Category Archives: Stop Signs

Big oil, auto industries conspire to destroy liveability of planet

Is it simply business as usual or a corporate conspiracy to destroy the planet? However one characterizes it our planet is being cooked so already wealthy people can make even more profit.

Last Friday the New York Times published a front-page story titled “The Oil Industry’s Covert Campaign to Rewrite American Car Emissions Rules.” The article pointed out that Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Marathon Oil, Koch Industries and other oil/refining interests won “rollbacks” to vehicle fuel mileage rules that “have gone further than the more modest changes automakers originally lobbied for.” The legislative changes are expected to “increase greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by more than the amount many midsize countries put out in a year.”

With internal combustion engines consuming nearly two-thirds of US petroleum, industry profits are threatened by measures that cut gasoline consumption (be it better fuel mileage, diverting funds from roadway, eliminating auto infrastructure, etc.). About 150,000 gas stations do hundreds of billions of dollars in sales every year. In The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World Paul Roberts explains that the oil industry’s business model is planned around the gasoline pump, “from the kind of crude oil it sought to the kind of refineries it built, to its intense focus on retail marketing.”

The oil industry’s recent opposition to regulating automakers is consistent with its history of promoting automobility, as I and Bianca Mugyenyi detail in Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. As far back as 1925, oil representatives packed a committee organized by the US surgeon-general concerning the health effects of leaded gas. They successfully argued that lead was harmless despite the fact that companies such as Standard Oil of New Jersey knew leaded gasoline  was a health threat. Over the next 60 years lead levels increased a hundred-fold until it was finally banned in 1986.

In the 1930s and 40s Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum were part of the corporate conspiracy against trolleys  that changed the face of urban landscapes across North America. With General Motors and other companies they set up a network of front organizations that ripped up, converted and resold a hundred electric transit systems in 45 cities.

Amidst increasing smog in California in the 1950s, oil interests engaged in a fight against anti-pollution legislation. They financed  the Stanford Research Institute to contest the findings of Professor Arie J. Haagen-Smit who demonstrated that automobiles  and oil refineries were the major sources of smog.

In 1970 oil companies helped defeat  California’s Proposition 18, an initiative to divert a small portion of the state gas tax to public transit.

Oil companies were part of the National Highway Users Conference (NHUC) that was set up during the Depression to lobby for roadway funding. When the Chicago Transit Authority proposed using $30 million in state fuel tax to finance improvements to mass transit in the mid-1950s, the NHUC sent in two full-time workers to successfully coordinate opposition (with the Illinois Highway Users Conference) against the proposal.

In 1951, the NHUC launched Project  Adequate Roads, which called for a national highway system. Project Adequate Roads helped win the massive Interstate Highway System.

Oil interests were part of another group that lobbied for the Interstate. Beginning in 1942 the “Road Gang”, a secret society of men representing, automobile, truck and tire makers as well highway engineers, top highway bureaucrats, etc. met regularly in a private Washington, DC, restaurant to push for more roadway.

The private automobile has risen to dominance in large part because of its ability to draw together a wide array of powerful corporate interests from steel makers to real estate developers, rubber companies to big box retailers. During the automobile’s embryonic phase, the oil industry was already big business. At that time, oil was mainly used to fuel the kerosene lamp, a business destroyed by the emergence of gas and electrical illumination. The powerful oil interests of the day, led by the Rockefeller family, were bailed out of this crisis and set up for life with the advent of the automobile. And as barrel upon barrel was drained from the earth and pumped into gas tanks, big oil swam in its profits.

So, in many respects, oil interests lobbying against restrictions on automakers is simply business as usual, given their history of promoting automobility. But, given the dangers of climate disturbances ‘business as usual’ takes on the appearance of a criminal corporate conspiracy to destroy civilization.

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Free public transit one step towards better cities

Free public transit could combat both economic inequality and climate disturbances. And, if paid for by fees on automotive junkies, fare-less transit could be part of a serious challenge to private-car-centred transit/urban planning.

At Toronto’s first mayoral debate Saron Gebresellassi called for fare-free transit. By detailing a bold proposal the left-wing candidate steered  the other candidates to bemoan ballooning fare costs and suggest eliminating some of them.

Gebresellassi’s plan also garnered significant media attention. In “Making Toronto  transit free isn’t realistic now. But it’s a terrific idea” Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan offered an informative rundown of the argument. But, as is wont in the dominant media, Keenan (implicitly) downplays the climate crisis and importance of ditching the private automobile. Rather than a long-term objective, free public transit should be viewed as a short-to-medium term tool for shifting away from our dependence on ecologically, socially and health damaging cars. Of instant benefit to those with the least, free transit would immediately drive price-conscious individuals towards less environmentally and socially damaging buses and trains.

While Keenan downplays the need for urgent, bold action on countering the automotive/climate crisis, he correctly states that making the Toronto subway (and some streetcars) free would exacerbate the rush hour crush. Making it free outside rush hour, however, would spread the ridership crunch out until new subway and streetcar lines are built. For their part, buses can be added quickly and eliminating fares will speed them up. Expanding ridership should also grow support for giving buses the right of way.

Eliminating transit fares is not radical. During times of high pollution Paris and some other large European cities have removed fares. The mayor of the French capital, Anne Hidalgo, recently expressed interest  in making transit free permanently and she launched a study into its feasibility. The book Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators details dozens  of cities that have expanded transit ridership by eliminating fares.

While not radical, fare-less transit is not free. It would be an enormous failure if it only cost what the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) currently raises from fares ($1.2 billion  minus the not insignificant cost of gathering and enforcing fare payment). As the TTC expands to displace ever-greater numbers of private cars, free transit would certainly cost magnitudes more.

But there are many ways to finance it. Greenpeace Germany has suggested placing a levy on car manufacturers to pay  for eliminating transit fares. In France employers with 11 or more employees pay a small tax devoted to transit.

Some of the billions of dollars currently spent on roadways – $3.6 billion  for example on rebuilding a Gardiner Expressway that should be torn down and the land used for  co-op/social/rental housing – could be directed towards free transit. Toronto could also repurpose  some of the 27.4%  of the city presently devoted to free roadway to moneymaking ventures (another 13 per cent of Toronto is parks and open spaces — a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic filled roadway). A more straightforward way to incentivize public transit while deterring private car travel is to earmark congestion fees to the TTC.

A more novel option would be to replace requirements for businesses/public institutions/developers to offer parking with an equivalent contribution to a free transit fund. Toronto  currently prescribes a specific number of parking spaces for every new residence as well as for a “bowling alley”, “bus station”, “adult entertainment” site, etc. The cost of complying with these bylaws could fund significant mass transit.

Unlike education, healthcare, housing, etc., transit shouldn’t be promoted as a (at least broadly defined) social right. While less damaging than a private automobile ride, a 30 km oil powered bus journey emits substantial greenhouse gases and there are various social downsides to long commutes/sprawl. (Making Go Transit free, for instance, would encourage exurban dispersal and even daily commutes to Hamilton or Kitchener.) For environmental, health, safety, noise and cost reasons walking and cycling should be prioritized wherever possible.

But free transit should be promoted as an equality-based, short to medium-term solution for mitigating the climate crisis. Kudos to Gebresellassi for pushing the issue to the forefront.

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Bylaws that require parking drive up costs of housing

While climate disturbances wreak growing havoc across the planet, Canadian cities continue to mandate pro-car measures that drive-up housing costs and contribute to global warming. Even the most walkable, bike-able and mass transit oriented neighbourhoods still require parking spots to be built in new residences.Finally, last week downtown Montréal eliminated parking requirements for new residential projects. Going forward developers in the Ville-Marie borough will no longer be forced to build a certain number of parking spots per new unit.

Across the country zoning laws require residential and commercial buildings to secure a certain number of spots based upon the number of dwellings or square feet of space. The city website explains that “Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw requires new developments, including homes, schools, offices and stores, to provide a minimum number of off-street parking spaces.”

Toronto’s website has a detailed list of parking requirements based upon various criteria. Per residential unit, Toronto usually requires between 1 and 1.4 parking spots while it’s between 1.15 and 1.95 spaces in Mississauga.

Unlike most zoning ordinances that simply prohibit something, parking requirements are coercive: They tell developers exactly what to do.Cities don’t ban the construction of apartments with one bedroom or bathroom but some ban the construction of apartments with only one parking spot.

Converting buildings to different uses can be difficult in places with substantial parking requirements. Sometimes a new business simply cannot move into a building that formerly housed an operation with lower parking requirements without adding more spaces (or obtaining a variance).

