David Suzuki: If there is a war on cars, which side is winning?

We humans like our wars. We have a war on drugs, a war on terror, a war on crime, and now, it seems, a war on cars. The latter “war” has entered the political vocabulary in Vancouver, where city council has been trying to reduce reliance on private automobiles; in Toronto, where the mayor is driving the agenda in the opposite direction; and in Seattle, where bike lanes and increased parking fees have come under fire. In the U.K., they’ve been calling it a war on motorists.

It’s not really much of a war, though. If anything, it’s just a bit of catch-up to create better public spaces and to allow more sensible forms of transportation some room in our car-dominated cities. Let’s take a look at some of the battlefields—and the casualties.

In Vancouver, opponents and local media predicted “chaos” from a bike lane on the Burrard Bridge, which connects the city’s downtown with the West Side. After the chaos failed to emerge, opponents, rather than learning from experience, went on to predict the same thing for other bike lanes in the city, mostly in the downtown core. Despite a few bumps, the chaos has yet to reveal itself. At the same time, the provincial government is spending $3 billion on a new 10-lane bridge and expanded highways to move cars and trucks in and out of the city.

In Seattle, in addition to a few new bike lanes and a slight increase in downtown parking rates, politicians are considering spending $7 billion on a new bridge and a new tunnel to keep the cars and trucks moving.

Nowhere has the term been more ubiquitous than in Toronto, where it became a rallying cry leading up to and during last year’s civic election. Numerous headlines in business-friendly newspapers raised the alarm about the city’s war on cars, with one newspaper even referring to it as a “nutty war on cars”. It was all because the city council of the day was spending money on public transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and, according to opponents, not enough “to make it easier for cars to move throughout the city”.

Rob Ford, who won the election to become Toronto’s mayor, campaigned on ending the war and, in his first speech after taking office, announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the war on the car stops today." He had already declared a new war “on the streetcar” and promised to rip up bike lanes. Part of Mayor Ford’s battle includes ending the city’s Transit City plan, even though the city has already spent $137 million on it and committed to another $1.3 billion in contracts. The plan, seven years in the making, had also received funding commitments from the provincial and federal governments.

If there is or has been a war on cars, the cars are winning. Cars—often with a single occupant—still rule our cities and roadways, and they’re still relatively inexpensive to operate. And despite minor reductions in parking in cities like Vancouver to make way for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, most North American cities still devote way more valuable land to parking spaces than necessary. In the U.S., there are eight parking spaces for every car. We also devote an incredible amount of real estate to our ever-expanding road systems, often at the expense of public spaces.

As for casualties, 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, according to Statistics Canada. Add to that the numerous injuries caused by vehicle accidents—often caused when cars come into contact with pedestrians and cyclists—and you get a pretty good idea of which side has the upper hand in this “war”. And, much of the health-damaging pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to dangerous climate change come from private automobiles.

So, if there were a war on cars, we would have to conclude that people are on the losing end. Of course, there is no war on cars. The only battle regarding cars is a propaganda war, and, as Guardian writer George Monbiot points out, it’s “about private interests trumping the public interest, about allowing people to pursue their desires, regardless of the cost to society.” Maybe it’s time we really did wage a wars on cars.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



Terry Lavender

Feb 22, 2011 at 5:32pm

Excellent piece. My only quibble would be with the statement that Vancouver is making way "for bike and pedestrian infrastructure" -- maybe bikes, but Vancouver has been ignoring pedestrians for years except to inconvenience them with sidewalk closures (Burrard Bridge), shortened walk signals and prolonged advanced turn signals for cars. Ironically, the most environmentally friendly transportation mode gets the least amount of attention and nurturing.

the pope

Feb 22, 2011 at 9:05pm

here we go again.the old green house gases/planet warming BS,do you really think that we are making a difference.first of all automobiles are cleaner/greeener than they have ever been.I think you should move to china or india or what have you,and see if you can get them on the BS global warming/green house wagon....we in the lower mainland are not going to clean the world,all that is happening is that with that green house/global warming BS,the governments have an excuse to keep taxing and leviing the general working stiffs...


