When Toronto Mayor Rob Ford came to power, he promised to end the “war on the car.” He was taking aim, of course, at the paternalistic philosophy of centralized urban planning that has infected city halls in virtually every major city in the country. Cars are bad, and the sprawl that they give rise to is worse, a blight on the countryside that all bien-pensants abhor and wish to reverse.
Timorously, I periodically raise my hand, cry “rubbish,” and let slip the dogs of war. For every time I question this article of faith of the smug new self-righteous urban puritans, I am immediately inundated with angry e-mails blaming me for every ill associated with cars, including one kind reader who accused me of being in favour of people being run down in crosswalks. So be it.
I call down on my unrepentant head the worst the car-haters can muster. The automobile is a wonder that rapid transit can never hope to replace, but can at best supplement to some minor degree, and at a cost greatly disproportionate to its benefit.
Almost universally, as people’s standard of living rises, one of the first things they buy is more space for themselves and their families. Those cities that anti-car proselytisers embrace with fervour, such as the centres of New York and Paris, have seen their population density fall over most of the past 100 years, as people have fled their cramped inconvenience in favour of blossoming suburbs, where everything is bigger, including the lots, and cars are the workhorse of city travel.
As a result, people who don’t live there hold up the centre of Paris or Stockholm as an example of what we should do with our own cities, ignoring the fact that the French and the Swedes live in far greater numbers in suburbs that are basically quite indistinguishable from those of Toronto or Montreal.
What’s this got to do with cars? Suburbs and space go hand in hand with the car. The car means people can reach affordable space. Instead of a balcony and a window box, they can have a yard. “Urban sprawl” and the car have given people a higher standard of living and more freedom than ever before.
Cars put you literally in the driver’s seat, including about when you travel, and what route you take (picking up the groceries on the way home from work or taking the kids to dance, hockey and music) without advance planning, transfers or extra fares. You stay dry and warm no matter what the weather, and travel time by car is in the vast majority of cases shorter than by transit, especially if you have to transfer. Cars carry more than one can manage on bus, bike or foot, allowing people to shop at supermarkets and discount stores farther from home. The car has been essential to the emergence of IKEA, Costco and Target, which raise our standard of living by improving choice and lowering prices.
Economic activity, far from being concentrated in city centres, is increasingly dispersed across our cities, meaning that the way people move for work less and less matches urban mass transit, which largely moves people to the central core and back again. Transit could never reproduce the blooming buzzing diversity of travel needs the car accommodates with ease. A tiny fraction of commuter trips are made on mass transit. Even if we were to double the share of mass transit in major cities (in itself a huge, and hugely expensive, task), it would still barely affect congestion, while emissions per kilometre driven are now vanishingly small.
The incontrovertible fact is the vast majority of people will continue to rely on their cars for transport. Mass transit is chiefly a poorly designed and very expensive social program for those who don’t have a car. We’d be better off buying them cars and spending the leftover money on well-designed roads, preferably where people were charged for every kilometre they drove and a premium at rush hour to reduce congestion.
Everyone talks in favour of urban transit, but what they really mean is that they wish the driver in front of them on the road would leave his car at home. This includes the allegedly anti-car young, who say they want to live downtown but in fact live in ever greater numbers in the suburbs. Pay no attention to what people say, because it is so unfashionable to be pro-car. Look instead at what people do; while city centres have grown, suburbs have grown hugely more, as people voted, not with their feet, but their steering wheels.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.