Road Rage: We're Addicted to the Automobile, and It's Killing Us

Remember the purr of the engine. I remember the flash of an animal -- a jack rabbit? -- in the bushes at the road's edge, and the endless yellow line.I first learned to speed last September, on Utah State Highway 191, on a road trip in the American Southwest with my friend Rebecca. Because of a rental mix-up in Las Vegas, I had at my disposal a brand new Nissan Maxima, a beautiful machine with a 190-horsepower V6 engine and stereo to match.My mission: to find a motel room in the middle of a freak cold snap that sent hundreds of tourists scurrying out of the campgrounds.No Vacancy signs filled Moab. Same story in Monticello. In Blanding, I arrived at a check-in counter just as the clerk was giving away the key for the last empty room.We decided to keep heading south.And then we were on our own. No lights twinkled from the hillsides rising and falling out our side windows; no cars passed along the road.I had driven over 150 kilometres of highway that day, but I took pride in always obeying the speed limits. Then, out in the desert, something new took hold of me. I turned up the stereo, planted the gas pedal ... and we hurtled toward the Arizona border at over 90 miles per hour.The needle on the gas gauge was falling, I was tired, I had only the vaguest idea of where I was going. I liked it.Excuse number one: Driving is fun.As North Americans, we work, eat and sleep to the background drone of cars, and we like it.Take the car out of our culture and it would be unrecognizable: it's hard to imagine Thelma and Louise racing towards a canyon rim on bicycles, or Hunter S. Thompson taking the train to Las Vegas.We know better, of course. Just drive up Mount Doug on a clear day, and you'll see the downside of our automotive love-affair: a brownish pall over the city. And of course, even on that short trip, a simple miscalculation -- yours or someone else's -- could land you in a heap of warped and bloodstained metal.How did a dangerous machine which should be an occasionally useful luxury turn into a near necessity? And why can't we -- enlightened West Coasters -- now kick the habit?The answer: because we set it up that way. We are so fond of our cars that we've turned our cities into tarmac in their honour. We pay high taxes to subsidize car travel. We spread our cities across the landscape, turning forested hillsides into subdivisions that feed into highways. We demand free parking. We give ourselves every excuse to keep on driving.As a result, by Capital Regional District estimates, the Victoria area was host to 274 million car trips in 1992. That's about 750,000 trips a day -- quite a feat for a population of 300,000. Commuters driving to work. Canucks fans popping to the liquor store between periods. Tourists gawking along Dallas Road. Health nuts blitzing to the gym at lunch hour.If our population keeps growing and spreading as expected, the number will increase by 32 percent by 2010 -- close to a million trips a day.Less than a month ago, there was a moment's breather from this madness. The big blizzard gave us a glimpse, if only for a day, of life without cars. The streets filled with people, trading stories as often as shovels and meeting neighbours that had been strangers. The white noise of the roads faded, replaced by the honking of sea lions that could be heard in Fernwood.Remember that day. Now imagine its opposite -- Victoria's streets with close to a third more cars on them. That's what we're facing as Victoria pours over the Malahat and bursts into the Cowichan Valley.The story for our environment is grim, if familiar.Because we sit on a windswept peninsula, Victoria has good air quality, compared to the Lower Mainland (home of smog and "ozone episodes").But as any bicycle courier will tell you, this town's air is far from clean. Most of that pollution comes from the tailpipes of cars, says Robert Marsh of the Ministry of Environment's air resources branch."Our main culprit for pollution is the motor vehicle. The emphasis in the past has been on industrial pollution, but it's the motor vehicle now."According to another 1992 CRD study, in a single weekday rush-hour the region's vehicles belch an average of 10.4 tonnes of carbon monoxide, 1.2 tonnes of nitrogen oxides (ingredients of smog and acid rain), and 1.2 tonnes of volatile organic compounds (ingredients of smog).With tougher provincial rules these emissions are declining, but because of the region's increasing population and sprawl, planners expect these pollutants to decline only slightly by the year 2010.Meanwhile, levels of another devastating pollutant will not be affected by emissions standards. The CRD study indicates that an average of 251 tonnes of carbon dioxide -- the principal agent blamed for global climate change -- come out of the region's tailpipes in a single rush-hour.That's the weight of about 4,000 pedestrians. And, if we continue to grow as we are, that CO2 tally could hit 337 tonnes by the year 2010.So much for the 1992 Rio Summit Treaty, in which Canada promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.But even if the gas guzzlers were all magically recycled into electric cars, automobile use would still be a major -- and so far virtually unchallenged -- environmental problem.There's nothing like spending three and a half hours stuck with a tired two-year-old to make you feel that urban sprawl is damaging your quality of life.Architect Frank D'Ambrosio had just that experience when his 6-year-old son needed surgery. It meant getting up at 5 a.m. and driving from the family home in Oak Bay to the Victoria General Hospital, nestled among trees, fields and highways at the western edge of town. His 2-year-old son was along for the ride.As they waited for the elder boy to come out of the operation, D'Ambrosio found there was nowhere to go. Home was too far, no neighbourhood centres beckoned, and it was too cold for a long walk.So