Carsick: Reclaiming Our Cities from the Automobile
By Christopher Hume

Increasingly, young people attach more cachet to their smartphone than their car — if they have one at all. And developers are finding a market for parking-free condominiums. As the Toronto Star's award-winning urban affairs columnist and architecture critic Christopher Hume writes in his new Star Dispatches ebook, vehicles are losing their stranglehold on the culture. Pulling no punches, Carsick: Reclaiming Our Cities from the Automobile traces the car’s drastic effects on cities: newer communities, especially, have been designed to be much more friendly to machines than people. And then there’s the long agony of commutes, our roads’ death toll and the surprising costs of parking. “For now we are car-bound,” Hume laments while showing that the signs are beginning to point the other way.

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Carsick: Reclaiming Our Cities from the Automobile

Few things have shaped our lives more than the car. Its effects,especially in North America, are as profound as they are pernicious. No aspect of human existence remains untouched by the automobile. It has altered everything, including our relationships with time and space. Its impact — social, economic, environmental, cultural — is everywhere.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we created the car and,thereafter, it created us. And in a world awash in cars and trucks, we have learned to take them for granted. Not that we aren’t awareof them — we are, of course — but although we look, we don’t see. For decades the car has simply been assumed.

Now, a century after we entered the Automobile Age, the car — or at least the internal combustion engine — is less of a problem than ever. Automobiles grow more efficient every year, getting higher mileage while producing lower emissions.

What’s got us into trouble is everything that comes with the car — sprawl, congestion, isolation, climate change, ruined cities, squandered resources, to mention a few. For the overwhelming
majority of us, that barely seems to matter. There’s no alternative to the car, no other way to get around. As Tom Cochrane reminded us, “Life is a highway.” The car is the only way to drive it.

Not only is life a journey, but it consists of a multitude of automotive journeys — between one’s home and anywhere and everywhere people drive to work or to attend to the endless chores of contemporary life. That includes most of us. According to Statistics Canada, three-quarters of all trips taken in Canada are in a car, up from 68 per cent in 1992.

Despite all this — more likely because of it — a social shift has started in recent years. Though Baby Boomers remain as reliant as ever on their vehicles, their children — Millennials, Gen Y, Echo Boomers, whatever you call them — are less wedded to the car. They still drive, but around the world, and certainly in North America and Europe, people in this generation are waiting longer to get a licence and driving less when they do.

Canadian automobile sales for the first half of 2013 were strong — 883,667 cars and light trucks were sold. But the industry worries about its long-term prospects in light of these demographic trends. “Kids don’t love cars the way their parents do,” says automotive market researcher Dennis DesRosiers, president of GTA market research company DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. “Smartphones are replacing some of the social elements that a vehicle used to fill. They feel they can be socially more efficient (via text and Twitter) than having a big honking car in the driveway.”

According to Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, most people buying new cars are over 50. By contrast, between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of new car buyers aged 25 to 34 dropped from 15 to 10 per cent. Sivak also says that between 1983 and 2010, the number of 19-year-olds with a driver’s licence fell from 87 per cent to 69 per cent.

At the same time, a dramatic return to the city is now sweeping North America. It represents, among other things, a rejection of car dependency as well as the suburban sprawl it spawned. The myth of mobility and personal freedom that lies at the very heart of car culture has bogged down in the reality of ever-longer commute times, high operating costs, parking problems, pollution and the sheer hassle of ownership.

One the most striking examples of this change is the advent of the car-less condo. Though once unthinkable, the no-parking residential tower has arrived. There’s no better example than The Residences at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in downtown Toronto. Now under construction, this is the first condo projectin Toronto that does not include residential parking, and several other developers are also hoping to reduce or eliminate parking. The Residences has nine spots for deliveries and drop-offs, but beyond that, nothing. This has not stopped sales at the 42-storey, 318-unit complex, in which units are 750 square feet or smaller.Similar restricted-parking projects are popping up in Vancouver, New York and San Francisco.

“If you look at the evidence of what sells downtown, the majority of units under 750 square feet in the downtown core sell without parking,” explains Stephen Deveaux, a vice-president of Tribute Communities, which is building The Residences. As Deveaux points out, buyers snapped up the first 270 units within nine days.

