Like any slow change it’s hard to pin down when exactly it happened, but there’s no doubt about it now. The driveway in front my apartment has become too small, or rather, cars have become too large for the space. According to the City of Toronto, the parking space is suitable for one vehicle.
In practice, it usually accommodates 0.9 vehicles, or sometimes just three-quarters of an especially bulky SUV of the sort that are fast becoming standard issue on Canadian roads.
Vehicles have been growing in size since the 1980s. The 1973 oil crisis and ensuing sky-high gas prices shrank cars and parking spaces, but all these decades later, we’re back to driving big ol’ road hogs. At nearly six-metres long, the 1973 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron was one of the largest cars ever to roam the Earth, but today’s Cadillac Escalade ESV is only slightly shorter, even wider and much taller. The latest Jeep Grand Cherokee is 4.9-metres long, 30.2 centimetres longer than the 2002 model. Even the modern Mini Cooper dwarfs the dainty 1960s original.
The situation isn’t much better when it comes to new electric vehicles. The Hyundai Ioniq 5 is as wonderful as I hoped it would be, except I wish it were five or 10 per cent smaller. The 4,100- kilogram Hummer EV would be funny, if it were a joke. As Road & Track magazine editor Mack Hogan wrote recently, “Because EVs are naturally more efficient, we’ve taken the opportunity to free ourselves from restraint in favour of ever dumber, costlier versions of the same old mistakes.”
It’s not just that vehicles are getting larger though; we’re also choosing to buy larger types of vehicles. In 2016, SUVs and pickups made up 40 per cent of the new-vehicle market in Canada, according to data from GoodCarBadCar, but today it’s more than 80 per cent. And yet many of us are shocked – outraged – there’s no easy place to park these juggernauts wherever and whenever we please.
Cities have grown too of course, but not in the same way. They’ve become more densely populated over the last 40 years, making parking all the more impossible. As much as I complain about my driveway, I’m one of the lucky ones who has off-street parking. When the snow piles up in winter, modern SUVs and pickups barely fit down narrow residential streets.
Parking should be the least of our worries. The other, more dire, problems caused by our oversized vehicle fleet are well documented.
The tall, blunt front of a large SUV or pickup is more likely to kill pedestrians – especially children – in the event of a crash, according to a 2020 study by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and an often-cited 2015 report from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Big, heavy vehicles are safer for people inside, but more dangerous for people outside, a philosophy which runs counter to the fundamentally communal nature of cities.
Not only are large SUVs and pickups more deadly, they’re dirtier too. Canadians drive the largest and most-polluting vehicles in the world, on average, according to a 2019 report from the International Energy Agency. “Simply put, the cost to purchase and operate a gas-guzzler in Canada (or the U.S.) is far less than the rest of the world,” said Blake Shaffer, assistant professor with the Department of Economics at the University of Calgary, writing in a 2019 article for The Conversation. The shift to SUVs and pickups is one of the key reasons – along with the fact there are more people driving more vehicles – that Canada is failing to reduce climate-change-causing emissions from passenger vehicles.
It’s not solely the fault of drivers, far from it; they can only purchase vehicles automakers sell, and automakers – driven by increased profit and fuel-economy regulations that favour larger types of vehicles – have chosen to make more SUVs and trucks. Some companies, like Ford, have stopped selling sedans and hatchbacks altogether in Canada. Increasingly stringent crash safety standards have also led to bulkier vehicles.
Their appeal is obvious. My family rented a palatial Ford Expedition for a Rocky Mountain road trip last summer, and the four of us used every square inch of space in that thing. It was great. Years ago, I met a gold-miner in the Yukon who had a big family and several dogs. He lived four or five hours from the nearest supermarket and needed his massive SUV to haul two weeks’ worth of food. Big vehicles can be useful, even necessary, especially for people in rural areas. Besides, for some, big cars still look like success, while small ones look like the opposite.
There are no easy, painless solutions to the problems caused by our collective love of super-sized vehicles. They’re bad for us, like fast food, but it’s hard to quit. Fuel economy targets and a zero-emissions vehicle sales mandates – like those in California, Quebec and B.C., and the one proposed by the federal government – will help with the pollution problem, but won’t necessarily reduce the size of vehicles. Driver-assistance technology – like automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection – can reduce the number of collisions, but these systems aren’t nearly good enough to rely on.
Lowering speed limits in areas with pedestrians and cyclists would help reduce the likelihood of death, but such measures often get drivers up in arms. So too does the federal government’s carbon pricing program, which is gradually ratcheting up the price of gas. Reducing the need for cars through better public transit and infrastructure for cycling, e-scooters and the like inevitably prompts war-on-cars rhetoric.
Governments could progressively tax vehicles on their physical size and/or carbon footprint, perhaps with certain exceptions for work vehicles, but the auto industry would hate that. Or, maybe could we get Zendaya and Drake driving Smart cars instead of G-Wagons and Escalades?
Think-tanks and advocacy groups have plenty of other policy solutions, but none of them will be painless for drivers. We’ve had it pretty good – too good – for 100 years, and now something has to give. My driveway is bursting at the seams, and so are our streets.