D'Ambrosio and son killed time in the hospital cafeteria. "It was a horrific experience," he recalls.A self-described urbanist, D'Ambrosio is fond of city streets. He likes to stop at a corner store for a newspaper, or sit and relax in a caf­. Being out in Saanich and surrounded by highways left him thinking dark thoughts about urban design -- especially given that the D'Ambrosios live within walking distance of the Jubilee hospital.The decision to rebuild Victoria's biggest hospital -- home to the city's only pediatric unit -- at the edge of town, is an example of how our reliance on the car has destroyed people's comfort."It would have been more convenient, more comfortable, less energy-consuming and less polluting to put it closer to town," says D'Ambrosio, who is best known for his recent work on the Selkirk Waterfront Project, now going up on the Gorge.The urban design manual for that development proudly declares that the Selkirk waterfront is one place where the car is not going to come first."It is evident that a continually expanding street system ultimately damages the quality of life for urban pedestrians and cyclists as well as increasing the already substantial negative effects of combustion emissions," the manual states. "Traffic planning for the Selkirk Waterfront has been conducted in a manner which rejects the philosophy that the unencumbered rapid movement of the private automobile is the primary criterion for the design of streets and intersections."The architects designed dense, intimate housing on narrow streets, with shops and services located within walking distance. They used textured pavements, raised intersections and traffic circles to slow cars down.D'Ambrosio would like to see similar pedestrian-oriented neighbourhoods built around the region. He sees it as the only way to break our dependence on the automobile.But that isn't easy. Not every developer is like the Jawl family, who embraced an innovative approach to traffic. D'Ambrosio says most developers still stick to what they know sells -- like single family homes on car-oriented streets.And sometimes city bureaucracy can get in the way of even a developer's best intentions. It wasn't easy convincing city officials that the traffic plan in the Selkirk Waterfront Project would work, says Victoria councillor Geoff Young."The developers fought tooth and nail with the planning department and the traffic department in order to get the streets narrower," Young says.There you have it, excuse number two: developers and the government force you to drive.Cars are a huge environmental problem that nobody wants to touch, says councillor Young."Transportation issues are so much more difficult to deal with and so unpopular. People are so much more attached to their automobiles."The veteran councillor is just starting his stint as the chair of the Capital Regional District. Young, a fiscal conservative who attends council meetings armed with a calculator, is no one's idea of a bleeding heart green.But as he talks about how cars affect cities, he becomes as impassioned as the most organically fed Greenpeace canvasser.Pedestrian-friendly alcoves like the Cook Street Village and the Town of Sidney, have survived the onset of the automobile not because of public demand and city policy, but in spite of it, he says. That we still have a working downtown is "almost accidental."Meanwhile, the Western Communities -- suburbs fed by highways -- have spread with little in the way of discernible town centres, says Young. "We built them very automobile-oriented and it'll be very difficult to turn them around."City Hall has done plenty of damage, he adds, listing just a few examples of car-culture blight: the yawning expanse of Blanshard Street ("developed in the heart of automobile mania"), the "sterile open space" that funnels westbound cars onto the Johnson Street Bridge, the Songhees development."The width of those streets is absolutely indefensible," Young says of Songhees. "It makes the place uglier than it needs to be."Increasing the density of the city housing -- essential to easing our dependency on cars -- is easier said than done. Victorians are notorious for resisting anything that might change or move more people into their neighbourhoods."Politicians tend to be concerned about the NIMBY syndrome and accuse the public of having too narrow a view," says Young. "But if people can have as much input into how the region should be planned as the neighbourhood, that could change."Young sees an opportunity for that in the new regional planning process, now underway.But politically, British Columbians have tended to vote in support of more cars and traffic, electing highway builders from W.A.C. Bennett to Glen Clark."The friend of the mall is the superhighway," declares Young, raising his voice as he condemns the "enormous expenditure" the province put into the new McKenzie Avenue interchange of the Island Highway."Its main effect is to increase the value of suburban properties in the Saanich Peninsula and increase the possibility that there will be a shopping mall somewhere on that highway that will kill Sidney. I just can't fathom why that was done."When we build cities for the convenience of cars, we soon find that we lose the choice to take any other form of transport. Without neighbourhood centres, public transit makes less sense. When a trip to a half-hour appointment involves 40 minutes of hard cycling in traffic, all but the most obsessed will drive if they have the opportunity."Our current system is like going to an all-you-can eat buffet that has lots of unhealthy food: it's one price, and it's the only restaurant in town," says Todd Litman, an economist and founder of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.At the same time, any effort to ease traffic flow will simply attract more cars to the road. "If you widen roads, people will find ways to drive more," Litman says.If you build it they will come. Wide, fast