Extensive parking requirements have reduced many architects to designing buildings around parking laws. “Form follows parking requirements,” laments Donald Shoup author of The High Cost of Free Parking. A 2017 Corporate Knights article notes, “Ottawa’s Hintonburg and the Glebe or Toronto’s Kensington Market and Yorkville would never be built today. These special places were developed before current parking standards came into effect.”

Since all units, irrespective of size, are generally required to have a parking spot, apartments have become larger and more expensive.No matter the size, Mississauga requires 1.15 spaces per (human) housing unit downtown, which acts “as a disincentive to build smaller, affordable units.”The financial and logistical burden created by parking requirements has restricted the rooming supply. “Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people,” writes Shoup. “By increasing the cost of housing, parking requirements make the real homelessness problem even worse.”(It generally costs $40,000 to $60,000to build an underground parking space in downtown Toronto while a surface spot in a low-density area can be built for as little as $2,000 to $8,000.)

Most significantly parking requirements spur private car travel.Parking and car travel are mutually reinforcing; more parking means more car travel and more car travel means increased demand for yet more parking.

Sometimes zoning requirements mandate commercial and office spaces provide a certain amount of free parking.Even when zoning laws don’t mandate free parking, the saturated “market” creates an expectation that parking will be free. Would there be any need for parking requirements if people were willing to pay? Wouldn’t profit-oriented businesses sell as much parking as they could charge for?

The right to affordable housing must be prioritized over the “need” for parking.  Progressives currently running for positions in city governments across the country – Saron Gebresellassi, Derrick O’Keefe, Jeremy Loveday, etc. – should take up an issue that drives up housing costs while increasing private auto use. Let’s build cheaper housing, more liveable cities and a healthier environment by ending parking requirements in city bylaws! That should be a slogan all sensible people can rally around.

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Time to junk the cars and use public land for housing

Who could possibly be against doing something that would be both good for the environment and improve housing affordability in our biggest cities?

By turning public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles into social/co-op/rental housing it is possible to put a dent into runaway climate change while improving housing affordability and urbanity.

Radio Canada recently reported on a 14-storey co-op set to be built just behind the Bell Centre on the southern edge of downtown Montréal. The Coopérative Montagne Verte will have 136 units, which will make it the largest housing co-op in a single building in Montreal. Having received a piece of city land, the co-op will be financed in equal measure with public funds and a long-term mortgage. If all goes according to plan, hundreds will gain access to affordable housing in an area with easy access to employment and services by foot, bike and mass transit.

In discussing the barrier to building more co-ops Radio Canada claimed, “the scarcity of land in Montreal is also an important issue.”  This is absurd. In fact, one of the city’s principal problems is the abundance of public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis (40 per cent of Montréal’s greenhouse gas emissions are from transport.)

Near where the Coopérative Montagne Verte will be located, for instance, is a highway that has gobbled up a large swath of the city centre. Thousands could be housed on the public roadway and adjacent areas destroyed by it.

In what would be a more straightforward cars-for-shelter exchange, Boulevard René-Lévesque is wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. Thousands of family sized social/co-op/rental units could be built and it would improve the city for its inhabitants and the planet. While it may seem radical, this move would simply be a return to before buildings were demolished to widen the street in the 1940s and 50s.

Other car spaces in the city centre could easily be turned into affordable housing. The three blocks of McGill College between Cathcart and Sherbrooke and a number of other non-through streets between Sherbrooke and Saint Catherine on the western edge of downtown could be reclaimed for multi-story dwellings. To the east, avenue du Parc Lafontaine between Sherbrooke and Rachel is wide enough to build a row of smaller units with a narrow street on each side.

With housing affordability an even bigger issue in Toronto and Vancouver there would be much to gain by turning public roadway into co-op/rental/social housing there. The land destroyed by the centrally located Gardiner Expressway could house thousands. Rather than spending $3.6billion to fix the monstrosity, Toronto could subsidize co-op/social housing on this prime piece of public real estate.

Proof that cars-for-housing exchange is not pie in the sky, Vancouver’s city council voted to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts at the eastern edge of downtown. Their plan to build thousands of housing units (30%“social housing”) is better than the status quo, but not ambitious enough. The city should eliminate the boulevard that is part of the current plan and turn it all into a car free social/co-op/rental housing oasis. Ideally located for getting around by foot, bike and Skytrain, the area reclaimed for housing should also be extended along Georgia Street into downtown.

A whopping 27.4% of Toronto is roadway (another 13 per cent is parks and open spaces — a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic filled streets). I was unable to find the exact proportion of Vancouver and Montréal devoted to roadway, but a significant share of those cities is also devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles.

We need to build an environmentalist/urbanist/housing rights coalition that would push to turn swaths of this land into social/co-op/rental housing.

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Media war against limits to cars continues in Montreal

Do you support humanity and livability? Or the “right” of people to use private cars?

This question is aimed particularly at the left end of the political spectrum, to that part of the public who should know better.

It’s been dispiriting to see progressives echo a right wing municipal party/dominant media campaign against curtailing car traffic through Montreal’s Parc Mont-Royal. Anyone concerned with humanity’s fate should avoid amplifying the reactionary backlash to a move that would mitigate Québec and Canada blowing past unambitious carbon targets for 2020 and probably 2030.

Recently, Montreal’s new city government announced a five-month pilot project that will block through traffic on a road over Mount Royal — a dominant geographic feature and the city’s namesake. Private cars would still have access to parking lots at the top of the park, but there will be cul-de-sacs to deter drivers from using Camilien Houde street to cross the mountain.

Project Montreal’s rationale for curtailing through traffic is that a cyclist was killed by an SUV on the roadway five months ago, while city reports dating back many years have suggested curbing traffic to improve the park.

Unfortunately, numerous leftists have joined the all too predictable reaction to this modest challenge to auto hegemony. While the particulars of each meltdown differ, almost every challenge to car dominance elicits a media storm. There have been howls of outrage since Toronto reduced parking spots and car traffic on 2.5 kilometres of King Street to facilitate streetcars, which move 65,000 riders through downtown every weekday. With auto manufacturers and dealers their biggest advertisers, the media gave King Street business owners ample space to drone on about lost sales. Yet four months into the year-long pilot project, credit card and Interac data show that business activity was actually up (in line with seasonal patterns.)

(To get a sense of why the Montreal Gazette is on the warpath against curtailing car traffic over the mountain, car ads covered the bottom of page one, two thirds of page four, one third of page five, all of page siz and seven, two thirds of page nine, two thirds of page 11 and the entire back of the 12 page front section on March 12. Additionally, nearly half of an eight page “Driving” section was car ads.)

On Facebook, progressive auto enthusiasts have presented two specious arguments to oppose the pilot project to ban through traffic across Mount Royal. They’ve cited the needs of older and differently abled folks, which is bizarre since private cars will still, unfortunately, have access to the mountain. More fundamentally, do people actually believe that a city structured around the private car is better for the blind and differently abled? Or older people who no longer have a license? And how about those under driving age?

People without licenses and with physical mobility issues generally benefit from dense living spaces that have goods and services nearby.

The most commonly expressed argument for opposing the mountain pilot project and — other efforts to reduce car pathways — is that it’s wrong to punish driving until new transport services are in place.

It is no doubt imperative to expand mass transit as part of inducing individuals to ditch their cars. In a small step in that direction, the city council recently purchased 965 buses. Yes, the provincial and federal governments should be pressed to fund the large new Metro line Project Montreal proposed during the recent election, but every mass transit supporter — instead of opposing a pilot project to curtail traffic on the mountain — should challenge Project Montreal for dropping their previous proposal to build light rail along a number of major streets.

While our ecocidal political culture may view a new Metro line as ambitious, a post-private car Montreal requires the new Metro line, new buses, multiple light rail lines and more. (Montreal’s per capita share of the federal government’s $60+ billion warship program would cover the cost of the Metro line or multiple light rail lines.)

The “we cannot encumber the private auto until there’s greater public transit” is effectively an argument to continue the steady expansion of Montreal’s car stock, which increased by 200,000 vehicles between 2011 and 2016. It ignores the depths of our unfolding urban planning and climate disasters, whereby billions of dollars in public and private funds continue to be plowed into far-flung areas designed to maximize driving. These facts partly explain why transport now represents 40 per cent of Montreal’s greenhouse gas emissions and Arctic temperatures have been 30 degrees above normal this winter.

More concretely, the don’t “encumber private autos until all alternatives transport modes are in place” argument ignores the fact that the dearth of political pressure for better mass transit is tied to the convenience of getting everywhere by car; the billions of dollars plowed into roadway every year could go to public transit; when roadway and parking are largely free, and injury, policing and pollution costs externalized, people cross town for what is often available closer at hand (and certainly would be if folks weren’t driving multiple kilometers for groceries), and more.

