Driving in Dreamland

March 30, 2001

By Michael Jessen

The advertisements paint a stylish illusion -- the sport utility vehicle perched on a mountain-top; the pickup truck splashing through a stream; and the sleek sedan snaking into the curves of an abandoned highway at sunset.

The reality is that North Americans spend a stunning eight billion hours annually stuck in traffic.

Despite the mirages in their television commercials, Vancouver city councillor Gordon Price says automakers are coming face-to-face with their worst nightmare -- running out of space to put their products.

While many communities have built themselves into a corner with inadequate roads and highways, Price says one carmaker has ironically advertised its SUV with the slogan "Careful, you may run out of planet."

The myth that there's always room for one more car is at the heart of all community planning, Price told a Nelson audience recently at the second annual Festival of Ideas. "Planners can't give an upper limit because they don't have one," he said.

Using Greater Vancouver figures, he detailed the stark truth. With a population of 2 million people, the Vancouver area already has 1.2 million cars. New cars are added at the rate of 23,000 annually or 63 more every day. Assuming an average car length of 15 feet, Price said 65 miles of roadway are needed every year just to fit the new vehicles into the transportation system.

"That's almost the distance from downtown Vancouver to Chilliwack," Price said. In actuality, he said, Greater Vancouver has built only about 20 miles of new roads in the past two decades.

"I don't want to exaggerate, but there is no way we could keep up," said the 52-year-old councillor who was first elected in 1986.

"I'm not anti-car," the self-professed non-car owner said, "but the auto is becoming its own worst enemy."

To avoid ending up in "an impossible and unhappy situation," Price said every community has to revise its transportation thinking.

"We need to provide a place for the car but don't let it dominate," he added.

The solution to the dilemma is transportation choice. "It makes as much sense to think that everyone can travel all the time by bicycle as to think that everyone can travel by car all the time," said Price.

"Bike, walk, blade, take the bus, use your car, borrow a friend's, hire a limo, grab a taxi, hitch a ride, take the ferry, join a car co-op -- whatever," he told his audience. "The combinations and the mix make it all work. In the end, the answers are found in the plans we have to implement. Concentrate growth. Build complete communities. Provide transportation choice."

Traffic congestion is actually the commuter's greatest motivator to use transportation alternatives, Price said. "Simply put, congestion is inevitable, but it does serve a purpose," he added. "The challenge is to use it for the overall benefit of the road network."

Drivers assume their trips are free. "It ain't called the freeway for nothing," Price joked. One recipe for change would be to charge the trucks and cars caught in congestion for priority use, "then use the money for alternatives, such as transit," he said.

"When the majority of greenhouse gases come out of the tailpipe and every push of the accelerator may be moving us more quickly towards climate change and the disruption of our environment, is not some individual sacrifice worth the price?" he asked. "Shouldn't vehicle users be paying directly for the pollution they generate? Industry does. Why not cars?"

Canada's seniors obviously agree with Price's approach. Last week, Canada's Association for the Fifty-Plus (CARP) released recommendations from a national clean-air forum urging governments to promote the use of public transit through reduced fares or free transit. Another suggestion implored the federal government to work with the auto industry to encourage the development of more gas-efficient and hybrid-electric vehicles like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight.

ONE SMALL STEP - Since a single space of structured parking can easily cost $15,000, "free" parking for employees greatly increases the cost of a new development. Employers would be better served to give transit passes gratis.

RESOURCES - The Nelson and Area Auto Co-op is an automobile rental service intended to replace private vehicle ownership. The co-op's phone number is 354-1909. Gordon Price's thoughts on urban transportation can be found on the Victoria Transport Policy Institute web site at www.vtpi.org/localpol.htm. He can be e-mailed at clrprice@city.vancouver.bc.ca. The Transport Canada web site at www.tc.gc.ca indicates all government spending on Canada's more than 900,000 kilometres of public roads totaled $14.4 billion in 1998/99. The Worldwatch Institute's (www.worldwatch.org) new book "State of the World 2001" has an excellent article by Molly O'Meara Sheehan entitled Making Better Transportation Choices. The web site of Canada's Association for the Fifty-Plus is www.fifty-plus.net. To get an idea of the innovative ways Ford Motor Company has thought of to keep you moving, check out www.thinkmobility.com.

Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services, a consulting business that helps companies and communities profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at toenail@netidea.com. His firm's award-winning web site is at www.toenail.org/.

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