Electric cars are good, but fewer cars are better

OPINION: The only real answer to the problems cars create is to cut down on driving. Cities like London are showing us how
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 24, 2021
Liberal leader Steven Del Duca announced Tuesday that his party would provide families with $8,000 to buy new electric vehicles. (John Michael McGrath)

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Electric vehicles are the future here in Ontario: ask almost literally any MPP. The New Democrats want to make 100 per cent of all new cars sold in the province electric by 2035. The Green Party would have zero-emissions mandates for both passenger vehicles and commercial trucks. Liberal leader Steven Del Duca announced Tuesday that his party would provide families with $8,000 to buy new electric vehicles. The Tories, very early in government, made some remarkably petty policy changes to penalize electric-vehicle buyers (some of those moves ended up costing them in court); still, they’ve started to come around on electric vehicles, because that’s the way the global car industry is moving. And if automakers are moving to EVs, then the premier of Ontario’s job — regardless of party — is to make sure as many EVs as possible are made in this province.

Electric vehicles are undeniably going to be part of the future for households around the province, and perhaps sooner than people think. That’s going to solve some old problems — will the price of gas still matter for elections in five years’ time? — and cause some new ones, like a substantial increase in the demand for electricity. But electric cars can’t solve the problems that all cars create: traffic congestion; sprawling, inefficient land use; and pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, just to name a few. Even once all cars are electric vehicles, and even once they’re all powered by clean electricity, there will still be major environmental costs, including climate costs, from a system that’s continually adding new roads and highways to accommodate ever-growing numbers of cars.

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The only answer to the problems that cars create is to make different choices so that people need fewer cars and need to drive them less. There are currently around 25 million motor vehicles on Canada’s roads for a driving-age population of about 30 million. Absent policy changes, we’re headed to a world where there are more registered vehicles than there are eligible drivers. What kind of choices should we make if we want to change that trajectory?

For one early sign of what the future might look like, consider a decision London city council made earlier this fall. The city had been planning to widen Wonderland Road, a major north-south four-lane artery, for years. However, it recently put some actual teeth to its 2019 declaration of a “climate emergency,” which included re-evaluating major construction projects through a climate lens. Widening a four-lane arterial to six lanes couldn’t survive climate-minded scrutiny, and it would also have cost more than $200 million.

Councillor Elizabeth Peloza, the chair of London’s civic-works committee and the city’s budget chief, strongly supported the move to cancel the widening of Wonderland Road.

“Wanting to follow through, we wanted to make sure this wasn’t just a declaration and done,” Peloza says. “I argued that the city of London, we don’t have a comprehensive bike network, we don’t have rapid transit … we have a lot of work to do still.”

The key to this story is that, while numerous jurisdictions in Canada and around the world have adopted the language of a “climate emergency,” London has actually adopted a “climate emergency screening tool” to test its decisions on big construction projects and long-term planning. Stirring words are cheap; actually laying the groundwork to make different choices in the future is harder. Still, a “climate lens” can only guide or explain choices — the final decision will remain with elected councillors. Peloza knows that there will likely still be defeats for climate policies at London council and that it’s even possible a future council could revive the widening of Wonderland Road.

“I think we’re going to lose some votes along the way, in the interim,” Peloza says. “We’re lucky in Ontario. We have multiple freshwater lakes, we don’t have raging forest fires in southwestern Ontario, and we don’t have floods and mudslides. It allows us to be less reactive than what you see out West.”

Avoiding road widenings (especially expensive ones) is one way for cities to choose to de-emphasize the car as a transportation mode. In Toronto, the planning and housing committee will this week debate an item that could see the city abandon parking minimums in much of the city’s new construction. Parking minimums — rules that require a new home to come with one, two, or even more parking spaces, depending on the city — are one of the biggest stealth subsidies for car ownership, and they’re also something that makes building new homes unnecessarily expensive, so abandoning them in the Canadian city with the best transit service and some of the highest housing costs would be a double win. Predictably, the proposal is already raising the ire of the city’s reactionary residents associations; council should ignore them all.

As in London, Toronto’s planning staff are citing council’s own declared “climate emergency” to justify the removal of parking minimums: “The City's strategy to address the environmental emergency, TransformTO, calls for a significant reduction in the use of automobiles, and electrification of the automobile use that remains,” reads a November 10 report. “To achieve this target will require very significant and sustained effort. In support of this strategy, limiting the growth of parking and even removing existing parking are justified.” 

Once again, the final decision will be up to Toronto city council, which hasn’t covered itself in glory lately. The planning report nevertheless amounts to the city’s public service calling council’s bluff: if we’re actually in a climate emergency, this is what reasonable policy should look like. (Not to be left behind, Peloza also wants to start the discussion about changes to London’s parking minimums.)

Neither the London nor the Toronto case has the obvious emotional significance of pipeline protests or mass marches, but they’re no less significant for it. Bureaucratese like a “climate emergency screening tool” or modifications to section 10.5.40 of Toronto’s zoning bylaw are the kinds of policy changes only planning dorks could love. But they’re just as important a part of the fight against climate change, and they’ll keep working long after the last gasoline-belching car has been driven off the road.

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