Or, to look at it from a broader perspective, the “we can’t encumber the auto” argument is akin to saying “don’t oppose pipelines, encourage alternatives to oil dependence,” or “don’t restrict donations to political parties, offer more public financing,” or “don’t cut military spending, encourage peace.” In fact, it makes even less sense than these examples, since urban space is finite. There will either be a road, light rail, bike path, or sidewalk on a piece of land — ideally large swaths of public land currently devoted to roadway would be turned into social/co-op/rental housing. Camilien Houde street, for instance, replaced a trolley line through the park.

To a large extent, urban planning is an either-or proposition. Either we make decisions to enable private car travel or enable walking, biking, and mass transit. Highlighting one impact of the either-or dynamic, University of Waterloo Urban Planning professor Brian Doucet recently noted, “there’s no sugar-coating it: we can only make our streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists when road space is taken away from cars.”

By feeding the backlash to Project Montreal’s modest pilot project curtailing car travel through a public park, leftists are increasing the likelihood it will be reversed. More troublingly, they are putting a brake on larger scale efforts to reorient the urban landscape away from the most dangerous, loud, classist and polluting form of transport.

The sooner private cars drive off into the sunset, though not over the mountain, the better off our cities and planet will be.

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Toronto has too much ‘public’ space, not too little

Does Toronto have too little or too much public space?

Depends on what the “public” space is used for.

This seems such an obvious answer but one of Toronto’s best urban affairs writers can’t seem to separate the private cars from the public space they destroy.

In an otherwise excellent defence of the square where younger, poorer and darker fans enjoy Raptors and Maple Leaf games outside the arena, Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume concludes that “the lack of public space in Toronto is a perennial problem.” Huh! How could a commentator, who has promoted sensible urban planning as much as to be expected in a newspaper that relies on auto ads for much of its revenue, express such confusion?

It is the exact opposite. To build a healthier, safer, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable city Toronto needs to jettison a significant share of its current “public space”.

Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that even one of Toronto’s most enlightened urban affairs writers can’t see it: Most public land is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis. What’s more, the city pays to pave, repair, police and clean land that generates little or no tax revenue.

Roadways take up 27.4 percent of the area of Toronto while parks and open spaces cover 13 per cent. Many beautiful, walkable, old cities have less than half as much as Toronto’s 40 percent “public” land. On the Old Urbanist blog Charlie Gardner writes, “the traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen per cent [public space] perfectly adequate.”

Last year I had the opportunity to visit a handful of wonderful, old Italian cities. Homes, shops, restaurants, public buildings etc. cover the bulk of the cityscape with narrow, mostly walking oriented, streets facilitating travel. In these areas even small squares and parks are attractive since there are few (or no) noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles destroying the ambiance or taking up space. The famed Piazza del Campo in Siena is a tenth the size of Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square but feels as big and is considerably more impressive. Ten different streets, alleys and staircases funnel pedestrians into the remarkable square.

Paradoxically, Toronto’s dominant form of public land ruins large swaths of its park space and public areas. Few people want to relax in a square or park next to multiple lanes of traffic.

The ongoing effort to turn 1.75-kilometers of wasteland under the western section of the Gardiner Expressway into an appealing place to walk, bike and hang out will test this dynamic. About $25 million is being invested to reclaim an area that currently acts as a barrier between downtown and Lake Ontario. Hopefully the “Under Gardiner” project will work, but the surefire way to improve this prime piece of the city is to remove the expressway.

Probably the largest swath of public space ruined by the dominant form of public land is the area along the Don Valley Parkway. It is barely used partly because of the highway running through it.

While Toronto needs more publicly owned housing, daycares and businesses, it doesn’t need more public land or park space. It needs less area devoted to private cars.

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We have an addiction problem — cars

I often read troubling reports about the world’s unfolding climate catastrophe while working at McGill, but, ironically, steps from the university library I am reminded of Montréal’s unwillingness to make the changes required to avoid civilizational collapse.

During recent construction on Sherbrooke Street police have been stationed on corners near the university to direct traffic. Since three of the streets don’t continue north most of what the police do is hold up pedestrians seeking to cross Sherbrooke while cars roll slowly by. Why not close the street to vehicle traffic? It would save on police costs while speeding construction and pedestrian travel. But of course, closing part of Sherbrooke to cars during construction would further inconvenience the drivers of private automobiles, who seem to believe they have a “right” to travel around the city spewing greenhouse gases, damn the planetary consequences.

The reality is our municipal, provincial and federal governments remain enthralled to private automobility regardless of the climate consequences.

The evidence, large and small, is so ubiquitous we no longer notice:

  • Across from Complexe Guy-Favreau a metal barrier was recently installed over two blocks on René Lévesque. The presumed objective of this “highway-ization” of downtown is to stop pesky pedestrians from crossing halfway down the street.
  • In 2014 the various levels of government coughed up over 150 million dollars to host 10 years of Grand Prix car celebrations.
  • A recent directive from the Health Ministry substantially expands free parking at Quebec hospitals.
  • Last month Premier Philippe Couillard announced plans to extend Highway 19 north of the city and to widen Highway 50 from Gatineau to Montreal.
  • Last month’s provincial budget included $5 billion over two years in road repairs.
  • The provincial government is also ploughing over $3 billion into the Turcot Interchange.

Last year the Trudeau government axed the planned toll on the Champlain Bridge, which the federal government is rebuilding at a projected cost of over $4 billion. According to a government supposedly concerned about climate change, people have a “God-given right” to take their 3,000 pounds of metal 10, 30, 50, or 100 km a day (often solo) into the city without paying any direct road costs.

As climate science warns us of impending disaster, the Montréal region gained 200,000 new cars over the past five years. With 3.4 million people of driving age, greater Montreal’s car stock is on pace to reach 3 million next year.

The truth is automobiles are a major source of Canada’s extremely high per capita carbon emissions. Transport represents 40 percent of Montréal’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions and it is growing while emissions from other sectors decline. Between 1990 and 2013 GHG’s from the city’s road network increased 16-per-cent while emissions from homes dropped 45 per cent.

Our city is a microcosm of the continent and increasingly much of the world. Last year North American gasoline consumption reached its highest level ever and countries around the world are adopting North-American-style auto infrastructure.

Montréal’s unwillingness to save money, while speeding construction and pedestrian travel near McGill may be a relatively insignificant matter, but it reflects the continued dominance of automobility. In the current political culture many find it easier to imagine the collapse of civilization than the replacement of a transportation and urban planning system based on private cars.

What will our children and grandchildren think of us?

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Justin Trudeau is no friend of the environment

Today the lives of over 10 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk due to a drought at least partly caused by climate change. A study by Britain’s Met Office concluded that human-induced climate disturbances sparked a famine in Somalia in 2011 in which over 50,000 died. For its part, the Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimated in 2012 that climate change was responsible for some 400,000 deaths per year, a number expected to hit one million by 2030.

To mitigate this downward spiral radical action is needed. Instead, here is what Justin Trudeau told oil company executives gathered in Houston earlier this month: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.”

But, that’s precisely what should happen to Canada’s tar sands as Trudeau alluded to when campaigning for the votes of those concerned about climate change. Most of the world’s fossil fuels need to be left untouched to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change and Canadian oil ought to be front of the ‘keep it in the ground’ line for a combination of ecological and equity reasons.

It takes significantly more energy to extract tar sands oil than conventional crude. The tremendous amount of energy required to bring the oily sand to the surface and separate out a useful product emits a great deal of carbon dioxide.

The narrow ecological argument for phasing out tar sands production is powerful. It’s bolstered by international equity considerations. Canada’s large current and accumulated carbon footprint is another reason to keep this country’s oil in the soil.

Per capita emissions in many African countries amount to barely one per centof Canada’s rate. In Uganda, Congo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda and Mozambique, per capita emissions comprise less than 1/150th of Canada’s average. In Tanzania, Madagascar, Comoros, The Gambia, Liberia and Zambia per capita emissions are less than 1/80th Canada’s average.

Even more startling is the historical imbalance among nations in global greenhouse gas emissions. According to a September 2009 Guardian comparison, Canada released 23,669 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 1900 and 2004 while Afghanistan released 77 million metric tons, Chad 7 million metric tons, Morocco 812 million metric tons and Egypt 3,079 million metric tons.

Canada’s contribution to global warming over this period was more than the combined total of every sub-Saharan African country. While the historical data is troubling, forward-looking comparisons are equally stark. If plans to nearly double tar sands production proceed, by 2030 Alberta’s project will emit as much carbon as most sub-Saharan African countries combined.

A sense of ‘carbon equity’ requires that Canadian oil remain untouched. So does economic justice.

