This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2009


Tim FalconerWebsite

Tim Falconer, author of Drive: A Road Trip through Our Complicated Affair with the Automobile proposes a 12-step program for breaking our addiction to cars

As individuals and as a society, we love our automobiles — even as we hate how they screw up our planet, our cities, and our lives. Environics Research Group, a Toronto based research firm, found that 32 percent of Canadians see their wheels as an extension or reflection of their style and image. For the other 63 percent, it’s an appliance, a tool used to get from A to B. Recreational driving may seem, in an age of climate change, to be a destructive past-time. But the auto collectors and recreational drivers aren’t the problem, just as connoisseurs of fine wine, who prize quality over quantity, aren’t necessarily problem drinkers. It’s the people who drive (or drink) all the time — mindlessly, compulsively, because they can’t help themselves — who do the real damage to themselves and others. That’s addiction — and collectively, we’re pretty close to hitting bottom. The automobile has wasted our time, choked our air, and destroyed many downtowns while spurring sprawl in the suburbs. Obviously, cars aren’t about to go away completely (though we can certainly hope they change dramatically over the next few years). But let’s never forget: the fault, dear drivers, lies not in our cars, but in ourselves.

As with all addictions, change will only occur if we want to change, both individually and collectively. This handy 12-step program for car dependency may help, but in the end only you can decide when it’s best to leave the keys at home and go another way.

Photo by Sergeo Syd

Photo by Sergeo Syd

1. Accept that we have a problem

Let’s be honest: cars are cool, sexy, and fun and provide us with speed, power, and freedom. Some of them offer gorgeous styling, luxurious comfort, and advanced engineering (not to mention great sound systems). And then there are the memories. Having suffered through the motion sickness of family road trips, we finally turn 16 and start hanging out in cars with friends, reveling in our first taste of freedom from our parents, and fumbling through early experiments with sex — good times many of us spend the rest of our lives wishing we could recapture. So cars come with a lot of positive baggage. But we’ve gone too far and designed our existence around the automobile. You may hear some dreamers talk about a car-free world (see page 16). Don’t believe them. Fortunately, breaking our addiction doesn’t have to mean never driving our wheels again — a recovering alcoholic may never be able to drink again, and people who’ve given up the cancer sticks may envy the social smokers, but being an occasional driver is nothing to be ashamed about.

2. Educate ourselves about the alternatives

Sometimes the car, a really convenient device, can’t be beat for getting around. In fact, there’s no better way to whisk a gaggle of kids and their oversized hockey bags to a far-flung arena. And while high-speed trains are long overdue in this country, you’ll still want to travel to cottages, campgrounds, and mountains. But if you never go anywhere unless it’s in a car, you need to consider walking, cycling, and public transit. Sure, buses can be crowded, inconvenient, and unreliable — I thought my wife, Carmen, had stood me up on our first date, though to this day she blames Ottawa’s OC Transpo for her tardiness — but they are also economical, encourage reading, and let you feel more virtuous. Of course, these alternatives only work in places where there are stores, restaurants, and other spots worth walking to, where cyclists can travel safely and where the population density is enough to support public transit. /// 3. Start with the moSt baSic Form oF traNSportatioN — walkiNg Aside from being the most pleasant places to live and encouraging other ways of getting around, walkable neighbourhoods create better communities. It’s no coincidence that Calgary is both the most sprawled and the most conservative large city in Canada, while the two densest big cities south of the border — New York and San Francisco — are the most liberal American ones. When we live in sprawl and spend so much time cooped up in our cars, we develop strange notions about life. But when we walk around our neighbourhood we soon discover that other races, religions and socio-economic classes aren’t scary after all. Sprawl stokes fear; density fosters tolerance.

4. Admit the harm our actions have on ourselves

Every year, 1.2 million people die on the world’s roads. But even when we survive our drive, sitting sedentary behind a steering wheel is no way to go through life. Drive-through windows at fast-food joints are just the beginning: there are now drive-through pharmacies, banks, and even libraries. Meanwhile, parenting has become little more than glorified chauffeuring as we raise a generation of kids who never walk anywhere.

5. understand the wrongs of the past

Urban sprawl — dominated by cloned homes, lowslung strip malls, and clogged arterial roads — forces people to drive more and makes no aesthetic, economic, or environmental sense. Among other sins, sprawl encourages drunk driving: partiers will take the car when they live so far from bars, restaurants, and friends’ homes that walking is too daunting, public transit is too incon-venient, and taking a cab is too expensive. Decades of short-sighted urban planning have put us in this mess, and fixing the problem will take time, but we need to start intensifying our neighbourhoods now.

6. Treat others as we would like to be treated

Sure, cruising down an open highway can be a blast, but lurching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic is no fun. A tense commute is, at best, dispiriting and exhausting; at worst, it can lead to road rage, which is an extension of the increase in aggressive driving (including following too closely, travelling at excessive speeds, weaving through traffic, running stop lights) and the decline in civility on the road.

We behave differently (read: more irrationally) when we’re behind the wheel of a car, which — especially if it’s a big SUV — can create a sense of isolation and invincibility. The anonymity of riding in a living room on wheels, an extension of the anonymity of suburban life, can weaken common sense and self-discipline so much that even upstanding citizens can act in ways they never would in a grocery store lineup. “Road-ragers are an unpredictable group,” Sgt. Cam Woolley, who recently retired from the Ontario Provincial Police, told me. “They’ve timed their commute down to the last second, and if anybody goes too slow or doesn’t drive the way they’d like, they go nuts.”

