The long-running issue of “car culture”

Traffic jams are a normal feature of modern life. Should they be? (Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Traffic jams – a norm of modern life. Should they be?   (Image source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Sometimes we’re just fish in water, oblivious to our own surroundings.

That was part of the message two tourists from Europe shared recently, in an “Open letter to the people who hold power and responsibility in Canada.” In it, they found fault with pretty much the whole way people use cars in that country.

According to various media reports, English-born Holly Chabowski, 30, toured parts of Canada with a friend from Denmark, Nanna Sorensen, 23. The two spent time in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, and Halifax. They also rented a car and saw various parks, including Algonquin, as part of their 5-week visit.

Apparently, on the whole, they encountered an unhappy shock. It stands to reason they found lots of cars, highways and congestion in those major urban centers. But they were equally appalled by a sense of active bias against anything that wasn’t car-oriented:

As we explored more of the country we tried to console ourselves that at least a few cities were making an effort to make life liveable for humans – small local businesses, cycle infrastructure and pedestrianised streets. However, it felt like a token gesture rather than a genuine effort to make Canada a healthy, happy and sustainable country. Pedestrians were squeezed onto narrow pavements and forced to stop every 100m to cross the road, bike lanes were little more than paint on the ground for the cyclists to help protect the parked cars lining every street. We heard that the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, is actually tearing up bicycle lanes to make way for more cars!

Walking and cycling are human activities that bring great life, health and economy to communities. Streets that prioritize cars over humans are bad for business, bad for health (mental, social and physical), unsafe and break down communities.

Rebuttals flew. Hey, ladies! Get real! Canada is big, OK? “Need-a-car-just-to-get-around” big. And Canadian winters are no walk in the park either. There’s simply no comparison between here and what works in smaller, milder places like Denmark.

According to a follow-up article by Michael Woods in the Ottawa Citizen, Mayor Jim Watson distances his city from any “car culture” rap, insisting that Ottawa takes great pride in being clean and green. Watson also thinks the two tourists gave scant account to the question of scale:

“Copenhagen is about 88 square kilometres and Ottawa is about 2,800 square kilometres,” he said. “We have 32 times the land mass, so we don’t have the luxury of everything crammed together in a small European city. We have people that live a hundred kilometres from our downtown core. There is a need for streets and there’s a need for places for people to park.”

Still, it’s not too hard to find voices in support of the “car culture” complaint. The Citizen quoted urban planning expert Barry Wellar, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Ottawa:

“Ottawa has itself an immense hole. When you do things wrong year after year, decade after decade, instant solutions don’t happen.”

Wellar said he wrote a paper nearly 40 years ago, in 1975, titled Taking Steps Toward the End of the Automobile Era. He said much of the advice in that paper, such as giving buses the ability to control traffic lights, has not been followed.

“I wrote 39 years ago what these ladies are writing about now,” he said. “My guess it these ladies from Europe could come back in 40 years and it’ll be déjà vu all over again. … We have a car-centric society.”

The list of problems facing car-centric transportation models is pretty obvious: sprawl, expense, pollution, more carbon emissions, less-pleasant surroundings and a diminished sense of community, plus significant numbers killed or injured in highway accidents, and higher rates of obesity, with all the health issues that carries.

One could counter that it was highways and mobility that gave rise to our current economic development and high standard of living. But does anyone still think we can simply build our way out of the problems individual car use has also created?

I should add the travelers found a great deal they liked about Canada too. They just think the whole car thing needs work.

Chabowski furthered the pair’s initial letter with this: “Why I wrote about Canada’s car culture“. In which she responds to the responses, included an assertion that she’s not asking for cars to go away. She’s asking for more choices that doesn’t put cars first and people second.

Which does seem like a reasonable topic for conscious consideration.

