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 .