The End of 'Car Culture: How Attainable is it?

Photo by rahook2000 |

Motor vehicles. Try as you may to avoid one, their apparent permanent etching in the landscape of developed society creates the illusion that it is nearly impossible and largely inconvenient to do so. In most of North America alone, the wheels of our obsession continue to turn, as we have now become a ‘car culture’ with shocking energy inefficiencies, environmental intolerance and large-scale infrastructure challenges, as urban centres look to increase in both population and resource demands.

The truth of the matter is, however, that the car as we know it is no longer the trademark of economic prosperity and technological advancement. And many areas of the world are starting to take serious notice.

In largely urbanized cities such as Copenhagen, Denmark, for example, demand for parking is becoming less and less relevant. For over 40 years, the city has gradually cut down on its parking supply, all the while engaging in aggressive efforts to increase fares for existing spaces. As a result, the city ranks amongst the top 10 in the world for both its environmentally conscious initiatives AND its skyrocketing parking rates. And did we mention it is known worldwide as The City of Bikes? Indeed, this combination, though at first seemingly counterintuitive (why try to make profit on parking if the goal is to have less of it!?!??), has successfully discouraged automobile use and in turn made significant large-scale climate change impacts for the region.

Other cities such as Amsterdam, Portland and San Francisco mimic similar trends, and serve as global models to follow because they allow us to see where some of our own major cities leave much to be desired. Toronto, for example, has struggled where Copenhagen excels: in sufficiently encouraging alternative travel and investing on the infrastructure necessary to accommodate it. In a recent move by city council, for example, decisions were made to remove bike lanes altogether in select parts of Toronto`s downtown core, in favour of a fifth traffic lane. In exchange, the city plans to build an alternate bike pathway, which will take its expenditures well beyond those originally invested in the lanes. Unfortunately, it sounds like a case of one step forward, two steps back.  

Indeed, if we are to learn anything from the efficiency and reliability of these model cities, we must simultaneously and unanimously agree to implement initiatives which reduce total land area dedicated to store and drive automobiles (ie. reducing rather than expanding lanes), coupled with controlled parking fares and dedicated, continual investment into infrastructure for alternative travel. Not only have these initiatives been relentlessly proven to work on a long-term scale worldwide, but we can come to appreciate their value once we see the negative impacts associated with their absence, as is the case in countless underdeveloped regions of the world. Then, and only then, may we drive a greener future for our cities, even if it does involve breaking a sweat or two in the process.