Photo: If there is a war on cars, which side is winning?

(Credit: Spacing Magazine via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

We humans like our wars. We have a war on drugs, a war on terror, a war on crime, and now, it seems, a war on cars. The latter "war" has entered the political vocabulary in Vancouver, where city council has been trying to reduce reliance on private automobiles; in Toronto, where the mayor is driving the agenda in the opposite direction; and in Seattle, where bike lanes and increased parking fees have come under fire. In the U.K., they've been calling it a war on motorists.

It's not really much of a war, though. If anything, it's just a bit of catch-up to create better public spaces and to allow more sensible forms of transportation some room in our car-dominated cities. Let's take a look at some of the battlefields — and the casualties.

In Vancouver, opponents and local media predicted "chaos" from a bike lane on the Burrard Bridge, which connects the city's downtown with the West Side. After the chaos failed to emerge, opponents, rather than learning from experience, went on to predict the same thing for other bike lanes in the city, mostly in the downtown core. Despite a few bumps, the chaos has yet to reveal itself. At the same time, the provincial government is spending $3 billion on a new 10-lane bridge and expanded highways to move cars and trucks in and out of the city.

In Seattle, in addition to a few new bike lanes and a slight increase in downtown parking rates, politicians are considering spending $7 billion on a new bridge and a new tunnel to keep the cars and trucks moving.

Nowhere has the term been more ubiquitous than in Toronto, where it became a rallying cry leading up to and during last year's civic election. Numerous headlines in business-friendly newspapers raised the alarm about the city's war on cars, with one newspaper even referring to it as a 'nutty war on cars'. It was all because the city council of the day was spending money on public transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and, according to opponents, not enough "to make it easier for cars to move throughout the city".

Rob Ford, who won the election to become Toronto's mayor, campaigned on ending the war and, in his first speech after taking office, announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the war on the car stops today." He had already declared a new war "on the streetcar" and promised to rip up bike lanes. Part of Mayor Ford's battle includes ending the city's Transit City plan, even though the city has already spent $137 million on it and committed to another $1.3 billion in contracts. The plan, seven years in the making, had also received funding commitments from the provincial and federal governments.

If there is or has been a war on cars, the cars are winning. Cars — often with a single occupant — still rule our cities and roadways, and they're still relatively inexpensive to operate. And despite minor reductions in parking in cities like Vancouver to make way for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, most North American cities still devote way more valuable land to parking spaces than necessary. In the U.S., there are eight parking spaces for every car. We also devote an incredible amount of real estate to our ever-expanding road systems, often at the expense of public spaces.

As for casualties, 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, according to Statistics Canada. Add to that the numerous injuries caused by vehicle accidents — often caused when cars come into contact with pedestrians and cyclists — and you get a pretty good idea of which side has the upper hand in this "war". And, much of the health-damaging pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to dangerous climate change come from private automobiles.

So, if there were a war on cars, we would have to conclude that people are on the losing end. Of course, there is no war on cars. The only battle regarding cars is a propaganda war, and, as Guardian writer George Monbiot points out, it's "about private interests trumping the public interest, about allowing people to pursue their desires, regardless of the cost to society." Maybe it's time we really did wage a wars on cars.

February 24, 2011

Read more

Post a comment


Mar 14, 2011
11:31 AM

Michael Dawson, I agree with you 100%, it is the selfishness of people that allows them to believe they have the ‘right’ to live their lives as they wish, regardless of the effect their life has on the world around them.

Pierre Trudeau talked of a Just Society. I am not sure exactly what he envisioned but the society we in the so-called ‘developed world’ have fashioned for ourselves could not be much farther from justice than it is. Until we replace ‘You-Toucha-My-Truck-I-Puncha-You-Nose’ with ‘I will reduce my wants to fulfill your needs’ as the mission statement of justice ministries, the majority of the world will live in poverty. As long as that situation continues, there will be no true justice and, without justice there will be no peace.

