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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It is time for a war on the car

Every weekday when I get up and take my kids out the door to start their trek into school, we turn off of the street we live on and onto 26th St. in South Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto. This leads us to Lake Shore Blvd. W., where we can either choose to walk in or to catch a bus in bad weather.

At the northeast corner of 26th and Lake Shore there is always a long line of generally impatient drivers, queued up in their cars, pickup trucks or SUVs, (almost always, one might note, alone in their cars) idling while waiting to get to the drive-through Tim Horton's window to order and collect whatever pseudo-Canadian (the chain is owned by Americans) fast food, horrible coffee, "daybreak" starter that they apparently require for the rest of their journey.

When we arrive at the end of our walk or bus ride, this time at Dwight Ave. and Lake Shore, just down the street from their school, there again we are greeted with a line of cars, this time waiting for their turn at a McDonald's window, doing exactly the same thing.

These two drive-throughs are bookends of our relatively short commute. They are replicated many thousands of times across Canada, let alone North America. They also speak volumes as to what our consumerist, car centered society is about, and how its culture of immediate self-gratification and absurd fixation on convenience is both profoundly harmful and a function of a right wing mythology and adoration of the terribly destructive concept of suburbia.

One has to realize that the very large majority of people driving to these windows, to work or driving  their kids to school, do not "have" to do this, they chose to. As a person who has never driven a car and who has commuted to university and then work (and these were not short commutes) by public transit his entire life,  I can tell you first hand that no one living in the City of Toronto needs to drive at all. Even now the transit infrastructure exists that makes this, for the vast majority of citizens, unnecessary. Never mind that so many trips in cars are short ones, driving children to school or driving up the street to get groceries, and are entirely based around convenience as opposed to "need".

Driving in a dense urban setting is a lifestyle choice that has been re-framed as a necessity and this re-framing flows from distinctly North American ideas of convenience, independence and "freedom" that have also laid the foundation for the creation of the suburban lifestyle; a lifestyle tied directly into the middle class or pseudo-middle class fixation on home ownership that has driven the appalling growth of the environmental and social blight of urban sprawl, backed as it is by willing governments who have facilitated it through dangerously loose credit rules.

It is no coincidence that this is so easily tied to a fast food lifestyle. What is better than driving, by yourself, in your car, immune to any contact with other people outside of your sphere, and being able to pull right up to a tiny window and have a minimum wage worker hand you a bag of prefabricated, bland and homogenous "food", often that has a terrible environmental price tag attached to it,  without the need to ever even emerge from this pollution spewing cocoon?

The car is, in the end, something of a metaphor for our general unwillingness to actually take action to curb our reckless and disastrous levels of personal and social consumption. While it has become somewhat fashionable to place the blame for society and the environment's ills solely at the doors of impersonal corporations, it is rather meaningless to do so. Personal consumption, after all, is what feeds corporate profit and rapaciousness as much as anything else, and it is impossible to seriously critique or seek to mitigate the tremendously destructive effects of the North American and Western consumerist model without attempting to modify or change the patterns of consumption of consumers.
In addition, consumption, by definition, increases as you go up the income scale; in fact, rather drastically so. Those at the very bottom of the income pyramid can hardly be called "consumers" in the modern sense at all. Their "consumption" is limited to the very bare necessities. When we speak of "consumers" as opposed to citizens, we are already leaving the poor out of the discussion in any meaningful way, and discussions of making life more "affordable" for "poor" suburban drivers are, in actuality, aimed squarely and entirely at the middle and even upper middle class.

In the case of the Right this is reflected in the explicit embrace of the icon of the car, as most obviously evidenced by Rob Ford and his "fight" to end the non-existent "war on the car". His allegation was that this war on the car dominated civic policy in Toronto, Canada's largest urban centre, despite the fact that it is one of the most car friendly cities in the developed world, with basically no tolls, forced or encouraged car pool lanes or driving restrictions of any kind.

This, in fact, is true across Canada, which lags far behind the rest of the world in attempting to curb driving through disincentives to it like tolls and car pooling lanes.

Far from being an anti-driver nightmare, (other than the congestion caused by cars themselves), Toronto exceeds even Los Angeles in its devotion to catering to the whims of the car driver. Ontario's Liberal government has greatly exacerbated this by, despite some positive moves to enact disincentives on drivers, catering to Ford's inane subway plan in Scarborough and by having facilitated the destruction of the "Transit City" plan implemented by the previous Miller administration. It caved to the pro-subway lobby that won over many Torontonians by arguing that LRTs and streetcars were bad for cars.

Far more insidious, however, is the embrace of this by the "left", specifically, in the case of Toronto, the Ontario NDP, who see suburban car drivers as an obvious target for their new "pocketbook populism", as evidenced by their outright rejection of imposing some revenue generating fees on drivers to fund public transit, as well as with their fixation on "standing for Ontario drivers", a phrase they actually use.

This is tied to the ONDP's desire to replace truly redistributive politics with tokenism that sounds as if it is aimed at the disadvantaged, and that takes the rhetoric of radicalism and uses it to fight for meaningless and often reactionary tax cuts or an opposition to fees that, in fact, benefits the upper middle class more than anyone and that undermines directly and basically the ability of any government to create a public transit infrastructure of sufficient density in Toronto to shift car users onto transit. This infrastructure would obviously be in the interests of the urban working class and the poor.

