The driving imperative

One of the most substantial changes I have experienced since my last diagnosis is the reduction in my vision. I’ve previously written about some of the ways this has impacted me. One of the biggest changes in my life as a result has been not driving. Being able to drive a car is one of those things that so many people take for granted. Whether it is popping out to run a quick errand or taking off to the beach for the day, being able to hop in a car to go is almost as natural as walking. Because of this, very few people think very deeply about how our cities and communities are designed, how planning and development decisions favour the use of cars at the expense of walking, cycling and transit users. This, of course, is not surprising, given how significant a role cars play in “our" lives.

While the average person takes driving for granted, not driving really brings into focus the extent to which drivers are privileged in our society and, particularly in Winnipeg, the extent to which pedestrians, cyclists and transit users are given short shrift. This is even more tragic given that the increased pervasiveness of the automobile has virtually no positive effects on society as a whole and brings with it so many downsides, some merely inconvenient and others globally disastrous.

As someone who almost exclusively rides the bus or walks, the most immediately noticeable effect of the automobile culture is how inconvenient it is to get around otherwise. The location and design of shopping, especially as more and more retail developments focus on far flung “mega box store" formats, is designed specifically for cars. Flanked by massive parking lots, if one even manages to get to one of these by bus, one is still left with the dangerous task of walking through the parking lot to the store. As a father of two young children, this process is occasionally even more treacherous.

The design of the city itself - and I am speaking specifically of Winnipeg, as I am most familiar with it, although I expect my comments apply broadly to North American cities - favours those who drive, as new subdivisions continually push the boundaries of sprawl and disconnection from the broader city. Even the design of individual subdivisions often completely ignores the possibility that someone might chose to walk to get somewhere (as opposed to walking recreationally). The subdivision in which my parents live does not even deign to provide sidewalks, opting instead to provide access roads parallel to main roads, creating vast swaths of roadway that would be better used to provide green space, “active transportation" routes or, ideally, to increase the density of the neighbourhood. This failure of design also reinforces another negative effect of the car: The use of private automobiles destroys the strength of community economies, removes opportunities for spontaneous neighbourhood encounters and reinforces the primacy of the individual over the community, with broad-ranging implications.

In traditional neighbourhoods local stores provided most of what a person needed on a daily or weekly basis. People were more likely to walk to the store and this favoured smaller, local businesses. This had both the benefit of supporting community economic development as well as the sort of “eyes on the street" safety that Jane Jacobs talks about. With the increased sprawl of cities and the primacy of the car, local businesses now have to compete with major “big box" retailers. As new car-oriented retail developments pop up this creates a vicious cycle: Now, the only practical way to access most retail locations is via car and, now that so many people are shopping via car the “market" for car-oriented retail developments is even greater, so more get developed, and so on…

This would be less tragic if cars were less expensive to own and operate, and everyone was able to use one. The reality is that the cost of owning and operating a car is a significant drain on a typical household budget, and out of the reach of many. Thus the primacy of the car only exacerbates social disparities. The design of cities to favour the car - with far-flung islands of big-box retailers and a paucity of local ones - contributes to some of the key problems of urban poverty, including the “food desert" effect, where poorer urban neighbourhoods have the least access to healthy and nutritious food. It also increases the isolation of these neighbourhoods from the broader city, as the lack of a car severely limits where in the city you will consider going.

While the fact that I don’t drive isn’t due to poverty, I am keenly aware that I am increasingly isolated from much of the city. I often say that “My Winnipeg" consists of everything along Portage Avenue between Moray St. and downtown. While this is a bit of an exaggeration, the reality is that for me to travel beyond major routes requires some planning and a lot more time than if I were to travel by car. And, while travelling along major routes is reasonably convenient, more and more development is happening away from major routes served by frequent bus service.

All this seems very unfortunate. The worst about the car, however, remains: The private automobile is the most wasteful, environmentally destructive technological concept ever invented. There is no doubt that cars are massive contributors to global climate change, not to mention urban air quality issues. The manufacture of cars is massively resource and energy intensive, as is their disposal. The roads we build for cars contribute to urban heat islands as well as the flooding and contamination from water running off them, not to mention having a severe impact on the aesthetics of our cities. And, finally, the noise pollution created by cars ruins the experience of what would otherwise be very pleasant neighbourhoods, as anyone who has spent any time on Osborne Street in Winnipeg’s Osborne Village can attest.

I have heard people lament why there should be so many trucks on the highway when it would be so much more efficient to send products by train, but I never hear the same comments about cars. But the question remains: Why should there be 30 cars driving down Portage Avenue Monday morning when there could be one bus (or 150 cars instead of 5 buses)? Or why should the Trans-Canada highway be packed with cars driving to Regina, Calgary or beyond, when they could be replaced by high-speed trains? Or, more importantly, why should we design our cities and neighbourhoods so that everyone needs to drive their car everywhere when we could design the so nobody needed to drive a car?

And our dependance on cars is not for a lack of alternatives. Buses, streetcars and LRT systems are widely available and increasingly efficient. Much of Europe is accessible via high-speed rail, and the technology at the heart of high speed rail systems has been around for over 40 years.

Almost all the “benefits" provided by cars accrue to the individual: Cars provide privacy, convenience, personal entertainment, climate control. The question is, however, at what cost? And these benefits ignore the benefits that accrue to the individual by not driving a car: Less stress, better personal and community health and significantly lower “operating costs."

Driving and the primacy of the car is one of those things we have come to take for granted, to see as inevitable. As I pointed out in my last post, however, I am not a big fan of accepting the unacceptable as “inevitable." In the same vein, in my next post I will try paint a picture of an alternative - life without the car.