Live Net Zero: Getting creative with commuting

From biking to “big epic walk days,” the families found fun and practical ways to cut down on their household vehicle emissions in their first challenge

  • Oct 21, 2022
  • 1,314 words
  • 6 minutes
Andrea and Vineet pose with their cargo e-bike, which Andrea says was a “game-changer” in the commuting challenge. (Photo courtesy the Loewen-Nair family)
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Living in the country with the world’s second-largest land area, Canadians know how to get creative with commuting. From Ottawans skating to work via the Rideau Canal to Calgarians biking to their errands via the Bow River Pathway, most cities in Canada have developed a range of options for travelling from point A to point B. 

But finding green ways to get around year-round can be a challenge, especially as blankets of snow start to hug much of our country. While biking and skating are fantastic commuting methods for those with the ability and access, it’s also not practical for everyone to stop driving altogether.

Still, personal vehicle transportation accounts for 10 per cent of Canada’s national carbon emissions, or about 4.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases per vehicle per year, so choosing alternative modes of transportation can help foster a healthier planet. Even a reduction in driving a gas-powered vehicle by a mere 20 kilometres per week decreases carbon emissions by up to 13 kilograms.

That’s why, in Live Net Zero’s first challenge, Canadian Geographic asked our participating families to find ways to decrease their household emissions connected to commuting.Through examining their usual routines, exploring mobility options with fewer or zero emissions, and changing old habits, the five Live Net Zero families worked hard to dramatically reduce their commuting carbon footprint. Here’s how they did it. 

In the second week of the commuting challenge, the Richmonds biked up to 85 kilometres, up from 11 kilometres during their baseline week. (Photo: Ania Richmond)
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The Richmond Family 

Living in Red Deer, Alta., the Richmond family is near some of the most magnificent landscapes Canada has to offer. It’s no surprise that the family of four enjoys outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, biking and cross-country skiing. But since heading into the backcountry usually requires a vehicle, and since the Richmonds own an outdoor recreation store that requires gear to be transported, completely ditching their hybrid SUV wasn’t a realistic move. Despite this, the family was confident heading into the challenge. 

“We moved to Red Deer so we can commute on foot and bike a lot more,” says Ania Richmond. “[This challenge] really puts you to the test. As my husband likes to say, ‘we’re walking the talk.’”

In the second week of the challenge, the Richmonds biked up to 85 kilometres, up from 11 kilometres during their baseline week. Ania says her four-year-old son is biking “off the walls” now and wanting to cycle everywhere. 

However, Ania says the most important step in living net zero is to make a plan that’s sustainable. Come winter time, biking won’t be an option for the family, so they instead plan to carpool more and map out the days they’ll need to take a car into Calgary for errands. Come springtime, the family plans on investing in a cargo e-bike.

The Richmonds also plan on getting rid of their second, gas-powered vehicle, which consumes 10-14 litres of gas per 100 kilometres. In the meantime, their older son, seven-year-old Theo, has challenged himself to ride his bike to school everyday until Halloween or the first snowfall—whichever comes first. 

The Leung Family

The Leungs plan out their commuting routes. (Photo courtesy the Leung family)
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Like the Richmonds, the Leung family found planning was the key to success in the commuting challenge. Heading into week one, the Leungs were focused on minimizing the amount of driving they did, opting instead to bike, walk, or take public transit.

When the family did have to drive, they tried to combine the trips and carpool. No matter what mode of transportation they used, they wrote everything down, and by the second week, they were able to identify ways they could improve. The biggest surprise, according to Nancy Leung, was the realization that it’s actually not that difficult to create new habits. “If you really wanted to make a difference and change the way you commute, it’s possible as long as the infrastructure is there to support you,” she told Canadian Geographic, adding that her family is fortunate to live in a city like Vancouver with numerous bike paths. 

For Nancy, getting used to sharing the road with cars while on her bike was very intimidating at first, but the more she cycled, the more she gained confidence. 

A highlight of the Pistor family's commuting challenge was their “big epic walk day,” where the family walked 10 kilometres from their home all the way to the thrift shop. (Photo: Jennifer Pistor)
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The Pistor Family

One of the highlights of the commuting challenge for the Pistor family was their “big epic walk day,” where the family of five walked 10 kilometres from their home all the way to the thrift shop. “It was quite the jaunt,” Jennifer Pistor told Canadian Geographic, “and we had to go over a very long bridge to get there . . . We ended up making a whole day of it.”

Walking to that thrift store instead of driving to it, as they normally would have, created a special family outing for the family where they chatted and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. A week later, Jen’s children were still asking when they can go on an “adventure” like that again. 

“Sometimes you can create these little memorable moments by just choosing to do something in a simpler way and taking a little more time,” she says. “I think as a society, we’re so in a hurry and we’re rushed all the time. But when we can just take a minute to slow it down, it’s kind of special.”

The Pistors also usually make weekly trips to the grocery store, but after reading a study from the University of Washington which found that using a grocery delivery service can cut carbon emissions by half when compared with driving to the store, the family shifted the way they shop. 

“Sometimes you can create these little memorable moments by just choosing to do something in a simpler way and taking a little more time.”

Jennifer Pistor
An overflowing grocery cart’s-worth of food was able to fit onto the Loewen-Nair family’s cargo e-bike. (Photo: Andrea Loewen-Nair)
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The Loewen-Nair Family

Two weeks without a car: that’s what the Loewen-Nair family set out to accomplish in the commuting challenge. By sticking with a plan, finding alternate mobility options, and investing in green technology, they were able to make that happen.

A cargo e-bike was a game-changer for Andrea Loewen-Nair when it came to running errands,  she told Canadian Geographic. At the same time, she discovered there are places in their city of London, Ont. with no bike or bus infrastructure, which meant that to get to certain locations, a car is required. Despite this, the family of four plans to make their commuting as green as possible moving forward, and is committing to driving around 4,250 kilometres annually—11,750 fewer kilometres than the average vehicle in Ontario. 

Loewen-Nair’s recommendations for Canadians wanting to partake in the commuting challenge themselves? Invest in good gear and make sure you’re prepared in advance for any kind of weather. That way, you’re not discouraged from biking if it starts raining. 

The Lai Family

Janet Lai discovered the final leg of her journey to work can be done by walking or biking, so she was able to cut the family’s total daily vehicle usage by about five kilometres. (Photo: Calvin Lai)
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Heading into the commuting challenge, the Lai family was worried. Parents Calvin and Janet are both greatly dependent on cars for work, and alternatives like biking are not feasible for them or are dangerous as there is a lack of biking infrastructure in their area.

Because of this, the family of three had to get creative with how they could reduce their vehicle usage. Every little bit counts, Calvin explained to Canadian Geographic. Janet discovered the final leg of her journey to work can be done by walking or biking, so she was able to cut their daily vehicle usage by about five kilometres.  

Reflecting back on the challenge, the Lais concluded that the biggest way they can reduce emissions is to drive only when needed, and to do combined trips in their vehicles, such as stopping at the supermarket on the way to work. For those who cannot avoid driving, they also recommend evaluating the type of vehicle you own. A small, compact car is often more fuel-efficient compared to larger vehicles, meaning not only do you reduce greenhouse gas emissions, you also save fuel and money. 


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