The road less travelled

Life beyond the private automobile

Marshall McLuhan once wrote “The car has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad and incomplete in the urban compound.” With the news last month that Calgary is at the bottom of the walkability heap according to Walk Score, isn’t it time we had a serious conversation about this urban wardrobe malfunction?

Oh, but Calgarians love their cars we are told — just as the Irish like their drink and Americans their guns. Firstly, these are all overblown stereotypes. Secondly, to the extent there is some truth in these statements, are the Irish, Americans and we Calgarians fated to live this way forever, no matter the consequences?

For most, cities without the private automobile are unimaginable. This deficit of imagination has everything to do with entrenched behaviour, misplaced desire, ignorance of the alternatives and lack of political leadership.

Collectively, Calgarians spend about $4.5 billion annually to own, operate and maintain our cars — about $9,500 per household based on Statistics Canada surveys. That could translate into another $800 per month toward a mortgage. Those savings, put into a college fund, would go a long way toward helping your child graduate from university without crippling debt. Or, if you invest that $9,500 a year at five per cent over a 40-year working life, you could be sitting on a nest egg of $1.2 million.

Half of all Calgary households own more than one car. If over a 10-year period we were able to reduce the car fleet by one-quarter and somehow put the savings toward public transit, we could fund a West LRT every year — over 65 new kilometres of LRT. That would cover both the south and north lines and a ring rail line through the middle suburbs to connect them all up.

Or perhaps we could follow the lead of cities around the world and reintroduce streetcars. Currently, St. Petersburg (344 km), Melbourne (238 km) and Vienna (188 km) are best-in-class. At a cost of $15 million per km, we could build a 700 km streetcar network. We’d boast the best streetcar system in the world, and run it on wind to boot.

Already there are strong market trends away from private car ownership. One of the most promising transition strategies is carshare. The Calgary CarShare co-op has been around for over 10 years and has grown modestly in that time, providing a viable alternative for inner-city residents.

In the past six months we have seen signals of an acceleration to the alternatives-to-owning-a-car trend. In January, Avis purchased Zipcar for $490 million. Since its founding in 2000, Zipcar has grown to over 760,000 members — with over 500,000 of those members signing on since 2008.

Car2go, owned by Daimler AG, began operation in Ulm, Germany in 2008 and already has 275,000 members in 17 cities worldwide. Since its July 2012 arrival, Calgary’s car2go has become the fastest growing system in North America with 300 cars and over 15,000 members.

Zipcar founder Robin Chase recently added a twist to the business model. Through Buzzcar, you rent your own vehicle when you are not using it. Buzzcar Paris has 14,000 people sharing 2,000 cars. Buzzcar Brooklyn is set to launch soon. Why waste money on more cars when there is an astounding amount of unused capacity in the existing fleet?

Another strategy is to separate the purchase of a house or condo, from the purchase of parking. Right now city bylaws oblige us to provide parking with every home purchase whether you own a car or not.

In Freiburg, Germany, arguably the most sustainable city in the world, the streets of the community of Vauban are reserved for walking, biking and playing. Cars are parked in a parkade on the edge of the community, and only enter the streets for occasional delivery and pickup. You buy your home, then, and only if you need one, you buy a parking stall. At the urging of the city and the local community, some Calgary developers are adapting this strategy and offering condos without the parking stalls — a potential saving of $20,000 or more for prospective buyers.

One simple principle should guide residential growth in our city. Do not build a community unless we can be certain that people living in that community have a reasonable option to live car-free if they so choose.

The money we spend on cars represents a staggering amount of our life energy invested in a seductive but ultimately wasteful and destructive technology. Are we really prepared to say it’s the best we can do? “Somewhere ages and ages hence,” as Robert Frost famously penned, might we look back and think, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I / I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference.”

If you missed the first part of this two-part viewpoint, we've got you covered.


