Getting past the ‘War on the Car’ | #TOpoli #ClimateChange

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(This grew out of a Facebook discussion with the divine Septembre Anderson, so it’ll be a little abrupt. Indulge me. Tips of the chapeau are also due to Rosalind Robertson, Breeyn McCarney, and Daniel Cowans.)

A lot of this is boilerplate, and it’s already been tackled by folks like Daren Foster and Ed Keenan, but what the hey. I’d also recommend a necessary and illuminating piece by the indispensible Steve Munro, who’s forgotten more about transit than I’ll ever know.

The context was a juxtaposition of revenue from city recreational programs, and a proposal that those programs should be free, and the loss of municipal revenue from the Vehicle Registration Tax, regularly caricatured as part of the Leftie Downtown Elitist War on the Car. This isn’t really intended to get into the specifics of that; it’s more of a step back, let’s look at the big picture and try and see this in historical context (oh Christ, there he goes again — ed.) kind of thing.

Anyway, someone on Septembre’s FB feed was talking about the way we “penalize” car owners whenever the city needs revenue. I jumped on it, perhaps a little more intemperately than I might have:

The idea that you’re being “penalized” by having to pay a tax is where the debunking begins. I’d suggest a review of Alex Himelfarb‘s Tax is Not a Four Letter Word for starters. And if you do something as fundamentally self-centred, anti-social and environmentally destructive as driving a private automobile on a regular basis, then quite frankly I don’t have a problem with you being required to pony up more …

I’ve never met a group of people more obsessed with their own privilege — and less willing to acknowledge it — than motorists. Their sense of entitlement to absolute primacy on the roads is boundless. I don’t care about other users, and why do I have to stop for that goddamn streetcar, and get the fuck out of my way cyclists because I just wanna go wherever the fuck I want as fast as I can. And it’s my god-given right to park my private car directly in front of my destination, as opposed to actually having to walk a block or two from a bus stop or something. Angry, aggressive, impatient, and selfish. Ford is just an extreme and grotesque example.

Bluntly, I’m out of patience. Don’t like gridlock? Don’t like road tolls? Don’t like scrambling for parking spots (which are also heavily subsidized, BTW)? Get out of your fucking car and take transit. Or ride a bike. Honestly, just stop whining and grow up.

The discussion continued, with the same participant arguing, not without justification, that he couldn’t rely on public transit to get where he needed to go in a timely manner. He also complained, again with some reason, about the wasted time and lost productivity due to service interruptions, overcrowding, poor service, and all the other problems besetting public transit in Toronto. (I’m paraphrasing, and in truth, it would be fairer for me to allow him to speak for himself, so in that regard, if he wants to respond here, I’ll commit to publishing whatever he wants to say, unedited, at as much length as he wants.)

At any rate, that prompted this additional outburst of sanctimonious wankery:

… if you find public transit inefficient, perhaps you should work to improve it, and support public initiatives that will do the same. (Ruinously wasteful subways that will never justify themselves in terms of ridership might be a good place to start.) Honestly, where is it written that public transit has to be slow, inefficient, dirty, overcrowded, poorly maintained and unreliable? It doesn’t have to be that way at all. There are jurisdictions all over the globe where a well-maintained and functional public transit system is recognized as the Public Good that it is, and in fact it’s the preferred method of getting around. Private cars are well down the list.

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s not necessarily the best or fastest way to get around in the GTA. It’s no secret that our current urban form has been built around private automobiles: large highways, single-family homes on large lots, huge malls with large parking lots, low population density have all combined to make public transit very difficult to operate efficiently. And we’ve structured our lives and jobs and communities accordingly. You drive to work, you drive the kids to school or daycare, you drive to the mall to get groceries, you shlep all your stuff around in a car. It’s just the way it is.

Problem being, that’s simply not sustainable. I don’t need to get into greenhouse gases or climate change or emissions control; suffice it to say that our addiction to private automobiles is one of the biggest sources of smog and air pollution in North America, so there’s the impact on health and productivity to consider, never mind the environmental impact. Factor in the advent of peak oil and it becomes clear: we simply can’t structure our cities and our lives around cheap gasoline and abundant energy and inefficient land use any more. Sadly, we’re stuck with infrastructure and urban form that’s built around that, so it makes efficient and low-impact transit that much harder to achieve. But that also makes it that much more imperative. It’s not a question of cars being evil so much as a recognition that reliance on them as the primary means of getting around simply doesn’t work any more. And part of fixing that includes getting motorists to assume a greater share of the costs they’ve been offloading onto the rest of us. Whether you want to admit it or not, private automobiles are subsidized up the yingyang. As those subsidies are phased out, more and more people will make the rational economic choice of opting for other ways of getting around.

