Free to Drive

Worth A Look, Energy, Frontier Centre

The other day I stuck the nozzle in the tank of my dainty little SUV and paid for my first $50 fill. It was a shock, but I knew it was coming, and I know it’s going to get worse. Gas prices in Toronto are about to hit a dollar a litre, and the outlook is not good. I have a feeling that one day I’ll remember my $50 fill as fondly as a 25-cent Coke.

Not everyone is miserable about the price of gas. Environmentalists are happy because they think people might drive less. Public-transit boosters are happy because they think more people will take the subway. Hybrid-car salesmen are happy, and so are oil sheiks and Albertans (although, for reasons I don’t grasp, Albertans pay even more for gas than we do).

Theoretically, I know my car dependency is bad (and my SUV dependency is even worse). It pollutes the air, undermines our cash-strapped transit system, contributes to wasteful land use and ugly urban sprawl, destroys the fabric of communities, and promotes obesity. And now, it’s costing me fifty bucks a fill. I ought to kick the habit. And one day, I will — the day that someone wrests the car keys from my cold, dead fingers.

What might induce us to change our gas-guzzling ways? It sure won’t be a $50 fill-up. We love to gripe about the price of gas. But we’re rich. We drop more money on a night at the movies or an evening’s worth of babysitting. Gas would have to hit $3 or $4 a litre to make a dent in people’s driving habits, and even then we’d simply downsize.

In Toronto, we’ve had a 20-year debate about how to get people to give up their cars and switch to public transit. Last week, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper proposed tax breaks for transit users. His idea was loudly ridiculed by the experts, who scoffed that nobody is about to switch to public transit for a lousy 60 cents a day. According to them, the answer is to offer better service — more routes, with nicer buses that run on time.

The truth is that the experts are wrong, too. You can make the buses free, furnish them with velvet seats and widescreen TVs and run them every five minutes, and people will still drive. I know. I live right near the streetcar, which zips across town and lets me off four blocks from where I work. It doesn’t get much better than that. How often do I take the streetcar? Every time my car is getting fixed.

No matter how good you make it, public transit will never be able to compete with cars. Cars are private. They’re convenient. They’re comfortable. They’re fun. They’re cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. They hold groceries and kids and kitty litter and booze and all the other stuff you have to pick up on the way home. They go exactly where you need to go, whenever you want to go there, and you never have to smell a stranger’s sweaty armpits.

Public transit also depends on population density. But Toronto, like most other cities, is increasingly spread out, and hundreds of thousands of people commute among the far-flung suburbs. For them, a car is a necessity.

It’s no accident that bus and subway riders are mostly young and poor. They take public transit not because it’s the better way, but because they can’t afford to drive. The moment they get a little older and a little better off, they move to the suburbs and buy a car. The only cities where the middle-aged middle classes resort to public transit (London, New York) are places where driving and parking in the city core are nearly impossible.

People will pay a huge price for convenience and autonomy. In China, experts predicted that it would be years before average people would become rich enough to buy private cars. They were wrong. The Chinese are quite happy to fork over an astonishing amount of money for the privilege — at least five times more, relative to income, than we do — and to drive at a crawl on roads that are gridlocked.

Some day, we’ll have to break our dependency on oil (the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned, since I’m no fan of propping up corrupt thugs and sheiks and countries that believe in flogging unveiled women and homosexuals). But break our dependency on cars? Never. We may have to run them on electricity or wind power or moonshine. We may have to pay a fortune for the privilege. But pay we will. Cars mean freedom, and freedom’s worth a lot.