People & Culture

Commuting communities: How eight Canadian families are moving to net zero

In their first national challenge, Canadian Geographic’s eight Live Net Zero families found creative ways to reduce their carbon emissions related to commuting

  • Sep 21, 2023
  • 2,213 words
  • 9 minutes
Brigette DePape biked to work almost every day during the two-week commuting challenge. (Photo courtesy the DePape-Rodrigues family)
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For many Canadians, it’s hard to imagine a day when we aren’t commuting. From travelling to work or extracurricular activities, to running errands and dropping children off at daycare, it can be impossible not to use some mode of transportation to get around our cities. 

However, some ways of commuting are more harmful to the environment than others. In Canada, personal vehicle transportation accounts for 10 per cent of our national carbon emissions – equivalent to about 4.6 tonnes of greenhouse gasses per vehicle per year. Comparatively, a reduction in driving a gas-powered vehicle by 20 kilometres per week decreases carbon emissions by 13 kilograms. 

That’s why, in our first Live Net Zero challenge, Canadian Geographic asked our eight competing families to examine their usual routes and routines and explore mobility options with fewer – or zero – emissions. While it’s unrealistic for many Canadians to stop driving altogether due to our sprawling cities and geographically spaced-out communities, there are ways to shrink one’s carbon footprint – even if it’s a tiny drop in a large bucket.

Here’s how each of our eight families approached their first task in the national competition.

The Waddell-Shankland household

The Waddell-Shanklands organized a “field trip” day to a local community bike shop where children from the neighbourhood learned about basic bike safety and maintenance. (Photo courtesy of the Waddell-Shankland family)
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Over the past two weeks, the Waddell-Shankland household was confronted with an overarching question: what do we commute for? And why do we commute? The family of four from Windsor, Ontario, contemplated this question and concluded that Canadians commute largely to see people. From working to playing sports, to seeing shows, and grocery shopping, the Waddell-Shanklands determined that movement is essential for our social and economic activities. 

With this in mind, the family approached this commuting challenge as an opportunity for community-building and education. As they had already sold their car four years ago, they were already consistently using greener modes of transportation, like biking. On the first weekend of the challenge, they invited four families in the neighbourhood with their seven children to cycle to Windsor Bike Kitchen – a local community bike shop. There, the kids learned about basic bike safety and maintenance. “It was a really positive morning for our future generation commuters,” Crystal Waddell says. 

Additionally, the family wanted to see if they could encourage even more people to get involved in embracing active transportation and invited people in their neighbourhood to record the number of kilometres spent using alternative modes of travel, such as cycling, walking and skateboarding. In total, 11 adults participated in this sub-challenge, logging more than 1,500 kilometres of active transportation over a two-week period, effectively avoiding 0.27 tonnes of carbon emissions. These findings were consolidated in a report, which was then shared with participants, the media and Windsor’s city council to help solidify the town’s target of being a leader in active transportation by 2041. “It’s all about greener [and] more liveable communities, which is all part of the net zero process,” says Crystal.

The Foreman household

he Foreman kids ride their bikes to a nearby basketball court in an effort to cut down on carbon emissions. (Photo courtesy of the Foreman family)
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Building good habits requires clear, achievable goals and a roadmap of how to get there. For the Foreman family, this was especially true in the commuting challenge, where planning out each day was critical for success.

The family of four from Hanwell, New Brunswick, didn’t just make passive notes of when they’d need to commute but actively planned out when they had to leave the house for errands. They organized their meals for the week and only picked up groceries around other activities, using their pre-planned list to avoid any last-minute car trips to the store. 

Above all, the Foremans cut back on driving as much as they could and instead opted for biking to and from commitments. However, the family faced a similar problem that popped up for many of our Live Net Zero families: the lack of active transit infrastructure in their communities. 

