Hogging the road

I know that cars are sometimes useful because I don't drive. Most of the time, I have no need to — I live in a densely populated part of the city with lots of shops and amenities nearby. I can efficiently get to most places I want or need to go by walking, cycling, or transit. But a few times a year, I really could use access to a private vehicle. Maybe I want to buy and bring home a piece of furniture, or shop at a bulk discount store. Or I have plans to visit relatives in Mississauga, or go to a cottage up north for a weekend. Even if I can get part-way to the suburban or rural destination by train or bus, there's often a final leg of the journey that can't be done by anything other than a car. In these situations, I have to rely on someone to give me a drive.

The thing is, the cases where I really need a private vehicle are rare. That's the key issue with cars in our society. The car is a useful invention that makes certain kinds of trips vastly more efficient. But these practical situations aren't the primary way that we use cars. Instead, our society mostly uses cars for routine, single-person, single-destination trips, where they should not be necessary.

According to Statistics Canada, at least 56% of all Toronto commuters in 2006 got to work alone in a car. It gets worse in the suburbs, especially if you include non-commuting trips: a City of Toronto count the same year showed that 67% of all trips into Toronto were made in cars with a single occupant. As David Suzuki noted in Spacing's fall 2007 issue, "we're expending all this non-renewable energy to transport a person who might weigh 160 pounds. It's insane." Cars are rarely used to anywhere near their capacity for the transportation of people or goods, or even their capacity for speed.

This wasteful use of cars has resulted in negative effects on our environment, on our health, and on the way cities are built. To make our cities healthy and sustainable, we have to find ways to focus the use of cars on only those cases where they are really needed and are used to something closer to their full capacity.

The reasons for the over-use of the automobile are complex. A lot of the appeal is psychological, and studies are increasingly showing the degree to which psychology can trump rational economic calculation in humans. Cars serve as a major status symbol, and give people a sense of individual control