Canada is a wealthy country that had a functioning healthcare, pension and education system prior to significant tar sands extraction, which began at the turn-of-the-century. In fact, Canada had one of the highest living standards in the world before beginning to extract sizable quantities of tar sands.

The wealthiest countries should be the first to leave fossil fuel wealth in the ground. Only a sociopath would suggest the Congo, Haiti or Bangladesh stop extracting fossil fuels before Canada.

Found in a wealthy, heavy emitting country, the tar sands are a ‘carbon bomb’ that needs to be defused. Extracting Canada’s “173 billion barrels” will drive ever-greater numbers of the planet’s most vulnerable over the edge.

With his words to oil executives Trudeau made it clear that his government has chosen business (and profits) as usual over human survival. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise anyone with a basic understanding of the Liberals who only ‘govern from the left’ if there is a movement challenging capitalism.

To seriously reduce Canada’s emissions will require hundreds of thousands in the streets pushing a political party to challenge an economic system that demands endless growth.

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Capitalism kills — our oceans the deadly proof

For 21st century capitalism the more disposable the better. Ocean life and human health be damned.

According to a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation study, the world’s oceans are set to have more plastic than fish by 2050. At the current rate of production and disposal the net weight of plastic in the oceans will be greater than that of fish in a little over three decades.

There are currently 150 million tonnes of plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans. Most of it takes centuries to break down. Thousands of large animals – such as turtles and birds – die every year from indigestible plastic debris in the ocean. Millions of other sea creatures suffer when they consume plastic.

The Canada-US Great Lakes – the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world – have also accumulated large amounts of plastic. A study released in December concluded that almost 22 million pounds of plastic debris are dumped into the Great Lakes annually. Microplastics in the lakes “act like sponges for certain pollutants and are easily ingested by aquatic organisms, including fish and shellfish, which may ultimately end up on our plates.”

During the second half of the 20th century plastic production rose 20 fold and it’s on pace to double over the next two decades. More plastic was produced during the first decade of the 21st century than in all of the 20th.

Approximately half of plastic is for single use. Some 70 billion plastic bottlesand 1 trillion plastic bags are produced every year globally. The first disposable plastic pop bottle was produced in 1975 and the first plastic grocery bag was introduced a few years earlier.

Before wreaking havoc on ocean fauna, plastics also harm human health. In 2014 Mother Jones published an expose titled “Are any plastics safe?” It noted, “almost all commercially available plastics that were tested leached synthetic estrogens—even when they weren’t exposed to conditions known to unlock potentially harmful chemicals, such as the heat of a microwave, the steam of a dishwasher, or the sun’s ultraviolet rays.” The Mother Jones story draws a parallel between the plastic and tobacco industries.

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act provides the federal government with a tool to restrict toxic substances while Environment Canada operates a scientific review to test for possible harm. Yet few plastic products have been outlawed.

Controversy over the use of BPA (bisphenol A) in baby bottles and some toys prompted the federal government to ban use of this chemical in baby bottles but BPA is still used in other plastics. Similarly, in 2010 the government announced it was banning Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) flame retardants, which have been linked to cancer and other health ailments, but it didn’t outlaw the toxins from new plastic consumer items such as TVs until December and continues to allow PBDEs to be used in manufacturing items.

The toxins in plastics should be better regulated. Plastics can also be made less damaging by producing them from waste products and improving their decomposition. Additionally, measures to promote recycling are necessary. But, as Ian Angus points out, recycling is often a way for the industry to divert “attention away from the production of throwaway plastics to individual consumer behavior—the ‘solutions’ they promote involve cleaning up or recycling products that never should have been made in the first place.”

To that end activists have pressed universities to stop selling plastic bottles and for cities to restrict free plastic bags. While helpful, these efforts are overwhelmed by an economic system enthralled to wasteful consumption.

Based on externalizing costs and privatizing profits, 21st-century capitalism is turning our seas into a plastic blob.

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Left thrives in compact communities, dies in suburban sprawl

Suburban sprawl is an enemy of the Left and progressives should support efforts to discourage it, including tolls.

In opposing tolls on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, a number of leftists cite political strategy. They argue the tolls will elicit a rightist populist backlash and alienate potential supporters.

On Facebook John Bell complained, “to all the ‘progressives’ who support road tolls, and then wonder why a Ford or a Trump gets elected give your head a shake.” Slightly more restrained, Nora Loreto wrote, “if progressives want to have a hope in hell in reaching the average Mississauga commuter” they should oppose tolls.

The Toronto tolls are no doubt highly unpopular among suburbanites who currently use the two highways without paying either through fees or municipal taxes. But, Bell and Loreto’s statements are short sighted. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Rob Ford and Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected if not for the vast sums in public funds (mainly roadway and mortgage subsidies) spent partly in the hopes of atomizing communities.

Since at least the European revolutions of 1848 elites have repeatedly sought to undermine progressive organizing by dispersing communities. In Toronto Sprawls Lawrence Solomon traces the ways in which the city’s dispersal was a reaction to the breakdown of social control that accompanied growing migration from farms. In the early 1900s, Toronto’s elite became concerned about the growing number of single women and immigrants living in the city, as well as the success unions were having in organizing urban workers. Government officials responded by razing buildings in high-density areas, banning apartment buildings and promoting single-family dwellings more conducive to the traditional family.

Conducive to consumerism, disconnected and depoliticized, the suburbs are bastions of conservatism and infertile grounds for social movements to back the scale between rich and poor. Surveys indicate that suburbanites are less inclined to support government programs, unless considered directly beneficial — highways and education, for instance. Compared to their counterparts in small towns and urban areas, suburbanites reports Urban Sprawl and Public Health, “place little emphasis on such social goals as eliminating discrimination and reducing poverty, and tend to reject initiatives such as park acquisition and mass transit.”

Right-wing politics reign supreme, intensifying as suburbs sprawl further outwards. Conversely, according to Robert E. Lang, Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, “at each greater increment of urban density, democrat John Kerry received a higher proportion of the vote [in the 2004 Presidential election].” Put differently, as the dominance of the car increased, so did votes for George W. Bush.

Canadian voting patterns are similar. In the 2011 election Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won almost every suburban riding in Canada’s major cities (outside of Montréal) and lost most central districts. Similarly, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford received stronger support in the outer rings of the city.

In a Globe and Mail piece headlined “The real reason Donald Trump got elected? We have a white extremism problem” Doug Saunders correctly cites “higher population density” and mass transit oriented neighbourhoods as a way to reverse white support for Trump. “White people who live in areas where they’re immersed in longstanding populations of immigrants and minorities – that is, in big cities – don’t generally tend to vote for the politics of racial intolerance. That’s called the ‘contact effect’ – you don’t get anxious about immigration if you live around immigrants. But people who live in mainly white areas that adjoin cities with greater diversity often show very high levels of support for people like Mr. Trump.”

Diffuse suburban landscapes discourage political gatherings. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit notes that “cars have encouraged the diffusion and privatization of space, as shopping malls replace shopping streets, public buildings become islands in a sea of asphalt, civic design lapses into traffic engineering, and people mingle far less freely and frequently.”

How many demonstrations take place in low-density suburbs? A diffuse geography and population denies a pedestrian scale. As a result, suburbanites’ interaction with protests — and progressive political culture more generally — is limited or mediated through the dominant media.

During the 2012 student-led uprising in Québec the vast majority of demonstrations and neighbourhood “casseroles” (pots and pans) marches took place within the core of Montréal. Yet, those living on the outskirts of the city were significantly more likely to tell pollsters that the protests were disruptive than those in neighbourhoods closer to the centre. In effect, people expressed annoyance with the political disruption in an inverse relation to which they were impacted. Or to put it differently, the more Montréalers interacted with the activism through the dominant media, rather than in person, the more it seemed troublesome.

A pedestrian scale is required for political posters to be read. Signs in the suburbs (think billboards) are enormous and usually too expensive for grassroots groups. Unlike car-oriented billboards, street posters are ideal for volunteer-run movements. Putting up posters is labour intensive, but not expensive, which makes it among the most democratic means of mass communication.

And there are other obstacles to community organizing. Where does one leaflet in a suburb with no centre or subway? The highway?

British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s description of “the ideal city for riot and insurrection,” stands in stark contrast to the modern day suburb. In an insurrectionary city, the poor majority would live in close proximity to government authorities and the wealthy. The ideal city would also “be densely populated and not too large in area. Essentially it should still be possible to traverse on foot.”

In her history of walking, Solnit highlights the vital connection between Paris as a great city for walkers and revolution. She also contrasts walkable San Francisco, with its rich history of progressive political activism, to car-dependent Los Angeles, which has seen less political upheaval. Solnit explains:

Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt. Few remember that the ‘right of the people peaceably to assemble’ is listed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, along with freedom of the press, of speech, and of religion, as critical to a democracy. While other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue.

