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Can You Opt out of the Canadian Car Culture?

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? 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 licence—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 kilometres away. Sure, you could walk. But picture yourself on a narrow badly plowed sidewalk just a few metres 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 litre 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 day 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 sounds. 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 licence 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?

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