It’s hard to describe just how much space cars take up because we’re so accustomed to them. Mammoth parking lots in a housing crisis don’t make sense, but they’re everywhere. It should strike people as wrong that property is valued by the square foot, but the city hands out countless sports for free parking.
In a very basic sense, let’s just talk about the figures. Toronto is 630 kilometres squared. Stats Can only has stats on how many vehicles are in Ontario, not Toronto. Estimates peg the total at 0.9-1.5 per household—needless to say, there are well over one million cars on Toronto roads. The average car is, say, 15 feet long, 6 feet wide. But you can’t just park cars tip to tip, so they essentially require more space they actually take up.
When driving, cars require an even buffer around them. Take the physical space on either side of a car that needs to be void for the driver to feel comfortable passing through—that’s a car’s real width. In other words, a 6-foot wide car is in effect 8-feet wide, or wider.
Imagine how much accustomed we are to sacrificing space on our lawns (driveways, parking pads), or even building structures specifically to house cars (garages). Cars take up so much room at both ends of their drive. They go from one designated spot to another, which means every every trip requires a special accommodation at each end, which usually results in a huge oversupply or undersupply of parking.
No place can always supply just the right amount of parking! If stadiums have sufficient spots for the game, they have way too much parking 98% of the time. Malls have enough parking for Boxing Day, which happens once a year, if ecommerce hasn’t made parking unnecessary. Downtown only has so many parking spots available because that’s where most of the stuff in the city is, so when there’s a big night on the town, there likely are way too few spots. There should be a parking shortage, in other words.
Stable harmony is hard to come by because cars come in spurts of waves, not constant waves. There’s morning and afternoon rush hour and, say, a Jay’s game bringing thousands of commuters some days but not others.
The physicality of cars themselves are the reason cars clog cities. There’s no way for cars to at once be in the world and yet not take up space in it. There’s no way for over a million cars to be in the city without sacrificing the space over a million cars take up. Remember, a car’s footprint is magnitudes larger than the car’s size!
I just read an article saying the average Canadian spends 3 days in traffic a year. A year is 365 days, so this is approaching 1% of life. Billions get drained in lost productivity because we are scrunched between cars and cannot get away from the other cars on the road to our destination.
Every driver imagines a rout with no cars on it, then they’re shocked, shocked, when the roads are filled with cars. They act like bad traffic is a surprise even though gridlock is expected to the point reporters specifically report on traffic! That there is such thing as a “traffic reporter” is an indictment of car culture we’ve come to accept. It’s proof cars as a mode of transportation are an utter failure.
No amount of tinkering with traffic lights will solve gridlock because the problem is the number of cars, not how they move.
Induced demand is the idea that widening roads encourages more people to drive, which offsets any gains the additional space from the widened road once provided. Therefore, widening the roads is doomed to fail. You can’t widen roads forever not only because it doesn’t work, but because the city is only so big.
Something like 20% of Toronto is roads. A fifth of the city! At some point, a city needs stuff for the roads to lead to. It shouldn’t all be converted to roads. Which neighbourhoods get selected to be the site of new highways? Phrased this way, I suspect the answer is clear. That marginalized people are the first victim of car culture is true across America, Toronto, New Delhi, and beyond.
Low caste people get pushed aside to build a “flyover” in New Delhi just like Black neighbourhoods were razed to build highways post WWII. So it’s not just a question of how much space cars take up, but whose space it is.
If you look at the stark wealth divide on either side of the Allen in Toronto…I mean, it’s hard not to notice roads are pretty much a literal class barrier, or at least a demarcation of class. Even if you try to just talk about the space cars take up, eventually you need to talk about whose space it is, and it’s an unsettling conversation. It’s no coincidence that the first communities displaced for highways are also the least served by public transit.
Today, Toronto celebrates the public backlash that stopped developers from extending the Allen through Cedarvale and the Annex to connect with the lakefront highway, led by Jane Jacobs. This was of course a victory, but the shame is most neighbourhoods can’t similarly defend themselves.
Add up all the space taken up by roads, parking lots, driveways, parking pads, highways…no electric vehicle fixes the problem of how much space cars consume. As it’s said, if the future of cars is electric cars, the future of cities is car-free. We need to stop relying on cars and build infrastructure that assumes people won’t be driving.
Most drivers are in a car alone, while busses and streetcars take dozens of people. Sure, busses are fuller at some time than others, just like roads are full of cars at rush hour but are totally empty at other times.
But we need to move people, not cars. That’s what efficiency means. There’s nothing less efficient than making everyone effectively 4000 pounds, 6 feet wide and 15 feet long.
People are so attached to their car today because our brutally underfunded public transportation system isn’t reliable or pleasant. The cycle moves in both directions at the same time: because public transportation sucks, people all but need their own private vehicle to get around, and because so many people own a car, they’re happy we widen roads and neglect the TTC, even though a vastly improved and properly funded public transit, as well as safe active infrastructure, offers the freedom promised in car ads.
It’s understandable but sad how many people enjoy their alone time in their car, and see it as a calm period to listen to music, podcast or an audio book. I don’t mean to scold people who really like their car and enjoy this time! But they love their car the way a person in a storm loves their safe haven. Highways are the storm, not the haven, and this endless cycle of governments spending billions to make the storm worse, then people personally spending tens of thousands to find shelter from the storm, only perpetuates the problem.
So I get that in this obscenely car-dependent world you like your car, of course you do!
But if we can’t agree that cars with just a driver in them effectively make that single person 15 feet long and 6 feet wide and weigh about 4,000 pounds, and that it’s impossible to expect free-flowing roads when you do this to millions of people in the city simultaneously, we won’t be able to agree on anything.
As the popular adage goes, “cars aren’t in traffic; they are traffic.” Toronto doesn’t have space for this many cars and this many people and we need to choose. The choice should be an automatic slam dunk, but doug ford’s decision to enrich donors by increasing sprawl and paving over the Greenbelt is corrupt (that’s another article!), dangerous, braindead, and proves we’re going down the wrong road.