Instead of fearing a populist backlash for challenging automotive hegemony, all progressives need to recognize their strategic interest in promoting pedestrian, bike and mass transit scale urban spaces.

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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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Auto industry requires massive public subsidies to survive

When are capitalists in favour of public ownership? When it earns them a profit. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than when looking at car companies.

As auto interests have pocketed stupendous profits over the past century they’ve also pushed to socialize huge amounts of urban land. While this may contradict textbook economics, capitalists often prioritize socialized costs/privatized profits over “free markets.”

Ignorance of the auto industrial complex’ drive to socialize public space was highlighted in a number of leftists’ recent criticism of tolling two Toronto highways. Bemoaning Mayor John Tory’s “neoliberal policies” and “neoliberal lens of public infrastructure,” Nora Loreto argued the tolls might pave the way to privatization. “Getting people used to paying to use the Gardiner and the DVP [Don Valley Parkway] would make it possible to start talking about full-scale privatization of these roads,” she wrote. “If you’re opposed to privatization, a toll plan under a right-wing administration is effectively creeping privatization. If you can’t put that cat back into the bag, do everything you can to not let it escape in the first place.”

While it’s not inconceivable the city would privatize the Gardiner and DVP, the broader concern reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the auto industrial complex (car, tire, oil, asphalt, etc. companies, as well as big box retailers and suburban developers). Cars are produced for profit, owned by private individuals, but are completely dependent upon public roads. It is even hard to conceive of a large-scale privately owned road network. While there are a good number of toll highways financed and operated by private corporations, it is almost impossible to envision an entire city road system — let alone that of a province or nation — financed and operated privately. Simply put, cars need roads and the state must pay for them; otherwise most of us would still be riding public transit because an unsubsidized private automobile would be too expensive and too inefficient.

The private car’s ability to offload costs onto the public is at the heart of its rise to dominance. German auto historian Winfried Wolf explains: “In road transport there is a possible separation, based on modern technology, between the transport infrastructure (the motorway or road) and the means of transport (the car, truck etc.) This transport technology can therefore be easily organized according to the principle of private appropriation of profit, socialization of costs and losses. Private profits are appropriated by the vehicle manufacturers, the insurance companies, and the motorway construction firms; costs are socialized by means of public financing of motorway construction, policing, hospitalization of the injured and repairs to the environment.”

Out of every economic sector, the auto industry receives by far the most public support. In 2001, reports Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning, the world’s 30 richest governments spent $1.1 trillion (1,100,000,000,000) on road transport. The costs of auto infrastructure are so great Carfree Cities claims: “The savings on street maintenance in a car free city probably exceed the operating costs of the transport system.”

Curbside parking alone sucks up tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies each year. A century ago North American cities began devoting tens of millions of dollars to widen streets and cut down trees to increase parking space. Today it’s hard to find a street without space for curb parking, which the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup, argues, “may be the most costly subsidy Americans cities provide for most of their citizens.”

For those of us of left-wing persuasion, it’s counterintuitive to call for the privatization of public lands. But, often the less public space there is in a neighbourhood, the more pleasant it is. And the less of a toll it takes on the planet. Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that we have trouble seeing it: Most public land in urban areas is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis.

Of the 40 per cent of Toronto that is public land, roadways make up 27.4 per cent, while parks and open spaces cover 13 per cent. Many beautiful, walkable, old cities have less than half as much public land. On the Old Urbanist blog Charlie Gardner writes, “the traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen per cent [public space] perfectly adequate.”

So, privatizing the arteries that feed the automotive cancer could lead to healthier, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable cities.

Or, an alliance of environmentalists, urbanists, public health advocates and housing rights activists could campaign to turn roadway into co-ops/social housing. But, a prerequisite for this type of “Leap Manifesto coalition” is leftists recognizing the need to move beyond the private automobile.

This is the second of a four part series on the “Great Toronto toll debate’.

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Are tolls a ‘flat tax’ or one step in building a sane (carless) society?

What’s left and what’s right? Usually it is obvious, but sometimes you have to take a step back and consider the bigger picture.

For example, the Toronto toll debate has exposed a lack of scrutiny of the leading source of corporate profit over the past century by many supposed leftists. Absent a political economy of the auto industrial complex, many Marxists have objectively allied themselves with the private car’s awesome political, cultural and ideological power.

“There is no progressive argument in favour of road tolls,” bellowed Nora Loreto, author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement, on Facebook. “I’m perplexed and confused by anyone purporting to be a progressive and at the same time supporting regressive taxes such as tolls or user fees”, wrote leftist former head of the Ontario Federation of Labour Sid Ryan. “How on earth are these taxes considered to be anything but a burden placed on the shoulders of working class people who use the Gardiner Expressway and DVP [Don Valley Parkway] to get to work.”

The tolls are no doubt a terrible idea. Anyone serious about livability, pollution, safety, lack of exercise, weakening corporate power or the climate crisis should demand both the Gardiner and DVP demolished. (41% of Toronto’s greenhouse gas emissions are from land transportation and despite dropping 24% in other sectors between 1990 and 2013 transport emissions rose 15%.) But, since getting rid of these expressways isn’t on the agenda, forcing drivers to pay a Tooney is a small jab at the ‘God-given right’ to take 3,000 pounds of metal 10, 30, 50, or 100 km a day without paying any road costs.

The stated plan is to spend the money raised on “transit” infrastructure. However much is channelled to Toronto Transit Commission projects will be socially useful while the funds devoted to roadway will not.

One objection cited to tolling the highways is that it would simply push vehicles on to alternative routes. It’s possible, but increasing costs or making driving less comfortable generally curtails car travel.

The primary “left” criticism, explains Loreto, is that it’s a “flat tax that roots out those who can pay from those who can’t pay.” To the extent lower income folks take these two highways that’s correct, but driving and income are inversely correlated. Poorer people own fewer vehicles and drive less.

Calling a toll a “flat tax” is a tacit acceptance of a transport system where roads, highways and parking are endlessly subsidized (through public funds or hidden in prices everyone pays in higher store prices, rent, etc.). Few call fees at Canada Post, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Sasktel, Toronto Hydro, Toronto Transit Commission, etc. a “flat tax”. Yet, at least hydro is a greater necessity – to cook or stay warm – than driving a highway.

Left-wing opposition to tolls disregards the longstanding financial incentives, notably road and mortgage subsidies, for people to purchase large single-family suburban homes. But, it’s also a brazen denial of auto hegemony. Toll critics act as if their opposition doesn’t contribute to rightists’ wild attacks against bike paths, trolleys, car-free days, etc. It’s as if former mayor Rob Ford didn’t denounce a supposed “war on cars” and the leader of the provincial Conservatives isn’t seeking to restrict Toronto’s right to raise revenue from its own highways by saying the move would “start a war of tolls” between Ontario municipalities (amen to that).

Objectively, toll opponents are taking the side of the auto industrial complex — car, oil, tire, asphalt, insurance, etc. companies, as well as big box retailers, appliance makers and suburban developers — having fallen victim to the car’s immense ideological/cultural/political power. Since the early 1900s the auto industrial complex has funded consumer groups and university programs. The highly profitable sector has also produced films, pamphlets and books promoting roads and depicting automobiles as a barometer of progress.

Far and away the largest advertisers, car companies have conquered nearly every sphere of human consciousness. Whether you’re at a party, online, at the mall, playing videogames, at the movies or writing checks, there is an endless promotion of both brand names and automobility.

The auto industrial complex is a powerhouse of colossal proportions in their dealings with the media. “Top auto executives hold frequent, off-the-record meetings with the nation’s leading publishers and editors, enjoying a level of access that most politicians can only dream of,” writes Keith Bradford former Detroit bureau chief of the New York Times. When unhappy with editorial decisions car companies have repeatedly pulled their advertising.

Disregarding the political climate when criticizing tolls is highly disingenuous. It’s akin to those who oppose university fees for women’s centres without discussing patriarchy or criticizing First Nations tax breaks without mentioning the land theft, pass system, residential schools, etc. Simply put, blanket condemnation of tolls reinforces an unjust, unhealthy and ecocidal transport/urban planning status quo.

Most leftists opposed to the tolls say they support expanding public transit. To overcome private automobility we unquestionably need major investments in new light rail, metro lines, bus lanes, bike paths, as well as incentives for employment near transit, car free streets and an end to car centric zoning. But, the car won’t be dethroned without also increasing its costs (be it highway or street tolls, luxury vehicle fees, registration fees, parking fees, higher gas taxes, etc.). The short term financial inequities of some of these measures can be mitigated through tax rebates, as well as free transit passes, prioritizing transit services in working-class neighborhoods and building social housing near transit hubs.