Comments: 25

Centreman wrote:

I have been living carfree in Calgary for 3 years now and have absolutely no plans to buy another vehicle anytime soon. I love the speed my life goes at now and am healthier, happier, and richer ($$$) than I've been in a decade. I am also a dad and have been taking my son to school by bike all year round (he rides on his own these days) and doing all our shopping/errands by bike. I also own my own business and whenever we need a vehicle for something we simply rent one.

I use to believe the dominant Calgary car dependent narrative but not anymore. If you CHOOSE to live in certain neighbourhoods you can most definitely avoid private car ownership.

One thing I am not sure you mentioned is how "car culture" destroys communities by siphoning off money from people and sending it out of communities, never to be seen again. 85% the money spent on car payments, insurance, and gasoline leaves our communities. In my case that same money is spent at my local bike shop, organic markets, locally raised meats, and local businesses.

One other thing to consider - there is no need for many people to ditch their car altogether - just leave it parked more often and that can have a huge impact on your locality. Ride you bike to the grocery store in your community or walk. For every 1% of cars off the road = 3% reduction in traffic wait times.

My feeling is economics will force many off the road in the near future whether they want to or not.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 7:26am Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

Great story Centreman. The story in our family is similar. My wife and I ditched our cars 25 years ago. We have one daughter and are members of carshare and like you rent when we need to. Great point about money leaving the community - a huge issue. And yes, the first steps involve consciously trying to limit car use and before you know it you have the bug and are plotting its demise altogether.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 8:02am Report Abuse

RouteAhead wrote:

Great insights Sean and Neil. Investing in transit has many positive outcomes, including increased mobility, affordable transportation and a better financial return than investing in road projects. You can see more of the benefits of transit use in this paper we put together for the RouteAhead project -

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 8:52am Report Abuse

mx80 wrote:

The $4.5b is just personal expenses on car ownership, right? So you're not even including the costs of roads maintenance, policing, healthcare, congestion, and traffic fatalities? Or all the on-street parking the City provides for those extra cars?

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 9:19am Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

Thats right mx80 - those are additional costs we bear. Interestingly there was a recent Transport Canada report on the total costs of transportation in Canada that suggests those social and ecological costs for Calgary at about 700,000,000 per year. You can see reference to this report and a larger research report on Affordable Living (Housing +Transportation costs) on the Sustainable Calgary Website.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 9:35am Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

Thanks for that link RouteAhead - well done!

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 9:37am Report Abuse

AP wrote:

The arguments here about the reduction / removal / banning of all privately owned vehicles carries about as much logic as the arguments for practicing abstinence as a form of preventing pregnancy and STDs.

It is absolutely true that the internal combustion engine is a great source of pollution and uses up a lot of our resources, much like it is very true that practicing abstinence takes away any change of getting pregnant or contracting an STD. But some of us who live in reality and feel the need to explore other alternatives and find a balance.

Practicing abstinence is a choice, and a great choice for many –but it is a very personal choice. The rest of the world would like to explore other alternatives for safe sex. Because with the disadvantages that come with sex also come a lot of positives (if one would consider uncontrollably propagating the human race a positive). It is also a form of deepening bonds of intimacy in a relationship, or providing pleasure.

And the same arguments apply for vehicles. For all the bad, there is also the good. Individuals have the freedom of movement. For those who want to spend their lives in their own neighbourhoods and not explore the world, not having a car is a great thought. There are others who want to see more than what is out on the horizon. It could be something as simple as taking a trip to Kananaskis on their days for a hiking / climbing / skiing / snowboarding / outdoors adventure trip, or simply leaving their life behind for a weekend to “get away” somewhere. Or one could argue that vehicles have greatly added to the response time of EMS services. For all the lives that automobiles have taken in accidents, is there a tally for the lives that would have been lost if our city had a horse drawn carriage pulling a fire tankers and ambulances or police arriving on the scene on pedal bikes only.

I currently take the transit to work and have re-discovered the lost art of reading. But I also remember having jobs in the past where a one way transit trip was 1.5 hours in good weather, while I could get to work in my own vehicle in 30 minutes and had the freedom to go to my other activities after work which were not on the transit lines.

