When I was heading up to do my school crossing guard duties on soul crushing, crazy busy Highway 93 on September 22nd, I was thinking it would be so cool if it was a lighter day for traffic on the highway. After all September 22nd was designated as World Car Free Day. It would be really amazing if there was actually one day out of the three hundred and sixty-five days a year where we were free from the trappings of the automobile. Where small children could break free from the firm grip of their parents and be carefree as they run to school. One quick glance at the highway reminded me today was not the day.
Wards Intelligence estimated that in 2016 there were 1.32 billion cars and trucks on our planet’s roads. This is a best estimate given from all the different bodies responsible for counting them. They also estimate that by 2036 there will be 2.8 billion vehicles on the planet. This is from using past models of a staggering doubling in vehicles every 20 years and no projected foreseeable change in the future. Kalle Lasn writes in the book “Culture Jam” that “the personal automobile is arguably the most destructive product we humans have ever produced”.
In my area of Canada, population growth has become exponential. Urban sprawl is running rampart with mega-sized single use housing developments popping up all over the countryside. All requiring car dependency. There are no other options. No public transportation services. No safe cycling and active transportation infrastructure. I do have a 2008 Toyota Prius hybrid, which I drive approximately 2,000 kilometers a year. I would give it up in a heartbeat if there were public transportation services and a safe cycling infrastructure available in my area of Hillsdale. With more vehicles added on the roads daily, it equates to more carnage. An article I wrote titled One Second mentions there are 1.3 million humans dying each year from car drivers. One every 24 seconds. Nearly half of these deaths comprise of vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. Not to mention the millions who are maimed each year by car drivers. Forbes magazine lists the automobile as the worldwide leading cause of death for children and young adults.
I’m 64. and in my lifetime, I have really noticed the erosion of the sense of community in our neighborhoods. I grew up when our communities were so vibrant. We knew and cared for one another. All the shopping could be done on weekdays and Saturday at the local General Store. The General Store was our community hub and gathering place for meeting one another. Sunday was the day where families in communities went to connect in church together. If someone in the community got married there was even a community shower at the community hall. Everyone knew everyone else in the community. My mom was often one who collected money for the new bride or groom for a few presents. The community hall was always a packed house for that shower. Many of them were dances with a live band or a disc jockey. Sometimes even a square dance. They were so much fun. Nowadays local General Stores have all disappeared. Not much of anything happens at community halls these days for community events. And churches, which at one time were such a central part of the community are closing. Such as the one I poured heart and soul into, to try to keep it going for the past 11+ years. There was just no interest from the community anymore. Churches are an example of a place of connection in what Nathan Alleback describes as a “third place”. A third place is somewhere people hangout that isn’t home and isn’t work. He further elaborates in this two minute twenty second video on Twitter.
I’ve been in this community of Hillsdale for 31 years. There are people in my community in whom I have never met. The only time I see them over the years are when they are strapped within the glass and steel cages of their vehicles. With their automatic garage door openers, on arrival at home they drive right into the garage and then out of sight. I have seen them coming and going for years. I may know who they are. I may know where they live. But I don’t know them. The automobile has made society extremely impersonal and antisocial. Which makes me very sad. It is not unusual for people in my village to commute 100 kilometers each way for work. Or that same distance for entertainment or recreation. Once back home they tend to keep completely to themselves.
Global corporate automakers multi-billion-dollar marketing budgets have been running television and magazine ads my entire lifetime. Completely unchallenged. Their mass-produced cars are marketed as creating individuality and freedom. The ads are effective because many people really have intense, sometimes obsessive relationships with their cars. Manufacturers deliberately change design drastically every few years and drivers become convinced that trading in the old bomb for a brand-new model is the smart thing to do. Which explains why so many car owners dutifully walk into a car showroom every few years for a rejuvenating boost. In reality they have become enslaved to their vehicles in the form of car payments, insurance, parking costs and maintenance. Not to mention the amount of time drivers are stuck in traffic. That’s not freedom. The Balance Money website adds up the cost of depreciation, insurance, maintenance & repairs, and gas and you are looking at spending $10,800-$12,000 per car each year for one average car. SUV’s and pickups are pricier. We have created a society in Canada built around car dependency. Most households in my area have at least 2 vehicles per household.
But this is not the true costs of car ownership. The sticker price of a car does not tell the ecological truth. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency is that “Driving a private car is probably a typical citizen’s most ‘polluting’ daily activity.” Oil companies and car manufacturers get off “scot-free”. And sadly, the environmental costs of driving are passed on to future generations to the tune of multiple billions of dollars a year. Not only is there driving emissions, but there is also production emissions and end of life emissions. Researcher and author Stephen Rees breaks it down as follows for a medium-sized car with a three-way catalytic converter, driven 130,000 km (about 80,000 miles) over ten years, and averaging 100 kilometers per 10 liters of unleaded fuel (approximately 23.5 miles per gallon). “Extracting raw materials: 26.5 metric tons of waste, 922 million cubic meters of polluted air. Transporting raw materials: 12 liters of crude oil in ocean, 425 million cubic meters of polluted air. Producing the car: 1.5 metric tons of solid waste, 74 million cubic meters of polluted air. Driving the car: 18.4 kg of abrasive waste (tire and brake wear), 1,016 million cubic meters of polluted air. Disposing of the car: 102 million cubic meters of polluted air.”
