Category Archives: Stop Signs

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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