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Why Crowley has it wrong on cars, freedom, and public transit


In Wednesday's Globe and Mail, Brian Lee Crowley of the MacDonald Laurier Institute produced what he called a “homage to the (undeservedly) hated car”. In it, he reproduced a number of standard shibboleths against what he sees as “the paternalistic philosophy of centralized urban planning that has infected city halls in virtually every major city in the country” determined to get people out of their cars.

At the heart of his claims is an argument that the development of low-density, car-dominated suburbs has been driven by an individual desire for more space, bigger houses, and the like. Consequently the support for public transport, cycling and pedestrian provision appear to Crowley as attempts at social engineering to make people do what they don’t really want to. They also appear to be highly expensive, things that need subsidy to survive.  It’s an argument that hammers home the notion that there is a “war on the car”.

The problem is the history of car-dominated urban development largely discredits this tired contrast between “centralized urban planning” and the plucky, freedom-desiring car owner. In fact, low-density, car-oriented suburbs have been produced mostly by planning itself and the politics underpinning it.

In most North American cities, urban development has been driven by the interests of the property developers. They bought up (and still do) large tracts of farmland around cities and towns, at low rural prices, lobbied heavily to get them zoned for residential construction, and realised enormous profits as they turned them into low-density suburbs. They have long been, and remain to this day, by far the principal financial contributors to municipal politicians’ electoral campaigns, and make sure that councils remain favourable to these interests.

At the same time, the automobile interests have lobbied hard since the 1920s to undermine public transit interests. At times, they have simply bought up streetcar and bus companies, and over time shut them down. More generally, they manage to work with the property developers to ensure that urban development is organised around this stable relationship between the car and the suburb.

Crowley is correct that in this situation, cars appear more “rational” to many people than public transit, but he is wrong that the situation arose because those people “chose” it. One piece of evidence ought to be regarded as crucial here: I think it was Jane Jacobs who pointed out that if everyone wants to live in the suburbs, why are house prices in downtown areas so much higher than in the suburbs? The basic logic of supply and demand ought to mean the reverse would be the case if Crowley were correct about the suburbs being so attractive.

Part of Crowley’s problem here is a failure to recognise that most of us are ambivalent about the car -- not resolutely for or against it. If you ask people whether they want a large detached house on a large lot, and a nice car to drive, they may well say yes. But if you ask whether they want their kids to be able to walk or bike to school, have shops and other services close by, and a good transit stop to take them close to work so they can read, daydream, or snooze while going, they will also say yes. Unfortunately, it is not possible to have both. 

There is no “war on the car” at the moment. Substantial parts of municipal and provincial budgets are still devoted to road construction and maintenance, and provision for the car remains dominant in public spending priorities for transport. Of course, the arguments that Crowley and others give regarding the “expensive” character of public transport subsidies ignore entirely this massive subsidy to the car every time a road is built, widened, repaved, or even has its snow cleared.

And they also ignore that the low-density suburban development is itself extremely expensive to taxpayers. Every house built out in the suburbs is subsidized by taxpayers in downtown and older urban neighourhoods, because the costs of providing water, hydro, schools, telephone, gas, and more are considerably higher in such low-density contexts. In Ottawa, for example, households inside the greenbelt pay on average $1,035 more in taxes than the cost of providing them services, while urban houses outside the greenbelt pay $70 less than that cost, according to the city’s consultants.

Accompanying Crowley's fundamentally false statements is a failure to take seriously the many real problems that are demonstrably associated with car-dominated urban development. From their being the principal source of early death in most rich countries, to climate change, to urban air pollution causing asthma and other serious health problems, to the costs to taxpayers of low-density development, Crowley ignores these issues, and as such fails to offer even a serious defence of the car.

Ultimately, the choice is not, as Crowley would have us believe, a spurious one between planning and freedom, but about what type of planning we want for what type of future. The really important word is perhaps “we” here –- this is an inevitably collective exercise, about the type of society we want collectively to live in, not what I personally want to do here and now. And those choices need to be informed by serious conversations about the constraints –- financial, social, environmental -– that any such decisions involve. 

Matthew Paterson is Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.  He is author of Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy. His most recent book is Climate capitalism: global warming and the transformation of the global economy (with Peter Newell)

Photo: Danielle Scott. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.