The cost of car ownership goes even farther. The sticker price of a car does not include the paving over of valuable land for roads and parking lots. Car dependence is a result of the urban sprawl so prevalent in the area in which I live. Farmland is taken out of food production. Canadians for a Sustainable Society mention that “Only 3.2% of Canada’s entire land base is suitable for growing food. Yet this is where most of the urban sprawl is happening. The latest census (released May 2022) by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture is that “Ontario is losing 319 acres of productive farmland every day”. It is a steep climb from the 175 daily average loss that was recorded in the 2016 Census of Agriculture. Much of this is from uncontrolled urban sprawl. Once this farmland is gone, it is gone forever. That is simply not sustainable if we hope to have any kind of food sovereignty or independence in Ontario. All societies are ultimately built on the productivity of the land as neatly summarized in the saying “No soil, no civilization.” On top of those 319 acres of farmland a day, forests are cleared. Wetlands are drained. Paved areas (roads and parking lots) create all kinds of local environmental problems. Oil, grease, leaky antifreeze and heavy metals combine to make a toxic soup that drips from the underside of cars. In heavy rains the excess flows directly into nearby open water (streams, lakes, and oceans), where it harms aquatic life and contaminates our water sources. This is not even getting into the fossil fuel driven climate change. Global heating is supercharging extreme weather at an astonishing speed. An entire topic in itself. This does not factor in the 385,000 premature deaths from vehicle exhausts. Or according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, the $1 trillion annual cost of transportation-attributable health related impacts.
I hate all these things with a passion and yet I still drive my 15-year-old Toyota Prius. There is a convenience of getting somewhere when I need to, such as when called to conduct a funeral. But there are also no viable alternatives. No public transportation available. No safe cycling infrastructure. My relationship with my Prius, the auto and fossil fuel industries and governments who continue to prioritize and subsidize automobile travel has me full of guilt and angst and barely repressed anger. I get very frustrated when nearly all a government transportation budget is focused on subsidizing automobile transportation.
I know I’m not the only one who would bike and take public transit everywhere if there was the infrastructure. Bikes use no fossil fuels, emit zero carbon in use, and deposit very little polluting material on the paved surfaces they travel. Manufacturing bikes uses a lot fewer resources than building cars. Bicycles are the most efficient means of transportation on our planet. In all this there may be a glimmer of hope. Particularly in Europe there is a shifting in attitudes towards the personal automobile. Rachel Aldred, a professor of transport at London Westminster University quotes “The world is reaching a state of “peak cars,” and behavior change is being driven by younger people. She says that the car, long a symbol of freedom, is increasingly coming to be seen as inconvenient, expensive and ecologically indefensible.” In a September 2022, Reasons to be Cheerful article titled “Cars are Vanishing from Paris”, it quotes, “Since 1990, the proportion of journeys by car in Paris has dropped about 45 percent, use of public transit has risen by 30 percent and the share of cyclists has increased tenfold”. This is due in part to the remarkable urban planning leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo of implementing the concept of what is known as a 15-minute city. A “15-minute-city” is a city, neighborhood, or community that meets all human needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. For our planets livable future, we desperately need leadership that thinks outside the personal metal box.
So, the 22nd of September every year is World Car Free Day. If you didn’t know before, you do know now. It is one day a year that is set aside to try and avoid using cars. And go cycling, walking or using public transport instead. Car Free Day aims to take the heat off the planet for just one day by encouraging people to be less dependent on their cars and try alternatives.
I love being the School Crossing Guard in Hillsdale. I love seeing the children walk and cycle to school each day at my school crosswalk on Highway 93. Getting all that exercise and fresh air. They give me so much joy. The kids really seem to look forward to seeing me as much as I look forward to seeing them. At the start of the school year, I get to meet many new parents at the crosswalk. They may be either new to the village or walking with a child who is just starting kindergarten for the 1st time. It is so wonderful to get to meet and know my neighbors here in Hillsdale this way. Active transportation restores a portion of the vitality of a community that seems to be tragically broken by the private automobile. Kids having so much fun interacting with each other on their way to school. I’ll also see parents of the younger children happy and relaxed while walking, talking and connecting together.
Having a crossing guard on duty to get everyone to school safely is very important for everyone. Not just for Hillsdale. In all honesty, there should be an adult human school crossing guard on any road that poses extreme danger for kids to get to school safely. With so much money spent on roads for the private automobile, this is extremely low hanging fruit for municipalities to provide safe active transportation for extremely vulnerable children to walk to school without being driven. Some parents have mentioned they would never allow their children to walk alone across Highway 93 to school without a crossing guard. With a crossing guard on duty, other parents have made the commitment to walk with their young child each and every single day to and from school. This is huge. It becomes habit and when that child gets older there will never be the expectation to be driven everywhere, including school. Healthier for them. Healthier for the environment. And great for Hillsdale Elementary School which aims to maintain its Platinum certification in the Ecoschool Program. It is a win-win situation. Happy World Car Free Day.