Accidental Activist

Driven to Extremes

There was something dispiriting and distasteful about not having a single reason to get out of your house and walk.

By Ben Bull
Published October 21, 2005

Part II of a two-part series. Find Part I here.

The gruff looking geezer in the fancy Jag was snarling at me through the rear view mirror. There was no doubt about it: he was in a bad mood.

Maybe if I ignore him, he'll go away.

I watched the lights intensely: Red. No matter how hard I stared they stayed: Red.

As I wondered who would blink first I tried not to think about the human time bomb ticking away behind me, but it didn't work.

What if he gets out? Holy crap - what if he has a weapon??

I snatched another glance behind. What is he doing?!?

Oh shit. Jag Boy was sinking his eyes into the back of my seat and sliding a slow finger across his throat. You're dead.

I reached for my cell and made the call. "Hey! Andrew, thank God you're in."

"What's up? You sound a bit shaky."

"No. Well, yes, just - look, some road rage nut wants to kill me. Can you meet me in the car park in two minutes? I need backup!"

"No problem! I'll bring Jenny and Jeff."

Great! Andrew, Jeff, and Jenny. What a posse: a pensioner, a computer geek, and a girl. I needed to start making some brawnier friends.

The lights blinked.

Car-free, Care-free, Career-free

I thought back to happier times. Six years earlier, I'd landed in Toronto and bought my first house in Greektown, by Pape and Danforth. All my worldly possessions had been thrown into the down payment.

After learning that my UK Registered Nursing license was just a useless scrap of paper, I started doing odd jobs as a homemaker, male attendant, and hospital porter. My wife, Susie, worked at a reception.

It was minimum wage all the way.

Still, with no car, no career and no money, these were surprisingly carefree times. Not having a car was never an issue. All the Toronto hospitals were accessible by transit, and everything else we needed - the supermarket, the pub, the doctors, the dentists - were in easy walking distance of our home.

I didn't sit behind a wheel for two years.

Eventually, as Mike Harris' Health Care "reforms" kicked in, I decided to give up on my nursing career and get started in IT.

My first gig was a few miles down the bike path, on Queens Quay. Every morning I would tear down the trail by the DVP, cut across Lakeshore and cruise along Queens Quay to my new place of work.

I loved it.

I recall one late afternoon, wheeling onto my street after a hard days work. My four-year-old daughter Emily came running up to greet me, with an order to "Go sit on the grass."

Half the street was scattered about my neighbour's front lawn, waiting patiently for the kids' play to begin. It was a typical tablecloth-for-a-curtain type performance and without doubt, the highlight of my day. My neighbours sat around chatting, laughing and clapping in all the wrong places. Nobody had the slightest clue what was going on, and nobody cared.

Living in Toronto, on that street, it seemed to me that every one of my neighbours understood that the times we share are far more important than the clothes we wear.

But those simple times did not last. Before long I got restless and landed a new job as an IT Consultant, in Mississauga. This meant one thing: I needed a car. I bought a Dodge Caravan and quickly resumed my driving routine.

The van was exciting at first: that new car smell, the fancy gadgets, the freedom of getting from A to B without hunting for your bus pass. I even treasured my "alone time", humming along to the radio or just having some good old peace and quiet as I inched my way home.

As I steadily clocked up the miles and put on weight, it rarely occurred to me that I never took my bike for a spin anymore and hardly ever saw my neighbours. In fact, as I started my plod up the Consulting career ladder it seemed to me that my life was just getting better and better.

But then I went and made everything a whole lot worse: I moved to Hamilton.

Car Culture in Steeltown

Hamilton - especially east Hamilton where I landed on July 4, 2000 - is where my car culture clash began in earnest. In an instant, everything about my life revolved around the car.

Getting to the doctor, going for a drink, shopping for clothes, and, of course, going to work, all involved copious amounts of driving. Not that I had much gridlock to contend with. I loved the synchronization of the Main Street lights. And the drive to Ancaster's Meadowlands or EastGate mall was always fairly smooth.

But I grew to hate driving. There was something dispiriting and distasteful about not having a single reason to get out of your house and walk. My neighbours would appear on their doorsteps and then disappear inside their cars. I waved to them for the first little while - but eventually stopped bothering.

The car culture became so ingrained in our way of life that we even began to drive to Center Mall, a 15 minute walk away. Several neighbours, who lived even closer than us, took their kids to school by car, even though the school was just a five minute walk away.

"It's safer." they would explain. Or, "If we walk, we'll be late."

Of course, inevitably, I started crashing again. I will always contend, and my wife will probably always disagree, that it's not bad driving that causes most crashes, but the sheer law of averages. If I'm in my car for over ten hours a week, then guess what's bound to happen?

Once again I became complacent and easily distracted. I also became habitually late. One morning after I'd waited, once again, until the last possible moment to set off for the train station, I found myself tearing towards Main and Ottawa at a ridiculous speed.

Dead ahead I spied a beat-up brown sedan rocking back and forth doing a "shall I or shan't I?" as he pondered his right turn into my lane. At the very last moment he decided he would - and we came together.

