing, not to mention hopeful for a future that is likely going to force us to change our perceptions of distance, like it or not. Jon could probably teach us a lot.