So admonishing one side for disregarding their point completely (regardless of which side of the argument one is in) simply makes that person an orthodox militant for they will impose their own choices on all others. And as human history has shown over and over again, anyone not embracing their values will be sent to re-education camps, or find themselves lined up against a wall somewhere. And in democratic societies, those individuals are the greatest danger to us all.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 10:04am Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

In response to AP to start with what are the alternatives to sex, there is not really a substitute - but there are many alternatives to the car as the dominant form of transportation in cities. A bad analogy I would suggest.

It is a false dichotomy to suggest you are stuck in your own neighbourhood if everyone is not obliged to own a car. As the article suggests there are alternatives. With the money we spend on cars we could have a fantastic urban mass transit system with much more efficiency, speed of getting around and less overcrowding. That includes a regional system that could get us to Kananaskis Banff or Lake Louise for a leisurely day instead of the stressful Formula one race that getting to a from the mountains has become. My point is that private automobiles are an extremely expensive solution to problems of mobility for people who live in cities.

As far as the deaths by auto, it is hard to fathom a balanced ledger on the pluses and minuses of all those deaths. EMS? I did not say there were no vehicles. In fact if we were not clogging the road with cars response times would be much better. AND if we built a city to human scale instead of to accommodate cars we would have a much more compact city with all of our services much more closely together - many of them easily within walking distance.

Its the long term strategy I am thinking of here. We will double the population of Calgary in the next 50 years. Will we build that second city for people where cars are one option or will be build it for cars where nobody has much of an option other than to own a car?

As for the orthodox militant, as far as cars are concerned Henry Ford is where fingers should be pointed. No other person bears as much responsibility for shaping the city for his own private benefit - ie selling as many cars as possible! So i think the orthodox militancy is misdirected when a small suggestion that maybe we should rethink the place of cars in our cities elicits a response suggesting car critics are taking over the world. The greatest danger is in squashing the slightest voices of dissent to the status quo.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 10:29am Report Abuse

AP wrote:

Alternatives to sex... Well science has allowed invitro fertilization for decades now, so if the pure goal is procreation, there is one right there.

And the a bit more clarity into my analogy, a lot of those who practice "abstinence" feel that their virginity is maintained by not having vaginal intercourse, so they explore other methods of intercourse, often without proper protection and understanding of the consequences but maintain their superiority for being "virgins".

Much like those who maintain a superiority complex for using other modes of transportation like riding bikes don't acknowledge that bikers can be a menace to pedestrians quite often (as I have learned first hand many times). If a car can kill a pedestrian, a speeding bike can seriously injure one.

Part of what you are asking for is a greater change in the human way of thinking. I know one person who moved here from New York and lives in suburbia. That person drives to work in downtown every day, and the comment they made was "It is refreshing to be in a city where I can have my own house with a yard and still make it to work in less than an hour". So the question now becomes as to whether the rest of the world uses mass transit because it is a choice, or a lack there of.

One of the items that you missed mentioning in a dense and compact city is that the humans who live in it have to learn the discipline to respect each other. I have been cramped in c-train many times with the odd unruly patron who made the ride miserable for the rest of us. And I have lived in a multi family complex that was burnt down due to one idiot with who didn't learn how to properly extinguish a cigarette. So the actions of one person affected the lives of 300 others, and we were out of a home for over a year.

Until that moment, I was a strong proponent of dense living. Now, all I want is an acerage with a minefield around it so I can keep all of my neighbours out.

And as a member of my condo board, I heard of numerous instances when one person left their window open in the winter which resulted in burst pipes that flooded several other units as well.

So that is the other side of the coin. Once you densely pack 1 million people into 10 square kilometers, how do you plan to make them all get along? We have a hard enough time not road raging in our own vehicles. Now, people will be next to each other, on top and below each other, walking next to each other, and sharing transit with each other.

