(the following post was originally printed in the August, 2011 edition of the ReThink Green newsletter under the title, "Transportation Choices: Getting the Priorities Right")
When it comes to getting around in Greater Sudbury, it’s all about roads. Our sprawling city is connected by thousands of kilometres of asphalt, the quality of which Sudburians are never reluctant to complain about. Most Sudburians can’t imagine getting around without their cars. However, for an increasing number of those in our community, car ownership isn’t an option. Whether that’s due to the rising price of gas, or higher personal debt (often as the result of student loans), increasingly people in our City have begun to make alternative transportation choices.
What Sudburians have discovered when they’ve decided to get around without the benefit of a car is that our City doesn’t provide the most pleasant environment for those on foot, bike or the bus.
Let me be upfront here: I own a car, and I am often a motorist. But I am also a pedestrian, and not just when I am walking between my parked car and the entranceway to a mall or big-box store. I am also a cyclist. And I take the bus. I suspect that many of you experience getting around our City in the same ways that I do. So when I’m writing about motorists and pedestrians, I’m really writing about all of us.
Choices have been made in Greater Sudbury which ultimately have proven to be little different than choices made throughout North America. Our love of the car and the convenience which it has given us has meant that we have prioritized its use over all other forms of transportation. This has happened despite our knowledge that personal vehicles powered by fossil fuels are the least sustainable form of transportation available to us.
Our car-based convenience culture has contributed to climate changing greenhouse gas emissions. It has led to the development of inefficient suburban communities which will function poorly as the price of energy becomes increasingly expensive. It has led to unhealthy lifestyle choices and an epidemic of obesity.
But it does seem to get us to where we’re going more quickly than other means of transport! Time is money, after all. And when time is money, nothing beats the car.
Car ownership doesn’t come cheap, which is why more people are choosing not to buy or lease cars. Purchase prices, insurance, gasoline, routine maintenance, and the joys of those unexpected little things going wrong all contribute to the high price of car ownership. Often, because we are paying so much for our vehicles, we expect our governments to off-set other costs which can be controlled. In Greater Sudbury, this has translated into an expectation that our roads will be in good shape for driving at all times of the year, and that they will allow us to move about as quickly as possible.
We car owners resent having to pay for parking. We look upon provincial licensing fees as a cash grab. We like to think that the tax we pay on our gas and through fees are going towards building better roads for us to drive on. We would openly rebel if there was talk of putting a toll gate on a roadway important to us. Don’t we pay enough already to drive our cars?
No, actually, we don’t. When the real costs are tallied up, it’s clear that car drivers are being subsidized by society, which happens in many familiar, and some unfamiliar, ways. Our governments offset oil exploration costs through direct favourable taxation policies. We allow oil producers and car owners to pollute our atmosphere at no cost, despite the health- and environment-related costs of doing so. And while our governments tax gasoline, the amount of revenue collected makes only the smallest dint in the road maintenance budgets of our federal, provincial and municipal governments.
In Greater Sudbury, the heaviest burden of road maintenance, which includes winter snow-plowing, falls upon the backs of property tax payers. While our municipal government may receive special grants from higher levels of government for road repair and maintenance (especially for things like bridges), the lion’s share of money set aside for these activities comes from you and me. If you own a home or rent, you’re paying property taxes, a good portion of which goes directly into the roads budget – whether you own a car or not.
Further, have you ever thought about the extent of land which has been set aside for roads and parking? What other uses might we have made out of those lands if our priorities were different? For example, there are numerous municipal parking lots in the City’s downtown, which admittedly generate some revenue for the City, but ultimately having these public lands set aside for the exclusive use of car owners is a subsidy. We all pay for the maintenance of parking lots. That municipal parking lots generate revenue might make us feel a little better, but perhaps more revenue would be generated from their sale to private enterprise, potentially to be used for housing in the core, or new businesses.
We often don’t think about the extent of private lands which have been set aside for parking, but the amount is considerable. Developers of new subdivisions must ensure that a certain portion of land is made available for driveway parking. Without this requirement, developers could build more affordable homes on smaller lots. Instead, our parking requirements lead to less efficient, spread-out communities, which are detrimental to the use of alternative forms of transportation.
Think about the New Sudbury Centre for a moment, and the sheer amount of land in a core area of our community which has been set aside for parking. What higher and better use might this land be used for? What kind of transit-supportive mixed-use communities could be established amidst the wastelands of parking lots around our malls?
But, say some, no one would go to the mall if you couldn’t park there. To which others might reply that there would be no need to drive to the places where you shop if they were within walking distance or if better public transportation were available.
Our transportation corridors have been built to maximize the speed at which cars are able to get around, often at the expense of all other forms of transportation. The way in which signalized intersections give preference to cars over pedestrians, along with the built environment of these transportation corridors have made parts of our City very unfriendly to pedestrians. Larger lane widths which facilitate greater vehicular speeds actually put slower-moving cyclists at risk. Winding bus routes through suburban subdivisions make transit use undesirable and problematic for many.
Instead of choosing to promote more sustainable forms of transportation, we have over the years prioritized car ownership, and constructed our cities and tax systems for the benefit of cars over pedestrians. That this choice has proven to be the least sustainable in terms of the long term health of our environment and economy is becoming increasingly obvious. Yet many in our community will still fail to see the need to begin shifting our resources into the promotion of healthier, more sustainable transportation systems. Some may even refer to these ideas as waging a “war on the car”. It’s nothing of the sort, of course; but when a few minutes travel time may be put in jeopardy by providing a new, safe pedestrian access route, or through the traffic-calming presence of cyclists sharing the road, to some drivers, it may seem that way.
Nevertheless, we must begin planning for the future which will find ourselves in, and it’s not going to be like the past. The end of inexpensive fossil fuels and a growing awareness of the real costs of carbon pollution are sure to drive up the costs of car ownership and use. An increasing number of your neighbours will be looking to get around this City without a car. We must begin the transformation of our car-centric City into a people-centred community.
That means that we need to rethink how we design our communities and allocate our transportation budgets. That doesn’t mean that we will stop repairing roads and vehicular transport infrastructure, especially when safety is an issue. But it might mean giving prioritization in our budgeting processes to projects which make pedestrian, cycling and transit infrastructure safer and more accessible for users, as there are sure to be more of them in the future than there are today.
(Along with being a motorist, cyclist, pedestrian and transit user, Steve May is the CEO of the Sudbury Federal Green Party Association)
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)