Climate change

Canada, we need to talk about your car problem

Why being grown-ups in the climate age means restricting car use
Photo: Wyliepoon

It’s a favourite citizen sport to lambaste our politicians for the contradictions between their words and acts. More rarely, however, do we point a critical eye to our own incoherences, and ask whether we’re really, truly doing our reasonable best to be consistent with our values. I can think of no greater example than our addiction to cars.

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Values are admittedly easy to utter, harder to honour. It’s easy to say we “accept” the climate science (without informing ourselves too much about it), or that we “agree” with the urgency of reducing our emissions (without grasping the depth of changes required). But when it comes time to be consequent in our choices, or to support the rare politicians who have the courage to ask us to change, too often we fall back on easy excuses, play the victim, or cast the burden onto our neighbours.

So here is the cost: in Canada, transportation emissions are nearly tied with those from the oil and gas sector, with each accounting for about a quarter of the total — and growing. These two sectors are why our national emissions have barely budged since 2005 despite reductions in all other sectors. The Alberta tar sands keep expanding, and our roads keep overflowing with more cars.

Politicians with a mind to self-preservation shy from pushing for the systemic solutions required because they’re afraid of the voter backlash. So it’s up to citizens, to us, to tell them we’re ready to change.

Why the easy answer is not enough

The go-to response for the guilty driver is that they need better transit options to help them make the responsible choice. Indeed, Canada’s cities have decades of catching up to do when it comes to building robust and efficient public transit networks. With 80 per cent of Canadians still driving their cars to get to work, the task is colossal.

Yet we also see the limit to casting the blame on politicians when city governments who do push forward with pro-transit(ion) policies — as many, at long last, are (timidly) starting to do — encounter an often-visceral resistance from residents or businesses unwilling to accept and adapt to the tradeoffs required of our new reality.

Nearly everyone can agree with the need for better transit service — on paper. But when a lane of parking or car traffic must be removed to make way for a priority transit lane or bike lane, or when a congestion charge must be levied to decrease car use and fund transit expansions, suddenly our social conscience gets thrown under the… well, bus.

Embracing the tradeoffs

We have seen examples of this troubling tendency recently in all three of Canada’s largest cities. In Toronto, a pilot project was implemented to restrict car access on King Street in order to improve streetcar service on North America’s busiest transit surface route. Business owners fumed and continue to fume, despite city data showing that consumer spending is unaffected, while transit ridership has soared by 16 per cent.

If Toronto’s busiest streetcar line is not the proper site for a low-cost test run aimed at nudging Torontonians to think of their city differently, then where would be?

In Montreal, a pilot project was launched to ban automobile through-traffic on Mount Royal (drivers can still access the summit) in order to improve bus service through the park, better protect cyclists, and restore the cherished greenspace to the oasis from city life (and pollution) that it was initially designed to be. The move by the city’s new pro-transit mayor sparked an uproar among the many drivers who use the park as a shortcut on their morning commute, and a petition opposing the project has garnered 30,000 signatures.

In Vancouver, an audacious congestion pricing scheme was proposed by a government-commissioned study released in May — which seems to be heading straight for the garbage heap, done in by citizen opposition and skittish politicians before a much-needed public debate could even hope to address people’s legitimate concerns.

Choosing the common good

The obstructionist backlash witnessed in Canada’s metropolises is worrying on various fronts, not least because it begs the question: whose interests, and what values, are motivating the projects’ opponents?

If Toronto’s busiest streetcar line is not the proper site for a low-cost test run aimed at nudging Torontonians to think of their city differently, then where would be? If Montreal’s most emblematic public park is not the perfect site for a traffic calming plan aimed at restoring a natural treasure, well then, where is?

The opponents of these initiatives seem to believe that we can transition to cleaner modes of transit without simultaneously restricting car use. But in the real world, streets have limited space, governments have limited budgets, and easy habits die hard. The notion that we can change without choosing is a fantasy that, if indulged, will only perpetuate our status-quo dependency on cars.

The status quo is not an option

Just as opponents of carbon-pricing schemes, from federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, have the historic responsibility to propose credible alternatives to achieve the deep emissions cuts required, so too do opponents of car-restrictive policies have the responsibility to propose alternatives that take seriously the existential imperatives of our age.

If they do not and instead opt to deprive us of the constructive debate we need in order to move forward together, then we will be left to presume that they have neither genuinely accepted, nor genuinely understood, the need to change our ways. Regardless of what they say.

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