To be “progressive” in 2016 must include a political commitment to upending a transport/urban planning system structured around the private automobile.

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

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A first step in ending global warming — ban automobile ads

A Metro should never be wrapped in car ads.

On this past week, the whole front of Montréal’s Metro paper promoted Kia. All of page 2 and the back of a paper targeted at the city’s transit riders also promoted an unhealthy, lethal, inefficient and utterly unsustainable mode of transportation.

Incredibly, public transit systems regularly glorify the private automobile. Car ads are not uncommon on buses or in metros. During a trip to Philadelphia a few years ago, the great hall at the city’s beautiful old train station was covered with a 50 ft x 30 ft car ad. It seemed more than a little out of place. Would you see a promotion for trains at a car dealership?

On the contrary, the automotive industry has regularly disparaged mass transit. In the mid-1990s GM ran ads in US subways with pictures of the Aurora under the headline “Tear Up Your Monthly Pass” while more recently BMW covered bus shelters with the statement: “In the land of the bus shelter the guy with a car is king.” Numerous TV and online auto spots have depicted men unable to find dates because they bike or ride the bus and don’t have cars.

The auto industry has long been the biggest advertiser. Whether you’re at a party, online, at the mall, playing videogames, at the movies or even writing checks, there is an endless promotion of both brand names and automobility. Car advertisers have conquered nearly every sphere of human consciousness.

The scope of the industry’s promotion can be startling. On May 14 2007 Montreal daily La Presse devoted 43 pages entirely to cars: a twenty six page auto section; an eight page Mercedes broadsheet pullout; an eight page Mazda supplement in tabloid format.

There was also a full page car ad as well as a Porsche ad taking up a tenth of a page (in an eight page sports section). In addition to the 43 pages entirely devoted to cars, the front page of the business section had a seventh of a page devoted to a Hyundai dealership ad.

Add to this the eight page Actuel section where nearly half a page was dedicated to auto classifieds. In the sixteen page front section, a fifth of page two was an Accura ad; an eighth of a page five was another Acccura ad; a third of a page nine was a Ford ad; a sixth of page ten was a Lexus ad; more than half of page eleven was a Honda dealership ad; and nearly half of page twelve was a Chevrolet ad. Finally, three quarters of page sixteen was devoted to Subaru.

Imagine if all the money used to sell cars were put into promoting cycling and mass transit. To even the playing field, health and environmental agencies could run public education campaigns describing the private automobiles’ dangers, pollutants, space consumption, financial burdens, toll on the climate, etc. Malmö Sweden, for instance, ran a “No Ridiculous Car Trips” campaign to reduce journeys of less than five kilometres.

Public transit agencies should be pushed to devote their space to anti-car messages. How about covering light rail with: “Cars Pollute. Take the Train” or buses with: “Free the City. Kill the Car”. Transit authorities could also give bike makers a discount to put up messages that challenge the cultural dominance of the automobile. Heck, maybe Nike would pay to cover bus stops with “Just Do It. Ditch your car.”

Those who want a landscape more amenable to pedestrians, cyclists and trolley riders must challenge the promotion of a product many times more damaging than cigarettes. Car advertising should be (as with tobacco) steadily eliminated (and immediately appropriated).

The dominant media, ad agencies, and carmakers will no doubt resist bitterly so let’s build momentum towards this end by prodding media outlets with ethical advertising guidelines (campus newspapers, green groups etc.) to get rid of car ads. Public transit agencies should also be encouraged to reject auto advertising.

In a world where temperature records are broken each month, advertising cars should be criminal.

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Unions will thrive if they promote alternative to capitalism

At their finest labour unions are class conscious organizations that check the corporate elite’s influence over public policy. But, even the best Canadian unions have largely failed to provide an alternative vision to the existing system and challenge the power of big business over important areas of our lives.

Alongside collective-bargaining activities, unions have spearheaded efforts to expand the Canadian Pension Plan and Employment Insurance coverage, to raise minimum wages and to improve labour laws. While these campaigns have directly benefited all workers, unions have also been heavily involved in fights for Medicare and public daycare, programs that serve a wider interest than just people who work for a living.

Over the past few decades most unions have devoted resources to combating sexism, racism and homophobia. They have done so out of a sense of solidarity and an understanding, built upon internal union struggles, that these forms of oppression take their toll on many members and society in general.

But unfortunately unions have generally deferred to the business class regarding much of the social, cultural and even economic sphere. Advertising provides a striking example of this implicit class compromise. On a typical day most people come across hundreds of ads, which greatly influence their consumption habits and social outlook. Additionally, a media sphere funded through advertising gives corporations significant leverage over the news agenda (companies regularly pull or threaten to pull ads when they are unhappy about a story and simply refuse to advertise in leftist media outlets). Yet most unions have little to say about this expression of capitalist power or the particularly acute psychological burden advertising places on low-income people. Few (if any) unions have called for blanket restrictions on destructive corporate advertising. In fact, some unions representing media workers have called for more advertising. In response to layoffs at the Toronto Star two years ago, a union representative was quoted in a release saying, “Why cut ad staff when the thing we need most is more ads?”

In another example of how unions concede much of the social/cultural/economic arena to big business, they have given a free pass to the private automobile even though orienting our living spaces around cars is particularly damaging to working class interests.

As the least accessible and most expensive form of land transportation, car-dominated transport eats up a disproportionate amount of working-class income. Rather than promoting cars, unions should be promoting access to employment, lodging and goods by foot, bike or mass transit as this would greatly benefit lower income people, as well as society in general.

But why not “cars for all” some might ask. One important answer is the environment. A transportation system based on the private automobile is simply not sustainable. Preventing global warming requires drastically reducing the number of cars.

But even aside from the critical environmental question cars are bad for ordinary people.

For example, the automobile gives wealthy people an important means to assert their dominance through their fancy vehicle. This has been an important factor since the dawn of the auto age. Even before they had significant utility, cars grew to prominence as technological toys for the rich. As the technology advanced and the infrastructure was laid, the car became popular among the wealthy because it strengthened their dominance over mobility, which had been slightly undermined by rail.

(Prior to the train’s ascendance in the mid-1800s, the elite traveled by (the very expensive) private horse and buggy. With respect to mobility, the train and streetcar blurred class lines. Unlike the train and streetcar, which were more available to all classes of society, the automobile provided an exclusive form of travel.)

The automobile’s capacity to create social distance appealed to early car buyers and continues to appeal to supporters of inequality. In a car, one can remain separate from perceived social inferiors (blue-collar workers, immigrants, etc.) while in transit.

Unions have largely ignored the ways in which the private car strengthen wealthy people’s grip over mobility and culture — to be fair so has much of the so-called left. Even the financial burden that a car-dominated transportation system places on the working class has seldom been challenged.

In fact, many unions contribute to automotive hegemony by locating their offices in auto-dependent suburbs, subsidizing staff parking and providing car allowances (over $10 000 a year) to employees who have no work-related reason for a vehicle. In a particularly disturbing example of this pro-car attitude, Unifor calls for greater public subsidies for auto manufacturing and for individuals to “buy a car”.

Most union leaders and officials seem largely indifferent to capitalist dominance over culture/space. For them, the class struggle (they might not use this term) is generally confined to the relations of production and getting ‘more’ stuff (not necessarily more power or even a better life) for members.

But rather than simply accept corporate dominance over culture and the status quo in the way something as important as our transportation system functions unions should fight for something better. They should offer an alternative, a vision of the good life in an environmentally sustainable economy.

As the corporate elite drive us towards an ecological precipice, it’s more important than ever for members and activists within unions to push for a broader definition of class struggle. If we don’t, there may be no good jobs left for our grandchildren.

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Plotting to deceive the public nothing new for automakers

Over the past eighteen months two of the world’s largest automakers have been found responsible for deadly conspiracies. But, recent revelations can’t compete with the industry’s previous scandals.

Last month Volkswagen was caught rigging millions of its cars emissions testing systems to meet regulatory standards. The German company programmed its turbocharged direct injection diesel engines to activate emissions controls during laboratory testing while in real-world driving the vehicles produced up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide (NOx). Hundreds, probably thousands, of people will be afflicted with asthma, lung disease and other ailments as a result.

The Volkswagen scandal follows on the heels of General Motors’ efforts to hide ignition and airbag defects in millions of its vehicles. The faulty ignition switches cause the vehicle to lose power and its airbag to fail during accidents. GM accepts that at least 124 people died as a result of a glitch company officials knew about for years.