Bottom line - Somewhere along the way, this all becomes a part of our personal choices about our own lives. The governments and societies can encourage both limited use of cars and expanded use of public transit, legislate the minimum safety and emission standards that need to be met for vehicle ownership and have regular inspections to ensure those standards are met (as is done in New Zealand), but it would be crossing my personal rights and freedoms if anyone were to dictate whether or not I could or should own my own vehicle, or whether or not I could or should be living in a highrise, sub-urbia, acerage, tenenement or a slum. Those are choices I would like to make for myself.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 11:03am Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Noel: In the previous half, you hyped the 1.3 million deaths from auto accidents. Can you split that up by country, by type of accident, and parallel that with other major causes of death? Thanks.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 12:39pm Report Abuse

amf673 wrote:

Death by car: In Alberta it is about 300 per year, in Canada 3,000 (10 air liners falling out of the sky per year) and 40,000 (a 9/11 a month) in the US. Worldwide it is over 1,000,000 and is more than all other types of death by injury including war, violence and suicide. Statistics on the various types of crashes are readily available from the AB and Canadian governments.

We don't really pay much attention because road deaths are a low-intensity disaster.

The social cost to Canada of car crashes is estimated to be $62 billion per year or about $1,800 per year, per Canadian. Consider that a hidden tax.

The article mentions the personal costs of owning a vehicle, which are considerable for something that spends 90% of its time not being used. But that is only the start. We, the public, subsidize personal, single occupant vehicle driving to an enormous degree. Billions of dollars are spent on new roads, road repairs, police to try to enforce the rules, and EMS to transport the injured to hospitals. Then there are the indirect costs like health care for the indirect injuries like respiratory problems from smog, and the opportunity cost of devoting some 35% of the land area of Calgary to roads and parking, most of which spend the largest part of the day empty.

There has to be a better way.

The question really is, are we as a society able and willing to continue to spend at this level, so people can exercise their inefficient, expensive and lethal transportation choice? I am all for freedom and choice, but the price for this transportation choice is far too high.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 2:27pm Report Abuse

AP wrote:

One could make the exact same argument about every person that is brought into this world. They will be a drain on our education and health care system. They will require food, nourishment and some space to live and grow in. To curb that, do you suggest we enforce a One Child Only policy?

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 2:35pm Report Abuse

amf673 wrote:

Here is the breakdown of deaths per country:

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 2:58pm Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

TO AP I would say you cannot equate the discussion of limiting human beings to limiting a machine.

We can all exercise our choice as we want I guess, but the ecological argument is that the earth is not infinitely accommodating to human choice. There are limits to everything and we are coming up against global ecological limits in a big way hence the need for a conversation about where to draw the line. Seems to me if we are throwing things over the side of lifeboat earth there are lots of less ecologically taxing alternatives to mobility than the car.

If bikes killed 1.3 million people i would be concerned about bikes too. Usually it is cars that kill bicyclists.

Yes I am suggesting we humans need to seriously rethink how we live. I am not advocating we force these changes on people in a democratic society. I'd like to think that the end point of a serious conversation would be that the majority would agree that change is needed. But I would maintain that if we do not seriously rethink our relationship with the car the earth will force the change on us in a very nasty way. If as some people think humans only change in the face of disaster, that would be unfortunate hence my suggestion in the article that we can do better.

as far as extreme density, we don't need extreme density only moderate density. If you took away most car spaces and infilled those spaces with homes you would be a long way to the required density I would think.

I am not calling for the state to take away our cars, I am saying that the evidence suggests we as a society need to have a serious informed discussion about the impact of cars and the options we have available to us.

To Clairvoyant I didn't hype death by car I lamented it as tragic and unnecessary. I reference the Global Burden of Disease report in the previous column where most of the data you are looking for can be found.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 6:49pm Report Abuse

mx80 wrote:

AP, please stop. Its embarassing. Sex and driving cars are nothing alike. Someone flooding your building has nothing to do with transportation policy. Noone wants to force you to live in a highrise or to give up your car.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 7:47pm Report Abuse

AP wrote:

Noel and MX80 -

Why do I bring up sex... since it is mostly necessary to procreate... and while I have heard several arguments about society and oil and cars and the rest of us taking from the earth (which is very true) and burdening it beyond acceptable capacity (which is very very true), I haven't heard much about the core problem behind all of this - overpopulation.