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38 Comments on “The long-running issue of “car culture””

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    First, let’s step back to the pre-car time, a time when if you wanted to get someplace beyond a small town, you needed a horse.
    Now imagine what life would now be like if the car had not come along and we were still using horses. Imagine the pollution all those hundreds of millions of horses would now be causing and the amount of land that would be taken up just to feed all of those horses.
    With horses, there wouldn’t be all the paved roads. The roads would be dirt roads that would be muddy to cross when it rains. Horse dropping would be all over the place. Wouldn’t that be fun. And those dirt roads, especially when muddy, would be a real blast to ride a bike on.
    Back when horses ruled, a person could get hung for stealing another person’s horse. That shows how important a horse was to survival.
    For the average Canadian and American, a car is essential for survival unless you live in a big city and are close to public transportation.
    Fact. In NYC which has good public transportation, not all sections are within a reasonable walking distance of a subway or buss stop. Guess what happens. People drive their cars and park them all day near as they can get to public transportation, then take public transportation to their job.

  2. stillin says:

    I hate having to HAVE a car, re: car payments, insurance, gas, upkeep, in an area that offers NO public transportation. But, if we HAD access to public transportation, we would NOT NEED GM, glad they’re gone, Alcoa, wish they would go, Reynolds, ditto. Had we HAD a good public transportation system all along, let’s say, paid for with those above mentioned plants, pensioners, maybe we would not be on the list of superfund clean up sites, still. I will take the horse shit any day.

  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The rise of car culture came with huge financial benefit of growth but also enormous costs. Car culture allowed the growth of suburbs and even people retiring into the woods in the middle of nowhere. In places like Indian Lake, where I believe Pete lives, there used to be a full service grocery store. But when the Northway came in sprawl brought malls and big box stores to within a 45 minute drive and people began spending most of their money out of town hurting small town economies and helping sprawling suburban communities like Wilton and Queensbury.

    In the mid-20th Century there were more rail lines and trolleys all over the country which provided access to denser communities even in small towns.

    The cots of the growth of car culture include maintenance of the web of roads, the effect of carbon in the atmosphere, and all of the problems created by front-loading profits for various industries while leaving the costs of pollution and maintenance to future generations.

    Now we are seeing many people excited by the boom of hydro-fracking. While this keeps the price of the last and harder to extract oil low to the consumer and generating short-term profits for oil and gas companies the costs of polluting the land and more importantly the huge amounts of fresh water ruined in the process are being passed on to the People in general, not to the shareholders who benefit financially. So, the rich will do just fine in the end, don’t worry about them. meanwhile, everyone else suffers from the loss of potential, the higher taxes, the lower wages, and the loss of lifestyle that was possible if only leaders listened to enlightened voices instead of the simple call of short term profit.

  4. As a non-car owner, I have no objection to roads and highways. What I object to is that although I pay taxes, my needs as a biker and pedestrian are mostly ignored when it comes to infrastructure design. Remember, gas taxes only cover 60% of the cost of road and bridge construction (numbers are from some years ago… that number is probably lower with the rise of hybrids and other more fuel efficient cars). That means the other 40% comes from the general fund. If I have to subsidize your roads and bridges, then I don’t think it’s too much to give me bike lanes and sidewalks (and ones cleared of snow in the winter).

  5. And stillin makes the key point. The objection many have is not that people drive or the roads and highways exist. It’s that the deck is stacked to the point where you HAVE to have a car in many places. Sure, I think you accept that as part of the deal if you choose to live in Chesterfield or Newcomb. But shouldn’t it be easier to get around without a car in Canton or Queensbury?

  6. Pete Klein says:

    When people who don’t own cars or don’t drive object to some of their tax dollars being spent on roads they say they don’t use, they need to remember roads are transportation corridors that make it possible for everything you need to reach the place where you make a purchase. They are also used by ambulances to get you to the hospital and for fire trucks to put out the fire at your house and your mail does not get delivered without there being roads.