If we could make David’s dream, as he stated it at the end of his legacy lecture, start to come to fruition there would be no need to discuss any of these problems as people would simply do what is right. What a legacy that would be for our generation!

Mar 07, 2011
8:50 AM

I would argue that it’s not enough to say “cars are winning.” Cars are machines. This is a conflict between different groups of people.

The real problem is the power structure of our corporate capitalist societies. Without the stimulating effects (read: profitable waste) of cars-first transportation, that structure would be in a world of hurt. Hence, the powers that be are going to keep pushing automobiles, regardless of the consequences. (And, as Dr. Suzuki argues, “alternative fuel” is not going to do enough to make this push anything close to sustainable.)

I think we need to be clear about this. If we demonize the machines, we not only allow potential allies to dismiss us too easily, but we risk failing to recognize exactly what kind of a fight we progressive survivalists are up against.

Mar 01, 2011
5:59 PM

Needed: A war on the Canadian Transit Establishment-tm ….. those bureaucrats screw-up things more than a thousand transit-con politicians.

Feb 28, 2011
2:26 PM

@Downtown Fan:

Which bike lane are you referring to?

I regularly wait for a bus on Pender/Granville at 6pm weekdays and see a cyclist heading eastbound every 1 or 2 minutes, and it’s the wintertime. I’m curious to know why they choose Pender instead of Dunsmuir where they have their own lane on the latter.

We will see an increase in cycling downtown once the network is more complete and more facilities are available (safer bike lockups, showers, etc.) because it will attract riders who are less comfortable on the road. Any street with traffic going 40 km/h or faster needs separate facilities, and so far only one north/south and one east/west in the downtown core have these (seawall aside), if I’m not mistaken.

Here are some great reasons why we should support biking in Vancouver.

The suburbs, especially South of Fraser, need better transit and more transit-oriented development to help people choose transit instead of cars. The Olympics were a great demonstration of the success that can be had there.

Feb 28, 2011
12:52 PM

while I generally support the infrastructure that reduces the reliance of vehicles in Vancouver’s down town core, I do feel that it’s being handled all wrong.

From what I see, the bike lanes are relatively unused. The city really should introduce a bike share program down town to encourage the use of the lanes. As well as public transit here is very expensive! It’s a huge discouragement for outsiders deciding on how to get down town.

This article also fails to mention that the “new 10 lane bridge” is a well overdue project for a corridor that bottlenecks in one of the few crossings from the Fraser valley into tri-cities. At almost any given time of day there is congestion in the area. It’s so bad the city can’t even run a bus route across the bridge! The new bridge will allow for new bus routes, as well as charge a toll for motorists that will feed into public transportation. Money that /should/ (although probably won’t) be spent on much needed transit improvements south of the Fraser River.

Feb 28, 2011
8:52 AM

Article fails to mention that the bike lanes are rarely used. At peak time (rush hour), I regularly see a MAX of 4 bikes on the lane into downtown and 1 bike on the lane leaving the downtown. It would be much easier to support this initiative if people actually used the lanes. There are way more pedestrians, and actually, there IS congestion/idling which could have been eased if cars had access to another lane.

It seems like a waste of resources catering to a select few.

The reality is, living downtown, or living in downtown proper is expensive. Punishing people who live in the burbs — where they can actually afford to pay for housing and food is pretty lame.

Feb 25, 2011
2:06 PM

I have just been in contact with Liberal leader contenders about the Island Corridor Foundation. I was urging support for the E&N rail line on Vancouver Island. The train has been travelling the wrong direction for years and the wish is for it to go south into Victoria in the morning for communters and reduce the traffic jam. There is also the point that many dollars have been spent on transportation (mainly roads/bridges) on the lower mainland, and the island needs support as well in a more sustainable form of transport.

So far, none of the candidates have responded.

The David Suzuki Foundation does not necessarily endorse the comments or views posted within this forum. All contributors acknowledge DSF's right to remove product/service endorsements and refuse publication of comments deemed to be offensive or that contravene our operating principles as a charitable organization. Please note that all comments are pre-moderated. Privacy Policy »