Humanity has always been a part of this earth, and left our impact on nature the moment the first hunter gatherer took a pointly stick to a pre-historic deer, or decide to cut down some tree branches to cook it with. However, we were at a point where nature could compensate for us.

The human population has increased from 1 billion in 1800 to 3 billion in 1960 to 6 billion in 2000 to 7 billion today. And every human being needs space to grow, puts a dent in our limited resources by requiring food and nourishment, heat (be it through oil or wood), breathes in oxygen, exhales carbon dioxide and other human waste. All humans, from the ones who minimize their carbon footprint to those who decide the earth is for the to take up take up resources. And even 7 billion people with minimalist life styles are way too much.

So please address how to deal with that core issue, because the rest is just band aid.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 8:04pm Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

I would not disagree that population is a core issue, but I think the issue is population times the per capita rates of resource consumption. Cars - their manufacture and use - represent an enormous percentage of the total resource consumption humans generate - our total ecological footprint. So for example a North American consumes about 7-10 times the Earth's resources (energy, minerals, agricultural land for our meat intensive diets, etc) of the average African.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 8:11pm Report Abuse

AP wrote:

The tragedy of Africa and Asia, or the gluttony of North America is another series of columns. While North America adopted Manifest Destiny and decide to break everything in its path (including nature), Africa and Asia became their own worst enemies, with lots of aid from colonialsim.

Noel - I agree with 75% of all the things that you say, and live my own life with those same principle. My pantry always overflows with recycling, I take the transit to work and enjoy it and my vehicle gets an average of 12000 km per year which is less than half of the driving the average Calgarian does.

As a person with libertarian political views, what I take issue with is someone choosing to impose their way of life on others. I realize that you see it as educating the rest of us, but sometimes, it comes across that given the choice, you would impose those views on us. To put it in perspective, I would take as much offence to someone suggesting that we all become vegetarians as I would to someone suggesting that all vegetarians support our cattle industry and start eating meat.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 8:49pm Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

Well AP from a Libertarian point of view how would you deal with a technology that is doing irreparable damage to the earth? Does your philosophy require you to not intervene in another's choices? What if you can demonstrate that their choice impacts the ability of others to make free choices? My argument is that with cars we have such a situation. The right of some to buy and drive cars and demand not only the freedom to do so but that the government, (all of us collectively ) provide the infrastructure to allow it, means that those who cannot for many reasons - too young, too old, disabled or poor - are left to fend in cities hostile to those without cars.

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 9:56pm Report Abuse

AP wrote:

My alternative would be a multipronged approach:

Understand the ground realities of the people and the culture. Much like invading a middle eastern dictatorship with a long history of stong, brutal and centralized rulers to impose democracy on them will not work, neither will telling an entire group of people that their way of life is completely wrong (no matter how wrong it actually is) be accepted gracefully.

Alberta is a prairie culture where the residents were used to open spaces and driving long distances between towns and farms. The idea of physical distance between neighbours and a piece of land along with some horses and cattle (now cars and trucks) to call their own has been ingrained here for generations. In fact, the idea of own a piece of their own land has been important to humanity for several millenia.

So the give them alternatives that meet their lifestyle (more fuel efficient vehicles, hybrid vehicles, vehicles made of more recycled materials.

Provide incentives for purchasing smaller / more energy efficient vehicles.

Follow the example of New Zealand and legislate minimum emission and fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, old and new. Mandate that all vehicles above a certain number of years will be inspected annually.

Encourage more public transit usage (which has been covered already in your column) with heavy tax incentives. In Alberta, money talks really really loudly (unfortunately lounder than reason at times).

Redesign the city so that instead of having a single core, there are multiple cores and centres. Calgary is already getting to be a city where a person can go home after work and not leave their neighbourhood because everything from pubs to chain stores are in their neighbourhood. And some large companies are also moving into sub-urbia for cheaper rent.