  7. Pete: I don’t object to my tax dollars being spent on roads. I understand and accept the concept of the greater good. What bike owners resent is when it’s not mutual.

    Bike lanes, for example, diminish congestion. This benefits drivers (more efficient to get around for those who remain in cars, which has a myriad of benefits) and all tax payers (less wear and tear and thus money required to be spent on roads).

  8. I mean, c’mon. Bikers use roads to get around too, just not Interstates and other divided highways. We just want the roads we use to take us into account. If we can’t have bike lanes, at least have a shoulder that’s more than 3 inches wide and not dilapidated, for example. Is it really that unreasonable?

  9. Mervel says:

    A lot of people enjoy and support “car culture”. I think the assumption that you can just ignore that group is wrong, the idea that this is a settled issue is just not correct. It may be politically correct, but it is not factual, we love our cars and we build our cities around their usage. Is this good or bad? I think there are major problems with it; but there are also great benefits.

  10. I’ve yet to see anyone suggest that we “ignore” people who drive cars… just give a little more consideration to those who don’t.

  11. Greg F says:

    In 2011 the states spent a total of $153 billion on the highway system. The states raised $77 billion from tolls, gasoline tax, and user fees. The states received $46 billion from the Federal government of which $28 billion came out of the Federal Highway Trust Fund (the other $18 billion was borrowed). The Federal Highway Trust Fund is funded by the 18.4 cents per gallon Federal gas tax.

    Adding up the amount the users paid we come to a total of $105 billion. Of the $153 billion spent, the road users paid 69% of the cost and that is not the whole story.

    From the 18.4 cents per gallon Federal gas tax only 15.44 cents goes Highway Trust Fund. 2.86 cents goes to mass transit and .1 cent goes to leaking underground storage. In effect the Federal gas tax is subsidizing mass transit to the tune of about $5.4 billion. If all the 18.4 cents a gallon went to the Federal Highway Trust Fund the users would be funding 72% of the cost of the highway system.

    In contrast the states spent 58.7 billion on mass transit in 2011 while only bringing in $13.2 billion in transit fares. The riders of mass transit only pay about 22.5% of its cost.

  12. Two Cents says:

    you can ride your bike to the grocery store to gather dinner, but the food came by truck, train.
    even mass transit uses roads in the largest of cities.
    flying cars anyone?

    “I have met the enemy, and they is us”

  13. The Original Larry says:

    “Car Culture” is what you get when it is cheaper and more convenient to drive. Given the size and scale of the US (and Canada) it is probably necessary as well.

  14. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Of course, Car Culture is a term that could describe a wide variety of points of view. We could have developed a Car Culture that valued “zero” emission vehicles, reliability, safety, and value over horsepower. But advertising works and Detroit had little interest in building cars that were economical and reliable.

  15. The Original Larry says:

    Why must there always be a presumption that business is up to no good? Capitalism runs on a profit motive and is reflective of what consumers want. There was no reason for anyone to care about fuel economy when gasoline was 25 cents per gallon. People barely care about it now, otherwise gas-swilling SUVs and gigantic pick-ups would be gone from our roads. Don’t blame business, they are giving people what they want.

  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Ol, who said “business is up to no good”? I certainly didn’t.

    I mean, sure it is true that Detroit spent far too much time in fighting simple and inexpensive safety devices, like seatbelts, and they pooh-poohed the idea that customers might actually WANT to buy vehicles with high fuel economy like the Prius, and that many corporations put profit in front of safety like in the scandal of GM’s ignition switches that lead to customer deaths but the company hid the problem for years instead of fixing it at a minimal cost per vehicle. Maybe that sort of thinking is the core problem that led to the near melt-down of the American auto industry and allowed the Japanese, Germans even the Italians and Koreans to take over so much of our market.

    There WAS a reason to worry about fuel economy when gas was cheap — it was because oil is a finite resource. People need to think about the future and plan for it.

