Photo: Making cities more livable may save the world

Cycling is the fastest growing method of travel in Vancouver, thanks in part to a municipal decision to expand bike routes, especially into downtown.
(Credit: markjms via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Most of the world's 6.9 billion people live in cities. City dwellers consume about three quarters of the world's energy and generate most of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

If we are to resolve some of the serious issues around pollution, climate change, human health, and energy consumption, we must look to cities for solutions. As the world's population continues to grow, a shift back to rural living is unlikely. So, what can we do?

Progress in my home city of Vancouver gives me hope — but even here we have a long way to go. The most important move urbanites can make is to get out of their cars. But governments must encourage this with better community design and investments in public transit and pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

Cycling is the fastest growing method of travel in Vancouver, thanks in part to a municipal decision to expand bike routes, especially into downtown.

Walking is also becoming more popular, with the number of walking trips up 44 per cent since 1994. And increases in the number of people taking public transit are outpacing those in all other urban Canadian centres, with a 20 per cent rise in ridership over the past decade — although government investment in the system has not kept up with this demand, hampering its potential.

Making cities more sustainable isn't just about shifting from car-centric to human-centric planning. Providing incentives to retrofit older buildings or design newer ones to be more energy-efficient, encouraging economic activity that doesn't cause a lot of pollution, and creating more parks and green spaces are all essential to making cities more livable and less polluting.

But steering society away from cars is essential. In his book, Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World, UBC professor Patrick Condon points out that "Thirty per cent of the world's carbon dioxide production comes from the United States and Canada, where only about six per cent of the world's people live. Of this amount, about a quarter comes directly from transportation — and the bulk of that from single-passenger automobiles."

On top of the environmental problems, cars kill. Even though accident rates are going down, thanks in part to technical innovations and regulations around speeding and seatbelt use, cars are a leading cause of death for Canadians, especially young people. According to Statistics Canada, 32 per cent of the 44,192 accidental deaths in Canada between 2000 and 2004 were from motor-vehicle accidents — 70 per cent in the 15 to 24 age group.

Transforming cities doesn't have to be overly difficult. In Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa made great strides as mayor from 1998 to 2001. By increasing gas taxes, restricting car use during rush hour, creating more parks and bicycle routes, and improving public transit, he helped make the crowded and once-polluted city far more livable.

The biggest challenges to transforming cities include the entrenched belief among many North Americans that cars are an absolute necessity and the failure of many people to see the benefits of a balanced transportation system. The backlash against a few bike lanes in Vancouver has been strong, even though the lanes have done little to hinder traffic or business.

Vancouver was able to avoid many of the problems other cities face, thanks in part to a decision in the late 1960s (spurred by activists) not to expand freeways into the city and to instead focus on a balanced transportation system where walking, biking, and transit are viable options. Statistics Canada reports that Vancouver is the only major Canadian city where commuting times decreased between 1992 and 2005. Cities that focused on expanding roads have seen more traffic and gridlock. As well, Vancouver's transportation emissions, which were once on the rise, have been arrested.

Unfortunately, Metro Vancouver still risks repeating the mistakes of other cities, as provincial pressure to expand freeways is ever present. We really need to be more forward-thinking.

Professor Condon sums up the opportunities well: "If we change the way cities are built and retrofitted, we can prevent the blackest of the nightmare scenarios from becoming real and can create the conditions for a livable life for our children and grandchildren. It is not apocalyptic to say we can save their lives."

October 20, 2010

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Feb 27, 2011
6:27 PM

great job! :) I am your bigest, I mean hugest fan. I wish I could met you in personm but sadly I cant. Happy birthday! Its coming soon! Love, Rebecca

Feb 26, 2011
9:30 PM

where there’s a will there’s a way develop the will, the willingness to quit the very addictive habit of driving anywhere and everywhere Vancouver and area would be so beautiful without all the traffic I cannot stand to be there for more than a very short time, like, a couple of hours and then I am exhausted from the noise, the stress and fumes from all the traffic. Out in the burbs it is just as bad or worse During the Olympics, we saw masses of people using public transit and some streets closed to it. That was delightful. Now we are back to the same old gring and it is getting worse. As a grandmother, I am terrified to cross all those lanes of traffic with little children in hand. I can feel those motorists impatient to get going with the pedal waiting to hit the metal . All those toxic fumes go straight into the faces of our little ones. Why have our Health Departments allowed this to go on for so many decades? Then there are all the drivien fast food joints with their junk food and drivers idling while waiting for their order to be filled. The miles of parking lots. The filthy streets. The continuous state of flight or fight, be it for pedestrians or drivers. The rage, the discourtesy. The stupidest thing is making pedestrian(and cyclists) share passageways with these dang contraptions. Dumb. Just plain dumb design and ignorance.

