Can You Opt out of the Canadian Car Culture?

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Canada and the US

Canada and the US

One of the most common questions prospective immigrants ask is: “Will I need a car in Canada?”

Short answer is, yes. Of course, this is not an absolute answer. A lot of people do get by without a car but really, whether you like it or not, having your own vehicle—and a driver’s license—will make your life in Canada much easier. Opting out of the car culture is something a lot of people wish they could do but it means making sacrifices and finding alternatives, which isn’t always convenient or possible.

Like in the US, Canada has a strong car culture. First, a lot of cities are very spread out and weren’t designed to be pedestrian-friendly. To get around, access to a car is often necessary, especially in the suburbs where shops may be a few kilometers away. Sure, you could walk. But picture yourself on a narrow badly-plowed sidewalk just a few meters from heavy traffic, in the middle of the winter, hauling your weekly grocery shopping back home—not a pleasant thought. Second, our winters are long and harsh and while driving in a blizzard isn’t exactly relaxing, it still beats walking around during a snowstorm.

Canadians like their cars, and the bigger the better although the trend is slowly changing due to higher gas prices (gas is currently around $1.20 per liter in Ottawa). These days, you can even see a lot more of those new smart cars, usually more fuel-efficient and city-friendly than massive gas-guzzler Hummer and other trucks people favoured just a few years ago.

You will also notice that Canadians do take care of their vehicle. They decorate it with bumper stickers, sometime splurge on a vanity plate, and take car maintenance seriously—check the lineup at Canadian Tire on any ay of the week!

Alternative modes of transportation, such as bicycling or relying on public transit, are always an option. In bigger cities, public transportation does exist and it’s not too bad—but not nearly as cheap and convenient as in many parts of the world. To give you an example, it takes me about fifteen minutes to drive from my place to Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The same trip by bus, including walking to the bus stop, takes between 40 minutes and an hour. As for bicycling, it’s not always as easy as it sound. Cities were designed for cars, not for pedestrians or bicycles, and bike lanes are not that common. Bicycling in the winter takes some time to get used to (and some serious gear).

Car sharing cooperatives or companies are also getting more popular. They offer access to a car when you need it, without the cost, hassles and pollution of ownership. You can rent a vehicle for just a few hours—perfect for an occasional user.

Carpooling is also an option, especially for popular commuting routes (for instance, to Kanata in Ottawa, where most IT companies have their headquarters) and between large cities (Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto in the region). You can check the “rideshare” section of classified websites such as Kijiji or Craiglist, but be ready to be flexible!

On the plus side, if you are not from a car culture country, note that:

  • Getting a driver’s license in Canada is relatively easy and cheap;
  • Gas prices are lower than in many parts of the world (although still higher than in the US);
  • Cars, new or used, are affordable;
  • Driving in Canada is fairly straightforward and the rules of the road and easy to learn.

So, will you need a car as a newcomer in Canada? Possibly not if you settle in a big city with a good public transit system, live close to work, don’t have kids and don’t plan to travel around too much. But really, as much as I hate to preach for the car culture (come on, I grew up in France getting around by tramway and on foot!), a vehicle will make your life much easier if you live in the suburb and want to travel easily.

Do you drive? Would you recommend newcomers to Canada to get a car?


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Back home in England I drove, however I don’t at the moment and it makes me feel just so isolated! I miss just being able to pop out to wherever I want to go. I think I will need to get a car as soon as I get a job!

  2. This brings back memories of waiting for the OC Transpo bus to get to work. I really think that Ottawa’s public transport is terrible, at least in the area where I lived it was. Sometimes I would wait for the bus and it would never come and I would have to phone my parents to drive me to work. Or 5 buses (the same route) would go by in the other direction while I waited for my seriously late bus.

    I have to say, from what I have seen and what I have heard from friends and family, it is even worse now. OC Transpo cut a lot of bus routes in my parents’ neighbourhood in the past few years. There is only one 86 that goes by my parents house every half hour during the day (more between 8-9). When I was a teenager that same bus came by every 20 minutes. I really don’t think that is a whole lot for a bus that links a suburb to downtown. This is the only bus that now passes by my parents’ house, the other 2 routes having been eliminated.

    For the quality of the service, OC Transpo is really over-priced. At least there’s air conditioning in the buses.

    So my advice to foreigners in Ottawa? Yes, definitely get a car. It is not a pleasant experience waiting for a late bus when it is minus 15+ outside.