City of Toronto planning staff originally recommended against the scheme, which council finally accepted. “To assume a residential development of the project’s scale might be totally car-free runs counter to expert study and experience,” city staffers argued. “Although there are many households in the downtown without cars, it would be highly unlikely to find 315 of them permanently concentrated in one building.” Planners worried exempting the condo “would create a negative precedent that undermines the integrity of the parking provisions of the zoning bylaw.” Clearly, the market is in the process of doing exactly that.

Still, for now we remain car-bound. In the Greater Toronto Area, the trip to work and back now takes an average of 82 minutes. That adds up to about 15 days a year, which means the commute in the Greater Toronto Area ranks among the worst in North America. According to the provincial Transit Panel, travel times in the Greater Toronto and Hamilon Area (GTHA) are “predicted to grow to 109 minutes” within the next decade or two.

However long that commute may be, it always feels too long and, therefore, frustrating and even dangerous. When we’re not twiddling our thumbs waiting in traffic, being cut off or tailgated, we’re busy trying to avoid distracted drivers and the growing horde of road-ragers.

According to Statistics Canada, more than 80 per cent of commuters in the GTHA drive. The pre-megacity Toronto — the old city — has the highest rate of public transit use in the country, but it’s still only 14 per cent. Another six per cent walk or cycle to work. Little wonder that the trials of the daily commute are integral to contemporary North American life. In many ways, whether we acknowledge it or not, commuting is us.

For a few, ever-longer drive times are a boon. The fastest-growing fast-food market is breakfast: the chains now open at the crack of dawn to serve bleary-eyed commuters. In the GTHA, traffic,like weather, is a civic obsession. Reporters devote careers to charting the flow of traffic on the Gardiner Expressway, the Don Valley Parkway and Highway 401.

The agonies of the commute are a source of shared suffering as well as individual pain. In that respect, congestion is also one of modern society’s great levellers. It afflicts us all, rich or poor, urban or suburban, young or old. We all shout obscenities behind closed windows, cursing those who get in our way and slow us down. Not only do we all pay dearly in terms of time, stress and mental health, but the Toronto and Region Board of Trade tells us that congestion costs the GTA economy an estimated $6 billion annually. A study released by the C.D. Howe Institute in 2013 claims the
real figure is closer to $11 billion.

“The access to urban areas that people could otherwise have,that’s the real cost of congestion,” says the report’s author, Benjamin Dachis, a senior policy analyst. “What we’re hoping that (the study) will bring about is that governments start thinking aboutthe kinds of transportation infrastructure investments they’re making. Toronto could be a much richer city.”

Dachis’s most important conclusion is that car usage in the GTA has reached the point where it keeps the region from realizing its economic potential. Congestion has made the car its own worst enemy. By any standard, $6 billion to $11 billion is a lot of money; the negative impact on the region is enormous.

And yet our attachment to automobiles remains unquestioned. We design and build our homes around them. We spend billions to keep them — and us — moving. We pave over vast swaths of our towns and cities, as well as the most fertile farmland in Canada, so that drivers can go where they want and park when they get there.

When the big auto manufacturers faced ruin in 2008 and ’09,governments in Canada and the U.S. quickly bailed them out. Not only were they too big to fail; they continue to play a fundamental,even essential, role in North American culture as well as the economy. What was good for General Motors, it was once said, is good for America. Canada, too, for that matter.

But since car culture began in earnest in the 1920s, its effects have grown so ubiquitous we barely notice. We no longer register the indignities visited upon our communities in the name of the car. We remain oblivious to the civic mutilation that it has occasioned.

We accept as normal that countless suburban communities would be uninhabitable but for the car, that their basic layout serves cars, not residents. We accept as normal that roads “belong” to cars and trucks. We accept as normal the price that must be paid in injury and death, let alone pollution and climate change.

It all seems, well, natural. Few were surprised when the first words uttered by Rob Ford on being elected mayor of Toronto in 2010 were to reassure voters, “The war on the car is over.”

Presumably, that was a reference to the threat of more bike lanes or pedestrian scrambles — where vehicular traffic in all directions is stopped at an intersection to let walkers cross. Ford might also have been talking about the city’s $60 vehicle registration fee, introduced by his predecessor, David Miller. He quickly rescinded that, conspicuously mailing refunds to all those outraged drivers who had been forced to pay for what already belonged to them. It made him a local hero to some. It wasn’t just the cash grab; it was the gall. Toronto desperately needed the revenue, but for drivers
this was like a tax on air, like having to pay to breathe.