And if inner city living is being encouraged, make it affordable and attractive - because the East village is not finacially attractive to most people in this city. Why would they pay $5K for a 2 bedroom condo if they can buy a 3 bedroom house with a yard 20 km away for the same price? And as raised in your last column, would most single parents with limited incomes be even be allowed to look in the direction of the East village?

And build bike trails and lanes (like Calgary is doing). But also make bikers take a course and pass a test if they are going to be sharing the road with vehicles. That is only fair since I had to take one when I got my motorbike licence. It is for everyone's safety including theirs, and that of the pedestrian they share the trails with.

And understand that what we have is what others want. People in India and China don't have cars, not because they don't want it, but because they can't afford it. Hence, the Tata Nano being built in a country that has more bikes and other non-motorized forms of transport than all of North America..

on Feb 7th, 2013 at 10:48pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Thanks for info leads.

Going back to Noel's article, two things are very clear.

First, the solution is always the same: freedom of choice must somehow be removed from the individual and entrusted to the state. If households spend on autos, they are obviously making the wrong choice and that money must be taken from them and "somehow put the savings toward public transit". Even AP who holds "libertarian political views" falls into this trap: " ... provide incentives ... legislate ... mandate ... heavy tax incentives ...". This must be some new definition of libertarian.

Second, most individuals are stupid: " ... entrenched behaviour, misplaced desire, ignorance of the alternatives, and lack of political leadership ...". Only the cognoscenti have the right answers. The rest of us must be taxed & regulated into submission, we must be worked harder and longer, and we must be educated. But I see no education, no critical thought: I see only advocacy, propaganda, and scare mongering. And flashbacks to Mao and the Gang of Four and re-education camps. With regard to political leadership, the message is clear that democracy, where the elected representatives represent, is not acceptable: a totalitarian state where the leadership "molds" an enslaved population into the leaderhip's utopia is the ideal.

And third (I don't count so good!), " ... population is a core issue ..." So what's the problem with 1.3 million auto accident deaths? Too many people still alive? You do not want deaths by automobile, but the message is that if we don't get rid of a lot of people, disaster is upon us. Ehrlich deja vu? "In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death ..." including running out of natural gas in about 1980 and 60 million Americans starving to death by 2000. Yup, Apocalypse Now. Let's put another knot in your shorts: the countries with the greatest numbers of cars per person tend to have the lowest numbers of auto accident deaths per person ... so the solution is to have more cars? One final shot, this one from Free the Children: "One million, eight hundred thousand children die each year because of polluted water." I guess that helps to keep the population down too, huh?

on Feb 8th, 2013 at 3:44pm Report Abuse

rube wrote:

So we've established (in the last thread) that Clairvoyant is an amoral car salesman who values convenience over other people's lives, and that Noel is a fascist who wants to murder children with water pollution.

I love informed debate.

on Feb 8th, 2013 at 5:53pm Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

Good night. See you in two weeks.

on Feb 9th, 2013 at 9:16am Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Nah, nah, nah. I am not a car salesman. Since I work in the fossil fuels industry, I must be a Sauron worshipping orc of Mordor, right? Our sins are many: we provide the electricity & heat for hospitals (and the diesel for the emergency backup generators), and the electrictiy & heat for schools, even universities, and the electricity & heat for people's homes, and the gasoline & diesel for their cars, and the plastics for their computers, and and and, and our greatest sin of all is that we provide the fertilizers that feed Borlaug's plants that feeds a couple of billion people. Yes, we workers in the fossil fuel industry have many sins, but we have some redeeming features: we provide the natural gas to heat Al Gore's pool's house, and we provide the jet fuel so that David Suziki can give his $30,000 lectures.

on Feb 11th, 2013 at 12:24pm Report Abuse

rube wrote:

@Clairvoyant: Point was that both statements were equally ridiculous ad-homs, not that either was true. As you say, I'm typing this on a computer that's made of plastic and running on electricity--can't really trash-talk oil and gas.

on Feb 11th, 2013 at 7:07pm Report Abuse

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