Without a car in the world

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ST. CATHARINES (CUP) – “The War On Cars.” It’s a slogan that I first heard Rob Ford use in his successful Toronto mayoral campaign. More recently, Progressive Conservative premier wannabe Tim Hudak used “The War On Cars” mantra in his unsuccessful campaign. The concept? Bike lanes, streetcars, and car-related taxes are indications that the car is under attack. “The War On Cars” encourages us to believe that, somewhere out there, unfriendly folks are making life difficult for those of us who just want to drive our favourite jalopy, unencumbered by nasty, inconvenient stuff like bikes and streetcars.

This notion, that the car is somehow falling victim to a nefarious war, strikes me as so ridiculous that I can barely stand it. The idea that cars have some sort of prima facie role as the rightful transporter of the people comes not from some set of objective benefits of car travel, but rather from the car’s history of dismantling – indeed waging a war upon – other transportation options. When the car was born in the early 1900s, the big car companies (like General Motors) realized that a fast, efficient network of economically viable public transportation would impede the car’s rise to prominence. 

In the PBS documentary Taken For A Ride, filmmakers Jim Klein and Martha Olson describe their exploration of this moment in history thusly: “Before freeways, traffic congestion and air pollution, public transportation was a vital part of the American landscape. [Taken For A Ride] weaves [together] investigative journalism, urban history, and social commentary to uncover General Motors’ role in dismantling street car transportation in the 1930s, therefore catapulting the automobile to the centre of our national culture.”

Dismantling the street car? This is the way that car travel has gained prominence: by making the playing field – or transportation field – as uneven as possible. Car travel has become entrenched over the years, and our support of its dominance has been unfailing. From road maintenance to oil/fuel subsidies, and from tax breaks to industry bailouts (and a few oil-related skirmishes here and there), I think one would be hard-pressed to say that we have done anything but continually prop up the car’’s reign over our other transportation options.

That’s what makes Ford’s, Hudak’s. and others’ claims that the poor automobile is under siege so ridiculous. They think k that other ways of getting around are “winning.” What Ford and Hudak should really oppose is the that fact that the car’s war on other forms of transportation has been so successful – so ferociously, unrelentingly successful – that we don’t have much of a choice but to get in our cars and join the masses of other people in their cars jostling along in stop-and-go traffic. It is the ultimate irony that the blame for gridlock and other such driving ills gets placed at the feet – or should I say, wheels – of such things as bike lanes and mass transit.

The Toronto Star has reported that 60 per cent of Torontonians are interested in riding their bikes, but they’re too scared to vie for space on Toronto’s busy, car-filled streets. Seems to me that the nicest thing to do for those who really want to be in their cars would be to build safe bike lanes for those 60 per cent of would-be bikers and improve the mass transit options for as many other people as possible to get those folks out of their cars.
In other words, give the car lovers their roads and let the rest of us safely ride our bikes and comfortably take mass transit. Let us all do our part in stopping this oh-so-lamentable war on cars.

Jennifer Good
Brock Press (St. Catharines University)

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