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In this file phioto, a cyclist yells at the driver of an illegally parked car during rush hour on Wellesley Avenue near Yonge street in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
In this file phioto, a cyclist yells at the driver of an illegally parked car during rush hour on Wellesley Avenue near Yonge street in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

The Green Highway

Steering clear of cars in big cities Add to ...

I was asked recently, “What do you like least about Toronto?” I answered instantly, “Driving in it.”

I would have answered the same if questioned about Vancouver, Calgary or Montreal. I am not alone. Young people, I have observed, are turning away in droves from what was once the dream and the status of car ownership.

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In my day, there was nothing more appealing than the prospect of a driving licence at the age of 15 years and 365 days. We were all there early on the morning of our 16th birthday to collect the Learner’s Permit ($2) and push ahead to the freedom and fun of independent travel.

But today, the cost of cars and fuel, the insurance, the permits, the radar cops in revenue traps, the lack of parking and the gridlock everywhere is turning kids against our former freedom machines.

“What would I possibly do with a car?” said one 20-year-old with whom I am well acquainted. “Well everything,” said I, who drove a beat-up VW out of town to university on day one.

This kid is in graduate school in an expensive university and doesn’t get it that cars are liberating, exciting and the key to endless open road adventures. “Not interested at this time,” said the sly car hater. Perhaps car worship isn’t genetic.

I hunted around for Canadian statistics to support my point of view, but only found some from the U.K. (in the Guardian) where the percentage of 17- to 20-year-olds with driving licences fell from 48 per cent in the early 1990s to 35 per cent last year. Surely car ownership rates will soon reflect this trend, and don’t think the auto makers aren’t worried about it.

I spent some time this summer talking to a former telecom exec who now works for BMW “investing in companies, which improve urban mobility.” For example, the Bavarians now own part of parkatmyhouse.com, which is an online parking marketplace connecting homeowners with parking spaces to rent to drivers who need them. It seems to be pretty busy in the London area, but the parking prices charged would still be a disincentive to drive. BMW also invested in online services that plan your journey and even tell you to bail out of your car and take the train when traffic gets really bad.

One fairly promising way to get car-haters behind the wheel is to offer a car-sharing service and the big car companies want in on the action. If growing numbers of people want to borrow a car, rather than own a car, that’s an opportunity not to be missed.

General Motors has a deal with RelayRides, a company that helps car owners rent their cars when they don't need them. Ford provides cars to Zipcar for campus sharing. Hertz is into the car-sharing business and Daimler offers its Smart cars in Vancouver and some American and German cities under the name Car2Go.

You’d think other motorists would be happy to have people share cars and thus reduce the overall numbers on the road. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

In Vancouver, local residents have been complaining that the Car2Go vehicles – tiny, little Smart cars – are taking up too many scarce parking spaces. There are only about 200 cars in the fleet with municipal parking permits attached. People have been complaining to the city when they see the cars on “their” streets taking up “their” parking spaces. Sometimes you just can’t win.

I personally think a lot of people are doing away with car ownership because heavy traffic makes city driving so miserable. Toronto traffic is horrible and you can be sure there will be no new expressways built to ease the situation.

The problem is that, even as population grows and grows, rapid public transit does not. Madrid is a city of comparable size to Toronto and it knows how to get subways built. Madrid has 293 kilometres of subway lines serving 272 stations. Toronto has 70 kilometres serving 69 stations. By Madrid’s standard – a good one – Toronto should have four times the amount of underground rapid transit as it has now. It doesn’t even have a rapid rail line to the airport. No wonder the roads are jammed.

I’m all in favour of car-sharing schemes and I’m sure they will be helpful for downtowners who might otherwise never want to go behind the wheel. Strangely enough, if you want to improve the quality of driving for the rest of us, then build more subways.

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