I didn’t get my licence until I was 25, so I’ve never relished driving or been particularly good at it. But at age 38, deep in COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve grown to adore it. Driving around Toronto is the closest I can get to feeling normal. Turn the music up, eyes on the road, and my lonely brain ceases ruminating on past failures or the cloudy, uncertain future. And protected by glass and metal, I feel like the Pope on Easter, safe from the throngs in my Popemobile.
I’m not the only one turning to my car during this pandemic. A recent survey by Capgemini Research Institute says millennials like myself, many of whom have previously chosen to allocate their budgets elsewhere, are now considering buying a car. Why? “Three-quarters of those who intend to purchase a car will do so to gain better control over hygiene.” In May, the car sales website AutoTrader reported an all-time high of 20 million visits to the site, a 15 percent year-over-year increase.
I think about the grocery stockpiling I can do, the hikes I can drive to, and that safe feeling I have tucked within my own ride the whole time. It’s too early to say for sure—people are losing jobs as quickly as they are reconsidering their budgets—but cars could absolutely play a larger role in the future, or the near-future, of city-living.
Perhaps driving through a light projection of “The Starry Night,” with your own soundtrack and temperature control and the freedom to make snide comments with abandon, is the ideal way to experience such a thing.
But I’m skeptical about Toronto Zoo’s Scenic Safari, and the other recently announced car-only events happening this summer, like a July Talk concert and “Immersive Van Gogh,” a lightshow of blown-up projections of paintings by the Dutch master. For one, I live alone—so driving through an event solo sounds comically un-fun. But also, most of my peers don’t even have cars. My dad gave me his when he bought a new one, but without that, a writer and editor making my salary has no business owning a car. I still don’t, if I’m honest, with insurance at around $250 a month, plus street parking, repairs, snow tires, and licence plate stickers; even with this generous gift, the additional expenses have plagued me. This is why 28 percent of Torontonians don’t have cars, according to 2018 data. These drive-through events are simply a non-option for more than a quarter of the city’s inhabitants.
But as problematic and unfair as the driving advantage is through this pandemic, we can’t be too precious about the Toronto Zoo or our previous experiences walking through it. I don’t even really like the zoo, the band July Talk, or the idea of a Van Gogh light show, but these folks need to try something. And perhaps driving through a light projection of “The Starry Night,” with your own soundtrack and temperature control and the freedom to make snide comments with abandon, is the ideal way to experience such a thing.
It’s entirely possible.
I decide to try the zoo because it’s far from home. I live in the west end, and the zoo is on out in Scarborough, in Rouge National Urban Park. Even if it’s terrible, I’ll get to drive there and back, which would give me an hour-long break from myself. That seems good enough.
After a quick pit stop at the portable washrooms—two attendants wearing classic Zoo bucket hats faithfully wipe down the toilet seat and door knobs after every use—I return to my car, and wind back and forth through orange pylons, set up like the customs line at the airport. I see a sign about an audio guide and fumble with my phone to queue up the tour in my podcast app as I inch along behind a red pick-up truck, kids hanging out of the window on each side.
“Hello explorers,” says the audio guide, Brian. “Are you ready for your wild adventure to begin?” He doesn’t sound convincing, but I am trying to have fun over here. “Yes Brian,” I say aloud, something I’ve caught myself doing more and more. “Let’s get fucking buck.”
But hard as I try, we do not get buck. The whole thing just feels like a traffic jam, peppered with the odd, incredulous exotic animal along the way. The speed limit is 5 km per hour, which is not a real speed. It’s tricky to drive at a snail’s pace without stopping, while also pressing pause and play intermittently on my phone at the right places, hopefully seeing some animals. Brian rattles off a bunch of species I might catch a glance of—maybe a lemur? I try to remember what a lemur is, but am fairly sure I’m thinking of a sloth. But it’s hard to pay attention. I forget to pause in the right place as the line of cars come to a halt.
Even though we’re not supposed to stop, we keep stopping, but never in front of any cool animals. I try to take in the outdoors, but without anything to concentrate on or anyone to talk to, I start to retreat into my own thoughts again.
Is this really how I’m going to be entertaining myself for the foreseeable future as we wait for a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19? City councillors are expanding the bike lane network and have closed down streets to make space for physical activity. But all of these accommodations—the extended bike lanes, the closed-down streets—none feel as safe and comfortable as my ride. I imagine that in the coming future, as more of my car-less friends are asked to return to their jobs or want to experience some events, I’ll invite them to use it. And hopefully, car-share companies can offer safe, affordable services to bridge the gaps, too.
But me? I doubt I’ll attend more drive-through events, being on my own. While I’ve grown to love cruising around in the car through the pandemic, I’ll use the car to volunteer more with my local COVID-19 support group delivering meals to low-income homes, and help my friends with groceries or curbside pickups. For me, keeping busy eases the loneliness. But entertainment? At ultra-low speeds in a lineup of cars, it feels lonelier than ever.