Our friends die. It happens. We grieve and move on. In the best possible outcome, use the moment to reflect on our own lives and to consider the immortal words of Talking Heads: Well, how did I get here?
I often got here in a grey 2007 Ford Fusion we called Brem. He’d had previous owners, but we were the ones who stuffed his body with Tim Hortons wrappers and used his trunk as a junk drawer and drove him to lakes and rivers so that we could jump in. He died about a month ago, with more than 250,000 kilometres on him. With every spasm of his engine, with every whiff of burning wire, I pictured him whispering: “Please, just let me go. It’s time.” And so we did. Farewell, good and faithful servant.
In this period after his death, I paused to think about how we could justify replacing him. I’m sure we will buy another (used) car, because there’s still no way to send children to summer camp via zip line, or at least no legal way. We will buy another car, but should we? Isn’t private car ownership unconscionable at this point?
When you live in a city that’s congested with traffic and plagued with pedestrian and cyclist deaths, where a nano-second of driver inconvenience outweighs the collective good of a streetcar loaded with passengers, it’s hard to argue for the value of a single person in a car. And yet, in urban settings, we still constantly prioritize the needs of the car owner over the cyclist, the subway rider, and the pedestrian – not to mention the elderly, schoolchildren, or anyone who is not completely able-bodied (I was almost run over by a Wonder Bread truck last week, and as I scurried out of its way it occurred to me I only have a decade or so of prime scurrying ahead of me before I myself become scuttled.)
In Toronto, where I live, two useful adjustments to the cityscape have been attacked as anti-car: The first is a project on King Street, a major downtown route, that prioritizes public transit and cyclists. The new rules don’t ban cars, but they do ensure that drivers are no longer the uncontested kings of King, and might shockingly have to park five minutes away from their destinations and walk. Some restaurant and business owners have complained bitterly about a drop in business, but the city’s data don’t uphold their complaints. As The Toronto Star observed this week, the project “almost immediately saw ridership increase and transit times decrease – with minimal negative effects overall on car traffic.”
The other project would see a stretch of Yonge Street in the city’s north end transformed so that it’s friendlier to cyclists and pedestrians: Again, not banning drivers, but just asking them to share the road. This radical proposal has been sent back for further study by Toronto’s city council.
It’s not just that we prioritize driving, we prioritize the convenience of driving – or at least the perceived convenience. It is considered a right, although curiously unmentioned in our Charter, that every citizen should be allowed to barrel through the city as quickly as possible, unimpeded by yellow lights, slower vehicles, children in crosswalks or parents pushing strollers.
Toronto’s former chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, was recently on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning to talk about how drivers need ’’to hit the reset button” when they think about convenience and entitlement: “We still have this idea in our heads that we are going to be able to drive quickly in the city. … We need to recalibrate that. We need to think about how we move in the city in a different way, and think about the vulnerable road users.” Perhaps that change of thinking will come about with the advent of self-driving cars, or car-sharing services; it certainly hasn’t happened yet.
A quick thought experiment: Are private cars absolutely necessary? No, they are not. (We know this because people who do not own cars manage to live perfectly normal lives.) Does having a car make you happier? This is a trickier question, one that is tied to inherited ideas about autonomy, status and productivity. For some people, cars are extensions of identity: I drive therefore I am.
But there is certainly no doubt that driving in a city like Toronto is no longer fun, as it exposes you to the jerkiest aspects of human behavior while revealing the painful truth that you are also at least 60 per cent jerk when behind the wheel. I have yet to hear anyone say, after driving across the city at rush hour – which now begins shortly before dawn and ends at 10 p.m. – “man, that was relaxing! I think I’ll do it again.”
There is also the question of cars’ consequences, not just to the cityscape or the environment but to human life: According to a recent road-safety report from the OECD, Canada is one of a few countries where pedestrian deaths rose from 2010 to 2016 (by 10 per cent). Phones and driving are an increasingly toxic blend, and accident claims tied to distracted driving rose 23 per cent across the country in the past two years, according to a study by Aviva Canada.
Living in a city involves compromise, as anyone who’s had to listen to their barbecuing neighbours playing Shawn Mendes knows all too well. I would like to have a pony in my garage, for example; the people who wrote the city bylaws don’t think that’s such a good idea. Instead, the garage will house Brem’s replacement, which we’ll haul out, rarely and guiltily, for road trips and grocery-store runs.
If you want to live in a large community, with the benefits of shops and schools and restaurants and transit links, then there has to be some concession to the public good over the private desire. As long as the city grows, this tension will grow with it, until we succumb to the inevitable and park the car for good.