Councillor Jennifer Watts on why she decided to go car-free this December

It's coming

HALIFAX – It’s December. Inevitably, this time of year makes us all take the time to reflect on the year that’s past; what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, what it was you said you’d do and never got around to, and what you wish you had done.  

And then there are the things that you couldn’t have anticipated doing, but are so happy you did.

In her December 10th District 14 E-mail newsletter, Councillor Jennifer Watts informed her constituents that she had taken up a challenge to travel car-free for the month of December as a part of the A Dare to Remember campaign.

I wondered why, so I wrote to Jennifer and asked her some questions. Here’s what she had to share:

What inspired you to get involved with the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Dare to Remember project?

JW: Kristin Roe contacted me to ask if I would take part in the campaign. Kristin swam the English Channel (and Halifax Harbour!) earlier this year to help raise funds for the foundation and when she asked if I would take on a challenge it was too hard to say no. The Stephen Lewis Foundation is doing really important work in Africa and I was glad to take on a dare that supported their work and also supported sustainability in HRM.

Why did you decide to challenge yourself in this way?

JW: Kristin suggested that I take on a challenge related to my interest in the environment.  I talked with my family about it and they suggested that I give up driving my car for the month of December. It was kind of scary since the weather is unpredictable and there are lots of social functions to go to on top of regular meetings but I thought this is the best month to see if it can work or not work. So far I have been cycling, walking, transiting, taxi-ing, and hitching rides in other people’s cars.

Women in developing countries often are dependent on walking, taxis, buses and the generosity of others for rides to get around — driving a car is not a reality for a majority of these women and yet they are the backbone of their families and their communities. It seemed that the dare for me would not be as challenging as the reality that these women live every day of their lives. So from Dec 1 to Dec 31 I decided to not drive my car and to rely on other modes of transport and the kindness of friends, colleagues and family for carpooling when necessary.

Has the experience differed from what you anticipated —  any surprises or unexpected challenges?

JW: So far I have kept my dare and have not driven a car (now into Day 18 [Saturday]). In some areas it has been easier than I thought and in other areas it has been more frustrating.

On Dec 1, the first day of my challenge, I had 6 meetings and functions to go to starting at noon. The night before I sat down at the computer to try and figure out the bus routes and schedule but gave up (too many connections) and decided I would ride my bike. Since some of these were social functions I couldn’t go in my jeans so I set off on my day in a skirt and high heel boots and actually rode my bike across the bridge on the bike path (first time!) — it was a great ride — no wind and not too cold and I was surprised how fast I got to the Alderney Gate library. I think that in my mind I had thought of this as being a big, long, complicated trip but in fact I got there 20 minutes earlier than I thought and dealt with the awkward entry to the bike lane on the bridge by walking my bike up the hilly entrance.

The biggest frustration is trying to figure out the bus routes and timing since my day is very unpredictable so I don’t have a regular route to travel.

Is this experience going to change the way you use your vehicle?

JW: Yes — I have decided that I will commit to not driving a car for one week out of every month. I need to make this commitment otherwise I think I will slip back into the convenience of driving my car. Hopefully, this will help me chose alternatives to the car for the rest of the month.

How does your decision to participate in A Dare to Remember by challenging yourself to live car-free for December relate to your job as the Councillor for District 14 Connaught-Quinpool?

JW: As a municipal councillor I make decisions about sustainable transportation so this experience will help me understand the challenges and benefits that many residents experience when they take the bus, walk or cycle in HRM. The practical experience of riding my bike on roads that don’t have bike lanes, of walking across crosswalks that don’t have overhead lights that are working, of waiting at bus stops for buses is a great experience for understanding the smaller and bigger changes that need to happen to make sustainable transportation a more practical and attractive choice for residents. I also think that each time one of us decides to make a sustainable transportation choice we send a visual
message to the community as a whole – the more people on buses, walking and cycling sends a message that sustainable transportation can be a part of everyday life.

Have you learned anything about Halifax through this experience?

JW: Bike lanes are wonderful and we need more of them, transit is great but needs to run more often and we need better technology so that it riders can access information in real time (visual maps of routes at sites would help as well), sidewalks need to be in good condition, everyone (including drivers and pedestrians) need to pay careful attention at crosswalks both unmarked and marked, and walking and cycling are great ways to get exercise and you see the city from a different perspective.

Any highlights you would like to share?

JW: Some highlights are when I  was leaving a bus and asking the driver when the next bus would be coming she looked at me and asked, “Are you a councillor?” When I said yes she broke out into a big smile and said “thank you for taking Metro Transit.” It was a pleasant surprise that she was so pleased to see a councillor on a bus. Another highlight was taking a bus to a public meeting one evening out past the rotary and then catching a bus to a Christmas party downtown and then home again — it all worked out smoothly and it is a great place to people watch.

photo by Lawrence Plug

4 comments

  1. We should all congratulate Jennifer Watts from the bottom of our hearts. Members of council (and Mr Kelly) ought to follow suit this winter and discover how the plebs have to get around on icy sidewalks and on deadly crosswalks. Oh, and all in charge at Metro Transit should be forced “on the buses” to find how inconvenient their “service” is and how deadly are the bus stops in winter weather.

  2. Thanks to Jennifer for doing this!

    Every city councillor and bureaucrat should go car free from time to time.

    -Adam

  3. Jennifer Watts is a very ‘hand-on’ councillor as far as I can see. I have run into her at numerous public events in HRM and she is always using sustainable transport. I am pleased to live in her district as she is very community minded. As they say, ‘you can’t make the rules if you don’t play the game’. Councillor Watts genuinely practices what she preaches.

  4. Pingback: How Jennifer made the commitment to go car-free one week each month | Jennifer Watts

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