Cycling along their rural highway amplified the need for dedicated barrier bike lanes, Natalie Foreman describes. “The traffic goes far too fast; there is no shoulder at some spots on the road,” she says, adding that she knows many community members would love to bike more but are too timid to do so. “Dedicated bike lanes would discourage the convoy of single occupancy cars travelling into the city.”

Like the Waddell-Shanklands, the Foreman family plans to bring their observations from the commuting challenge to the city. “I am a firm believer in recognizing an issue but also offering a solution,” says Natalie.

The Shannon household

Samantha Shannon rides her e-bike around her community. (Photo courtesy of the Shannon family)
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Samantha Shannon says she loves using her e-bike to get to and from commitments in her community. “The kids don’t groan about having to go on errands because instead, we are going on a bike ride,” she says. As the family of five from Airdrie, Alberta, lives right on the Trans Canada trail, they have an abundance of bike paths that can take them from point A to point B. The best part? Maximizing e-bike use can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by 24.4 million metric tons, with an average savings of 580 kilograms per person, according to a 2022 report in the journal Transport Policy.

But there are some funding options Samantha says she wishes she knew before purchasing her e-bike. For example, Alberta and British Columbia have SCRAP-IT rebate programs which offer monetary incentives to citizens who want to replace their old vehicles with e-bikes. It’s not just the Western provinces – a program in Nova Scotia provides a $500 rebate for the purchase of qualifying e-bikes from dealerships and retailers. Additionally, the Shannons point out there are always DIY kits available for those who already own a bike but want to convert it to an e-bike.

The Marsh household

Baldev and Brandon pose for a picture while spending time outdoors. (Photo courtesy the Marsh family).
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When the Marsh family examined their commuting habits at the start of the challenge, they discovered that a significant majority of their weekly travels revolved around activities related to health and wellness. From driving to different gyms and hockey arenas multiple days a week, the family of five from Etobicoke, Ontario, concluded this is the area they must focus on when trying to cut down on carbon emissions related to commuting. 

Their solution? Ditching the traffic-heavy commute to the gym and instead opting to embrace the outdoors for their fitness activities, such as hiking in Niagara Glen Nature Park to biking at Humber Bay Park. 

Moving forward, the Marshes are planning for long-term solutions and intend on setting up a home gym. Effectively, this will not only eliminate the need to commute but can cut down on financial expenses associated with membership fees. They aren’t stopping there, though: they also plan to invest in energy-efficient fitness devices such as weights, yoga mats and stationary bikes.

The Proulx-Coll household

The Proulx-Coll family packs up their site after embarking on a trailer-free camping trip. (Photo courtesy the Proulx-Coll family)
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The Proulx-Coll family have long been avid campers. About every two weeks during the summer, you can find the family of five from Montréal, Quebec, in the woods enjoying all that nature has to offer. However, upon embarking on the commuting challenge, they decided the large camper trailer they’ve been using for their trips, which is pulled by a sizeable gas-powered pickup truck, won’t help them in their quest to lower household emissions. Thus, when they booked a campsite at Parc National de la Mauricie, they decided to pack a tent and drive their 10-year-old electric vehicle instead.

“The commuting challenge came at the right time where we just decided to reassess our adventure setup, and we decided to try it out,” Jess Coll says. “We all really enjoyed it and it was clear that we’re going to do this more.”

The weekend ended up being a success, with a nine-kilometre canoe trip and a 10-kilometre hike on the itinerary. The family embraced simplicity, packing dehydrated food and ditching their cooler and pillows. The Proulx-Coll children didn’t even seem to mind the minimalist living, Jess describes, despite not having all the amenities they usually do. Following the trip, the family decided they would be selling their trailer and gas-powered vehicle.

“We’re not even convinced that it’s more practical to have a trailer anymore because you bring so much less, and it’s so simple,” Jess describes.

The DePape-Rodrigues household

Kari and Brigette take their bikes out on a sunny day in Winnipeg. (Photo courtesy the DePape-Rodrigues family)
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Before the commuting challenge even started, the DePape-Rodrigues family was already in the market for an EV to replace one of their gas-powered vehicles. When the competition began, they decided there was no better time to make the transition than now. 

