Our addiction to driving is costing lives, and more
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Our addiction to driving is costing lives, and more

The solution is not to scold drivers but to make structural solutions.


Photo courtesy of Reinier Snijders via Flickr.

I must confess: I was tempted to write a column along the lines of “Yes, it’s a war on the car, and it’s a just war!” But we don’t need a war on the car. What we need is an intervention.

We need a serious conversation about our collective, structural addiction to this substance, which is toxic in high doses. And we need a strategy for real, lasting change.

First, let’s add up the toll on our well-being.

Death and injury: In the 10-year span of 2007-2016 in the City of Toronto, there were 531 deaths from auto collisions, most of them pedestrians. Not to be overlooked is the number of those who survive but are seriously injured, which is in the thousands. Across Canada, 150,000 were killed or injured [PDF] in automobile collisions in a single year (2014 figures).

Pollution: Cars and trucks are a major cause of air pollution, from emissions and particulate from the wear on tires, brakes, and the road surface. The Union of Concerned Scientists has flagged these vehicles as a priority for change, to reduce pollution, noting “The health risks of air pollution are extremely serious.”

The Ontario College of Family Physicians has similarly identified urban sprawl and the consequent commuting motorists as a major cause of smog, which leads to thousands of premature deaths in the province each year—5,800 in 2005, and up to 9,500 in 2014, according to the Ontario Medical Association. Air pollution is associated with lung disease (including cancer), cardiovascular disease, and birth defects. And I have written previously about the connection between air pollution and asthma, which is the leading cause of hospitalization for children.

Climate change: Emissions from cars are a significant source of the emissions contributing to climate change. One of the scariest things about climate change is that each update is worse than the last. Everything is warming, melting, and acidifying faster than expected. We need to take this seriously and move away from private vehicles as a default mode of transit.

Urban space: Cars do not share space well with others. They make the city less safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Their presence is intimidating, and it inhibits other road uses, preventing the creation of vibrant places where people would want to gather.

And cars take up a lot of space. Not just in the road while moving, but in their storage. As I’ve cited before, according to Professor Martin Melosi, “It is estimated that as much as one half of a modern American city’s land area is dedicated to streets and roads, parking lots, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs, automobile-oriented businesses, car dealerships, and more.” Parking takes up space that could better be put to economic or social development. And cars contribute to congestion just in the search for parking; some studies have calculated that as much of 30 per cent of downtown traffic is drivers looking for a parking spot.

Next, let’s look at what we miss out on, every time we drive somewhere instead of taking transit, rolling a wheelchair or scooter, walking, or cycling. When we’re powering ourselves, we get a bit of exercise, and that is a positive thing, in several ways.

A study of 263,450 commuters from across the U.K. over five years found that walkers and cyclists had significantly reduced cardiovascular disease. Cyclists also had lower rates of cancer and all other causes of death. This was true for cyclists who were otherwise sedentary or who were smokers. All cyclists, regardless of other aspects of their lives, saw measurable health benefits.

Exercise reduces stress and improves overall mood. Its effects are so significant, it has been demonstrated to be of specific benefit for those experiencing anxiety and depression.

Walking is known to be good for your imagination. Less walking means less creative thinking. Imagine the impact on schools, law firms, and city halls if more of its students and workers walked to their destination.

Our knowledge of our neighbourhoods and the city as a whole is improved when we are moving at a slower speed and in ways that most of our attention can drift to take in our surroundings. It leaves us open to more social interactions with our fellow city residents. It makes observations and conversations possible that tell us about the health and well-being of our neighbourhood. This knowledge and experience are inaccessible to us when we drive.

That’s a heck of a list of damage and loss. So why do people choose to drive?

Sometimes we’re lazy, sure. But that “laziness” is encouraged by landscape. I am not persuaded that personal attributes are the key factor of mode choice. As I mentioned in an earlier column, it’s been observed that the same people behave differently in different landscapes. In one place, driving is a must; in another, driving is an unnecessary hassle.

I’m not denying our free will, but we are influenced by our environments to a larger degree than we are commonly aware. I think as a society more than as individuals, we’ve become addicted to driving, because it’s often the easiest, most convenient way to move, with no immediate awareness of its negative impacts.

Treating that addiction as a series of individual failures will not be successful. “Just say no!” does not work.

There’s an ample body of research to suggest that people walk more where walking is convenient, comfortable, accessible, and beautiful. People walk less, and drive more, where walking is difficult, dangerous, and unpleasant. The same is true for cycling and taking transit.

That’s what I mean when I say this addiction is structural. Driving has become a deeply ingrained habit that has affected our ideas about what is right and wrong, how to build cities, how to spend money. But if our city was structured in a way that it was safer, more convenient, and more enjoyable to walk, cycle, or take transit, both our actions and attitudes would change.

A real strategy for change would not start with blaming and scolding drivers. It would start with improving our environment: more sidewalks, lower speed limits for cars, bike lanes, improved transit service.

And it should have specific and ambitious goals. I’m not arguing for banning cars, but we should be measuring how many cars are driven, and how far, and make a plan to cut those figures in half.

I am not the first to use this language of “addiction” to cars. I’ve found it in lots of places, such as this blog from 2013. I even saw it in a great letter to the editor of Louisville’s Courier Journal last May. Hopefully, the more common use of this term can be taken a sign of a move towards a more honest recognition of our problem and the harm it is causing.

Increased awareness of the problem, combined with a supportive infrastructure, is the kind of intervention that can interrupt our complacency, challenge our assumptions that everything is under control, and help us move towards a better path. We have the tools in this city to reduce our dependence on cars; we just need the awareness and the will.

With this awareness, it should be easy to invest in Vision Zero and impossible to advocate against a project like Re-imagining Yonge Street, that seeks to reduce the use of cars and build a better city.

Here’s hoping, anyway.