    If you can, live along the 95 bus route. This route is fast and reliable.

    • I hate OCTranspo. Not the staff, of course, the way the system was designed. And rides are way overpriced, and if you don’t live close to the Transitway, you are out of luck.

  3. I guess I’m completely uncultured! 😀

    I don’t have a car. And I’ve been here (in Toronto) for seven years now.

    When I arrived, I had no choice but to take transit as I didn’t have an Ontario licence.

    But as time passed, I realized I didn’t really need a car. I’ve adapted myself accordingly since then.

    One less thing to worry about as well! 🙂

  4. I wonder how much the car insurance companies charge and how much they spend for actual accidents. There must be a reason why I paid roughly C$160 per year (this is not a typo!) in Germany while I would have to pay 4-5 grand here in Toronto if I had a car. I’d love to have one, but right now I’m better off taking a taxi every time I really need a car.
    Something that I did is I signed up with a car sharing company. Even without actually renting a car, this time will be considered as Canadian driving experience… for only $45 a year. I’m pretty sure it will pay off once I need to have my own car one day.
    Until then, there’s always the public transit which isn’t bad at all in Canada. Unlike an own car, it’s even cheap :).

    • I think car sharing system really have a future, both in Europe and in Canada. As for insurance rates… never truly understood how they were set!

  5. Oh God, when was the last time I was behind the steering wheel? I’ve so far successfully avoided having a car for many years now, mostly due to other external reasons. I learned how to drive when I was 17, while living in Guam. I got my learner’s permit, and even drove the family’s SUV several times. However, we soon moved back to the Philippines, so I didn’t get to take my Guam driver’s license. When I was in the Philippines, it was way easier to just commute than drive, as the traffic was horrendous, and I’d rather doze off in a bus than drive.

    Then I moved to Buffalo and lived there for 7 years. I could have gotten a car, but I was a poor graduate student, and so arranged my life to not need a car. It was difficult at times, but I had a good network of friends that I didn’t feel crippled socially.

    And now I am in Berlin, and public transportation is awesome. I still don’t have a driver’s license.

    Who knows, maybe my next job is somewhere in North America again, in a city that would make me want to have a car. Then I’ll get my license and drive. But right now, I am glad that I don’t have a car I need to maintain, pay insurance for, and so forth. Instead, I use my money to travel instead.

    • Must have been hard in Buffalo though. In Europe, I agree, most of the time if you live in a city you don’t really need a car, public transit is usually pretty good.

  6. Have lived in Toronto for the past 4 years and even though I have driver’s licence, ttc has been my timesaver. Sometimes 160 bus drives me craaayy-zaayyy, but overall I think transit system is good here.

  7. I live in Montreal without a car. I’m ok because we are still students and have a small downtown appartement, but I’ve been surprised by how much pressure there is to move out to the outskirts/suburbs and drive everywhere as soon as you start “settling down” in life.
    I don’t like driving, but I’m glad I have a car-share membership so we can explore a bit more, because as soon as you leave Montreal, you can pretty much forget about public transport. There definitely is a car culture here!

  8. We didn’t own a car in Paris and since we’re in Ottawa (3 years now), we don’t have a car either.
    It’s not that you dont need one at all, it’s more that there is really good alternative. First, Ottawa is quite bike friendly. Second, bus are pretty ok (especially if you’re on the transit way, which is our case). And third, we use Vrtucar rental. You subscribe with them, and then you can use cars that they have parked around your neighbourood whenever you need them. It costs nothing compare to the expense of owning a car, fuel, insurance, etc.

    • As much as I hate driving, I must admit we couldn’t live without one here. Part of it is because transit kind of suck in our area (even if we are not that far from you guys!). Living closer to the Transitway, yes, we could maybe do without a car.

  9. I completely disagree that it’s cheap to obtain a driver’s license in Canada.
    I’ve lived in two other countries in the world and been to several others, and this is by far the country that has a very expensive licensing process.This is mainly due to the graduated licensing in place as well as the fact that the licensing body is a private company unlike in all other parts of the world where its usually under a government ministry.
    Don’t let me even mention the broad daylight robbery which constitutes auto insurance here……

    • Well, you should mention the countries you are comparing Canada too. Getting a license here is definitely cheaper than in France and most of Western Europe. If you want to complain, you have to be more specific!

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