Toronto's mayor proposes charging drivers tolls for using two major highways. Its chief planner points out that slowing down on the road can mean fewer pedestrian casualties. Is this the start of – that slogan once thrown around by Rob Ford and his allies – a "war on the car?"
Suburban politicians will claim it is. So will many frustrated car commuters faced with yet more costs and limitations. In a sense, they are right. The war on the car is starting, and it is about time.
It is not that city hall is maliciously setting out to make motorists miserable. It is that, at long last, we are approaching the realization, as a city, that the long era when the car was king must end.
The costs of its reign are just too great. The cost to the environment, the cost in lives lost on the roads, the health cost of sitting for too long behind the wheel – all of these are becoming clearer and clearer.
Start with the environment. Canada is finally getting serious about the battle against climate change. Federal and provincial authorities convened just this week to negotiate a plan.
Discouraging the use of gas-powered cars has to be part of the solution. As well as spewing greenhouse gases, cars contribute to good old-fashioned smog.
Paris, faced with the worst winter pollution in years, was banning half of all cars from entering its downtown this week. Other world cities from Beijing to London to Delhi are struggling to control their air pollution.
Now consider the lives lost and injuries sustained because of the car. On a single day in Toronto this week, 24 people were hit while walking. This year is on track to be the deadliest for pedestrians since 2003. As The Globe's Oliver Moore reports, the majority of victims are over 65. A woman killed this week when she stepped off a median was 87.
Drivers themselves pay a high price for the tyranny of the car. Sitting bumper to bumper in crawling traffic is a unique form of misery that the human race has inflicted on itself. It takes drivers away from their families, cuts their productivity and sometimes makes them unwell to boot. The sedentary lifestyle that is eroding the health of millions is a product in part of the automobile age.
More and wider highways are not a solution, although we keep on building them all the same. Most fill up almost as soon as they open. Does anyone think the multimillion-dollar widening of the 410 highway in the region's northwest will mean clear sailing through Brampton forevermore?
And so we find ourselves at a decision point. All at once, and in dramatic fashion, the costs of the automobile's long dominion are coming home. Ending it is both desirable and inevitable. We might as well get on with it.
That means bringing in lower speed limits, building more protected bike lanes, redesigning streets to make them safer for pedestrians. It means raising gas taxes and using the money to pay for better public transit. It means raising parking fees and getting rid of ridiculous rules requiring builders to install a certain number of parking spots
It means tolling not just a couple of highways but all of them; city streets, too. We now have the technology to put a price on road use just about anywhere. The $2 toll being kicked around for the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway is a pittance – cheaper than a subway ride. Five or 10 bucks would make more sense, given the enormous cost of maintaining and rebuilding those roadways. That at least would produce some serious extra money for transit.
None of this will be easy. Naturally, motorists and the politicians who claim to serve them will raise a mighty din. Hundreds of thousands of people in Toronto rely on their cars for work and for life, especially in the vast postwar suburbs built around the automobile. They are a potent force that no politician wants to rouse (which is why Mayor John Tory was so brave to push for tolls).
But, again, the aim isn't to punish drivers or take away their cars. The personal automobile will be with us for some time yet. The aim is to move beyond the model that made it such an utterly dominant force of urban life.
Overthrowing king auto is the most important task facing modern cities. To save the environment, to save lives on the roads, to safeguard human health – for that matter, just to make cities better, more pleasant places – it is imperative to break his stranglehold. Let the war on the car begin.