In a much bigger scandal, a half century ago information surfaced implicating auto companies in a conspiracy to keep the population in a toxic haze. The “smog conspiracy” was revealed in 1968 when the US Department of Justice filed an anti-trust case against the Big Three. They were accused of colluding to withhold the installation of catalytic converters and other technologies to reduce pollution. “Beginning at least as early as 1953, and continuing thereafter,” alleged the Department of Justice, “the defendants and co-conspirators have been engaged in a combination and conspiracy in unreasonable restraint of the aforesaid interstate trade and commerce in motor vehicle air pollution control equipment.”

In the early 1950s smog became increasingly common. Los Angeles (the car capital of the world) became the centre of the pollution debate. In a bid to quell mounting criticism of car generated air pollution, GM, Ford, Chrysler and the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) agreed in 1953 to collectively research pollution-reducing technologies. The automotive manufacturers claimed their alliance was driven by a concern for public health. It was not. As time passed evidence emerged that the Big Three had in fact united to block the installment of anti-pollution devices. Their agreement stipulated they would wait for unanimous agreement to move forward on smog-busting technologies. In Taken for a Ride, Jack Doyle writes that “the automobile manufacturers, through AMA, conspired not to compete in research, development, manufacture and installation of [pollution] control devices and collectively did all in their power to delay such research, development, manufacturing and installation.” The public had been hoodwinked.

But the biggest automotive scandal was much worse than the smog alliance. It was a conspiracy that changed the face of urban landscapes across North America. In 1922, Alfred P. Sloan, head of General Motors, created a working group charged with undermining and replacing the electric trolley. The group’s first act was to launch a bus line that arrived a minute before the streetcar and followed the same route. The trolley line soon shutdown. At the time, there were hundreds of trolley lines in Los Angeles so it was not particularly noteworthy when one shut down. But it was a harbinger of things to come.

In the early 1920s the streetcar industry was booming. There were 1,200 tramway and inter urban train companies with 29,000 miles of track. In the best years they topped 15 billion riders. Over a thousand miles of trolley track criss-crossed the Los Angeles area alone, carrying most people to work. The streetcar dominated the transit scene, but the competition was gaining strength. The number of cars on the road reached 20 million in the1920s. While pressure from the automobile mounted, the trolley remained the major form of urban transportation.

During this crucial period in transit history, GM was intent on eliminating the competition. As one of the biggest companies in the world, GM offered municipal politicians free Cadillacs to vote the company’s way and insisted that railway companies shipping their cars aid their campaign. They also pressured banks in small communities to starve local trolley companies of finance and then made credit available to streetcar companies that replaced their tracks with GM buses. In 1932, GM established United Cities Motor Transportation (UCMT) to buy electric streetcar companies in urban areas and convert them into bus operations. After purchasing streetcar systems, UCMT ripped up their tracks and tore down the overhead wires. Once the conversion was complete, UCMT resold the new bus systems, on condition they were not reconverted to streetcars. New owners signed contracts with UMCT, stipulating that “new equipment using any fuel or means of propulsion other than gas” could not be used. The contracts also required that GM be the source of all new buses.

In the relative obscurity of Galesburg Illinois, UCMT made its first urban takeover in 1933.23 Moving swiftly, it had already dismantled trolley systems in three urban centres before being censured by the American Transit Association. After its 1935 censure, GM dissolved UCMT. It was not long, however, before its anti-trolley activities were revived and redoubled.

GM and its co-conspirators developed a network of front organizations. In 1936, GM joined with Greyhound to form National City Lines; in 1938 they collaborated with Standard Oil of California to create Pacific City Lines; in 1939 Phillips Petroleum and Mack Truck joined National City Lines. American City Lines was created in 1943 to focus on the biggest cities.

GM’s conversion strategy ran into a major obstacle in many big cities. In the larger urban areas trolley lines were often owned by electricity companies that made money from selling the energy to power the rails. The electrical companies benefited from a tax provision allowing them to absorb trolley deficits through lower taxes paid by the parent company. Frustrated by this trolley-electricity ownership arrangement, in the early 1930s GM produced a number of dossiers for Congress highlighting the loss in tax revenues that resulted. GM’s strategy was successful.

The 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act made it extremely difficult for energy companies to own trolley lines. Companies that had previously refused GM’s advances began to sell. Eighteen months later, GM scooped up 90 miles of tramway in Manhattan. After successfully converting New York’s trolley system, GM and its cronies moved on to Tulsa, Philadelphia, Montgomery, Cedar Rapids, El Paso, Baltimore, Chicago and LA. When all was said and done a hundred electric transit systems in 45 cities were ripped up, converted and resold.

By the mid-50s nearly 90 percent of the US electric streetcar structure was gone.

GM’s apologists deny any conspiracy took place. Some even claim GM invigorated public transit. Yet, the facts are overwhelming. As Edwin Black points out in Internal Combustion, GM and company were condemned by the Department of Justice, Senate and courts (from the lowest district venue to the Supreme Court) for anti-trust practices that were part of this nationwide conspiracy. In a section of the 1947 indictment labeled “THE CONSPIRACY,” prosecutors and the grand jury jointly declared: “Beginning on or about January 1, 1937, the exact date being to the Grand Jury unknown, and continuing to and including the date of the return of this Indictment, the defendants, together with other persons to the Grand Jury unknown, have knowingly and continuously engaged in a wrongful and unlawful combination and conspiracy to acquire or otherwise secure control of or acquire a substantial financial interest in a substantial part of the companies which provide local transportation service in the various cities, towns and counties of several states of the United States, and to eliminate and exclude all competition in the sale of motorbuses, petroleum products, tires and tubes to the local transportation companies owned or controlled by or in which National City Lines … had a substantial financial interest.”

The verdict was guilty. Yet the punishment for conspiring to destroy a mode of mass transit amounted to a fine of five thousand dollars. Not much of a disincentive for a company worth billions of dollars. And just after its 1947 conviction, National City Lines revived its anti-trolley activities.

The only legitimate dispute is the extent to which GM’s motivation was to promote private auto use or simply to increase the number of gasoline-powered buses, which GM sold. Some believe GM pushed buses to spur future personal automobile sales. Others think differently. “The conspiracy against mass transit,” argues Edwin Black, “was first and foremost a conspiracy to convert cities from electric [streetcars] to petroleum [bus] systems.”

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What’s ‘Green’ about subsidizing car travel?

Would you believe the Green Party recently took a more environmentally regressive position on an important issue than Stephen Harper?

Elizabeth May added her voice to the main opposition parties on a recent visit to Montreal by telling suburbanites they should expect a future non-Conservative federal government to continue aggressively subsidizing the most costly, unhealthy and ecologically destructive form of land transport.

May told Le Devoir that her party didn’t necessarily support the Harper government’s plan to implement a toll when the Champlain Bridge, Canada’s busiest crossing and a key connection between the island of Montreal and the city’s South Shore, is rebuilt at a projected cost of over $4 billion.

“The Green Party doesn’t have a rigid position on the issue,” May said in French. “Before talking about a toll, we need to agree on what kind of mass transit we want to put in place between the South Shore and the island [of Montreal]. Maybe if there is an efficient system a reduction in traffic on the bridge will take place naturally and the toll won’t be necessary.”

This is either political opportunism of the worst sort or a lack of real commitment to combatting climate change.

Anyone with the least respect for climate science ought to oppose building an auto-centered bridge of any sort (toll or no toll). But even a fully bike-, pedestrian- and mass transit-oriented bridge, which isn’t being seriously discussed, should include a toll. A light rail-dominated, private and car-free bridge would still include a lane for emergency vehicles and buses, which ought to cross freely. Trucks could also use the lane, but they should pay — they are dangerous, noisy, emit high volumes of carbon emissions and mostly transport goods for private businesses.

Perhaps the Green Party’s unwillingness to publicly back a toll on the Champlain Bridge has little to do with a serious analysis of its ecological or social implications.

Perhaps it’s a sop to a political culture, shaped by the auto industrial complex, that tells drivers it is their right to be subsidized every metre of their 10-, 40- or 80-kilometre daily drive (often solo) into the city. Having been seduced by land developers into buying big houses far from work, suburbanites are outraged at the prospect of paying the direct costs — leaving aside climate and health — for each kilometre of their trek.

But surely a leader of the Green Party ought to publicly declare that climate science makes this state of affairs unsustainable. If not her, then who?

And if electoral politics makes this an impossible position to take, then no moral, ecologically minded person should enter party politics. (The Green’s opportunism is made more depressing by the fact that they have little chance of winning a seat on the South Shore.)

