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COLUMN: Building our world around cars drives people mad

'By neglecting the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, we have allowed the car to declare war on itself,' says columnist
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A century ago, city streets were crowded with horse-drawn carts, wagons, carriages, and even buses.

Not surprisingly, the streets were also covered in horse droppings. The world's largest cities at the time — Paris, London, New York, etc. — were plagued with far more manure than local gardeners could use. 

Horses died “on the job” daily, their large bodies abandoned where they lay, adding to street “mess” and odour.

Early motorcars appeared against this background. Even a large car occupied less space on city streets than a horse-drawn vehicle. 

A car only needed “feeding” when it was used, and cost less to keep than horses.

I don’t know how much a carriage plus horses cost, so cannot compare this to buying a car in 1910. Of course, both transport options were only available to wealthy people. 

For decades, there were too few smelly exhausts to cause alarm while reduced urban crowding and horse droppings were a definite blessing.

Oldsmobile pioneered mass production in 1902, followed by Ford in 1913, making private cars more affordable. Suburbs appeared, originally serviced by electric street railways, or trams. Meanwhile, the private car began to reshape society by making suburbs more attractive places to live. 

As motor vehicles displaced horse-drawn vehicles, blacksmiths became repair shops. Roads were paved and gas stations appeared to fuel the revolution. Motor vehicles became ever more practical. 

In the United States, an “unholy alliance” was forged between General Motors, Firestone and Standard Oil, who bought the urban street railways and removed the rails. They replaced the trams with General Motors buses, rolling on Firestone tires and burning Standard Oil’s fuel.

Compared to the smooth, quiet electric tram, the 1940s bus was slow, noisy with an unpleasant ride. This drove people into car ownership. The “unholy alliance” couldn’t believe their luck – all those cars massively boosted profit.

Over the latter half of the 20th century, private car use soared – as did road congestion, particularly in and around cities. Anyone who has driven to or around Toronto knows that traffic congestion is a serious and unpredictable problem. Unfortunately, it's not getting better.

Toronto residents have some of the longest commutes in North America, mostly in cars. Eighty-five per cent of drivers are alone in the vehicle. Many people commute daily between Barrie and Toronto.

With an annual estimated cost of $3.3 billion to commuters (in 2014, so even more today), Toronto’s traffic congestion is an economic ($2.7 billion to the economy) problem, too, and that’s without considering the sanity of commuters forced to spend hours every day creeping through traffic.

In 2019, the Canadian Trucking Alliance estimated that traffic congestion cost the Canadian economy $166 billion a year – money which could be put to better use. According to the 2022 Global Traffic Scorecard by INRIX, a world leader in mobility analytics and connected car services, Toronto was reckoned to have the world’s seventh worst traffic.

Not surprisingly, cars have begun to resemble living rooms. If you sit in your car for two hours per day, you want comfortable seats – often more comfortable than the best chair at home. Some cars even offer massaging seats! Sound systems rival domestic installations. Hands-free cellphones are linked to the car’s sound system, allowing drivers to converse with business associates, friends or family.

Many politicians believe they can solve traffic problems by building more roads or widening existing ones. That approach has never worked. Roads attract cars — and motorists. Adding a third lane to a dual-lane highway simply persuades people to move to suburbs serviced by this road, rapidly generating traffic to fill the new lane.

An example is the M25 Motorway circling London, England. Proudly opened by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in October 1986, within a month this 200-kilometre ring road was experiencing major traffic jams and has suffered serious delays ever since.

The Economist reported: “It had taken 70 years to plan (the motorway), 12 to build it and just one to find it was inadequate."

Parts of this highway have been widened to deal with traffic volumes not anticipated for decades.

As everybody living in or near Toronto knows, Highway 401 is often blocked by serious traffic jams, despite expansion to six lanes (or more) in each direction. Originally designed to allowing through traffic to bypass the city, Toronto engulfed and surround the 401. Today, much of its traffic is local. 

Living in Barrie, I often wish that I could enter the 401 express lanes from the east or west and travel, unimpeded, across Toronto to the 400 or 404. I feel two express lanes should be reserved for through traffic, keeping madcap local Toronto traffic out. Then people and cargo trying to bypass Toronto could do so. 

Sixty years ago, I could leave my parents’ house in the centre of Montreal and be on a two-lane country road in 15 to 20 minutes. Today, getting out of Montreal often takes over an hour!

As suburbia spread, it became difficult to “escape” the modern metropolis. When I first arrived in Barrie in 1988, in the summer I could pedal my bicycle along Veterans Drive to Innisfil Beach Road, where I worked opposite the racetrack. As new houses were built around Barrie, traffic increased to the point where that trip became unsafe and I gradually abandoned bicycling in Barrie.

To preserve their lovely medieval centres, many small European cities built bypass roads routing traffic around their town. In some cases, vibration from heavy vehicles had even begun to threaten their historic old buildings with collapse.

One effective way to combat urban traffic congestion is to levy a “congestion charge” on cars entering a city centre. Cities such as Singapore, London, Milan, and Stockholm did this, while others are thinking of also doing so. Of course, they have provided excellent public transport as an alternative. 

Another way is to limit parking. If there is no place to leave your vehicle, you will be forced to find alternatives to driving. 

Decades ago, I visited Bruges, Belgium. Traffic within the city was light, but there was no place to park. Parking was provided on the outskirts of town. It’s a small city and walking to its historic centre was easy.

The same is true for Groningen, Netherlands. Light traffic and the absence of parked cars allow visitors (and residents) to really enjoy these elegant, historic city centres. The absence of cars makes it easy to imagine what Venice looked like 500 years ago – it still does.

Think about the “crisis” around Queen’s Park – severing parts of the Greenbelt to build houses. Put aside developers “knew” the Ford government would do this, the likely environmental damage to aquifers and wildlife, and the loss of prime agricultural land.

Consider instead that municipalities never expected this. City planners didn’t design sewers and water mains with capacity to service these new developments. Electrical substations will need upgrading to handle these new houses, and the likelihood they will use electric heat pumps for winter warmth and the ability to charge electric vehicles (all new cars will soon be electric).

These developments will force municipalities to enlarge existing roads not designed to handle an unexpected suburb. People who had enjoyed a quick “escape” to the countryside will face additional traffic. They will not be pleased.

We lost a lot by building our world for motor vehicles. By neglecting the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, we have allowed the car to declare war on itself – to our cost.

Barrie resident Peter Bursztyn is a self-proclaimed “recovering scientist” who has a passion for all things based in science and the environment. The now-retired former university academic has taught and carried out research at universities in Africa, Britain and Canada.