What it’s like owning a car in a big city

I've only owned a car while living in a small town. So I was apprehensive about owning one in a big(-ish) city. Here're some things that make me happy and sad about it.


I don’t need a car to live where I live, in the middle of Montreal. But recently I picked one up anyway. A 2013 Volkswagen The Beetle. I like cars and all, but it was more of an an experiment to see what it’s like to have one here.

After a few months I can say it’s very different than in a small town, where a car is your lifeline. There are good things about having a car in the city, and there are bad things. So let’s play game of happy-face-sad-face. (I like to spell-out emoji.) We can start with the obvious:

Happy face: going places!

I’ve driven to Toronto and Ottawa and went on a bike trip in Granby/Waterloo and went apple picking on a Quebec farm and a whole bunch of times I’ve gone out to dinner and for groceries and to shop for clothes and just last week I picked up an enormous box in the beautiful Anjou. The freedom is great. Not carrying home my groceries anymore is great. Being able to buy heavy food items without planning is great.

Sad thing: I want to drive it but I have nowhere to go

My car has been sitting in my garage space for 4 days now without moving. I want to drive it somewhere because I love driving. But I have nowhere to go. I’ve got enough groceries. I don’t have any errands that need doing. The idle car mocks me and my lack of motivation to do things beyond stay at home.

I could just go for a drive for the sake of going for a drive but I’ve never been a fan of that. I always picture myself getting into trouble and thinking, “Well, wtf man, you didn’t need to be there.”

Happy face: avoiding rush hour and commuting

You want to optimize the happiness a car brings you? Don’t drive during rush hour. Or commute in it. Rush hour is obvious, but even commuting in light traffic can suck all the fun from your fun-mobile. So I leave my car at home and walk to the office on the days I work from there. It’s a 20 min walk if I take my time, and I get to enjoy the sights and sounds of a city that is only occasionally on fire. It’s a nice, easy, stress-relieving part of my day. Unless it is on fire.

Sad face: paying for parking

It costs me $150/month to park indoors. Paying it makes me a little sad. And the Montreal parking meter app charges a “convenience fee” like it’s doing a bad Ticketmaster impression. It’s only 20 cents but it’s the biggest 20 cent slap in the face since the olden days when you could hire a dom for a dime or two.

Happy face: everything else about parking

Indoor (heated) parking is amazing! No matter how cold it is outside, your car is always toasty-warm and snow-free.

And, perhaps more on the “surprisingly no big deal” side than happy, is the general parking in the city thing. I was scared of this. I assumed it would be a nightmare. Sometimes, it is, sure. Like this past weekend when I did the reverse-up-a-steep-hill-into-a-tight-parallel-spot-on-a-busy-street thing. And you gotta plan ahead a little so you avoid parades and big events but, generally, given I only use my car during evenings and weekends, parking hasn’t been the nightmare I feared.

A visit to Gatineau Park, where park-ing is easy!
A visit to Gatineau Park, where park-ing is easy!

Sad face: traffic anxiety

Not gonna lie, it stresses me out a little when I see red streets all over Google Maps. I don’t like feeling “trapped” and there’s no more trapped feeling than being stuck in traffic. Also with Montreal being an island, there are limited ways on and off of it. I suggested we pave the river but it doesn’t seem anyone is on board with that plan.

Happy face: Google Maps estimates

Even if I know the way, I still check the route with Google Maps. They give estimates that are shockingly accurate. Seeing it say, “Traffic ahead, 6 min delay” eases some of that anxiety that would otherwise overrun me when stopped behind a line of CUVs on the highway. (I would say cars, but no one really drives cars anymore.)

Sad face: the roads

I thought people were joking about Montreal’s roads being terrible, or at the very least were saying it the way every city claims to have bad roads. Surely Newfoundland’s are worse. They are not. Driving in Montreal is one continual suspension-test. My back is glad I didn’t get a car with a stiffer suspension. My front is pretty indifferent.

Happy face: the car itself

I really do love the The Beetle. There’s something about it. It’s modern without looking like a spaceship. (I’m looking at you, Ford and Honda.) It’s retro without looking foolish. (Hello, Fiat.) It has a white dash. The thin steering wheel and shifter feel damn near perfect. And I feel like it makes the drivers around me happy. They always let me in, and never honk when I do something stupid. (I’m still getting used to the roads around here.)

Sad face: touch-screen controls

Not to say everything makes me happy about the Beetle. The feature where you can keep your key in your pocket and the doors will automatically unlock and the car will start by button is extra-stupid. Even when it works, there’s a lack of control for a control-freak like me. And the stereo is a touch-screen, which is fine for an iPad but so so horrible while driving. I would much rather use my sense of touch to know if I’m going to press the right button. Winking face.

Happy face: putting the car in gear

Those who drive a manual know I’m talking about it. There’s no other feeling quite like it. Well, maybe there is one feeling. Winking face.

Verdict: net happy

The happy items outweigh the sad ones for sure. Just the first happy item of being able to get out of the city without dealing with a rental car place (or driving a car-share-Yaris) is enough to outweigh all the negatives.

Not that you should get a car. We need fewer cars on the roads. So, um, don’t get a car. Especially if you live in Montreal. The Montreal Metro system is great and walking is great for your health and car sharing is more environmentally-friendly. Oh, and bikes. Have you tried biking in the winter yet? So fun.

So my conclusion after three months of car ownership is that you should get a bike. I’ll give you plenty of space as I drive past.

MOAR!!!

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