After living with minimal car use in the Boston area for a few years, I moved to Edmonton Alberta to accompany Spouse at her new job. I’ll have to admit that I was a little ignorant of Canadian geography, and I didn’t quite know where Edmonton was, exactly. Turns out, it’s very far north and it gets extremely cold.
So, Spouse gets a job, and we take a trip to Edmonton in late April to find an apartment. We find something that will be close enough to Spouse’s office so she can walk or bike to work (she doesn’t drive), and we’ll worry about where I’m going to work later. Edmonton is a pretty car-intensive city and I didn’t know where I’d find a job – it could have been 20 miles from our apartment. So I decide to keep the car and deal with the fun of importing it into a foreign country. July comes around and it’s time to move and I have a blast on a 3,300 mile, 7-day road trip from Boston to Edmonton. I drive through some beautiful country, spend some time at Devil’s Tower & the Badlands. It was great. We arrive in Edmonton in late July and luckily, I find a job almost immediately. Even better, my office is about 2 blocks from Spouse’s office which means I can bike to work. Once again, the car languishes.
I was pretty committed to biking to work at this point, but I think if there was free parking at my office, I still would have driven occasionally. Parking was $12/day and it just seemed ludicrous to drive 1.5 miles and pay money to park when I could bike or walk for free. Edmonton has done a pretty good job at creating bike infrastructure. It’s not Amsterdam, or even Portland, but there were many bike-friendly streets in my neighborhood, and even dedicated bike lanes. Edmonton is a very flat city, except for a deep river valley running through the middle of town. There’s a nice network of recreational trails down there which can be fun except you have to climb out of the valley at the end of your ride. As you get out to the more suburban areas of town, there are fewer bike paths, bu cyclists are allowed to bike on certain sidewalks that are wider than most (and there’s hardly anyone walking, anyways). I was even able to comfortably bike to an IKEA on the edge of town. There’s not too many cities where you can do that!
Edmonton drivers are generally pretty respectful of bikes, which goes a long way towards making a city bike-friendly. In fact, sometimes Canadians were just too polite. For example, I would stop at an intersection where I have a stop sign, but the cross traffic is on a more major street and does not have a stop sign. Cars would often stop for me to cross the street – even though they didn’t have to! After biking in Boston for several years, where driving is a blood sport, you can see how this may have confused me. I would stare at the driver, they would wave me across, and I’d begrudgingly cross the street. I heard Canadians often mention the unwritten rule of “Yield to the lower technology.” That is, cars yield to bikes, bikes yield to pedestrians, pedestrians yield to … slower pedestrians. Oh, those crazy Canadians confusing me with their politeness.
So the first few months of biking to work were great, but looming in the distance was… the winter.
New Englanders like to complain about the winters here and yes, there can be a good amount of snow, and yes it’s worse than other parts of the US, but the winters in Edmonton are exponentially worse. -10 (C) is a warm day, and it’s not uncommon to have weeks in a row where the temp doesn’t get much about -20. There’s usually a few stretches of days below -30, and if you’re really unlucky, you can hit -40. But I was resolved to bike through this winter, and once I got into it, it really wasn’t so bad. The main thing is that you have to dress appropriately. I wore an extra layer or two, but nothing heavier than a ski jacket. The most important items were snow pants, lobster gloves and a face mask.
One problem with biking in an Edmonton winter is that they don’t really bother to clear the streets there. There’s not a great deal of snowfall in an Edmontonian winter, but when it falls, it stays. Instead of plowing every street, in Edmonton, they just spread some sand on it and everybody drives a little slower. Eventually, the cars wear down the snow and ice and get down to the pavement. Occasionally, the city will plow the major streets, but only after a big storm.
So most of the minor streets are covered in ice, snow, or what I call “oatmeal” – a mixture of snow, ice and sand that will neither melt nor freeze. Still, I biked almost every day. I changed my tires from skinny street tires to a knobby tire on the back and a metal-studded tire on the front. I had one nasty spill on a patch of ice when I was going too fast, but aside from that, my tires did a great job of gripping into the ice. It wasn’t always ideal, but I still did it. There were times when the snow was fresh, or it was especially icy when I would walk instead.
But the winter ended eventually, and besides, it only took up about half of the year! The rest of the time was great. I still dream of Edmonton summers. The sky is so clear, the air so dry and the sunlight lasts until almost midnight.
From my time in Edmonton, I got more and more comfortable with the idea that I could live without owning a car. None of my co-workers drove to work, and many people in my cohort were avid cyclists. One of my coworker even lived car-free with a young child. He commuted to work every day with his wife on a tandem bike and their kid in a bike trailer. They’d drop off the kid at daycare, the wife at her job, then he’d ride the tandem by himself the rest of the way! Everything started to seem easier to do on a bike (or on my feet). I didn’t have to worry about parking, or driving in the snow. Biking in the snow had it’s own hazards, but almost every thing I wanted to get to was within 2 miles of my house – an easy walk. I passed by a grocery store on my way home from work and I became used to the idea of stopping off more often for a few things instead of making big stock-up trips. The car stayed in the parking spot, gathering snow and drawing power from the house to keep the engine block heater running. We only drove the car for the occasional stock-up trip to the grocery store, or some event on the other side of town. Still, we knew that Spouse’s job would only last for 2 years, so I was reluctant to sell the car when I didn’t know where we would move to next.
Next was Providence. I still can’t believe I lived here for two years before getting rid of the car.