roads like the new Island Highway encourage more people to move out of town, and commute in.Certainly that's what Colwood and Langford anticipate. Commuters from those municipalities now battle the Colwood Crawl, the region's most infamous traffic bottleneck.The provincial government, through the Island Highway Project, is providing some relief for those unhappy motorists -- the Millstream Connector, a road that will slice through Langford from Sooke Road to the Island Highway. But the break from traffic won't last long; regional traffic planners estimate that evening commuting times from Victoria to the Western Communities should increase by 13 minutes by the year 2010.Planners in Langford and Colwood have long anticipated a development boom to come with the new road and sewer lines. Langford's community plan, adopted in 1996, projects a population boom from 18,000 to 30,000 by 2011. At the same time, Colwood expects to bloat from 14,000 to 31,080 residents.But all you really need to build dependence on the car is a bad habit.Twenty years ago, Litman says, most North American children walked or bicycled to school. Now, 80percent are driven, even though it's expensive and inconvenient.Guess why? "It's because there's all this traffic congestion around schools. The parents don't feel it's safe," Litman says.The kids that do brave all the traffic carrying their classmates to school, are now more vulnerable to crime."So few kids do walk to school that they really are unsafe," says Litman. "Before, most kids would walk with other kids. It would be quite difficult for a stranger to intervene."So now there's a new "stranger danger": children who are strangers to both healthy habits and the neighbourhoods they live in.But here's another excuse to keep driving: we might as well use our cars, since we all pay to pave the way for them.Whether you drive or not, you pay for highways, parking, pollution cleanup and road signs. You also pay for police and the court system, which spends a hefty portion of its time on car-related cases.According to estimates by the Canadian Automobile Association, car owners pay an average of $4,975 per year to finance and insure their vehicles, and keep them in working order.Litman calculates that amounts to an average of 20 cents a kilometre. Drivers then pay a further 11 cents per kilometre for things such as fuel, repairs, and parking. Putting a value on drivers' time and risk of accident ups the cost another 28 cents per kilometre.All told, a driver pays 59 cents per kilometre, reckons Litman.But that's only a fraction of the total cost, which he pegs at 86 cents per kilometre. The difference is paid by everyone else, whether they drive or not.Just the bill for road maintenance, signs, parking and policing costs the public purse eight cents per kilometre -- over $1,900 per car per year.Think of that the next time you hear a politician claim that expanding public transit would be a burden on the taxpayer.And then there are the costs that we don't pay directly: air, water and noise pollution, and the loss of wilderness and agricultural land. Litman also factors in the social problems that result from car dependency, and the loss of choice that comes when cycling and public transit are no longer practical on auto-oriented roads. He even includes "aesthetic degradation" of landscapes in his calculations.Do the math, and you'll find we pay over $6,000 out of the public tax base per car per year.This drivers' welfare system does more than just support car owners -- it actually provides incentives to drive.For example, Litman says free parking offered by employers is a benefit which could be valued as high as $1,200 a year, but which is untaxable. If the same employer wanted to give you a $100 per month raise, that would be taxed. And if an employer wanted to give out free bus passes instead of parking, that too would be taxed."We have to stop artificially subsidizing automobile use," concludes councillor Young. "We have to make people understand the full cost of providing them with services."We're running out of excuses.It's not always easy hopping on my bike on cold, windy mornings for my 20-minute commute. I own a car, and I could easily drive to work and park for free.There are two reasons why I do it. The first reason is that it's the only exercise I get. The second is that my job has left me feeling guilty if I even think about driving.So many of the problems I've written about come down to the fact that we depend too much on cars: the changing global climate; the uncertain future of the Sooke Hills wilderness; the single mother on welfare who had to sell furniture to buy her son some shoes after she spent part of her welfare cheque on car repairs; even the shortage of affordable housing.Still, this Friday I'll drive to the office and fill my free parking space, because after work I'm heading to Vancouver to visit with friends, including Rebecca, who only recently discovered why I was so reluctant to give her a turn behind the wheel of the Maxima that night in Southern Utah.This time I'll be driving my car, a rust-pocked 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit. It's not as fancy as the Maxima, and it probably belches 10 times as much carbon monoxide, but it does have two great features:1. Fabulous radio reception.2. It looks like something I could afford.Yes, I could take the bus. But it would take longer, and I would have less freedom of movement in Vancouver. Plus, a couple of my friends who don't own cars are probably relying on my car for some errand they haven't been able to get to. Grocery shopping, for example.Excuses, excuses.Maybe it's better just to admit to that rush I feel when I pass Save On Foods and accelerate onto the highway, that feeling of leaving the world behind. It's like being in my own road movie.And my car can go over 130 kilometres an hour. I happen to know that.

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