Gracious reader, do me a kindness and perform a mental backflip and please read about this loaded topic with a fresh mind. I want to use chess logic to look at the problem of how to move people around a city effectively.
Preferring one chess piece to another is a terrible weakness in a chess player–the only goal is to get checkmate first, and every move serves only this prime directive. Moving people around a city is to transporation what checkmate is in chess.
The goal is not to only serve one kind of commuter, it’s to accommodate the needs of everyone in the city, and get them moving in a way that fits their lifestyle. The point isn’t to move cars around, it’s to move people.
I’d like to describe the benefits and the drawbacks of cars and bikes with these criteria in mind.
Benefits of Cars
Cars are excellent for long-distance trips that take you exactly from point A to point B. Nothing beats a car for this.
Cars easily transport heavy and oddly shaped things. And people!
They are great for those with mobility issues.
Once you buy winter tires and adjust how you drive on icy roads, it’s definitely good to be in a car on a cold winter day. Though accidents do increase, too.
Cars can transport people without them expending any physical energy.
Cars have good or sometimes great stereo speakers.
When the roads are open, and the gas tank is full, and you’re with a good buddy on a nice drive, it’s fun! These conditions are rare, though.
Drawbacks of Cars
To fuel a car, you need to find, extract and process oil. Fuel is expensive, and relying on it signifcantly damages the planet. Continually adding new cars to regions that didn’t have many cars before, or to ones that always did, is unsustainable.
Physically, cars take up a lot of space! You can park about 10 bikes in the space it takes to park one car. There is only a finite amount of space on the road and in the city, all of it at a premium, and much of it is taken up by cars and roads. Toronto must have millions of cars in it…how many square metres of road do we have? How many square metres of car? In a crude, basic sense, the physical space cars take up is a big problem.
The public infrastructure to support privately-owned cars is expensive: road signs, parking policemen’s salary, road upkeep/maintenance, new roads…(john tory is spending billions of dollars to fix a 1.6 km stretch of the Gardiner, all to shorten commuters’ drive by 2 minutes.)
Highways act like great psychological barriers–You can be on Front Street and feel very far away from Lake Ontario because a highway separates you from the water. Highways bissect neighbourhoods and have major real estate implications: look what a house costs on the east versus the west side of the Allen Road.
Cars also kill lots of people. I have a good buddy who died in a car crash (actually, Yale died 17 years ago today. RIP, love you forever!). 30,000+ Americans die every years in car crashes. What other thing this fatal do we actively embrace like this?
People pave their front lawn to make space for their car to just sit there. A car is the only form of transportation you need to pay for even when you’re not using it–insurance, parking fees, buying a driveway/parking pad.
Driving makes us angry! There is even a specific term for it, “road rage.”
The very presence of cars scares people, especially kids and seniors. Nobody ever had a more relaxed time because cars were nearby whizzing by them.
The Benefits of Bikes
Bikes are wildly inexpensive. There is no fuel charge, no parking fees, no insurance. They cost a few hundred dollars, and you can either repair/maintain them inexpensively or even learn to do it yourself for free, or for the cost of parts.
Biking is healthy. You get jacked from it! Stay fit.
Biking is safe (half truth–biking is safe, only not near cars! It’s the cars that aren’t safe for bikes). The only reason helmets are necessary is because cars are everywhere.
It’s easy to sidestep obstacles on a bike that a car cannot, usually other cars. What is to the driver an infuriating bottleneck barely slows a cyclist down. I don’t mean cyclists should rapidly weave in and out of cars–you can cycle around and between them very slowly, and when cars are stuck in gridlock, it feels very fast!
Bikes are actually a very fast way to get around town. Many people tend to think of distances in terms of how long it takes to drive there, which may or may not factor in traffic. Cycling is usually slower, sometimes way slower, but sometimes faster. Especially if you factor in the search for parking.
Cycling is continuous. Driving is usually agonizingly stop-start, stop-start, but biking you mostly keep going forward. I’m not talking about barrelling through reds: if there’s a red far away, just slow down a bit and it’ll be green when you get there.
Cycling introduces you to nooks and crannies of your city you have never seen. When people drive, they take the major roads with good flow they’re familiar with. Cycling is the opposite: you just head in a general direction and go where it’s quiet and safer…you’ll find cool new places!
Drawbacks of Bikes
Unless you have an attachment or a hitch, you can’t transport people or very much weight on a bike. I bring a napsack to the grocery store, but I’m not buying food for a family.
Distance: Unless you’re Josh Kaminsky’s father, you can’t ride a bike to Muskoka.
Adverse weather: Montreal does have harsher winters than Toronto, but they plow their bike lanes and people ride 12 months a year. If you have rugged wheels and a rugged soul, you can ride in winter. Most people don’t, for understandable reasons.
Theft: Bikes get stolen. I mean, cars do too. But bike theft is a bitch.
Sweat: If you’re biking to work, or to an interview, a date, etc., you don’t want to get there sweaty.
Cyclists annoy drivers: bikes don’t inherently piss off drivers, it’s only because Toronto doesn’t have one physically separated bike lane (ie, we don’t have one real bike lane), and drivers want to get to where they’re going without feeling like they might kill someone.
Every method of transportation has a role to play in a city’s transporation network. In just the way you can’t talk about the virtues of a bishop without talking about how it teams up with the other pieces, it’s difficult to talk about these modes in isolation. There are also busses, subways, streetcars, LRTs, etc.
If anything is to be emphasized here, it’s the underlying perspective of this conversation needs to change from ‘WAR ON THE CAR’ hysteria to what is actually good and bad about each method. What I’ve written here is off the top of my head, and obviously it’s basic.
Transportation decisions should be made by cool detached reason and evidence; our decisions shouldn’t be hijacked by the road lobby or the car lobby, or their seductive mythology and propaganda that has already taken root in people’s minds. Post-WWII North American cities were designed for a world that (wrongly!!) assumed cars weren’t bad for the enviroment, and that everyone could drive one on perpetually unclogged streets.
There will always be cars. It’s impossible to have everyone on a bike, and not even the most militant cyclist is asking for that! There will always be way more drivers than cyclists. That isn’t the point.
We need a mayor that pushes for attractive alternatives to driving: if the only way to get around a city is to own a car, it’s not affordable, accessible, or healthy. The impasse is this: “I have to drive because Toronto has no good public transit option,” a decision which then incentivizes more subsidies for drivers and less for public transit, and thus perpetuates the problem.
Give people good options–clean, inexpensive, and rapid public transit; safe bike lanes–and some drivers will decide through cost-benefit analysis that driving is no longer worth it for them anymore. When this happens, drivers will see reduced traffic and no bikes to contend with, and everyone will be happy!
More urgently, cyclists and pedestrians are dying, more of them die each year. It’d be nice to have a mayor who prioritized keeping everybody alive over saving drivers’ two minutes of their day.