At the side of the road I found myself surveying the damage of yet another bruised bumper, and wondering why this always happens to me. The brown sedan was in far worse shape and the driver seemed a little shaken up by he whole affair. I soon learned it had nothing to do with the effects of the crash.

"Please don't put in a claim," he pleaded. "I'm not insured."

Great. Not only was I late for work but I also had to stand there and watch a grown man cry. I checked my watch and jumped back in the van.

"Drive more carefully next time!" I shouted as I roared away, watching the Brown Sedan guy putting his hands together in a Praise-the-Lord salutation.

Later that day I recalled the events of my latest crash to a work mate. "You should have reported him," he chastised. "That's very irresponsible."

I knew this was right. But then a few weeks later I heard a sad tale about a Hamilton immigrant who'd been stopped for speeding. My friend Sharlene was waiting on a copper friend who turned up very late - and very shaken up.

"What's the matter," she asked him. "Why are you late?"

The police officer then recounted the tale of the speeding immigrant. Apparently the guy had been rushing to get to his second job. "I need to work two jobs to pay the bills," he had explained. Unfortunately for this poor guy, those bills did not include license, registration or insurance and he was given about $2,000 in fines.

"It will take him years to pay that off," the police officer told my friend.

As we became holed up in east Hamilton, it occurred to me that the whole town was a hostage to its cars. The HSR, with its side-to-side or up-and-down (but never ever round and round) approach to route planning is hardly an option for those of us needing to get somewhere (especially diagonally) in a hurry.

Although I still didn't know it at the time, I really did miss the TTC.

Mix it up, Keep it Interesting

This time, instead of moving house to relieve my commuter boredom, I changed jobs.

A switch to a desk job at the CIBC Head Office on King Street in Toronto ensured I could now catch the train to work every day. The long-haul trips to North York and Scarborough were now over, but somehow my commuter blues remained.

My old enemy, repetition, soon returned. The Ottawa Street, Burlington Street, Skyway there-and-back combination became worryingly familiar. Just as I had done back in Leeds, I found myself switching off on the drive.

Occasionally I would 'come to' behind a set of rapidly approaching brake lights at the top of the Skyway, or in the middle of a high speed lane change as I dashed towards a gap that wasn't there.

Fortunately for me the drivers of Hamilton and Burlington did not seem to get upset too easily. Try as I might I flashed at them, honked at them and threw my coffee beans all over the road, but they would not respond.

Nevertheless, 18 months after hitting the Skyways' "ramp to the stars" on my inaugural Burlington station commute, I changed things up again. This time I went for the never-before-attempted "change house and jobs at the same time" Work/House Combo.

And it worked, at least at first. Our new home in Dundas was fully five minutes closer to the nearest station and my new job even had a spare office for me in (could this really be?) ... Hamilton!

For about one day a week, and for the first time in nearly six years, I found myself faced with the very realistic option of biking to work. But I found the trip in to be, how shall I say, tricky.

The bike route from Dundas to Hamilton brings you along the banks of Spencer Creek through Cootes, up through the peaceful streets of Westdale, and then smack bang into the middle of the raging 403 overpass.

This trip quickly became my worst nightmare. Battling traffic in the same direction is one thing, but what genius of a city planner thought up the idea of putting cyclists in the way of oncoming traffic?

Then, just after I would take the suicidal leap across the ramp to the 403, the path just ends. And so I would find myself spending the next ten minutes turning this way and that navigating the griddled streets around Victoria Park, until eventually plotting my way to work.

In my brief stint as a Hamilton commuter I came to realize that this town is not built for bikers.

So, instead, I gave the HSR a try. But this too, failed to impress. I recall my first Dundas to Hamilton bus ride. It started out brightly enough, barreling down King Street en route to Cootes Drive. "We'll be there in no time," I thought.

But then we took a dramatic dog leg to the right, taking us back the way we came, and bringing us to the junction of Ogilvy and Governers - not far from my house.

"Hold on," I thought, checking my watch. I realized it had taken us about four minutes to get to a bus stop I could probably walk to in three. From that point on we were always going the wrong way. No Dundas driver in his right mind would take the two mile detour along Main, when he could whip along Cootes - so why was my bus taking it?

Picking up the bits and pieces of student traffic along Main we finally rolled into town - 35 minutes after I'd boarded. The next morning I pondered: a ten minute drive or a 35 minute bus trip? Or maybe the bike?

I got back behind the wheel. Last month, my wife and I decided to move out of Hamilton. Commuter fatigue, unusable transit and galloping gas prices have made us feel trapped in this town.

Worse still, as my wife plans her return to work after many years at home, we are faced with the uncomfortable prospect of taking on a second car. Something has to give.

Time for a Change

As I screeched away from the lights with crazy Jag Man in hot pursuit something unexpected happened. He turned around. Had I scared him with one of my two-fingered retorts, I wondered? Had he taken a closer look at my light blue mini-van and wondered what kind of hard-arse ex-con muscle man might be driving it? Who could say?

The only thing I knew for sure was that I had caught a huge break. Again.

And, as I pulled up alongside the ridiculous sight of my hastily-assembled pathetic posse I realized that, at some point, my life would have to change.

At long last, that time is now.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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