Commentary: Celebrating 20 car-free years in the Yukon

Michael Dougherty has lived in the Yukon without a car for the past two decades

Michael Dougherty

Red taillights marked the last I saw of our family van as it headed out towards the Alaska Highway. Loaded down with all the necessities needed for setting up an apartment in Montreal, Eva, my wife, left Riverdale in the very early morning hours back in August of 1998, now over 20 years ago. She would make a new home for our then figure skating 14-year-old son Liam training there.

Several more hours of a final clean up remained before I turned over the keys of our former home to its new owner. I then biked over to my new apartment on Cook Street in downtown Whitehorse with a last box of family goods balanced on my handlebars. My car days in the Yukon had ended.

The Yukon Bureau of Statistics Annual Statistical Review for 2017 placed the number of registered trucks and cars in the territory at 38,804 vehicles, roughly one per everyone alive in the territory, driver or not. Forty-six per cent of these are trucks or SUVs and none are mine. Keeping these on the road has been shown to be the second-greatest family expense, behind only housing. For two decades now I have lived without a car in the Yukon. Looking back over those years I can say definitively I haven’t missed having a car for a wide variety of reasons.

A rough back-of-the-envelope calculation of the annual cost of keeping a vehicle on the road here in the Yukon can be made where fuel runs at over $1.42 a litre and factoring in other costs such as registration, insurance, repairs, plus spreading the purchase price over the life of the vehicle. A Globe and Mail study by Jeremy Cato updated in April of 2018 based on using the vehicle for 18,000 kilometres a year set the price for a Chevy Cobalt at $8,539.94 a year. Likely, our average cost here in the Yukon then would be well over $10,000 a year.

This means that roughly I have saved at least $200,000 over the last two decades.

On a yearly basis this can be translated into real transportation alternatives. Monthly adult bus passes for a year here in Whitehorse would set you back $744. Add a weekly discretionary $25 taxi ride for another $1,300 and, say, $2,000 for occasional car rentals and you would still have roughly $6,000 to spend on winter and summer holidays just for the cost of keeping old Betsy on the road for what may be only an hour a day or less of actual driving, let alone getting a new set of winter tires.

The 2016 Canada Census numbers show that I join about 9.4 per cent of Yukoners who walk to work every day. Health practitioners like the folk at the Mayo Clinic in the U.S. offer that a brisk daily walk can help you maintain your weight, prevent or manage a wide variety of conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes as well as strengthen your bones and muscles, and give you a psychological boost. With a family tendency towards diabetes, walking likely is a life extender for me. Plus, the added calorie-burning benefit of my Nordic walking poles sold me on my now 20-year-old daily exercise and my shoe-leather-commuting regime.

A couple of weeks ago the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change once again dramatically called us to account for our collective environmental impact on the planet. They laid out again the implications of exceeding the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2030. The mounting risks of extreme drought, wildfires, severe storm events and floods can already be seen as we speed towards that temperature point. They argue that the global calamity of food shortages for hundreds of millions of people and forced migrations from flooding coastal areas can yet be mitigated but only if we act with clear determination now.

Studies such as one by the Union of Concerned Scientists point to our personal vehicles as a major cause of global warming. They argue that, “collectively, cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas. About five pounds comes from the extraction, production, and delivery of the fuel, while the great bulk of heat-trapping emissions — more than 19 pounds per gallon — comes right out of a car’s tailpipe.” These figures would hold also for Canada. They say, “globally, about 15 per cent of manmade carbon dioxide comes from cars, trucks, airplanes, ships and other vehicles.”

Celebrating two decades of being car free in the Yukon isn’t hard for me in light of the economic, health and environmental pluses I have seen from this move. However we have a long way to go to mark a real shift in the collective behaviour of us as Yukoners.

We must put in place plans to wean ourselves from our car addiction. Better bussing in Whitehorse with extended seven-day-a-week scheduling is essential. Tell this to our newly-elected city council members. Car sharing services like the Kootenay Carshare Cooperative, which now has 19 vehicles on the road in the Kootenay communities of Nelson, Revelstoke, Kaslo, Fernie, and Kimberley should be examined along with more effective promotion of ride sharing. We also have to link our communities more effectively with an efficient bussing alternative. I have enjoyed carpooling to hikes like those offered by the Yukon Wilderness Viewing programme. More activities such as this are a must. A cultural shift to more efficient use of our vehicles has to happen now for all of us to be able to celebrate healthier lives and planet twenty years from now.

Michael Dougherty is a former columnist for the Yukon News.