What I’ve impatiently characterized as selfishness and entitlement on the part of motorists, in that context, has to be seen for what it is: privileged distress. When you have a group of people who’ve enjoyed preferential treatment for so long that they’ve come to see it as the natural order of things, they’re going to see any revisiting of the arrangement as an attack on themselves. Suddenly they’ve become victims. It’s like MRAs who see feminism as a giant conspiracy to attack men, or bigots who whine about Political Correctness. It’s where you get idiotic memes like the “War On The Car.”

And so on. Again, nothing that hasn’t already been said, previously and more eloquently, by better people than me, but given the way things are likely to be framed over the next twelve months, worth emphasizing.

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Team Ford to city staff: Keep your expertise to yourself, or else | #TOpoli

The mayor, a champion of car travel, went further on his Sunday Newstalk 1010 radio show, calling McKeown’s $290,000 salary “an embarrassment,” and promising to “look into it.” His brother, Councillor Doug Ford, calling in from Florida, asked: “Why does (McKeown) still have a job?”

Goddamn those smart people with their facts and evidence and experience, anyway.

So Toronto’s medical officer of health floats an idea about reducing speed limits in order to make the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Can’t have that, of course. Silly doctor — streets are for buses, cars, and trucks.

Forget all that facty, evidency, history stuff that Cityslikr’s citing about carcentrism being a relatively recent thing. (And what kind of condescending, elitist-type word is that, anyway?)

What’s Team Ford’s reaction? Can’t have a discussion about it, it’s just nuts nuts nuts. How much are we paying this guy, anyway? Let’s look into that. It’s an embarrassment. Why does this guy still have a job?

Got that, city staff? Zip it, or … well, shame about Gary Webster, innit. 

Perhaps council should take the board of health away from the FoBros. It’s pretty clear that they can’t be trusted not to break things.

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The four-wheel fetish: moving beyond the car | #mobilityTO #moveTO

Back to the whole War on the Car thing.

A recent post at All Fired Up suggests that driving cars essentially turns people into sociopaths. Perhaps I’m not giving the argument the space it deserves here, but it’s pretty compelling. A sample:

… if we’re looking around for a culprit for the serious democratic deficit currently facing us, the toxic public discourse that now passes for political debate, the unbridgeable left-right schism, we can stop searching right now. It’s all about car ownership.

The unnatural attachment some people have to their cars could be the subject of an entire book. It  was very much in evidence at City Hall last night in some of the questions at the opening of Toronto Talks Mobility. And, as in almost any discussion of this, someone just had to bring up one of the first things Rob Ford said as our newly installed Chief Magistrate: “The War on the Car is over.”

Yeah, well. I’ve gone on at some length about that meme, so not much point in rehashing it, but there was one guy at the microphone, fairly shortly after moderator Christopher Hume opened things up to questions from the audience, prompting me to tweet:

[View the story “Toronto talks mobility: one tweet … ” on Storify]

Apparently, it struck a chord.

The staying power of the “War on the Car” meme isn’t just about stupidity. It also speaks to the lingering effects of bad planning and misguided nostalgia for better times that never were. So let’s consider some of the things that should guide our thinking when we’re designing our communities and shaping infrastructure, because those are essential to the way we move people and goods around.

  • Peak oil.
  • Carbon emissions. 
  • Non-sustainable urban form.
  • And this cheery piece from the Guardian, which says, basically, that if we don’t manage to get thing turned around by 2017, we’re fucked.

Not an exhaustive list, of course, but rethinking how we design our communities and how we get around isn’t just good policy any more — it’s survival. We can’t build things around the car any more.

In fact, I’ll recycle Justin Beach’s argument from last summer — there is no war on the car. As recent events shows, what we’ve got is open season on anyone who *isn’t* in a car.

Can we finally, at last, please, retire that idiotic meme?

P.S. What was that about cars turning people into sociopaths?

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