Paying the price for car culture

by Raymond Parker on September 27, 2010

in Advocacy, Climate, Cycling, Environment, Health

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” ~Albert Einstein

Last weekend, the Vancouver Sun carried a column by Don Cayo, guaranteed to stir controversy: “Bikes versus cars: Who pays their fair share for Vancouver’s roads?”

The debate in the Web version comments followed the usual fractious course, with cyclists agreeing and drivers rejecting the author’s thesis that motorists are subsidized.

Earlier in the week, after Cayo announced on his blog that he was preparing the article, I forwarded him a link to my blog post on the issue: a letter published in the Victoria Times Colonist, with linked resources to counter the bogus “cyclists don’t pay for roads” saw.

Included in those resources is Todd Litman’s excellent study, “Whose Roads?” which Cayo references in the Sun piece. (I’m not claiming I was the source for Cayo’s ammo; anyone who researches the subject would likely bump into Litman’s work, as I did in 2009, when I prepared my page).

What Cayo’s article omitted was discussion of the greater costs of our car addiction: the massive toll on human health and the environment that is reaching critical mass.

We see often, in response to this issue, how vehemently people cling to the idea that we should be building bigger, better roads to accommodate the growth of car dependency (the loosening of the belt to fit an expanding waistline argument) rather than “wasting money” on bike lanes and public transport.

In August, we saw in China—where personal automobile use is exploding as its once legendary bicycle community is forced to the margins—the ultimate illustration of this theory in action, when a 100 kilometer-long traffic jam clogged a major Beijing arterial for eleven days!

Meanwhile, the immediate carnage that we have somehow normalized is played out in emergency rooms and morgues around the world, while more subtle but no less dangerous “externalities” affect ecology, from local systems to global atmospheric events.

Each morning, on television screens from Vancouver to New York, talking heads and helicopters take to the airwaves to monitor the great crawling commute, and report the inevitable collisions and bottlenecks. What an amazing waste of resources and misdirection of energy.

The bicycle is by no means the complete answer to the dead end we’ve driven into, but it’s surely no part of the debt car culture imposes on this and future generations.

What do you think? How do we break the backup?

Whose Roads? Todd Litman (pdf) | Don Cayo’s blog

{ 5 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

Susanna Grimes September 27, 2010 at 5:02 pm

It makes sense for society to share the burden of certain costs (both financial and otherwise) that provide an indirect benefit to society or help a disadvantaged minority, but the collective subsidy of the automobile industry and personal automobile ownership is destructive, unintelligent and grossly unjust.

What will it take to change this? Total cost accounting and then shifting the costs of things that harm society, to those directly responsible, or who are benefiting.


Harold Bridge September 27, 2010 at 9:12 pm

As a pessimist I think it is too late to bother about saving the planet. We have screwed it up already. Current disasters all around the world, including on our own back door, are the prelude to the coming Armageddon. (“Armageddon outta of here” – per Spike Miliigan)

For myself I don’t give a damn, but I have wonderful grandchildren. I grew up with BBC, no commercials, came on at 17:00 and shut down at 22:00. Got all the entertainment, curent affairs, and culture I could absorb. But we paid a licence fee for that privledge.

The idea of “free TV” is a confidence trick. Someone cleverer than me could probably work out how much power is wasted on Commercial TV.


"Kapitan" September 27, 2010 at 9:27 pm

As long as the corporations can turn a profit from the present system nothing will change for the better. They like it the way it is (“Keep buying more stuff!”). I also think it’s in our nature as a species to be culturally conservative as an adaptive behaviour. We’ve become hard-wired to continue to use existing systems until they are well and truly broken before we are forced to come up with an alternative. Not nearly enough folk are going to willingly give up their motor vehicles to make a difference.

As Ray alluded to above, it’s now down to China (and India) to determine the future of our culture. So far they’re doing a lousy job due, in part, because they learned it from us in North America and Europe. And still we continue to repeat those same old behaviours, somehow expecting a different result. In spite of all our ‘green’ talk, I was aghast this summer at the new widening of the Trans-Can Hwy that’s currently underway from Vancouver to as far east as Chilliwack now.

The only solution I can see (other than a complete implosion of ‘the world as we know it’) is to face up to the necessity of limiting growth. Sadly, I don’t think this is likely to happen because it is anathema to our existing economic system. But coming up against the limits to growth is inevitable and will occur just before the implosion that brings it all to a shuddering halt. I expect that our descendants will undergo a kind of cultural “Dark Age” before they discover the wherewithal to start over. Maybe they’ll get it right next time!


John Grogan September 28, 2010 at 9:26 am

Voluntary Simplicity…
Live simply, so that others may simply live!


Raymond Parker September 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Very interesting and thoughtful comments, guys. If you haven’t already (it sounds like you may have) you should read John Gray’s Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions.

Be prepared for an unflinching look at our predicament.

Also recommend his False Dawn–widely sneered at when it first came out in ’98–now looks prophetic (I remember one young “winger” economics wag sneering when he saw it in my hands).

Nice day today. Recommend a brisk ride or walk in the park 🙂


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