Friday, June 17, 2011

Battle Won, Whither the War?

On Wednesday, Erin and I gave away our Ignite tickets because we knew that if we went, our hearts wouldn't be in it, and our eyes would be glued to our phones watching the Twitter feed out of Regional Council.

So, instead, we gave away our tickets and walked down to Regional Council, to watch a little bit of history. And we got that: we got the long, drawn out speeches, the numbing due process, the anticlimatic transition from looking-good to foregone-conclusion to it's-passed, and we had a wonderful time!

Now, it is two days later, LRT is still half a decade away, and it's time get back to our regularly scheduled lives.

Or is it?

I think it's safe to say that I've discovered a passion for a certain set of urban issues. Having taken an increasingly public stand on this major issue-- letters to the local newspaper, letters to our councilors, an opinion blog that's drawn a little attention and even stepping up in front of council to have my say-- it's nice to see this particular battle won and it's nice to relax a little. But I don't want to disengage.

So, I have a passion for... what? Urban planning? Transit? What aspect of this LRT issue drew me out of my shell so effectively, that will drive my future motivation?

The issues of how people move around our city are what interest me the most, but that describes the "what" and not the "why". I think the reason why these issues engage me is that I have a vision for the kind of place I want to live.

In this vision, destinations are nearby and people move freely. "Nearby" doesn't mean everything is up the block, but rather that you can get anywhere you need to go conveniently without assistance or planning. Being able to do this without using a car is critically important: cars have their uses and, but they are expensive and they take away from our freedom more than the freedom they give: I never feel more unencumbered than when I leave my car behind.

I would ask you to think about that for a moment. A car usually allows you to get to your destination quicker and more conveniently than any other mode of transportation, but in doing so you are so shackled to the car that you can't just go somewhere else without it. You park the car, and in doing so, you enter into a contractual obligation to return to that spot, for it is the only way you can leave.

You are also never free from the concern about what happens to your car. It could be stolen or damaged, or it could be ticketed. If you've traveled with passengers, you are probably responsible for their return as well. You can't have a drink without worrying whether it inhibits your driving ability. You usually can't leave your car parked somewhere overnight. So taking a car defines your schedule, your responsibilities, and your behaviour.

It's interesting that most people experience a sense of freedom when they get their first car, but that is often because they deal with inadequate transit, or cities that have sprawled because of car use, to the point that you can't interact with it the way you want without a car.

So to me, if you must have a car to get to your destination, you cannot move freely. Nor is anything nearby , because you live on an island where the sea can only be traversed by your car. Granted, the trip may be short, unless your car is broken or the wife has it or there's no parking or gosh traffic sure is heavy at rush hour or you have no license, in which case your destination is effectively unreachable.

When it comes to the freedom of moving around this city without a car, we really end up with only a subset of our urban area where this is possible. Transit does cover most of our city, but it's designed to provide a minimal level of service to a maximum amount of people for minimum cost. And moving away from that is going to take a long time-- LRT will not solve it in and of itself, any more than the stud frames of your house help keep the snow and wind out on their own. LRT is meant to massively reduce resistance to movement along its route, extending the area that people can tolerably reach, be it by LRT alone or by some combination of train with bus, bike and walking. And because of the way we are laid out as a city, LRT provides capacity in the zone where car-free movement will build, and build, and build. It does, however, need its supporting network of express and neighbourhood buses.

But I digress. Months of LRT proselytizing takes its toll and the LRT debate has seen a lot of points taken out of context.

I see Waterloo Region becoming an area where enough of the cities become accessible to car-free movement, and as a result, sustain a critical mass of car-free life. And that has secondary benefits: urban form becomes driven by needs that are not based on the car, and evolves to better suit people instead. Everyone, not just the automobiled elite, enjoys an independence of movement. Demand may make housing more expensive, which means more apartments and less detached homes, but people enjoy a better lifestyle because they spend much less on simply getting from one island to another.

And it forces people to deal with others face to face. A car and a suburban home allows us to abstract away the entire world, and when we rage on the road, it's because we don't perceive other drivers as real human beings. I'm certain this promotes a worldview that puts self ahead of everything, no matter the cost.

Finally, without question, a car dependent place is ugly. The infrastructure and land use patterns that support the car is physically repulsive to me.

So I see reduced car dependence as a way to transforming the environment around me. I wouldn't call myself an environmentalist though-- I haven't even touched upon air quality and health and all that jazz. I've been happier in places with worse air than KW (as unlikely as it sounds)-- downtown Toronto, where I had all the freedom that a metropass and a subway station around the corner provides, or Hong Kong, where as a teenager I could cross the city on my own for virtually nothing. The freedom of those times is indescribable. And certainly, those are metropolises, and Waterloo Region is not... but then, building a suitable transit system and changing our places to benefit non-automobile users are steps to take on the way to our becoming a major city, not things that must wait until we are.

So the things that help our environment edge away from its old, car-dependent form into a more human-friendly one, those are what drive me.

1 comment:

  1. I agree.

    I do use my car, but really only to leave the city; ideally, one's car-free range should extend to the entire Region. I totally don't think that cars = freedom. They are actually a big ball and chain, and restrict the ability of people who don't drive to get around.

    Higher gas prices are probably helpful in that sense; they seem to be the only way to get people to think about whether they want to be driving around.