Car culture and geography harm the poor far more than tolls

There’s no doubt tolls hurt poor people, but a car-dominated transportation system does far more damage and everyone who wants a more just society should support measures that help rid our over-heating planet of private automobiles.

The primary left-wing complaint about tolling two Toronto highways is it will harm the poor. One activist responded to my criticism of toll opponents by posting, “some folks are so desperate for a war on the car they are willing to settle for a war on the poor disguised as such.” Another individual wrote on someone else’s Facebook page: “It’s almost embarrassing seeing people who think of themselves as progressive supporting policies that would disproportionately hit those with the least the most. It seems like the very definition of privileged, ivory towerism.”

To the extent lower income folks drive the Gardiner Expressway or Don Valley Parkway a $2 toll is obviously a greater burden (though income-contingent tax rebates can remedy this). But driving and income are inversely correlated. Poorer people own fewer vehicles and drive less since shoes, a bike, or bus pass are cheaper than a personal car.

But tolls — and the modest, imperfect, challenge to auto-hegemony they represent — should be examined through a broader wealth/inequality lens. In a variety of ways, structuring transport and urban landscapes around the private auto entrenches class and wealth divisions and negatively impacts poor people.

For example, although they drive less, lower income folks are more likely to live on heavily trafficked streets/neighbourhoods. Increased car noise and pollution leads to various ills, including higher rates of asthma and cancer.

Poor and working-class communities have also borne the brunt of community destroying automotive infrastructure. Innumerable poor and working class neighbourhoods across North America have been bulldozed to build highways.

As well as indifference to the negative impact of highways on poor communities, planners require parking spots for each new lodging unit, which increases the cost of housing. “Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people,” writes Donald Shoup in The High Cost of Free Parking. “By increasing the cost of housing, parking requirements make the real homelessness problem even worse.”

Then there’s the ideological element. As an important means for the wealthy to assert social dominance, the private car heightens cultural inequities. “The automobile’s a credit card on wheels,” writes Heathcote Williams. “It’s pushy to tell people how much you make, so you tell ’em through your automobile.”

While allowing the rich to flaunt their status, the private car also shields drivers from “undesirables.” During a stop in Portland as part of research for Bianca Mugyenyi and my book Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay an Oregonian columnist writing about street youth shared a reader’s letter detailing the lengths he went to avoid the homeless. In the morning he entered work through the underground parking. At lunch he eschewed the nearby restaurants and slipped into his car to avoid panhandlers. Finally, he used the parkade exit to avoid street people on his way home from work. “Many of us, myself included,” a businessman from northeast Portland emailed the paper, “drive garage (home) to garage (downtown) to garage (home) and never leave the building because of this [street youth] problem…It’s easier just not to deal with it.”

One reason some choose personal vehicles over public transit is to avoid the poor or perceived social inferiors. A couple years ago a union colleague strongly implied that was why he didn’t take the bus to work. In Down the Asphalt Path Clay McShane writes about the history of the elite’s disdain for public transit riders: “Trolleys were dirty, noisy, and overcrowded. It was impossible for middle-class riders to isolate themselves from fellow riders whom they perceived as social inferiors. Distancing themselves from blacks, immigrants, blue collar workers, and, in general those stereotyped as the ‘great unwashed,’ was often precisely why the middle classes had moved to the [streetcar] suburbs.”

The private car has made it possible for the wealthier to live far from the poor (or anyone else without an automobile). Partly to keep “undesirables” out, many suburban municipalities have blocked transit projects from their boundaries or underinvested in mass transit.

A 2013 study looking at how social mobility varies across US cities found that the poor are less likely to rise the socio-economic ladder the more residents are geographically segregated. In other words, the further apart different social classes live the more entrenched inequality becomes. The “Equality of Opportunity Project” study shows that relatively compact cities such as San Francisco, New York and Boston have greater social mobility than more sprawling counterparts Memphis, Detroit and Atlanta. In relatively transit and pedestrian oriented San Francisco, for instance, someone born into the poorest fifth of income distribution had an 11 per cent chance of reaching the top fifth while in car-oriented Atlanta this number was only four per cent.

At a global level the world’s poorest are the chief victims of the climate crisis. Automobiles are a major source of Canada’s extremely high per capita carbon emissions. Transport represents over 40 per cent of Toronto and Montréal’s greenhouse gas emissions and in both cities it’s growing while other sectors decline.

Although hardest hit by climate change, the terrible irony is that Africa among all continents is least responsible for the problem. Per capita emissions in most African countries amount to barely one per cent of Canada’s rate, yet the Climate Vulnerability Monitor concludes that climate disturbances are already responsible for 400,000 deaths per year, mostly in Africa. Nigerian ecologist Nnimmo Bassey has dubbed growing carbon emissions a “death sentence for Africa.”

Overwhelmed by capitalist culture and enmeshed with unions tied to automobile production, socialist parties and movements have largely failed to challenge car-oriented transport for exacerbating inequities. Much the same could be said for an environmental movement highly dependent on rich philanthropists.

If we want a more egalitarian society, we must reverse geographical segregation and build communities and cities where people can get around without the private automobile. Tolls that discourage driving can be one step in accomplishing this.

Urban areas liberated from the danger, pollution and ecological devastation of the private car enjoy both heightened quality of life and equality of residents. Proportionately, poor people benefit the most.

This is the third in a four-part series on the ‘Great Toronto toll debate.’

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