David Suzuki: Making cities more livable may save the world

Most of the world’s 6.9 billion people live in cities. City dwellers consume about three quarters of the world’s energy and generate most of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

If we are to resolve some of the serious issues around pollution, climate change, human health, and energy consumption, we must look to cities for solutions. As the world’s population continues to grow, a shift back to rural living is unlikely. So, what can we do?

Progress in my home city of Vancouver gives me hope—but even here we have a long way to go. The most important move urbanites can make is to get out of their cars. But governments must encourage this with better community design and investments in public transit and pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

Cycling is the fastest growing method of travel in Vancouver, thanks in part to a municipal decision to expand bike routes, especially into downtown.

Walking is also becoming more popular, with the number of walking trips up 44 percent since 1994. And increases in the number of people taking public transit are outpacing those in all other urban Canadian centres, with a 20 percent rise in ridership over the past decade—although government investment in the system has not kept up with this demand, hampering its potential.

Making cities more sustainable isn’t just about shifting from car-centric to human-centric planning. Providing incentives to retrofit older buildings or design newer ones to be more energy-efficient, encouraging economic activity that doesn’t cause a lot of pollution, and creating more parks and green spaces are all essential to making cities more livable and less polluting.

But steering society away from cars is essential. In his book, Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World, UBC professor Patrick Condon points out that “Thirty per cent of the world's carbon dioxide production comes from the United States and Canada, where only about six per cent of the world's people live. Of this amount, about a quarter comes directly from transportation – and the bulk of that from single-passenger automobiles.”

On top of the environmental problems, cars kill. Even though accident rates are going down, thanks in part to technical innovations and regulations around speeding and seatbelt use, cars are a leading cause of death for Canadians, especially young people. According to Statistics Canada, 32 percent of the 44,192 accidental deaths in Canada between 2000 and 2004 were from motor-vehicle accidents—70 percent in the 15 to 24 age group.

Transforming cities doesn’t have to be overly difficult. In Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa made great strides as mayor from 1998 to 2001. By increasing gas taxes, restricting car use during rush hour, creating more parks and bicycle routes, and improving public transit, he helped make the crowded and once-polluted city far more livable.

The biggest challenges to transforming cities include the entrenched belief among many North Americans that cars are an absolute necessity and the failure of many people to see the benefits of a balanced transportation system. The backlash against a few bike lanes in Vancouver has been strong, even though the lanes have done little to hinder traffic or business.

Vancouver was able to avoid many of the problems other cities face, thanks in part to a decision in the late 1960s (spurred by activists) not to expand freeways into the city and to instead focus on a balanced transportation system where walking, biking, and transit are viable options. Statistics Canada reports that Vancouver is the only major Canadian city where commuting times decreased between 1992 and 2005. Cities that focused on expanding roads have seen more traffic and gridlock. As well, Vancouver’s transportation emissions, which were once on the rise, have been arrested.

Unfortunately, Metro Vancouver still risks repeating the mistakes of other cities, as provincial pressure to expand freeways is ever present. We really need to be more forward-thinking.

Professor Condon sums up the opportunities well: “If we change the way cities are built and retrofitted, we can prevent the blackest of the nightmare scenarios from becoming real and can create the conditions for a livable life for our children and grandchildren. It is not apocalyptic to say we can save their lives.”

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



soot free with cars

Oct 19, 2010 at 9:43pm

David, yes, definitely maybe. Mindlessly accepting transit at all costs and turning our backs on reducing travel times for vehicles is a big mistake. Transit is simply not practical for the vast majority of us. If you work for TransLink or the government and can afford to leave work at 3 pm to take your unsustainable two hour commute home on transit, fine, but most can’t and have to get the job done before going home. We also have to travel late at night and all don’t want to ruin our commute with the many creeps on or near transit, either.

I’m glad that we don’t have freeways for cars in Vancouver and cycle to work every day. TransLink isn’t building freeways for cars in Vancouver: TransLink is building freeways for its regional transit sprawl, and the cancer causing B-Line diesel buses on these diesel bus freeways are more harmful than all the cars in Metro-Vancouver. Reduce travel times with over-under passes at major roads and you’ll do much more good at reducing GHG emissions here because 75% of us drive. Cars also don”˜t concentrate toxic emissions like B-Line diesel buses on the transit freeways cutting through our residential neighbourhoods.

Hey Hey Ho Ho

Oct 19, 2010 at 11:11pm

Hey hey ho ho!
automobiles have got to go!
hey hey ho ho!
automobiles have got to go!

soot free with cars

Oct 20, 2010 at 9:16am

We're on the right track with transit just like Calgary and Toronto where more transit is never enough. You keep living 50 km from work in your 2,500 square foot sustainable energy efficient home and keep commuting into Vancouver on transit, dreaming of one day taking the Evergreen Line; that will make Metro-Vancouver more livable.

You people are just so with it and sustainable. Keep listening to TransLink and the transit experts who want to hook you on more transit to keep their annual $300K salaries secure. More transit has nothing to do with politics, corruption and ignorance, oui? We are Tokyo and everyone wants to embrace the collective; we are Borg (TransLink) and you will be assimilated.

Meanwhile, I'll just keep living in Vancouver in my 600 square foot condo with my two cats and will keep riding my bike to work in my unsustainable fashion. I am so un-cool and so un-with it.

so deluded so brainwashed

Oct 20, 2010 at 12:25pm

Transit can do no wrong. Transit is the sacred cow.

Cars are bad but the worst air quality is on diesel bus routes. Makes sense to me.


Oct 20, 2010 at 12:47pm

Ever since Suzuki supported the Liberals in the last election I can't trust anything he says anymore. His reputation is now so bad that a documentary is being produced about his life.

Carole's base

Oct 20, 2010 at 1:49pm

I see the Carole James diehards are still trying to blame Suzuki for the disaster of their party's anti-environmental campaign in the last election. It's getting tired.


Oct 20, 2010 at 4:13pm

===>>> Carole's base

Ian Hannington, I presume?

Can the DSF tell us how these recommendations, from Prof Condon and others, would apply in suburban, ex-urbran and rural areas? Also, who should bear the costs of transit and cycling infrastructure, the motorist or the property owner? Is the DSF still opposed to the PMH1 project, and are they eager to find voices that will put forward that view even though the project is probably half or more completed now?

Would the DSF be just as insistent on the need to switch modes from cars to transit/walking/cycling if more of the vehicle fleet were low or no emissions, that is, hybrids or full electrics? Is the issue GHGs and general air pollution, or is it the motor vehicle and roads/highways/freeways per se?

I realize it's unfair of a schnook like myself to ask a direct question about the personal lifestyle of a Greatest Canadian, but being someone with pretty awful manners and no bloody respect, I just can't help myself. So here is my question. Does Dr Suzuki or Faisal Moola or Ian Hannington take public transit to the DSF offices, or do they drive? Alternatively, do they walk or cycle?

Rod Smelser

Ken Barth

Oct 21, 2010 at 9:03am

Sure Suzuki drives; that way he can pay hi share of the carbon tax that has oh so effectively solved the CO2 emmissions problem in BC.


Oct 22, 2010 at 8:29pm

The free market will save the environment.