Jan 27, 2011
12:54 AM

Sorry Dave.. You wont get ME out of my car. You see,… I KNOW the fate of every drop of fuel you could imagine saving by forcing my old ass onto a 2 wheeler. It will eventually end up in China or India and be BURNED ( that is turned into water and CO2).

Face it Dave, the world is going to Burn it ALL until there is no more petroleum to burn. So if that happens here or in China or it happens slowly or quickly…… pretty much the same amount of CO2 will come into the atmosphere and thank god for the oceans that will soak most of it up.

The cheapest and most sure answer to all of this is to STABILIZE and then REDUCE the human population on the planet. And guess what|? we KNOW how to make the pill!.

Dec 02, 2010
9:50 AM

I’ve been following you since I was a child in the 80’s watching Sesame Street…I’ve always loved the way you educate, your concern for the environment, how you tackle politics….basically the way you do everything.

I’m another person who chose you as a hero for my class’s Canada’s Greatest Hero project. You genuinely want to make the world a better place for ALL generations, present and future…and probably the past, too, if that were possible.

Love you forever, David!

Oct 27, 2010
3:01 PM

YOU ROCK DAVID SUZUKI …I CHOSE YOU FOR MY CANADIAN HERO PROJECT….UR WEBSITE REALLY HELPED ..thanks☻..this is what i have so far..(we have to make 15 questions and then answer in the role of you)>>

1: What do you try to teach to others to get them to build a better future?

Well, I try to teach others through my short quote which is that “The human brain now holds the key to our future. We have to recall the image of the planet from outer space: a single existence in which air, water, and continents are interconnected. That is our home.” 2. What do you put for our goal to make a change in the world? My goal for Canada is to protect our climate, transform the economy, protect and reconnect with nature and to build a better, more efficient community. 4. What is the mission and vision of your foundation? The David Suzuki’s Foundation mission is to help care for the diversity of nature and for our quality of life in the present time as well as for the future. Our vision is that within one generation we will be able to take action by ourselves on the fact that we are all influenced and dependent with nature. 5. We can’t do big things like you do to help the environment so what do you suggest we should do? Well, no one has to do something huge because every small thing that you contribute will help make a big difference on the course to maintaining a more livable world. You can do small things in your everyday life that will help reduce your environmental footprint.

HOPE U LIKE IT >>>>>>>

Oct 27, 2010
10:42 AM

Governments should offer an incentive to home owners, that buy homes closer to work. This would allow more individuals to walk to work, children to walk or ride a bike to school and would help to save the planet. This is the choice we made. The down side is, the higher cost of owning a home in the center of the city and higher house taxes.

This would provide an incentive to reduce gas ommissions which result by driving motor vehicles or riding municiple buses to work.

I live in Ottawa Canada and I am surprised that there is nothing offered by our government as an incentive to live closer to work. Such a shame!

Oct 27, 2010
1:54 AM

I disagree with the demonization of the car by Mr. Suzuki. He is absolutely totally wrong about encouraging municipalities to tax car use and to force us to use public transit. The car is liberating and therapeutic.

Being in Calgary, I can tell you that if you do not have a car, you will spend many many hours and dollars more on transit which is extremely expensive (over $5 for a two way trip to the grocery store.) That trip will use over an hour of transit time versus 15 minutes or less in a car that will cost $1. You will wait outdoors in the freezing cold most of the year. Routes are poorly planned and scheduled and bog down in bad weather costing even more time. You will be forced to listen to people talking on the phone as you cradle your groceries in crammed seats. I took transit in Toronto for 30 years and drove much less because their transit was fast and cheap.

