Confessions of a suburban environmentalist

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I drive.

I ride my bike to most places, including work, yoga and to run errands. I take the bus downtown – followed by the metro and sometimes another bus, depending on where I am going. Yet, there are times when I don’t have an hour to get to my yoga class, or when my two destinations are more than 15km apart, impossible to get to without taking at least two buses. So, on these rare occasions, I borrow the car.

I try not to. As someone who is passionate about moving society away from single-occupancy vehicle commutes, I am critical of our auto-centric lifestyle. I often sit in the bus and look out the window at all the people sitting in their cars alone, dreaming of how fast I would get home if all these people were on a bus. I think about how we need more reserved bus lanes, so that the buses can zoom through, uninhibited by traffic. I dream of widespread rail with frequent service.

The truth is that I live in an environment where most people drive; it is arguably a necessity. Destinations are far from each other and homes are further still. Moreover, many residents commute daily to a job downtown. The urban form does not help. My suburb is cut in three, once by a highway and once again by a highway/railroad combination. Further still, public transportation is minimal, with infrequent (often unreliable) service. For instance, my job is just a 10-minute drive away, but can take an hour door-to-door by public transit – that is, when I time my trip carefully enough to make the bus that comes once every 30 to 40 minutes, if at all (see “Two-oh-once-in-awhile” in an early blog post). It takes about 25 minutes to bike, which I usually do, but this involves crossing both highways and the railroad tracks.

Nearly 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in Montreal are attributable to transportation and automobiles pollute the air we breathe, but (unfortunately) driving remains the most practical means of travel in low-density, single-use environments. You can enter your car in the driveway and drive to your destination where a large parking lot awaits you. Simple. Along the way there are few stops, as the blocks are long (unfriendly to pedestrians who must often “jaywalk” because the next crosswalk is a half a kilometre away). Few people walk or bike to get around, as distances are too lengthy and the urban form offers little shelter from wind, rain or cold. Further, buildings have large set-backs to allow for ample parking, adding distance to trips made by foot.

The automobile is entrenched in the suburban way of life. At my yoga practice last week, the instructor opened the class by saying, “Relax, take a deep breath, forget about your drive here”. When I listen to the radio, I hear updates on driving conditions, but rarely on buses, metros or trains, or the conditions of sidewalks and bicycle paths. We keep the roads cleared in the winter, but not always the sidewalks or bike lanes. I watch the morning news and the host complains about midday traffic downtown. We accept that to live in the suburbs a car is necessary instead of considering mobility necessary and adjusting land use and transportation networks to facilitate mobility.

Car commercials

I find car commercials fascinating. While the average car is used daily to trudge through traffic on the highway during rush hour to get to work, where it remains parked until it trudges back through traffic to sit in a driveway overnight, commercials focus on images of drivers escaping the city. Usually these commercials feature one car (with one driver, or a family), driving quickly along on a wide country road, uninhibited. One good example is the recent commercial where a man defies his GPS, turning right when she says to turn left and driving into what appears to be a desert. While cars are intended to increase mobility, drivers often come to a grinding halt alongside the large number of other drivers seeking this same mobility and freedom. André Gorz, a French philosopher and journalist, discusses this idea in his 1973 work The Social Ideology of the Motor Car. He emphasizes that cars are luxury goods insofar as they loose their value as soon as everyone (“the masses”) have one. Thus, you will never see a car commercial that depicts cars stuck in traffic on a highway during rush hour, although this best reflects reality.

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8 thoughts on “Confessions of a suburban environmentalist

  1. Nathan

    how about the car commercials that feature empty cities where the drivet can just zip through downtown without anyone getting in his way? a twenty five minute bike ride is nothing with property infrastructure and honestly it would take even less time if that infrastructure were there.. what blows my mind is that through most people agree time is money they don’t how biking faves you time and money because you get exercise and get to your destination simultaneously, not to
    mention

    Reply
      1. Devon Paige Post author

        Ya – I think in Canada it is something like $8,000 per year, on average to drive + maintain a car.
        I completely agree re: cycling. In one of my papers, I likened cycling to public transit in the sense that people can multitask. In the bus, you can make calls, read, study, apply makeup… and while you are cycling, you are transporting yourself and getting your daily exercise.

    1. Devon Paige Post author

      I think that is such an interesting problem to deal with.
      People equate car ownership with being stable and having enough money.
      We need for people to feel wealthy and successful and to keep walking and cycling and taking transit, if that is an option for them.

      Reply

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