    And many people DO care about fuel economy now – ask Ford, GM and Chrysler where they have been working on fuel economy since the Japanese cleaned their clocks. Remember everyone scoffing at the Prius? While our auto industry said it couldn’t be done Toyota did it. Still there is a need for trucks to do work, to haul loads, and for large families there is a need for large vehicles which can move several people more efficiently than driving two cars. But don’t think advertising doesn’t affect people’s decisions to buy larger vehicles; manufacturers make greater profits on big trucks so they advertise them heavily and people are susceptible to the power of suggestion.

    That is a key problem to your understanding of Capitalism. Often it is easier for businesses to change the perception of what people want than to actually make a product that makes sense from a product usefulness and safety point of view. Capitalism, much like corporations, is not a person with thoughts and morality.

  17. MikeS says:

    Pickup trucks and Gas swilling trucks will never be gone from our roads. I am sure you are willing to wait for your internet repair guy to ride in from Albany by bike…… Lighten up a little guys.

  18. The Original Larry says:

    “Detroit had little interest in building cars that were economical and reliable.”

    Sounds exactly like an accusation, doesn’t it? As always, it seems easier to blame someone else, like big business, than for people to accept responsibility for their own actions. Who exactly is it who buys and drives those god-awful gas guzzlers? Forget that nonsense about large families, too. The average size of households in the US has declined as the size of cars has increased. Besides, the average household size, even in the late 1940s, was about 4 people, who could fit comfortably in all but the smallest sedans now available.

  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Larry, I am not blaming or accusing, just observing general patterns. One interesting pattern is that foreign automakers have a decidedly different approach to building cars than the traditional Big Three. Even the subsidiaries of those makers built very different vehicles overseas. One example would be the Ford Transit Connect, a vehicle that has been around in Europe and Asia for quite a while. This is that crazy cargo van you have been seeing more and more of on American roads. It is a work van on a lower platform with front wheel drive that performs better on slick roads than the big old rear wheel drive Econoline and has the added benefit of easy access to loads through large side and rear doors, AND it gets TWICE the mileage making it an excellent choice for businesses that require a fleet of delivery or service vehicles and the like. It isn’t built to do everything but it is a darned good vehicle. So why did it take so long to bring here?

  20. The Original Larry says:

    Car makers sell what the market demands. Americans generally make poor choices when it comes to vehicles, focusing almost exclusively on size, with no apparent care for fuel economy. How else to explain the proliferation of gigantic vehicles seen everywhere in the US but rarely elsewhere? Ever see a Tahoe, Suburban or Ram 3500 in Europe? Me neither. How do they survive?

  21. Walker says:

    They didn’t sell what the market demanded in the seventies, when foreign car makers’ cleaned up and Detroit’s sales slumped. You’re certainly right regarding recent decades, though.

    But car maker’s decisions have more to do with maximizing profit than they do with giving the public what it wants. There is more profit in selling big cars than small ones, so if they can use marketing to convince the public that it wants big cars, that’s what they’ll do.

    The only thing that will get people to buy smaller cars is reducing oil company subsidies and raising gasoline taxes, which just might yield enough funds to repair our crumbling infrastructure.

  22. Walker says:

    Incidentally, average gas mileage in the U.S. has gone from about 13 mpg in 1975 to about 27 mpg today, across all passenger vehicle types; for cars, it’s now at about 33 mpg. This is almost entirely thanks to the CAFE standards, introduced in 1975, which Detroit has fought tooth and nail. Source: History of Fuel Economy

  23. The Original Larry says:

    Raising the price of gasoline, through taxes or other means, will accomplish nothing. Prices have risen steadily, albeit unevenly, over recent years, yet the number of SUVs and monster trucks has risen as well. Why not over tax the SUVs and monster trucks themselves? No need to punish people who practice responsible car ownership.

  24. Walker says:

    “Raising the price of gasoline, through taxes or other means, will accomplish nothing.”