As we will see, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has acknowledged that the fixation of Western and some developing nations with subsidizing the energy and fossil fuel consumption of their citizens and corporations not only has a negative effect on the environment, but also directly benefits the better off at the expense of the poor.

To begin to see how, one has to realize just how extensive these subsidies are. As a business blogger on sustainability, Dennis Wong noted,
What the general public is mostly unaware of is the fact that our energy prices are subsidized prices. When we pay $50 at the gas pump, the gas we got is actually worth more than $50. When we pay $100 for our hydro bill, the energy we used is actually worth more than $100. Why is that? It’s because the government financially subsidizes the energy we use. Although this practice has been taking place for years, most people in the general public don’t realize the energy prices we consumers pay are below market levels.
According to the IMF study (and the additional data they provided to me) Canada incurred $26 billion on energy subsidies in 2011. The Canadian government’s revenues were $665 billion in that year. In other words, 4% of the government revenues were spent on energy subsidies. (Note that the IMF calculation uses U.S. dollar, but the Canadian dollar was at virtual parity with the U.S. dollar over the year of 2011, with $1 USD equaled $0.989 CAD).
These subsidies, which amounted to a total of $787 per year for every man, woman and child in the country, clearly and self-evidently are of greater benefit to those who consume more energy, from corporations to the wealthy. This makes them inherently regressive.
Further, however, this money is not being spent on other things, like mass transit infrastructure, education, health care, etc, which would directly benefit lower income earners. As the IMF  noted:
Developing and industrialized countries should rein in energy subsidies that totaled $1.9 trillion in 2011 to ease budgetary pressures and free resources for public spending in areas like education and health care, International Monetary Fund economists said in a research paper published Wednesday.
The paper said that subsidies were expensive for governments, and that, instead of helping consumers, they detracted from increased investment in infrastructure, education and health care, which would help the poor more directly.
Put bluntly, "Subsidies have been a counterproductive way to help the poor because they are more beneficial to the rich, who consume more energy, the fund said".

This also plays out in practice with all attempts to make life "easier" by enabling consumption. Consumption increases with income, it does not decrease. Unless it is tied into a broader anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist and radical reorganization of taxation, efforts to ease the costs, taxes and fees associated with things like gas or fossil fuel consumption will benefit the better off far more than those of lower incomes, and this explains why the Tories in Ontario also oppose such taxes.

Worse, though, there is a desperate and very real need to curb consumption, especially fossil fuel and energy consumption, in the wealthiest countries in the world, like Canada and the United States. Our consumption patterns, both by individuals and corporations, are not only unsustainable but are also literally destroying the planet and directly killing people.

In fact, a study released just three days ago at the University of British Columbia found that traffic related pollution is nine times deadlier than car crashes and that it has a terribly negative effect on quality of life. The report noted:
Air pollution is mainly associated with asthma, other lung conditions and cardiovascular diseases. Exhaust fumes from diesel, a known carcinogen, are tied to lung cancer. A 2008 federal report estimated that on an annual basis, there are 306 premature deaths, 1,158 hospital admissions, and 8,763 emergency department visits related to air pollution in B.C.
Nearly a third of the country’s population lives within 500 metres of a highway or 100 metres from a major urban road, exposing them to toxic fumes from more than 15,000 cars per day, according to the CMAJ report. Such air pollution triggers “inflammation, oxidative stress and imbalance in the autonomic nervous system” which includes heart rhythm disturbances.
As noted, "The article is timely, coming as it does on the heels of last week’s declaration by the World Health Organization that air pollution is a carcinogen". The report also suggests the use of disincentives to get people out of cars, such as imitating highly successful tolls like the one in place in London, England.

What this suggests, more broadly, is that not only are attempts to make driving more affordable highly regressive as social and tax policy,  but that they actually help to contribute to the deaths of many of those they are allegedly meant to help.

A consumerist social model, even while providing the thin veneer of trickle down luxury to citizens in lower income brackets, is, in reality, centred around the consumption of those in middle and higher income brackets. They have to fuel it or it would collapse, for rather obvious reasons. This is done in part through the extension of "easy credit" to the middle class, but also through the use of government to facilitate consumption via subsidies and the lifting of disincentives even when this consumption is highly destructive.

It is, in fact, time for a "war on the car" socially and in major urban centres like Toronto especially. The illusion that the patterns of car use that exist in Canada and North America are sustainable economically, environmentally or morally is reckless and dangerous.

Four-fifths of commuters in Canada do so by car, and the majority of these drive by themselves. The notion that this is an acceptable situation is truly wrongheaded. So is the demonstrably false notion that people "have no choice" but to do this. In urban centres where mass transit has been expanded and/or where disincentives to driving have been put in place, people have gotten out of their cars and, horror-of-horrors, used transit!

The idea that we should not be taking serious steps to force this to change through road tolls, enforced car pooling lanes, higher gas taxes, and ending the subsidization of energy consumption, and using these funds to build mass transit networks as well as in  more directly redistributive ways is profoundly reactionary.

More significantly, however, time is also running out. The consumerist, suburban, car driven, fast food, disposable goods society cannot exist indefinitely. The resources that drive it and the ability of our climate to endure it are finite.

If we do not change now, and if we do not take action, however hard and initially unpopular with some, the planet will ultimately force us to anyway. Then it will be too late, and making it more affordable for someone to drive, by themselves, wherever and whenever they want will seem a supremely misguided fantasy of a terribly decadent past.

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