Life in the Slow Lane
December 11, 2003
Like creatures in the tidal zone, we spend most of our time near where the sea meets land. Water is our primary element; we're surrounded by it when we're anchored out. We rely mainly on our inflatable dinghy to get around. Ashore, transportation becomes more of a challenge. In our June 12, 2003 entry ("Returning To Normal"), we observed that most North Americans move from place to place in private cars. That's normal. We don't have a car. That makes us odd in a North American context (but pretty mainstream in most of the developing world).
Most North American cities were planned on the assumption that the people who live and work in them get around by car. Everything is spread out and a lot of space is set aside for the movement and storage of motorized vehicles. In his former life David was a city planner. He rode his bike to work and didn't like designating large tracts of valuable real estate for roads and parking lots. He favoured parks over pavement. This made him something of a heretic in his profession. He probably wasn't missed too much when he packed up the contents of his desk and went sailing.
Despite the way cities have been designed, it's still possible to function within them without owning a car. To travel beyond walking distance, we've found that a combination of bicycles, public transportation, taxis, and the odd rental car works quite well.
We have two bicycles on board "Little Gidding". They're full size mountain bikes that conveniently fold in half and can be stored in the quarter berth (which we now call "the garage"). When we're in the States, we use them a lot. We can pile quite a load of groceries into the bags on our rear carriers. Last week's entry ("It's A Dirty Business") described David's cross-country ride to dispose of some contaminated gasoline. One of his more challenging bike trips involved transporting a sheet of plywood from a building supply outlet. The brisk breeze didn't help, but he and the wood made it back to the boat without being squashed on the highway by a tractor trailer.
In Vero Beach, where we're currently parked, there's an hourly bus service that stops in at the municipal marina. In one direction the bus goes to the beaches and the other way it heads through town to the big shopping malls. We use it when we want to shop at more distant locations or when we're planning to bring back an unusually large amount of stuff. The bus is very popular with other cruisers as well; in fact, it seems that it's mostly cruisers who use the service. And the price is right -- it's free. Someone has figured out that it's worth paying for a bunch of car deprived liveaboards to be transported to places where they can unburden themselves of their savings.
Most of the places we've visited are served by some form of public transportation, although not always as convenient and as cheap as in Vero Beach. In many Caribbean countries private group taxis, often in the form of mini-vans, perform the role of a public transit system. In Grenada, for example, you can go just about anywhere on the island for a buck or two. You'll get a few thrills thrown in for free since the drivers all seem intent upon breaking land speed records on the island's torturous mountain roads. In the Dominican Republic the group taxis are very cheap, but be warned that there's no limit to the number of people or livestock they will attempt to transport all at once (and the chickens are not always willing passengers).
For extended trips or special circumstances (like when we're transporting Eileen's sound equipment) we sometimes rent cars. In North America, Enterprise offers services well suited to the needs of cruisers. They'll pick you up and drop you off for free, which is a very important consideration since there's rarely a dinghy dock within short walking distance of most car rental agencies. Many Enterprise outlets also offer three day weekend specials: ten dollars per day, Friday to Monday. In Vero Beach, the local Enterprise office is so accustomed to renting to cruisers on weekends that there's a pick up car waiting at the municipal marina every Friday morning. Outside of North America, rental cars vary in cost. They're expensive in Cuba and cheap in Guatemala. You can rent a car for as cheap as fifteen bucks a day in Trinidad as long as you're not too fussy about appearances and having everything function perfectly. Hey, the engine and brakes work, what more do you need?
We have several friends who cruise down south for half the year and live on land up north the other half. Many own cars for when they're land based. They're almost normal. We might move in that direction ourselves. Mostly for family reasons, we've been thinking we should be spending more of our summers in Canada. The other day Eileen said, "If we plan to stay for longer near where my parents live, we should probably think about buying a car."
"How much will that cost?" David asked. "I paid $700 for the Volkswagen bug I bought when I was in university. I think cars cost a bit more now."
We went online and downloaded the "Driving Costs" brochure that's prepared each year by the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). It assumes you are buying an average compact car (in this year's survey, a new Chevrolet Cavalier) and driving it 18,000 kilometres per year. It differentiates between ownership costs (insurance, licensing and registration, financing, and depreciation) and operating costs (fuel and oil, routine maintenance, and tires). According to the CAA, it would cost us a total of $9,525 annually to own a car, or 52.9 cents per kilometre driven. We choked. We spend less than that each year for food, clothing, and shelter.
"But we won't be driving anywhere close to 18,000 kilometres," David reasoned. "That should cut down on the overall costs."
Unfortunately, its the ownership costs that account for most of the annual expense of driving a car -- in the CAA example, we'd incur three-quarters of the total driving costs whether or not we ever took the car out on the road. It'd cost us $19.32 a day to have that Chevy just sit in the garage.
"We could rent a lot of cars and take a lot of taxis for that much money," Eileen observed.
"You know," David added, "I really like biking a lot. Why don't I get you a new set of tires for Christmas?"