Electric vehicles are the future, with Canada banning the sale of new combustion engine passenger cars and light trucks by 2035. Investing in an EV is an effective way to lower emissions, though its impact varies from province to province. For example, in a hydro-rich province like Manitoba, where the DePape-Rodrigues family lives, you can reduce your vehicle-related emissions by around 95 per cent. Thus, they took the plunge and purchased their first-ever EV.

However, the family still tried to limit their vehicle use over the challenge. They would drive their vehicle if they were dropping their daughter off at daycare, but otherwise, they took advantage of active modes of transportation. Brigette biked to work almost every day, and Kari would take trips to the grocery store using a cargo bike they rented from a local shop. They quickly realized that not only did biking help cut down on their emissions, but it boosted their mental and physical health, too. 

“I think it can be a shock to get out there and actually do it,” Kari says of making such a significant lifestyle change. “But I think those little changes are going to be super important because those are things that ultimately end up saving families money. It is going to probably have the largest impact and change across the country if Canadians are committed to that.”

The Reid household

Jen Reid poses with her electric scooter before carpooling with a colleague to work. (Photo courtesy the Reid family)
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The Reid family’s approach to the commuting challenge was to find ways to reduce emissions while ensuring the changes they are making are lasting and sustainable. Throughout this challenge, the family of six from Dundas, Ontario, experimented with different ways of moving around town to narrow down what works best for them. 

Jen Reid has started taking public transit more frequently and has found she thoroughly enjoys interacting with people in her community, closing her eyes or reading a book during her commute. However, an inconsistent bus service has made for some lengthy, difficult trips, with some routes not always getting the Reids where they need to go. Thus, they considered other alternatives. 

“Carpooling is an under-utilized strategy for reducing emissions,” says Steve Viau, Jen’s partner. He explains that this method of commuting is likely to resonate with people more than bussing, as it’s quicker and allows for more flexibility. 

Before the challenge began, the Reids had formed a neighbourhood group consisting of ten families as a way of sharing information about what small, local steps can be taken to battle climate change. From in-person backyard meetings to handing out flyers, the Reids have sought to unite their community and brainstorm how they can cut down on emissions. 

“What we’re now doing is trying to get people talking about their schedules and whether they would be open to carpooling together,” he says. “Part of our view of the contest is the idea of sharing information and building community through the lens of climate change and moving towards net zero.

The MacInnis-Boudreau household

Change is difficult, and it’s even more challenging to build meaningful habits that stick. But the MacInnis-Boudreau family from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, found small ways to change their lives that they know they can commit to long-term while still working to improve upon them. 

The MacInnis-Boudreau family go on a walk in an effort to reduce their carbon emissions related to commuting. (Photo courtesy the MacInnis-Boudreau family)
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Months before beginning the commuting challenge, this soon-to-be family of five optimistically questioned the viability of becoming a single-vehicle household. But since Marc often travels for work and Ashley needs a car to reach her clients, they concluded this wasn’t going to be an option. Though they will remain a two-car household, they have traded one of their gas-powered vehicles for a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) – which uses batteries to power an electric motor and another fuel, like gasoline. 

Over the two-week challenge, the family found other ways to reduce emissions. From errand-stacking to purchasing a new gym membership closer to home to carpooling, biking and taking public transit, the MacInnis-Boudreaus shifted their lifestyle to cut down on emissions. Ashley, who is nine months pregnant, also walked about 75 kilometres over the two-week period – commuting by foot to and from her appointments. 

“One thing that we’ve really been trying to impress upon people is that we’re just an average family. If we can kind of get creative and find ways to do [reduce emissions], everyone should feel encouraged to be able to make small changes,” says Ashley. “It doesn’t have to be anything over-the-moon or wacky or crazy or expensive. It can really be simple day-to-day changes that you make that have such a huge impact.”


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