The Green’s ambiguity towards a bridge toll reflects a larger problem with groups challenging the dominance of private cars. They generally shy away from supporting policies that increase the costs or make lives more difficult for drivers and instead focus on inducing individuals to leave their automobiles through new transport services.

While expanding transit options is often necessary, those of us who really care about human health, the livability of urban spaces and humanity’s capacity to survive on this planet shouldn’t fear initiatives that punish private car travel. We must tell the truth.

Increasing gas taxes, tolls and congestion fees; eliminating parking; tearing down highways and otherwise freeing streets from vehicles should all be pursued in the struggle against private automobility.

Dedicating a lane to buses or even building light rail on a new bridge is unlikely to substantially reduce car travel if other automotive infrastructure is maintained or expanded. One reason for this is that cars usually fill whatever space is devoted to them. Another part of the explanation is that areas built entirely for cars can’t simply adopt mass transit.

Car-dominated urban landscapes must be radically revamped, and one way to encourage these transformations is to make drivers pay more of the cost of their trips.

While I believe in challenging the private car at every turn, there is a tactical and social argument for focusing on corporations driving auto dominance rather than individual drivers. But the Green Party is not articulating these types of policies either. If they wanted to challenge automotive hegemony, but avoid angering individual drivers, they could target automakers’ omnipresent advertising, which largely explains the private car’s immense cultural standing.

Many times more damaging than cigarettes, car advertising should be (as with tobacco) steadily eliminated. Or how about pushing for a quota system whereby automakers’ are compelled to steadily increase the production of rideshare vehicles, buses, bikes and light rail cars in exchange for the right to sell private cars? The objective would be to push auto companies to produce less ecologically and socially damaging products while maintaining employment levels.

While it’s unclear how best to curb auto dependence, current efforts are failing. Greater Montreal’s car stock is growing by some 45,000 vehicles a year and new auto sales, driven by gas guzzling SUVs and light trucks, are on pace to reach a record in 2015.

In the current political culture many find it easier to imagine the collapse of civilization than the replacement of a transportation and urban planning system that harms our health and destroys cityscapes. But we either curtail the private car or accept that human civilization is unlikely to survive much longer.

Et tu, Elizabeth May?

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Let’s reclaim Montreal from the automobile

For those of us of left-wing persuasion, it’s counterintuitive to call for the privatization of public lands.

But, generally, the less public space there is in a neighbourhood, the more pleasant it is. And the less of a toll it takes on the planet.

Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that we have trouble seeing it: Most public land in urban areas is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to global warming.

The private automobile is a city- and planet-killer.

So much of our civic resources are spent on enabling cars that we have become slaves to their requirements. It is not just the money we spend to build and maintain roads and the other necessities of automotive existence, but also the way the car shapes the very form of our city. Or, to be more accurate, misshapes.

The problem can best be illustrated by the way many of Montreal’s genuinely attractive public spaces are ruined by our car craziness. A little park I pass daily at the corner of René-Lévesque Blvd. and Amherst St. is a case in point. It’s barely frequented because few people want to relax next to six lanes of traffic. And oddly, the Ville-Marie Expressway has been rarely mentioned in the debate about demolishing the expansive Agora sculpture in Viger Square. Agora or not, Viger Square is uninviting largely because it sits atop the expressway and is surrounded by multi-lane roads with drivers speeding on and off the highway.

Of course, roadways are not the only public lands devoted to automotive worship. The Maison Radio-Canada devotes more space to parking than its building and satellites. In the early 1960s, 5,000 people were forced to move to make way for what’s now largely a parking lot. While socialists don’t generally favour privatizing the public broadcaster, a plan floated in 2008 to sell CBC land to build 2,000 housing units would have done wonders for the neighbourhood.

On a lesser scale, the same is true of the Hydro-Québec headquarters, Jeanne-Mance Housing project and central police station. Their parking lots are blights on the Quartier des spectacles/ Quartier Latin corridor and encourage vehicle use in an area well serviced by transit and lodging options. Privatizing these parking lots would raise tens of millions of dollars for the respective public institutions and the land could be put to commercial or other uses.

When public space is taken from cars and given to businesses, the improvements can be startling. Allowing restaurants, bars and stores to set up terrasses or sell their goods on 15 blocks of Ste-Catherine St. E. four months of the year is incredibly popular, with pedestrians swarming the open streets. Local business profits improve, along with the atmosphere — both ecological and cultural.

We need to build on this experience, to be bold. We need to harness the capitalist drive to privatize with urban planning principles and ecological sustainability.

Our first demand should be to sell off René-Lévesque and turn the street into dwellings and businesses. Large swaths of René-Lévesque are wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. Privatizing René-Lévesque would be a major step forward in rebuilding a walking city, a healthy city for its inhabitants and the planet.

Privatizing the arteries that feed the cancer weakening Montreal could lead to a healthier, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable city.

Urban dwellers, ecologists and capitalists unite! We have nothing to lose but the public spaces killing us.

(This article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette)

Listen to Yves’s interview with Tommy Schnurmacher on CJAD 800  here.

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Private automobiles and public health

When a plane carrying 239 people disappears and everyone is presumed dead, the world’s TV networks devote hours of coverage to the tragedy. Newspapers run long and detailed stories. Experts are interviewed to discuss probable causes and remedies.

Government safety boards investigate and produce reports. There seems a genuine attempt to learn from what happened in order to prevent the same death and destruction from ever occurring again.

Contrast that to the reaction of death by automobile.

The latest year for which we have statistics (2010) 1,240,000 people died in vehicle crashes across the globe. That’s 3,397 people per day or 142 per hour. Vehicles kill more people every two hours of every single day than died in the Malaysian Airlines crash. And that’s only counting so-called accidents.

Hundreds of thousands more are felled by cancers and other ailments linked to automobile emissions. According to an MIT study, in the US alone 53,000 people die every year from illness attributed to automobile pollutants.

The greenhouse gases emitted by vehicles have also put millions at risk from diseases, disasters and droughts tied to climate disturbances. The Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimates that climate change is responsible for some 400,000 deaths per year, a number expected to hit one million by 2030.

But the deadliest feature of an automobile-dependent transportation system is the resulting sedentary lifestyle. The World Health Organization calculates physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths annually.

Researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital recently concluded that diabetes and obesity rates are up to 33 per cent higher in suburban areas of Toronto with poor “walkability”. Another study published in Diabetes Care found that new immigrants who moved to a neighborhood with poorly connected streets, low residential density and few stores close by were 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes than long-term residents of walkable areas.

The rise of the private car has greatly undermined active forms of transport. At the start of the 1900s the typical US resident walked three miles a day; today the average is less than a quarter mile. As a result, most adults fail to meet the minimum recommended levels of physical activity (30 min. of light activity five days a week).

The major reason for the reduction in walking is that the private car’s insatiable appetite for space has splintered the landscape. Distances between living spaces, work and commerce have simply become too far to make walking or biking practical.

But there is another reason people have stopped walking: Cars have made us lazy. The more we use them the more we cannot fathom traveling without them. One survey suggests the extent of psychological dependence is extreme. An average American is only willing to walk about a quarter mile and in some instances (such as errands) only 400 feet. Otherwise, the people private vehicles have created, let’s call them Homo Automotivis, take the car.

The true extent of auto-dependence is revealed by drivers willing to wait five minutes for the closest parking spot to where they are going rather than park a block away and walk. The car has produced a state of mind where walking a few extra feet is a defeat.

It has also produced a paranoid state of mind, particularly among those caring for the young. A recent British study of four generations of eight-year-old children in Sheffield found a drastic decline in the average child’s freedom to roam. In 1926 an eight-year-old in the Thomas family was allowed to go six miles from his home unaccompanied, while today’s child, notes The Daily Mail, “is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home.”

Canadian children are much less likely to walk to school than their parents’ generation. According to Active Healthy Kids Canada, 58 per cent of today’s parents walked to school when they were young while only 28 per cent of their children do. Partly as a result, only 5 per cent of Canadian children get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

Driving children to school is an outgrowth of the greater distances that have come with automotive focused urban planning. But it is not only children living far from school who aren’t walking. One US study found that 87 percent of students living within a mile of school walked in 1969 while today only a third make the same trek.

It is less that children cannot walk to school and more that Homo Automotivis parents, fearing for their children’s safety, prefer to drive them. The most commonly cited fear? Not bullying or kidnapping. The major reason cited by parents for restricting unaccompanied travel: traffic danger.

But when parents use cars to protect their children from other cars, it results in notoriously dangerous schoolyard pickup areas and the very justification for driving their kids to school: a deadly vicious circle.

How have we gotten ourselves into this auto-produced mess? More important, how do we escape?

A  start might be taking death by car as seriously as we take plane crashes.

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