Looking beyond gridlock
Whatever the appeal of the car may be, mobility has little to do with it.
Published December 14, 2007 by TheStar.com
by Christopher Hume
Canada – Whatever the appeal of the car may be, mobility has little to do with it.
The truth of this lies not just in the extreme congestion and epic commutes documented this week by Star correspondents, but as they also made clear, in our mind-boggling capacity to put up with it.
That's why efforts to control car use are doomed to failure as long as they're based on attempts to replace it with alternate forms of transportation, especially public transit.
Of course, subways, streetcars and buses are important, even crucial, but the majority choose not to use them despite the fact they're cheaper, more efficient and sustainable. The better way is, don't forget, the better way. The fact remains, however, that there's nothing rational about why people in the hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, hop into their vehicles every morning and evening for the daily commute.
Rationality alone cannot explain why these commuters are prepared to spend hours and hours getting to and from work. Or why they tolerate the frustration, tedium and stress, not to mention risk.
Our love affair with the car – illusory and unrequited though it is – has more to do with individual desire for power, or at least an appearance of it.
Think of it, sitting in our own private mechanized chariot we are encased in 1,500 kilograms of steel and glass that comes and goes, stops and starts, at our command. This is heady stuff, irresistible to many, especially men, who view cars as a form of self-expression and ego enhancement.
The fact that everyone else is out on the road doing the same thing at the same time means reality and fantasy never quite mesh, but the allure of fantasy cannot be underestimated.
Beyond gridlock, there are issues of greenhouse gas emissions, air quality and safety, but again, such considerations pale beside an idea as exhilarating as the car.
That's why cities that have succeeded in prying people out of their automobiles are those that have resorted to tough measures.
London, Stockholm and Singapore introduced congestion fees that force drivers to pay large sums for the privilege of taking their cars downtown. Even then, the decline in traffic has been no more than 22 or 23 per cent. This isn't huge, but it's enough to take some pressure off commuters. And although locals hated the prospect at first, in time they learned to love the results.
In Denmark, by contrast, anyone buying a car pays a 180 per cent vehicle registration tax as well as a 25 per cent value-added tax. This explains why so many Danish car owners are middle-aged and older; the young are generally too poor to ride anything more than a bicycle.
But speaking of bikes, the Danes – as well as the Swedes and the Dutch – have built an elaborate infrastructure to accommodate the two-wheeler. Cyclists have their own lanes, parking spots, signals and, most impressive of all, drivers' respect.
And keep in mind that the price of gas throughout most of Europe is double what it is here. Little surprise then, that North America was long ago overtaken by Europe in its attempts to deal with vehicular dependence.
It doesn't help either that the Canadian psyche, like that of the U.S., harbours deep-seated anti-urban fears. The fact that 80 per cent of Canadians live in towns and cities has done little to change this 19th-century holdover.
The car has allowed us to act out this anti-urban bias by making sprawl possible. And the more we sprawl, the more we rely on cars.
Thus the vicious cycle of congestion gets played out daily on our highways.
It's obvious that we as a society need to change our myths let alone our values. That's unlikely to happen anytime soon, though we did pull it off with smoking.
What will be required is something even more punishing than gridlock, no matter how bad it grows.
The answer will include a program of road tolls, vehicular taxes, registration fees, parking restrictions and higher fuel prices.
These are not the sorts of measures that even the greenest Canadian political leaders have been willing to espouse so far. If anything, they prefer to act as societal enablers; we vote for them and in return they give us permission to carry on as usual.
At the same time, however, there has been a move to increase urban densities and limit sprawl.
Queen's Park has passed several pieces of legislation aimed at protecting the green belt around the GTA and designating growth centres. It remains largely unimplemented, but it marks the first time in decades that the province has re-entered the planning game.
Meanwhile, Toronto has embraced residential towers as never before and actually approved developments with fewer parking spots than legally required or none at all.
This means people can live and work with nothing more than public transit, a bicycle or their feet to get them from one place to another.
Hard to believe that, until recently, this would have been illegal. But times change, albeit more slowly than they must.
Even in Toronto, it's becoming painfully clear that either we kill the commute, or it will kill us.