    It would provide funds for repairing crumbling roads and bridges. It hasn’t been raised in twenty years.

  25. Two Cents says:

    you know what would afford us the ability to fix our crumbling infrastructure?
    not spending trillions on other countries’ infrastructure after we bomb it.

  26. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Larry, did you miss my point about advertising? Marketing works. Advertising works. The purveyors of automobiles advertise the types of vehicles they want to sell in a way that is intended to work on a customer’s psyche, whether it is addressing a man’s desire to feel virile or people’s desire to feel safe. Remember ad campaigns intended to make people feel like they needed to drive large vehicles to keep their families safe by driving SUV’s? When in fact SUV’s turned out to be dangerous because they had high center of gravity and rolled over much more often than conventional sedans.

  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    On gasoline taxes: there is a price limit that people will pay for gas above which they will start to conserve. The differential between that limit and the current market price is the area in which speculators work to profit. Increasing the gas tax limits the differential and provides benefit to everyone in society because the taxes pay for road maintenance. Better for poor people to pay more in tax than in profit to speculators.

  28. The Original Larry says:

    Yes, marketing works, but Automobile marketing is usually brand-specific. As far as taxes, doesn’t anybody get that rising taxes do not usually bring improved services or infrastructure? If that were true, our public education would be the best in the country. I don’t think that’s worked out quite like they planned.

  29. Walker says:

    Larry, how about them Interstates? Built when our top tax rate was 90%. By a Republican president.

    And the failure of our public school system in NY has more to do with unequal distribution of school spending than it does with the overall level of spending.

    Besides which, schools and roads are utterly different. When you build roads, you use tax money to hire private contractors to do the work– kinda like the Charter Schools movement. You should be all for it.

  30. Walker says:

    As to marketing being mostly brand-specific, sure it is. Everyone wants to sell you their brand of their highest-profit vehicle, which is almost always their biggest vehicle.

  31. The Original Larry says:

    You have to stop with this fiction that the interstate highway system was financed by a 90% income tax rate. Its just not true. According to Wikipedia: ” About 70 percent of the construction and maintenance costs of Interstate Highways in the United States have been paid through user fees, primarily the fuel taxes collected by the federal, state, and local governments. To a much lesser extent they have been paid for by tolls collected on toll highways and bridges.” In fact, federal income taxes aren’t mentioned at all. As for your “90% tax rate”, the top marginal rate was actually 92% and it was payable on income over $200,000. Very few people in the 1950s earned more than $200,000.

  32. Walker says:

    Fine, so let’s raise the fuel tax. That’s where we started. Average fuel efficiency has increased substantially since the last time the tax was raised, resulting in substantially less tax per mile driven, on average. It stands to reason that if that’s where the revenue for maintenance is coming from, the tax needs to go up.

    And by the bye, I’d be just fine with very few very wealthy folks paying 92%.

  33. The Original Larry says:

    Fantastic! Misinformation, facts shifted around to suit, dubious logic and beneath it all, the presumption that soaking the rich and raising taxes are always the solution to any problem. Get some new material.

  34. Walker says:

    Talk about shifty!

    Where’s your counter to this: “Average fuel efficiency has increased substantially since the last time the tax was raised, resulting in substantially less tax per mile driven, on average.”

  35. The Original Larry says:

    I give up. I’m not going to enter your alternate reality.

  36. Walker says:

    You apparently gave up several posts back, Larry.

  37. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Synchronicity, today Ford announced they will discontinue the Econoline van.

  38. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    On the 90% (or 92%) top tax rate, finally…finally! … A conservative who seems to understand that the top tax rate in a progressive tax system only applies to the income above the next level lower, and so on. So the rich pay no more on their first $10,000 in income (generally speaking) than the poor do, nor the next $10,000, and so on. True that people who make more than about $113,000 don’t pay any payroll tax on the amount over $113k, but what the hell…just another perk of being rich!

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