7. Don’t be part of the problem

The typical commute has lengthened substantially — to more than an hour for the average round trip in Canada — as people seek cheaper homes and larger lawns. This is not just bad for air quality, it’s bad for quality of life. You’ve probably heard drivers rationalize that their commute is their only alone time: a chance to think, to listen to their favourite music, or to simply enjoy some rare silence. But if you’re like me, you want to yell, “Get a life, pal.”

8. When you must drive, do it well

Bad driving doesn’t just cause more collisions, it exacerbates congestion and increases commute times. Even a bad lane change can slow down everyone behind you. To Carlos Thomas, who runs Shifters, a school for drivers who want to learn the joys of stick shifts, the two biggest mistakes we make are not looking far enough ahead and following too closely. “The most common crash is the rear-end collision,” according to Thomas, “and it’s the most easily preventable crash.” Paradoxically, the easiest way to avoid smashing into the car in front of you is to look well ahead. When you tailgate you can’t see as far down the road so you miss advance warnings that you need to hit the brakes, and when you don’t look down the road you’re more likely to tailgate because it’s so easy to become fixated on the bumper in front of you. Seeing is crucial: Thomas says weak observation skills lead to poor lane changes, bad turns, loss of control in slippery conditions, and failure to recover after losing control. The other danger of becoming fixated on that bumper ahead is that your mind begins to wander and too often that ends badly.

Most tailgaters are cocky enough to believe they’ll have no trouble stopping in time, but the dynamics of traffic are more complex than most of us realize. In Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), author Tom Vanderbilt explains what happened when seven cars had to stop suddenly on a Minneapolis highway: the seventh car crashed into the sixth because the third car reacted too slowly — it didn’t hit the second car, but it reduced the stopping time available to those behind it. As Vanderbilt points out, tailgaters “increase their risk not only of striking the vehicle they’re following but of being struck by the car following them.”

9. Make amends to the planet

Given that we’ve located planets in distant solar systems, mapped the human genome, and put an iPod in every pocket, the inability of automakers to come up with something better than the internal combustion engine suggests they haven’t tried that hard. They’re paying for it now, but we’re going to have to pony up more than bailout money. For environmental — and geopolitical — reasons, North Americans need a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Aside from being the simplest and fairest way to make the most egregious energy gluttons pay the most, the behavioural changes would be dramatic: we would drive less often, buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and insist automakers build cleaner vehicles. After the last election, the nation’s punditry pronounced the idea rejected once and for all, but what the voters really balked at was Stéphane Dion. True, there was little enthusiasm for his “Green Shift,” but the hopeless Liberal leader showed he couldn’t sell cheap gas on a long weekend in the summer. If we’re lucky, a more talented politician will prove more adept because the capand-trade schemes favoured by the Obama and Harper regimes are, as Paul Wells, the country’s smartest and funniest pundit (faint praise, I realize), described them, “massively interventionist, cumbersome, harrowingly difficult to design, prone to loopholes and investor confusion, destined to take forever to implement.” While writing about this on Inkless Wells, his blog at, he also asked: “If you believe climate change is real and catastrophic; that human agency can inflect its course; that Canada has something to contribute to the search for a solution; and that dawdling is no longer permissible — then what better idea do you have?”

10. Renounce free parking

When I’m hunting for a place to leave my car — all the while burning fossil fuels and adding to the traffic congestion — it never occurs to me how much space cities devote to parking. But the typical driver has a spot at home, one at work (usually bigger than the cubicle he or she spends all day in), and shared spaces everywhere, including at malls, churches, and fairgrounds. Spoiled by abundant free parking, we resist paying for it, hate looking for it, and, most of all, dread tickets. As Donald Shoup, America’s parking guru, told me, “Everybody thinks parking is a personal problem, not a policy problem.” But everybody is wrong.

A professor at UCLA’s urban planning department and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup has a growing band of followers who call themselves Shoupistas even though the market-oriented policies he advocates could best be summed up by the battle cry, “Charge whatever the traffic will bear.” Shoup, who rides a bike two miles to campus, is convinced that free parking is unattractive, expensive (subsidizing it costs the U.S. economy more than Medicare), and encourages driving: “Parking is the single biggest land use in almost any city, and almost everybody has ignored it.” California adopted Shoup’s proposal that companies that pay for employees’ parking had to offer the cash equivalent to non-parkers. After the law passed, 13 per cent of workers took the money (most switched to car pools or public transit, though a few started cycling or walking). The harm free parking does feeds on itself: all that land dedicated to parking, which often sits empty for much of the day, increases sprawl, and that sprawl makes alternatives such as public transit and walking less feasible, which forces more people into cars, which increases the need for more parking. And so on.

11. Embrace road pricing

Although all drivers can figure out what they pay for gas, insurance, and other car-related expenses, and some may even put a value on their time, few ever think about the public cost of traffic. London has the world’s most famous congestion charge, a measure introduced by “Red Ken” Livingstone, the now former mayor. Although the aims of road pricing are largely progressive, it still remains a fundamentally market driven policy. Such policies were actually debated, decades ago, by the likes of Alan Walters, who went on to be chief economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher. These thinkers realized that when we travel a crowded road, we don’t consider the price we impose on others when we slow them down. By paying tolls, we face the true cost of our decision, reducing demand and increasing the efficiency of the roads. This makes far more sense than simply building more roads, which just attracts more traffic anyway.

12. Spread the gospel (and practice what we preach)

Although we should push the carmakers — and our politicians, who now own a chunk of them — to come up with more fuel-efficient products, even the cleanest vehicles will do nothing to fix sprawl. So we need to convince developers, politicians, and urban planners that we actually want to live in mixed-use walkable neighbourhoods. We can do that by moving to such places. And we must encourage walking, cycling, public transit, and car sharing, for ourselves and for others. Our credo should be: driving, if necessary, but not necessarily driving.

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