Feb 22, 2011 at 9:52pm

There is no war on cars. Cars have, however, been waging war on our cities for decades, and winning. There have been some victories—the decisions not to run a freeway through the East Side or to kill the Spadina Expressway in Toronto—but by and large transportation planning has been driven by a desire to move cars in a hurry with little regard for people.

Ignoring the obvious for cash.

Feb 22, 2011 at 10:19pm

Wars don't have winners.

PT Barnum

Feb 22, 2011 at 10:23pm

The price of oil will be the deciding factor. A point might come when most motorists give it up.


Feb 22, 2011 at 11:03pm

Dave Suzuiki.. I actually went to UBC when you were there and I know you to be an honest and intelligent man. I even met your Dad in a VW van one time when I was hitchhiking. ( He was a fine guy and he made sure I knew who his son was ). But Dave, this time, I am having trouble following. I am a lifelong resident of Vancouver... it is my home and my birthplace and except for 2 years, I have lived here my entire life. I am frightened by Roberston and Meggs and their lying dishonesty about where they are going. If you guys are SOO correct.. why is so much obfiscation and sneaky stuff ( like gradually and secretly eliminating parking under existing rules in the downtown) .. why is it going on. Why are we looking at 'road pricing' where there is a GPS installed in every car. Surely you can see the potential for abuse when the government knows where your car is every moment of the day. No Dave, you guys need to answer some questions.

For example.. the recent figures out of City Hall say there are 600 bikers a day using these bike lanes. Does that mean 600 bikes ( about 1 per minute of daylight) are detected or doe3s it mean 300 go to town and then go home? ( Dishonesty)
Another question..A regular sort of car running about 30000 km per year pukes out about 4 or 5 tons of CO2 per annum. A bike.. not so much.
Imagine Gregor and Meggs arent lying when they say we will have 12000 bikes runing through downtown this summer and imagine that is sustainable all year.
Also imagine they are not exaggerating and it isnt 6000 cars removed from the road but instead 12000. ( Are there that many in all of downtown Vancouver?)

But imagine... 12000 x 5 tons give a savings of 60000 tons of CO2.
We will ignore the downward correction for how many would hav etaken transit ( another money hole) and just go with 60000 tons.

A good sized coal fired electrical plant will puke out between 10 million and 20 MILLION tons of CO2 per year, dwarfing the silly amounts saved by the many millions spent and planned on being spent on biking. Consider that CHINA alone is bringing 1 of these kind of coal plants online EVERY WEEK.

THAT is why people like me, call this bike stuff lunacy. Which it is.

Michael Castanaveras

Feb 23, 2011 at 12:43am

Craig, if everyone was as defeatist as you we'd already have a city paved over as one big parking lot. Just because China is destroying their environment doesn't mean that we have to. Not to mention, if the whole GHG thing is every going to get under control then the fully industrialized nations, such as Canada, are going to have to dial it down considerably.


Feb 23, 2011 at 8:37am

"...first of all automobiles are cleaner/greeener than they have ever been...

Only in terms of some pollutants. In terms of ghg emissions they are an average worse.

@Craig "...this bike stuff lunacy..."

A recent Norwegian study found that urban bike infrastructure is the most cost effective way to address climate change. - http://www.klimakur2020.no/

Roger Dodger

Feb 23, 2011 at 8:41am

To Craig and every other defeatist out there, it's not just about CO2. What about the health benefits? An active society has less use for doctors/ health care.

Does someone want to calculate the cost of heart surgery in a cholesterol rich society?
How about you Craig? I mean, you went to school with David Suzuki, so that means something.

Oh wait. It doesn't.

Fan'o Truth

Feb 23, 2011 at 9:31am

You know, I have never seen Dr Suzuki on any of Vancouver's buses or trolleys. Does he commute to his Foundation's very tastefully appointed offices on West 4th on bicycle, or in his Toyota Prius hybrid?