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No Car, Just the Struggle Bus

By: Kat Mulligan

Photo Credits: pinterest

In my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, where accessible public transit is but a pipe dream, a car is an essential component of daily life. No bus line connects the sleepy suburbs to the downtown area where mustachioed men swan dive into IPA-soaked mosh pits. With car-dependent infrastructure as the norm, I could conceive of no other way of life than the one that included half-hour-long car rides powered by anticipation and Exxon gas. What would it look like to live more sustainably, to cast off the responsibility of vehicle maintenance to a third party?

When I moved to Montreal two years ago, the shift in lifestyle was so great that transit was only a bullet point on my list of concerns. Given that I was crossing a national border, moving into my first apartment, and starting university, among other things, it was an obvious fact that the makeup of my life would be subject to some considerable alterations.

That’s not to say that I never considered the transit issue, though. It always hovered in the eaves of my mind, and to this day it still does. On my second night in Montreal, at which point I had not yet figured out the metro system and could not even begin to guess at the bus system, my friend had to walk half an hour with me to reach my apartment, then half an hour back to his place. I refused to take buses for my first few months, unsure of the timetables and cardinal directions. I often went without certain items whose lack I was keenly aware of, only because running errands without a car and a convenient superstore like Walmart was all the more exhausting. I felt the weight of my newfound independence, which at the time went hand in hand with my immobility. Although Montreal’s public transit system was one of the features that drew me to the city, the adjustment was tough.

Nowadays, I know the city map like the back of my hand, and using public transit is second nature. Long gone are the days of lapping around the block seven times on the prowl for a parking space that I would inevitably have to pay or risk a ticket for. No more would I stop for gas, making sure the engine was powered off and my keys were in a visible spot and every last drop had been squeezed from the gas pump, before maneuvering perilously back into traffic. I was free as a bird, free to roam.

Despite the set of advantages that come with living without a car (which, admittedly, I did not initially claim as a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old), I recently noticed how divided I feel from Montrealers who do own cars. The other day, I was waiting in line at IGA with a friend, having failed to notice the self-checkout section on the other wall. As we waited to pay for our total of three items, we watched the man in front of us load his groceries onto the conveyor belt—kilos upon kilos of rice, whole watermelons, tissues, sauces, vegetables galore. You get the picture. “That looks like the grocery haul of someone with a car,” I said amusedly to my friend, before being instantly paralyzed by my own words. Had I been blessed with either eight muscular arms or one car with a trunk, I would also be able to eat to my heart’s content, climbing my way up the food pyramid in triumph, the face of nutrition. In horror, I looked down at my bottle of sriracha mayo and my other bottle of sparkling apple cider, then remembered the ingredients waiting for me at home; I could make about three different halves of a meal, flavor of course being sacrificed in the process. Maybe if I didn’t carry around tomes of 19th century Russian literature with me at all times, I would have more room in my bag for groceries—but I knew just as well that that would never happen. A shiver ran down my spine.

About a week before that incident at the grocery store, I had spent an evening in the Plateau with some friends. When the night was closing in on us, we called an Uber back to NDG. Being such an advocate for my own endurance when it comes to traveling back home, I have never given up and called an Uber during my time in Montreal. That being said, I am always relieved when someone else offers me a reprieve from my ferocious trekking. Given that we were driving from the Plateau to NDG, we found ourselves sailing over the highway, an experience seldom provided by buses. Being in a car in Montreal is always a source of amazement and bewilderment for me (as if I were staring at the city from within a fishbowl), but the highway in particular is a jarring sight. With my chin in my hand and my elbow resting on the car door like the protagonist of a moody music video, I gazed out at the night that glittered in full decoration beyond the highway bridge. The view was a familiar one, but one belonging to a different time and place. It was only when I glimpsed it that I realized how formative this image had been in my adolescence—returning from downtown with memories fermenting in me, blasting music specifically designed for the nighttime, stealing as many glances at the skyline as safety would permit. With plans to live in city centers for the rest of my days, never again would this feeling define my life. Melancholy stirred within me when we coasted along the exit ramp.

What was once a frightening system of differently colored lines, quickly enough became my norm. When it came time for me to visit Richmond last winter, at this point entrenched in my Montreal ways, I had no choice but to readjust to my original car-heavy lifestyle. This took some work, though. On one of my first nights, I carpooled with some friends to a house show. “It’s great up in Montreal,” I would say to whoever asked. “You can be drunk out of your mind and still make it back home, as long as the bus driver isn’t drunk, too.” When my friends took off and I decided to stay longer to talk to another friend, I found myself stranded forty minutes from home, a concept that had yet to take root in my mind. My hubris had backed me into a dark corner. My friend offered me a place to stay until their shift at six o’clock in the morning; at six, I had little other choice but to desperately call my mom, who thankfully was awake. I hated to burden her with my unpreparedness, but walking several hours back home over the highway just wasn’t an option.

Through stark moments like these, in which my lifestyle comes to be dissected, I realize just how much I am a product of my city’s infrastructure. How undeveloped would my brain be had I not spent many meditative hours on the highway at night? Conversely, how many fine details would I notice tucked away into buildings if I were whizzing past them in a car? How many street cats would I meet? By virtue of living slowly, without cars, we become intimate with the world around us. We are the breath in this urban ecosystem. Even when I feel tiny, at the mercy of the city’s grandeur, I return to myself with the reassuring idea that I am still at home in it, as small and as slow as its other inhabitants (except for the ones who buy multiple watermelons at the grocery store).


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