Last week, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault fired a sort of shot heard around the country when he told a transportation conference that Canada will no longer invest in road megaprojects.

He went on to say electric vehicles are not a silver bullet for climate change and the government will focus its investments in “active and public transit” to “achieve our goals of economic, social and human development,” according to reporting by the Montreal Gazettethat started the furor.

Guilbeault’s remarks ignited a countrywide frenzy among premiers and media commentators angry over a perceived threat to the dominance of cars in Canadian society.

The transit versus car culture war is not new. Listen to any driver speak about cyclists jockeying for road space or pro-active transport municipal politicians vying for votes. Regardless of which side you are on, the backlash from opponents comes fast and furious.

Take, for example, Catherine McKenney, who in her 2022 campaign to be Ottawa’s mayor proposed a major bicycle infrastructure project that an independent economist approved as essentially paying for itself. McKenney lost the election to Mark Sutcliffe, who told voters he would not “declare a war on cars.”

Meanwhile, in Edmonton, urban planners and politicians proposed a 15-minute city model that would ensure residents have all essentials within walking distance of their homes. The model was red meat for conspiracy theorists, who argued that freedom would be restricted and community members would be imprisoned in their section of the city.

It’s no surprise then that Guilbeault would be dragged through premier anger, media flurries and public backlash.

Culture war skirmishes erupt every time a city or town considers ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions and promote other forms of transportation not predicated on cars, which rely on massive amounts of physical space, investment, energy and natural resource extraction.

Moving Canadians out of cars and into different forms of transportation will never be straightforward, said Raktim Mitra, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at Toronto Metropolitan University. For decades, car-centric infrastructure in North America has embedded the car as symbols of “comfort” and “independence,” he explained.

“As soon as you do something beyond this, it’s almost seen as a counterculture, right?” Mitra told Canada’s National Observer.

The problem with cars

Canada’s National Observer recently reported that arguably the largest source of Canada’s emissions is released from tailpipes — approximately 120 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) per year, higher than emissions from the oil and gas industry.

And yet, the number of cars in Canada continues to rise. In 2000, there were 18 million combustion-engine vehicles on the road. Now there are 26 million. It is part of the reason why Canada is the only G7 country whose emissions have risen from 1990 levels.

It also doesn’t help that the automobiles Canadians drive are the most polluting types that often more resemble tanks than Toyotas.

But it’s not just combustion-engine vehicles that can become a problem. Canada’s National Observer has also reported that electric SUVs require up to 75 per cent more raw minerals for their batteries than smaller EVs. Today, there are 40 per cent more electric SUV models than four years ago, pointing to increasing demand.

Electric vehicles and green colonialism 

It’s a concern for Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, director of Indigenous Climate Action, who is raising the red flag on green capitalism and colonialism emerging from an economic system predicated on growth and consumption — just electrified.

Natural resource extraction has increased 400 per cent since the 1970s, with no signs of slowing down in Canada. Take the proposed development in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire mining region that sits on carbon-intensive peatlands. Deranger points to the emissions that will be released from developing road and mine infrastructure, which would contribute to millions of tonnes of carbon emissions just from digging up the carbon-rich moss. It’s why, for Deranger, a green economy founded on critical minerals will still not be without its dangerous climate risks.

It’s also a similar story being retold for Deranger, just with a greener mask. It’s Indigenous Peoples and their ancestral territories that continue to be the “sacrifice zones” for economic growth, power and profit, which is now increasingly concentrated in the hands of corporations and nation-states, she explained. 

“There’s nothing that is new about this, absolutely nothing,” she said, pointing to the rhetoric around the energy transition and the mining rush for critical minerals and to the still unknown environmental and health risks associated with large-scale mining.

For example, extraction of raw materials for the energy transition is set to increase by 60 per cent, with catastrophic consequences for the climate, according to reporting from The Guardian.

The calculation emerged from an unpublished UN report that notes economies predicated on well-being not just the growth and the gross domestic product ought to be the solution rather than “simply increasing green production.” 

The unpublished report also points to more low-carbon transport options such as bikes and trains rather than EVs, which take 10 times the amount of raw materials than combustion-engine cars.

Car dependency and the challenge of an alternative model

Amsterdam is often seen as the poster child for an alternative model to car-centric cities, but it wasn’t always that way. In the 1970s, Amsterdam was completely different. “It was no different to Toronto, where everyone would drive,” Mitra said.

Things changed because of grassroots advocacy, creating the conditions that made it easier to travel by bike than car. When that tipping point comes, it creates a shift in culture.

But Canada is not Europe, and does not have the benefit of significant infrastructure developed prior to the era of Henry Ford, Mitra said. 

Suburban and rural life is still car-dependent and difficult to shift. Even within cities, shifting to public transit and active transportation is tough, particularly when an entire city council is asked to vote on development that might only serve the city core. For example, a bike lane in an urban centre may not be well-received by rural and suburban councillors.

Mitra believes a well-connected and efficient bike or public transit network emanating from a city or town’s core is needed for residents to see another alternative to cars.

A piecemeal approach, such as bike lanes that lead to nowhere and take away space from cars without any real utility, is destined to fail, he said.

“Or the city is failing to communicate the long-term implications of the short-term actions,” Mitra said, nodding to a failed bike lane in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, that was removed a few years after it was constructed.

For Mitra, you cannot separate the culture and the infrastructure development because both go hand in hand.

If an option is available and it works well, then a culture will be created to use that option, like biking in Amsterdam, Mitra explained.

However, in Canada’s car culture war, it’s still unclear how long the war of attrition will last as the clock ticks on the climate crisis.

— With files from Barry Saxifrage and Cloe Logan 

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

By Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 22, 2024 at 15:39

This item reprinted with permission from   Canada's National Observer   Ottawa, Ontario
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