The Active Neighbour Series, Episode 4: Carless in YYC with Peter Tombrowski

I think part of the importance of the story I’m about to tell is the mere fact that it is a story. For many Calgarians, having a car is a part of life. Cars are viewed as a necessity here, they’re heavily relied upon tools that get you from A to B and then on to C and D… and this reliance is reflected in how we spend our money and build our cities. But 20 years ago, one Calgary family made the choice to go car-less. Today, what gets them around is their own two feet and a determination to find their way as people in a city built for cars.

For Peter and Andrea Tombrowski, this journey began with a simple economic choice: we live downtown, our truck is gathering dust in the parkade… is this really an expense we need right now? They had just had their first child, and a washing machine was steadily gaining momentum on their list of financial priorities. So, the Tombrowski’s sold their truck.

Selling their vehicle allowed the family to spend their money differently. Take for example the best selling car in Calgary in 2016, the 2014 Honda Civic, which costs $7,000 per year to own. In contrast, a bike costs roughly $16 per week, or $832 per year.

Walking? It's basically free.

While we talked, Peter told me that he actually really likes cars. But he says we keep moving further and further away from how they should be used. He tells me that today, we treat cars like shoes. You put them on, you go to pick up milk or eggs or bread. But “bread” might only be five, 10, or 15 minutes away, about the same time or distance if you walked or biked instead.

Calgarians could enjoy a huge economic bonus every year if they made even small changes in how they get around the city. Using transit from time to time, traveling by bike during the summer months, or simply walking to pick up that loaf of bread or litre of milk. And the benefits don’t stop there. When individuals make the choice to use active transport rather than drive, retail businesses get bonuses too.

My walk to and from work used to pass by a coffee shop, a bakery, a book store, and a flower shop. Most days I would show up to work with an arm full of pastries or at home with a new book to read. But when I moved and started driving, the extent of my interaction with retail businesses ended at the Tim Hortons drive thru. Don’t get me wrong, I like double doubles and Timbits as much as the next Canadian. But I lost some variety, excitement, and connection, not to mention over an hour of exercise every day.

There is no doubt driving costs – it costs businesses and it costs families. Yet, it also provides some goodness in our lives. For me, it takes me snowshoeing in the mountains, kayaking on the reservoir, and camping for the weekend.

But can we say that the way we use our cars costs us the least and benefits us the most?

Peter showed me that there are different ways to measure these benefits. When I asked him to describe the biggest impacts this change had, money wasn’t the first, second, or even third answer he gave me. “Health” he said, “we get a lot of incidental exercise”. He paused for a moment and I could hear his wife in the background talking. When he came back, he said: “Slowing things down. The pace of our life, the way we do things… it’s just slower. We have to consider things differently. If I want a burger, I have to walk 15-20 minutes. Do I really want to commit to that? The reward is delayed. It doesn’t mean that we are sloths. It takes a lot of effort. When I walk to Costco to get something, I’m moving, but I look at the world in a slower way.”.

Peter tells me that the connection between him and his wife and their kids is strong. He says that instead of speeding away from their home, racing along to complete a long list of to-do’s, they connect, they talk, they have time each day to be grounded- not only on the path they’re walking, but also with each other.

Today, the Tombrowski’s live in Fairview, a south-west community sandwiched between three major freeways. Yet they continue to rely on their feet and the transit system to get them to school, work, and play. They have demonstrated that using active transportation day in and day out is a real option, but we know sometimes that option is not easy or even safe.

Though vulnerable road users (cyclists & pedestrians) make up 2.3% of all collisions, they account for 20.5% of collision casualties. In many of these cases, weather and lighting conditions were good, and from 2005-2014, 53% of pedestrians involved in collisions had the right of way.

So, what do we need to do to make our streets safe? To provide people with options? And when driving is simply not an option for Calgarians, how do we make sure they can participate in their city and community?

For starters, policies and budgets need to change. Ontario recently announced a huge investment of $93 million to make cycling easier and safer for its citizens. The Ontario provincial government has so far passed three new regulations:

  1. “Requirement that drivers of motor vehicles maintain a minimum distance of one metre, where practical when passing cyclists –

  2. Permitted contra-flow bicycle lanes on one-way highways –

  3. Increased fine range for “dooring” from $60–$500 to $300–$1,000 and increased demerit points from two to three” (p.3)

For Calgary, 2016 saw an uptick in the number of women biking in our city since 2013. Today, 1 in 4 Calgary cyclists is female. According to research conducted at the University of British Columbia, more women cycling is a good indicator of safe and efficient infrastructure. This is a great sign for the efforts the city has made to improve cycling infrastructure in our city.

At the end of our conversation, Peter told me that by not having something, they had gained something: time together, financial freedom, and better health. I thought about this for some time after. Other Calgarians could have this, I thought. Our neighbours, children, and parents could have this. But to get there, we must create spaces and places built for people. We have to invest our time to create solid policies, invest our money to build active transportation infrastructure. And if we do, we can all look forward to more time together, more financial freedom, and better health.

By Katie Lore

Peter Tombrowski is the Director of the feature film Car Less in Calgary – you can watch it here

Andrea and Peter co-wrote a book on their experiences called Urban Camping: A Testament to Living Without a Vehicle – You can order it and learn more about it at


Connect with your municipal government and Councillor here or call 3-1-1

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Howell, T., & Annalise, K. (February 19, 2016). Data reveals pedestrian danger: One fit per day and most had the right of way. Calgary Herald. Retrieved from

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