Thursday, August 14, 2014

Will North American car culture be remembered as a relic of the late twentieth century?

A Danish tourist to Ottawa wrote a letter to the Ottawa Citizen lamenting Canada's car culture, which in many ways served as her last impression of Canada more than its sights, culture and natural beauty through its representatives in parking garages, strip malls and drive-thrus. The country seems built on the principle that people were secondary to cars, with a few exceptions here and there.

What they probably noticed is that Canada is almost always meant to be experienced through the car. Car culture is maybe the worst thing about Canada. It's a country built around cars, with exceptions like the parts of Toronto that are within a few kilometres of subway stations. It's dehumanizing, hideous, unhealthy, and bad for the environment. When I visit my parents in Brampton, I notice that just about the only people who walk in Brampton, not counting children or people exercising themselves or their dogs, are poor. The only reason this sticks out is that no one walks in Brampton. Many malls and big box centres are only meant to be driven into. To walk there means to walk through a series of parking lots at your own risk.

Even where it's possible to not walk, there is just about no occasion or situation in Canada where you feel weird for driving, the way hapless tourists and the conspicuously wealthy might feel when driving a car through the alleys of Seoul's Myeongdong on a busy evening, roughly as hopeless as driving a car through the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day.

Even in the rare situation where something happens that makes it hard or impossible to drive, such as road closures due to events, festivals or construction, there is no shortage of angry drivers incredulous at the fact that something could impede the automobile, so used are they to its dominance and so dependent are they on it for getting around.

People defended Canadian car culture by pointing to its weather, size, low population density and the distance between its cities, not realizing that the reason people do things like drive 90 minutes from an exurb to downtown Toronto is that we think it's normal to drive that much, and we enable it. People left comments like "I drive from Barrie to Toronto every day, there's no way I could cycle that" or "Walking is not an option with our winters", but the point is not to walk everywhere, it's to walk somewhere or to take the bus somewhere, instead of driving everywhere. Even if people want to drive everywhere, we don't need to organize our cities around driving.

Canada doesn't have the population density of Europe or East Asia so it won't have the same sort of public transportation system in these places (buses in Seoul don't have schedules because they just come every 7-10 minutes, they just tell you when the next one will arrive), but that doesn't mean Canada doesn't have to try, or that Canada has to build cities around the automobile.

The concept of a city built around the automobile is rooted in the urban planning of the second half of the twentieth century. I'm hopeful, though, that the urban planning of the twenty-first century might be able to reverse this trend. Car ownership for young people in both Canada America is down. Fewer people want to own cars and live in the suburbs. More want to have access to a car instead of owning a car, as the popularity of Zipcars and now Uber shows. They want to live somewhere interesting, not a neighbourhood or a city that's designed for you to stay in your house, get in and out of a strip mall as quickly as possible, and then get away from that neighbourhood or city as fast as possible on a highway.

This is due in part to changes in culture (you can talk to someone online or with a smartphone instead of, say, 20-30 years ago, having to go to their house) and in part due to cheapness necessitated by the economy, a cheapness that could be as habit-forming for my generation as it was for the generation that grew up during the Great Depression.

I don't doubt that subdivisions and big box centres continue to be built or that people in my age cohort continue to want those things, but they want them less than they have in the past. Maybe, by the time we reach middle-age, we will be able to look back on the depressing era of the subdivision, the suburb and the car-oriented city as one of those bad ideas of the twentieth century that tried to replace something natural and organic with something artificial and man-made, a list that would include things like artificial turf, watching TV on a schedule (it's entertainment, not TV, that's natural), plastic bags, and the forty-hour work week.


Shan said...

Good post. Though I live in a city that reminds me of the 'car mat' I had as a kid, I don't enjoy driving. I doubt it's particularly good for the brain, let alone the rest of the body. I only like the convenience of getting somewhere quickly and wish there were other ways to do that here. Many people who live here can't imagine any other way to live. Laziness is a part of it, whether we care to admit it or not. The idea of not being able to go point to point bothers people, but in the Toronto area, our public transit is so bad that some people don't realize what good transit could accomplish. Being in traffic or finding a parking spot is far more aggravating. I'm eager to see a day when I have awesome powered roller skates and open roads.

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