Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

David Suzuki: Our obsession with private automobiles is unsustainable

with 6 comments

Georgia Straight

In this opinion piece, the sainted Suzuki is really guilty of lazy thinking. It is much too easy to blame the victim – and concentrate on the vehicles and the people who use them rather than point fingers at the truly guilty parties.

The automobile industry would never have been successful if it had relied on its own efforts. As Henry Ford recognized, though he built cars, someone else would have to build the roads for them to run on – and that meant government, or taxpayers of you prefer. Not only is the automobile industry heavily subsidized – and that was before the recent bail out – but government policies have been heavily oriented to car dependant development. The oil that cars need is also heavily subsidized. But both those subsidies get much less attention than the relatively small amounts spent on public transportation – a constant howl is kept up (including the first comment on the Straight web page) about the “scam” of Translink.

Let us assume Suzuki intends to address his remarks to Greater Vancouver, since that is where the Straight is aimed at. How come there is no mention at all of the current governments obsession with road building? Why no dissection of the intimate relationship between developers, car dealers and the BC Liberals? Why nothing at all about the way cars have been sold – and how car dependency has been built in to our communities?

The word “addiction” is overused – and is misleading. Of course it suits car makers and oil drillers that we continue to use their products. But people are – and will – change modes, when they find that they can. They may not give up car ownership quite so quickly, given the way that cars are kept on standby for most of their lives. But the people who moved into the new developments near rapid transit, or close to the variety of attractive destinations in downtown have shown that there is more than one successful way to develop land. We do not all have to reside in single family homes on their own lots. Indeed, few of those actually are “single family” any longer. Provide a high quality, frequent transit service and people will use it – and their feet and their bikes when it is safe and attractive to do so.

It is easy to blame cars – and to point out how long and hard the path to more sustainable cars is going to be. It is much harder to tackle what needs to change in our communities to make a lass car oriented life style not just possible but attractive. For a current instance, look at the opposition Mayor Robertson is dealing with over one high-rise in the West End.  According to the Province’s Michael Smyth that’s because of fears of “traffic gridlock, parking chaos” and so on. Nonsense of course. Gridlock is a temporary phenomenon but a useful sound bite. And the parking “chaos” usually translates quickly onto higher charges.

And as we learned from “Carjacked” we might like our cars as objects but we are sick of the frustrations of actually trying to use them. We have to be persuaded by billions on dollars on the fantasy that we will not have to share the road with an anyone else, that we will be safe inside them – and comfortable.

I do not believe that you can persuade people to change their ways by berating them or accusing them of being obsessed and addicted. There are ways which have worked to change behaviour – after all there has been a considerable decline in smoking, and that was a real addiction. And like oil use was promoted by an industry anxious to throw doubt on the science which was – as near as any scientific evidence can be – unequivocal. Indeed exactly the same people are now involved in a remarkably similar campaign to throw doubt on the evident  impact of global warming and the fact that it is being caused by fossil fuel use. And cars are one of the biggest local sources of greenhouse gas emissions, yet we seem to be persuaded that we need ever larger cars and trucks to drive around in.

Much of that is due to deliberate misinformation. But what cannot be denied is that if people could access a different kind of place to live which did not require car use they will move there – because they have. Look what happened when one developer was allowed to go below the municipally mandated parking requirement of a development near Joyce – Collingwood Skytrain station.  And subsequently other places – but that still does not silence the howls against developers who propose a similar approach. Of course it is going to take a long time to retrofit our low density neighbourhoods – and it will not be an easy ride to get there. But we who care about such change do not help our cause when we attack people for using their cars.

What we need to do first is to get different policies into place – and that is already happening in the City of Vancouver. It is even becoming apparent in parts of other cities in the region. But what is holding things back right now is the lack of commitment to transit expansion, the huge spending on road expansion – and the rear guard action that has to be fought to secure the gains that have been made on such issues as bike lanes. The Burrard Bridge experiment clearly worked – yet the battle for Hornby has hardly begun. But all of the argument is at the passionate level. Suzuki has the facts and figures – but I do not find him persuasive, and I am on his side.

I think we need an approach similar to that adopted by Sidney Ellen Wade: she persuaded a die-hard to back greenhouse gas emission reductions by telling her she could not only keep her Volvo but its value would increase as it would become a rare collector’s item.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 1, 2010 at 11:07 am

6 Responses

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  1. Do you have any links for what happened at the Joyce – Collingwood station? How exactly has minimal parking affected prices?

    Andrew E

    September 1, 2010 at 12:08 pm

  2. Very smart, Stephen. I enjoyed this one a lot. Well-argued, as usual.

    The Propagandist

    September 1, 2010 at 2:39 pm

  3. I spent a bit of time on Google but did not find anything especially relevant or authoritative. The development originally included rental as well as units for sale and the aim was affordability. Since the developer did not have to provide parking, that lowered costs. However, there were considerable community benefits too – such as a new community centre. When I worked for Translink I would take visitors to Joyce to show them a TOD station area – which contrasted nicely with Nanaimo and 29th Avenue where no change had been allowed.

    Stephen Rees

    September 1, 2010 at 4:19 pm

  4. Don’t hate the playa: hate the game. Or rather, hate the biased umpire.

    Nice piece. I’d love to see MV presenting a lot more images (literally pictures) of Metro Vancouver in 20 years’ time. All leafy sidewalks and cycle lanes, bus rapid transit lanes, Smiths electric delivery vehicles and the occasional sporty classic car for leisure. Not an SUV in sight.


    September 3, 2010 at 8:47 am

  5. It doesn’t help to overcome the automobile addiction if the private sector keeps on catering to the automobile. There was a time that there was a hardware store, a bank, or even a movie theatre within walking distance of where one would live. Now, for the sake of “efficiency”, they amalgamated the smaller stores or buildings into one large venue, far from everyone.

    Just try to get a last minute paint brush, no hardware store nearby. No, you have to get into your car to drive down to the big box store to purchase 1 brush and return. In the process, wasting precious fuel, and risking yourself and property in possible collisions along the way.

    W. K. Lis

    September 3, 2010 at 8:53 am

  6. W. K. Lis is right but the truly sad think is that this not only happening in Vancouver/ North America but in many other countries as well.

    When I was growing up in Bordeaux (France) relatives lived in the suburbs (I long thought they were built in the 19th century, turn out they went back to 2000 years..). My relatives walked about 1 km–one way– from their home to the heart of their suburb where they had everything. They only went to downtown Bordeaux–by tram–if they wanted to go to a department store, see the latest movies etc.

    It all changed drastically in the early 1970s after the construction of several bridges across the wide river and a ring road (expressway) built outside the oldest suburbs that surround Bordeaux.
    The woods on the hillsides, the fields in the plains were replaced by subdivisions and shopping centres…

    My grandma used to do that 2 km walk (1km to and fro)to the little stores in her suburb TWICE a day, after she retired, both for exercise sake and to gossip. So did many people.
    I was back there a couple of years ago and my travel buddy and I were the only pedestrians. Cars everywhere, even though these newest suburbs all have bus lines feeding the tram lines to Bordeaux.

    Same thing in the couple of places in Japan where I have friends..old districts have lots of small neighbourhood stores (still) but newer ones don’t. In one place they actually have a shopping center owned by the same company that own one near Seattle..

    Mind you, in Japan the majority of people that live in a relatively small place but work in a big city do use transit…as all expressways have tolls and parking is scarce and expensive.

    Red frog

    September 3, 2010 at 1:17 pm

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