In Toronto, Driving is Often a Deliberately Unhealthy Choice
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In Toronto, Driving is Often a Deliberately Unhealthy Choice

The case against driving is as strong as the case for exercise.

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Taking public transit instead of driving adds much-needed exercise to your daily commute. Photo by momentsneverseen via Torontoist Flickr pool.

Most people know they need more exercise. But it often involves time and money that they may not have. Each year, gyms are full in January but quiet down considerably by March. When something isn’t integrated into our regular routine, making that extra effort is difficult, even when we know the rewards are substantial.

Research shows that incorporating small amounts of exercise into your daily routine improves your chances of avoiding diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mobility issues, and mental health. Just 20 minutes per day would improve our collective health enough to lower health care costs significantly.

Why am I talking about exercise and health care in a transit column? Because we need to bring these insights into behaviour modification to our discussion of how to get people to drive less and use active forms of transportation more often.

The case against driving is as strong as the case for exercise. Driving causes pollution and congestion, cars use space inefficiently (roads and parking), and travelling by car has a higher rate of injury and death. Together, the economic and health costs of driving are significant for our city.

Yet we often try to change behaviour with things that won’t work. When it comes to driving, the discussion can be judgemental and counter-productive.

Allow me to use my family as an anecdotal example of what does and doesn’t work.

My now-retired parents live in the suburbs, way out near the western edge of Mississauga. They think nothing of driving. It has been their default for getting around for decades.

They like to come into the city often to visit their grandchildren, see friends, or go to the theatre. Although they live fairly near a GO train station, until recently they rarely took the train. They’d just hop in the car instead.

They are educated people who follow world events. They are aware of the impact of cars on things like pollution and climate change. Yet, most of the time, they drive rather than take public transit. In fact, I think it’s fair to say they may have bristled at the suggestion that they should make other choices, which would take more time and sometimes include added costs.

Then one day, the GO train changed its schedule and offered more frequent service during off-peak hours, from once an hour to every half-hour. And lo and behold, my parents started taking the train.

No longer held hostage by an inflexible train schedule, they found they often preferred the train. Suddenly all the advantages of not having a car were more apparent. The train is a less stressful trip (especially in bad weather), they don’t have to worry about parking, and they are free to have a drink.

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Food for thought. It takes 55 cars to carry 61 commuters, who can otherwise be comfortably seated on one streetcar. Photo courtesy of the TTC.

Taking the train often means that my parents walk at least 20 minutes to the station (because parking is limited). So even with the extra time and effort that it takes, they’ve still made the change simply because the train has a better schedule.

It wasn’t the result of higher gas costs, and the road tolls on the 407 never gave them pause, either. They changed their mode of transit because taking the train got easier for them.

And research suggests their behaviour is not an anomaly.

There was a lot of excitement around 2008 when the rising price of gas was accompanied by the highest public transit ridership the U.S. had seen in generations. However, a closer look found ridership trends varied quite a lot across the country, and gas prices were only one piece of the puzzle.

A case study of gas price hikes in New Jersey (a state with strong public transit, particularly because of it links to New York City), in both 2008 and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, found that people changed their mode of transit when the price hike looked like a long-term trend, not just a short-term bump. And gas prices weren’t even the biggest factor.

There is a relationship between the price of gas and driving habits, but it’s a small one. Another problem is that sometimes reduced driving is just the result of people temporarily doing and spending less, not changing their mode of transit.

That reduced driving, then, isn’t really good news. Fewer trips taken because people do less means they work less, or help others less, or socialize less. The city needs mobility. Fewer trips should not be our goal.

A recent study in Korea examined the impact of a rise and fall of gas prices on drivers’ behaviour across a range of income. Using detailed accounts of charges to credit and debit cards, it found that driving habits of only the lowest quarter were significantly affected by the change in gas prices.

The top group in the study spent 12 times as much as gas as the lowest. These are not people who are fussed about the price of gas. Rising gas prices are not going to get the rich out of their cars.

Increased fuel costs are also a double-edged sword, as they also increase costs for transit companies.

Research consistently shows that what is more significant for improving transit ridership is frequent and reliable service, access to transit, and low transit fares.

We need to plan for a city with fewer drivers. Our health and economic well-being depend on it. Increasing the cost of driving won’t get people out of their cars in any serious way, not even if it’s accompanied by a stern look. It will only make things harder for the people with the fewest choices.

We should raise the necessary revenue in other ways and invest in improving transit service. Focus on active modes of transit and prioritize them over driving. People with better options will choose them, even when their driving habits seem unshakable. The punitive model isn’t productive. When we provide a fast, comfortable, affordable, and reliable ride on transit, suddenly change is possible.