We are a society that is completely addicted to the automobile. After all, this is the birthplace of the drive-thru, the drive-in, the curbside fast food pickup, the strip mall, the megamall, the freeway, and last but not least Walmart. Okay, so maybe that's exaggerating just a little: Walmart is a symptom of suburbia, not an inventor of it. Can we then blame Henry Ford for all of the things that make suburbia so disconnected and strewn about randomly? Can we blame him for streets that face backyard fences, malls set hundreds of metres from the actual street, roads with no sidewalks, segregated residential areas, and the concept that everything must be seperate from one another? I'm sure Henry Ford had the best of intentions when he invented the automobile. I know that. And even after he invented the automobile, people still built pedestrian-friendly communities right up into the 1940s.
Then came World War II. Battles were fought, many lives were lost, and no one knew it at the time but the urban landscape was about to undergo a pretty drastic facelift: the concept of the city made for the car not the people who live in it.
The consequences of which can be seen in a general line north of Lawrence and Eglinton in Toronto today. Here the villages and ethnic communities give way to the shopping mall parking lot heavens, segregated neighborhoods and endless sprawl. Neighborhoods are built cheaply and quickly, and it shows. Can you survive without a car in these bleak hinterlands? Yes. Would you want to? No. The public transit within Toronto itself is actually pretty good, but in communities designed for the automobile, that doesn't help very much. Communities such as Rexdale, Agincourt and Malvern were strictly designed for the automobile. If you want bread, get in your car. Or wait for a bus.
Thanks to the poor design of the suburban cities that surround Toronto, we are choking on traffic constantly. The 905ers demand more highways. The downtowners demand neighborhood preservation. Stuck in the middle of all this mess are the money-hungry developers eager to swallow up good farmland, and the politicians who feel that they must permit them to build how they want in order to make money. Every time a highway is built, it fills up quickly and becomes clogged. Once that happens, people demand another highway be built, and the cycle begins again.
There are signs of improvement. Urban land use planners are beginning to realize their mistakes in being lap dogs for the developers. There's a sort of realization in our suburban hinterlands right now that higher density transit corridors may be the solution to endless sprawl. It's only beginning to catch on, and the type of development that feeds our addiction to the car still continue to spread outward at a dizzying rate. Two million more people will be living in the 905 by the time 2015 rolls around, and I sure as hell hope they're not all driving cars or else we're pretty screwed.
We don't need to be addicted to the car. We have alternatives. There are solutions. First of all, move back into the city, all you 905ers. Older neighborhoods have much more charm anyway. What sort of charm is there in strip malls and unsightly highways? Toronto is a great city to live in, and does not need to be imitated by Mississauga or Richmond Hill. You can probably reduce your commute and live a healthier lifestyle at the same time because you won't need to hop into your car all of the time. That costly cab ride home to Aurora won't be so costly if you live a little closer to your favorite bar downtown.
Second of all, advocate bike lanes and better public transit. If you build them, they will come. Over 60% of New Yorkers take public transit to work. Why? I'm guessing because they have 20 subway lines and an extensive, reliable system and a city that isn't friendly to the private automobile. London, England also has a high rate of use of its public transit thanks to an extensive system of subways and streetcars.
Third of all, demand better from your politicians. You know what I mean: Building highways is not the solution, but building higher density transit corridors is part of the solution. Demand that developers do not get to walk all over the politicians. There must be restrictions to the sprawl both inside and outside of our cities. We've already seen what has happened to certain older suburbs in the city, such as Malvern, Rexdale and Scarborough north: They're built poorly and cheaply, and they fall apart in a small matter of time. There are neighborhoods that are over 100 years old which are in much better shape than much of Scarborough.. these places were built for people and they remain that way now. And the people who live there appreciate them.
Toronto, don't you want to take pride in all of your city?
Here I am downtown, driving my bike, walking and taking public transit. A lot of people who know me don't understand what I'm doing. Why would you want to drive your bike amongst downtown traffic? Isn't that kind of dangerous? I think that's the kind of clever marketing that the car industry has succeeded in doing quite well: The concept that when you're in a car, you're safer than anyone else out there when in fact you're not. No, my friends, I'm just doing my part to help the environment. Accuse me of being some crazy lefty. Accuse me of being too idealistic. But I do believe there are alternatives to the car. Perhaps I am a little biased living downtown but you know what? I'd welcome the 905ers to come back downtown anytime and live a healthier lifestyle where they don't have to climb into their car every time they want something.
There are alternatives to the car, aside from your own feet and a bicycle: If you really need one to use, you can easily rent one. I hear you crying, "Expensive!". Relatively speaking, I don't think so. It will cost you $9000 a year to drive a car, and to me, that's far more expensive than the occasional rental. We are also a city full of taxi cabs. Expensive? Yes, I know they are. But they are a viable alternative as well, as long as you only take them when necessary.
I know that some people out there do in fact need a car to survive. They have children, they have to travel constantly (i.e. real estate agents) or their lifestyle does not permit them to rely on public transit alone. But I do believe they are a minority of the population, and in fact the majority of the driving that is done in this city does not need to be done. It's just due to wastefulness and the poorly built suburbs that surround us. If we can cut the addiction to our cars, we'd be helping the entire region - not just Toronto - tremendously.
Our economy is choking on the traffic congestion as I speak and unless we do something now, we'll forever be in the downward spiral of sprawl and congestion.