Calgary breaks all the rules. You have to have a car or you will simply not be able to afford to do anything or go anywhere to easily buy things, work or find entertainment. Car sharing failed in this city. The rush hour traffic is almost a joke compared to Toronto’s and delays almost always are due to either an accident or roadwork. Even at the worst of times in Calgary, any delay is far less than the time wasted on transit. Not to mention, the distance you have to walk to any store from the transit station—up to half a mile. Calgary doesn’t design accessible plazas or malls like Toronto. They make entrances few and far away, discouraging any but the very youthful from taking transit. It is a city which is more interested in profit from commuters and transit takers than encouraging transit. It has the highest parking fees in Canada. As a boomer, I could not do 1/4 the things I do with the car with transit, like transport a decent bunch of groceries in recyclable containers or buy a bookshelf. How do you do that on a bus? Nope. Now that I’m over 60, the car makes my life a heck of a lot more bearable and liberating for my partner who has a chronic illness.

Don’t force us to bear the costs of our needed car use with fees. We just can’t afford it. And I guarantee you that we and our fellow boomers and seniors and even GenX’ers will not vote for any government representative that will tax car use. I’d be the first to throw a molotov cocktail on that one.

The problem lies in the manufacturers of cars and the politicians. Watch: Who Killed the Electric Car?

And don’t blame car drivers for pollution when we have a real solution in Electrics and 80% of the pollution is coming from industrial waste sources. Go after them. Tax them. You would really not believe the stench and absolute pollution of Alberta’s OilPatch, not to mention the crime there.

I personally am tired of being blamed for pollution when I see oil companies and manufacturers and utility companies driving big diesels down the street. Calgary used to have Electric buses, but they discontinued them because home owners didn’t like the wires over the street. Golllleeeee. They were quiet and comfortable.

And instead of quiet Mag-lev trains, Calgary has over 100 year old technology non-air conditioned heavy carriage electric trains that don’t go where the transit customers want and big diesel buses that carry 4 people average most of the routes. It is a picture of waste in every form. Overuse of concrete and asphalt in roads plus light fixtures which are double height, too far up to properly light roads giving rise to accidents due to poor visibility. Just because somebody wanted to make more money on the light poles they sold the city and the traffic light systems.

We love our vehicles. We can go to the mountains when we want, enjoy the land while we can and be free and spontaneous and connect with many friends in our city and community on the spur of the moment or help a stranger in need. Try that with transit. We have bought energy efficient cars and done 45 years of recycling.

And we are now being nickel and dimed for our helpful and conserving lifestyle and to top it all off, being forced to fight for decent health care.

Also, Calgarians never had a choice on recycling. We had good companies doing it and could go to recycle bins on our own. Now, we have to pay for what we did ourselves. That is not a step toward sustainability, it is a step backward.

The community can do recycling and garbage and policing, among other things. And what happened to burning garbage for energy? That was big in the 50’s and 60’s. Now we can do it with virtually no pollution. Gone.

You might ask yourself why we are being forced down the “pay” road for everything when we did it better and cheaper ourselves.

Oct 26, 2010
8:10 PM

I would agree with Mark — in the sequence of priorities, focusing on communities that integrate residential and work spaces should happen prior to figuring out how to move communters from suburban to urban work locations.

Oct 26, 2010
2:27 PM

What a great guy David Suzuki is.

Oct 26, 2010
1:22 PM

It seems so mindblowingly stupid in this context that Torontonians just elected a mayor who wants to rid the city of bicycle lanes and street-cars, because they’re a bother to drivers. Obviously the message that climate policies and environmental care are primary to most other priorities, hasn’t penetrated to a level that people actually see the urgency.

Oct 22, 2010
2:47 PM

We also need to restrict development on the fringe of cities to curtail urban sprawl. Existing outer suburbs should be rezoned to allow for higher density development and more mixed-use planning. People should be enticed to live in the central city where mixed-use zoning facilitates vibrant community and reduces transportation distances to work and shopping. As for myself I live in downtown Ottawa, I do not own a car, and I do all my shopping on foot. Other than a new pair of shoes every couple of years I pay next to nothing for transportation and don’t worry about getting hit by a car on the sidewalk.

Oct 22, 2010
11:54 AM

Unfortunately always hear from Political leaders, financial ministers including assortment of business leaders about implementing public transit — costs,costs, and more costs. Never do we hear from them about reduction of costs of servicing streets, freeways, roads if we reduced vehicles for example by 50% on our roadways. This is not even looking into health benefits from breathing cleaner less polluted air. Never mention future cost savings because of improved sustainable environment. The concern is always short term! Unfortunately the federal stimulus money was and still is spent on vehicle roads. No money had been spend on developing green technology for example — windmills for electrical power. With proper sustainability direction the savings on the long term probably would cvover costs incurred like building a decent public transit system.

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