I grew up in Oshawa, Ontario; longtime home of Robert McLaughlin’s 1878 Oshawa Carriage Works, the self-proclaimed city that “moto-vates” Canada, and current host to the General Motors of Canada headquarters. Having grown up in Canada’s version of Flint, Michigan, you might guess that I harbor a deep emotional connection to the North American auto industry, that I drive an Oshawa-built 2003 Chevrolet Silverado SS (extended-cab, short-bed), and that I’m saving up to buy a brand new Oshawa-built fifth-generation Camaro muscle car.
None of the above. I’m a sustainable transportation advocate!
I’m not sure how I escaped the gravitational pull of suburban cartown, with all of its union-wage factory jobs, cheap suburban homes, and open roads. Maybe it had to do with the world-view I inherited from my first-generation European parents that inspired me to pursue the arts, world-travel, and a University education instead. Enough about me though; this article is about the countless among us in love with – nay, addicted to – the automobile.
To help you understand where car-love comes from let me take you on a trip, back to my own childhood in suburban Oshawa. Picture it – the bungalow where I grew up sits on a corner lot with two cars in the driveway. My neighborhood of 80 single family homes has no sidewalks, partially because traffic density is low, but mostly because there’s nowhere to walk to within a 30 minute radius. My school is over an hour’s walk away, more than double that in the winter through snow up to your knees in places. Most of my friends live nearer to school, or in the neighboring suburbs of Whitby and Ajax, 10 or more kilometers away. Needless to say, I never walked to school or to my friends’ houses; this is cartown! We drove!
The physical nature of suburbia makes everyone dependent on the automobile, and those who can’t afford cars or are too young to obtain a driver’s license are doubly dependent. While I was under 16 years of age, I relied on my parents to drive me everywhere. The hour, minute, and second that I turned 16 years of age I rushed to the local DriveTest centre to apply for my “G1″ learner’s permit. According to Ontario’s graduated licensing system I had to put in twelve long, torturous months of parent-accompanied driving under my “G1″ before I would be eligible to apply for the “G2″ license – the holy grail of licenses which allows the holder to drive unaccompanied.
You have to understand – for a suburban seventeen year old, obtaining that “G2″ license card wasn’t just a little logistical detail in a system of automobile licensing designed to keep the populace mobile and safe, it was 45 square centimeters of pure unadulterated independence, forged in plastic.
Chris Bradshaw, Vancouver native and co-founder of Ottawa’s Vrtucar car-share, once explained car-love to me in a way that makes a lot of sense. Thinking back to my own relationship with the car as a kid growing up in suburbia I could see Chris’ point that we have let the car become so much more than just a machine for connecting point A to point B. Access to a car has become a bargaining chip in parent-teenager negotiations; something which can be awarded for good behavior, or taken away for disobedience. As such, car-ownership has become a symbol of independence, from your parents first, and from social transit solutions second. Somehow, we’ve let the right to drive become entangled with one’s sense of self-reliance and freedom. We love cars like we love feeling free!
This seems to me to be a classic case of yearning for that which you have historically had limited access to. You never want to give up what you’ve worked so hard to obtain!
One proposal to change this dynamic is to lower the barrier to automobile access for young people; to frame automobile access not as some sort of reward, status-symbol, or light at the end of a dark tunnel of mobility-oppression, but as something commonplace which everyone has access to equally. Take away the prestige and the car-lust will go with it. Car-sharing services like Ottawa’s Vrtucar and Vancouver’s Co-operative Auto Network seem like ideal ways to improve automobile access but they are being hampered by the insurance industry; the insurance provider which insures Vancouver’s car co-op requires that drivers be at least 19 years of age, and in Ontario at Vrtucar the minimum age is 23 – much too late to have any significant impact on a young person’s perception of car-ownership. Unless we organize to effect change at the level of automobile insurance, I don’t see this dynamic changing on its own.
But wait – there’s new hope! Improvements in battery technology, electric motors, and in the legislation regulating the use of electric vehicles have spurred a groundswell of EV availability and ridership. Electric skateboards, power-assisted bicycles, and low-speed electric motorcycles have become affordable, available, and accessible to young people longing for personal mobility. The legislation is such in BC that you need only to be 16 years of age and be wearing a helmet to drive all but the largest and fastest EV two-wheelers. EVs are fast, fun, have storage and style, and are easy on the environment – and the pocketbook!
If you ride an EV of any kind, or if you simply want to learn more about EVs, come out to participate in Vancouver’s own monthly EV ride, “The Kilowatt Hour.” RSVP for the ride today at http://ev.meetup.com/1