Something unusual has happened on the Northwest Territories’ roads.
The number of registered vehicles fell in both 2019 and 2020, even as the population slightly increased. It’s the first time a multiple-year fall in vehicle numbers has not been associated with any decline in the number of residents.
In 2020, the number of registered NWT vehicles fell by 1,539 from 40,269 to 38,730. Only two years have seen bigger drops: 2007, during the global financial crisis, and 2000.
Traffic on the NWT’s roads has fallen, too. In 2020, every highway except one saw traffic fall according to the NWT Bureau of Statistics. Only Highway 4, the Ingraham Trail, saw a small increase.
The Covid-19 pandemic is the obvious explanation – it may also be why the Ingraham Trail was a little busier, thanks to staycationing Yellowknifers – and that explanation was given by the territorial government when we asked.
The Department of Infrastructure, which did not provide an interview for this report, said in a written statement: “We believe this decline in registered vehicles is primarily attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some individuals may have held off on registering vehicles or trailers that are used infrequently.”
Spokesperson Darren Campbell wrote: “Vehicle registrations had increased steadily up until 2019 and estimated annual daily traffic on NWT highways had remained consistent up until 2020, so the declines appear to be pandemic-driven anomalies.”
While it’s not quite the case that vehicle registrations had previously increased steadily – there were sizeable dips in 2004 and 2011, alongside 2000 and 2007 – the overall picture is one of more and more vehicles over time.
In 1990, the year the NWT Bureau of Statistics’ data begins, there was exactly one vehicle for every two people in the NWT. Under the term “vehicle” we’re counting everything from cars and pickup trucks to school buses, ambulances, and scooters.
By 2018, the territory had shifted from 0.5 vehicles per person to 0.9 vehicles per person. If you spent the past 30 years living in the NWT, you would have seen the number of vehicles go from around 20,000 to 40,000, even though the population hasn’t seen anything like that kind of increase (38,000 to 45,000).
Yet the current decline in vehicle registrations began before the pandemic. In 2019, the NWT registered 78 fewer vehicles than in the previous year.
That’s not a vast drop, but it’s out of the ordinary and it happened across almost all vehicle categories, before we had a pandemic to contend with, and as the population rose slightly. (Nationally, Canadian vehicle registrations rose in 2019 with no sign of a similar blip.)
The last multiple-year drop in NWT vehicle registrations, in 1996 and 1997, came at a time when the population dipped a little (in 1997, having grown in 1996). In the mid-1990s, while global warming had been recognized, there was no equivalent of the current global push to rein in emissions and give up vehicles.
So while the current dip in vehicle numbers appears mostly pandemic-driven, there are other factors.
Is our increasing awareness of the climate capable of curbing vehicle use even in a place like the NWT, where public transportation is limited and a private vehicle considered vital by many?
Sharing a car gains ground
The territorial government has a stated aim to reduce its emissions by 2030 in part by tackling the transportation sector but, in practice, its commitment to doing so by taking vehicles off the road is minimal at best.
In its energy action plan, the GNWT says it will reduce transportation emissions by 10 percent per person this decade.
That partly involves creating infrastructure for electric vehicles, but that work is set to take years and relies on convincing a sometimes skeptical northern public that such vehicles are a workable option for the lifestyles they lead.
So far, most of the GNWT’s transportation plan includes making its own fleet more efficient – including tug boats – and doing the same for long-haul trucks.
But there is some government support for programs like car-sharing, and there are some northerners prepared to give up a vehicle of their own. The likeliest place for that to happen is Yellowknife, the territorial capital, where public transit and cycling infrastructure exist, unlike in most smaller communities, where the challenge of parting with a private vehicle is far greater.
Yellowknife also hosts the YK Car Share Co-op, to which around 40 residents have signed up.
Hermina Joldersma gave up her vehicle in the summer of 2020 and joined the car-sharing program, which features a lone, electrified Chevy Spark that lives in a parking lot next to City Hall.
Given many Yellowknifers’ (unfounded) suspicion that electric vehicles unduly struggle in winter, Joldersma provides a surprising reason for joining the car share co-op: her diesel vehicle didn’t like the cold.
“I have outdoor parking and it was an older car. It wouldn’t reliably start in the winter,” Joldersma said during a trip in the Spark last week.
“The other thing was I didn’t use the car. A lot of my to-do is downtown. The bus routes in Yellowknife are surprisingly good – people don’t think so but they are, it’s not bad at all.”
And the Spark’s winter performance?
“The fact is, it’s great,” she said. “The range is slightly reduced in the winter. Other than that it starts like a charm, drives like a charm. It’s absolutely wonderful.”
Joldersma is an extreme case. She says she put fuel in her old vehicle twice a year, a level of vehicle use well below what most Yellowknifers would consider average.
But she says the car share co-op is increasingly finding residents who don’t have nor want a car of their own.
“We’re finding that one market besides older women like myself is millennials who are used to not having cars when they come from the south,” Joldersma said.
“We’ve had a number of drivers sign on who haven’t had a car here, they use this instead.
“I talked to the nurse who gave me my first Covid shot. When I talked about the car share, she got all excited about it. We see some potential in Yellowknife, in the North, because we have temporary people who come for not just a day but a month, two months. They are not going to buy a car or bring their car but they would like access to a car.”
‘A question of convenience’
The Chevy Spark isn’t useful for much beyond trips to and from city stores, but that’s exactly why Joldersma wants a vehicle, so it’s a perfect fit.
She acknowledges, though, that others will be keeping their own vehicles for longer trips to places like the South Slave. Addressing that need is a future ambition for the co-op.
“It would be nice if there were car-share vehicles for longer jaunts,” she said.
“Our goal is to have some more vehicles so that the use can be flexible, there can be different options. We would like the next one to be bigger so you can carry a few more things.”
The test for the car share program will be whether adding those options – say, a gas-powered pickup truck with the range to easily reach Fort Smith – will prove attractive enough to people who are used to their own vehicle.
At the moment, the City of Yellowknife is a major financial supporter of the car-share program and, in return, its staff who sign up to the program have priority during City Hall’s weekday working hours. That means Joldersma and others must primarily use the vehicle on weekends or evenings.
She says she has adapted to that constraint. Moreover, she adds, the entire philosophy of sharing a car requires a shift in thinking that she feels an increasing number of people are prepared to make.
“It’s a question of convenience,” Joldersma said. “Having a car standing outside your door for you to use at any time? You say yep, that’s what I want. But you don’t think: I’ve got to take it to the shop. Now it won’t start. I’ve got to get the annual inspection done.
“To me, those are inconveniences, but they’re the ones we’re used to. Whereas booking and walking to the car share, that’s an inconvenience that you’re not used to. So you think three times about it before you do it.
“But when you make that switch in your mind, you say: I like this kind of inconvenience better than that kind of inconvenience, because of the other conveniences it gives me.”
Somewhere in 2020’s registered vehicles statistic, Joldersma represents a minus-one for passenger cars.
When 2021’s figure is released (which is months away), there could well be a resurgence in the number of vehicles. Most of the previous dips in vehicle numbers were followed by hefty rebounds a year or two later.
But it’s also possible that in an increasingly environmentally conscious market, even NWT consumers are becoming more open to one of the territory’s biggest sacrifices – their own car – and the savings not owning one might bring.
McKenna Hadley-Burke contributed reporting. Video recorded and edited by Sarah Pruys.
Correction: November 8, 2021 – 11:32 MT. This article initially referred to the YK Car Share Co-op’s vehicle as a Chevy Volt. It’s actually a 2016 Spark.