Elephant in the Room

Elephant in the room. informal. An obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.

The challenge

This year has been very prolific in terms of the discussions about how to face the most pressing urban challenges. Despite all the clear messages, we haven’t seen a lot of action and I feel compelled to announce that there is a big elephant in the room and it has four wheels. London won’t be able to change if we don’t admit our biggest problem: Car-centric urban planning

So far, there were at least six events in 2019 that discussed urban transportation. The first event was a Public Roundtable on sustainable mobility at the London Bicycle Cafe. The second one was a talk from Gil Penalosa in the Urban Design Competition at Fanshawe. The third was the City Symposium on Sustainable Cities and Communities where I was one of the speakers. The fourth was Pints & Politics: People Friendly Cities. The fifth was City Building on the Mid-sized City Landscape. The sixth one was the Place Matters Conference. And a seventh one is a three part talk organized by the London Environmental Network with Doug MacRae, Daniel Hall and myself on October 22.

At those events we had professors, local politicians, city staff, experts, local business owners, and community leaders all arguing that London has good plans, the knowledge, the resources and access to the technology to design and build a city for people where we can be wealthier, healthier and happier. Great potential! The main barrier? Lack of a willingness to change and a sense of urgency.

The Elephant

There is not a single city in the world that has solved its problems by investing in a car-centric approach!! And we all know that we’ve tried that for many decades on all continents.

Even cities like Los Angeles, once the epitome of sprawl and car-oriented urbanism, now recognizes its mistake and it is trying to make up for that by making different choices and funding initiatives like CicLAvia.

It is pretty clear by now that cars are not the future. Younger generations are now showing they don’t want to drive as much as the previous ones did. Designing sustainable cities and reducing traffic fatalities and gas emissions are part of the 2015-2030 UN sustainable development goals. So why do we insist on building more and more for the car? If we want a different future (and we clearly do), we need to design cities differently. One of the first steps is to admit that prioritizing cars is plain wrong. No urban planner would openly defend prioritizing cars anymore, yet we are simply not walking the talk.

What you feed grows, what you starve dies…

Brent Toderian makes an excellent argument when he points out that this is not a war on cars:

“If you design a city for cars, it fails for everyone. INCLUDING drivers. If you design a multi-modal city, it works better for everyone, INCLUDING drivers”

Brent Toderian

This is not fluffy stuff; we are talking about money. For Brent Toderian, an urban planner who worked in over 500 cities throughout the world, great urban design increases private sector profit, competitiveness, public sector return on investment, platform for economic development, attracting and retaining talent and investments and proven dividends for public health, transportation, quality of life and sustainability.

It is not about right or left. It’s about smart or dumb. Success or failure. We don’t have to choose fast vs good, big bold ideas vs reasonable/affordable projects or good design vs ‘open for business’.

A study shows that the average annual amount spent on roads and bridges is $50 per person while the average annual amount spent on pedestrian/bike projects is $0.87 per person. Cars receive way more resources than transit, walking and cycling all together, be it money, time or staff. This is the norm for cities in Canada. The first step is to have an equal investment per capita for every mode.

But we should really strive for equity, not just equality. We are all pedestrians. Until the age of 16, walking, cycling, and transit are the only options for individual mobility, and that is also the case for many senior citizens. They and many others (low-income, people with disabilities…) are dependant on someone else willing to drive if they don’t have a convenient way to use the bus, walk or ride, not to mention all the people that choose or would like to choose not to drive a car. Even when we drive we are still pedestrians, but in London nowadays, if you walk, bike or take transit, you are a second class citizen with restricted access to food, jobs, healthcare, entertainment and many more perks. All society pays the high costs of driving. If the investments were proportional to the number of people served and the benefits to society, cycling and walking would get a share bigger than the one for motorized transportation.

The New Smoking

Not long ago, you could smoke anywhere. Remember smoking sections in restaurants?! Some doctors even prescribed smoking. Nowadays a lot of people still smoke, but we all know how bad it is and we don’t want to accommodate it. Driving is the new smoking. In the near future, people might still drive their cars but they will have a clear picture of how costly it is for society and we won’t all be expected to subsidize this unhealthy habit. Can you imagine paying for someone’s cigarettes?!

The London Case

London is no different. We all know that we need to improve conditions for walking, cycling and transit. Our official city plan (London Plan) states that our goals include:

  • creating walkable communities 
  • creating viable mobility alternatives
  • revitalizing our urban neighbourhoods and business areas
  • protecting our farmlands 
  • reducing greenhouse gases and energy consumption

The City declared a Climate Emergency in 2019 and adopted Vision Zero in 2017. Both obviously put the car in the backseat since it is the main responsible for gas emission and traffic fatalities. The London For All document supported by dozens of local stakeholders, including the City of London, also prioritizes sustainable mobility.

However, in the last four or five decades, London has prioritized cars and now they are taking more space than anything else! We need to say it out loud: PUTTING CARS FIRST WILL GET US NOWHERE FAST. 

From every perspective, there is a huge inequality between cars and all other modes of transportation in London, even though it’s clear that no one wants to foster single-occupant-vehicles (SOV) or driving in general. Despite all this, here in London Ontario, if we consider operating and capital costs we spend roughly $100,000,000 on roads a year and the existing cycling budget is a meagre $800,000. A staggering 0.8% of the total budget !! Just the 2018 amendment (additional expenditure) for the Western Road Widening Project was about five times the total budget for cycling for the whole year. We’ll repeat that: Just the additional cost of one single project aimed primarily to promote driving got five times more money than the entire budget for cycling.

Another example is what a city considers to be the most valuable use of land. What would be your guess: education, housing, health, socialization, food production, culture, public services? 

Just open the google map in any part of the City of London and you will see that there is more space dedicated to moving and parking cars than any of those other uses. It’s not rare that cars get more land area than all other uses combined!! The image below is an example of downtown London, where density is supposed to be higher and public amenities and services more readily available to all people. You don’t need to be a GIS expert to realize the huge amount of space dedicated to car parking (shown in pink). We are not including underground, in-street, and multi-level parking. Plus the roads that represent 30% to 40% of the urban area and are mainly designed for and used by cars. On top of all that, consider all the gas stations, car rentals, car dealers and auto shops. Can you imagine how much extra space we could have if we didn’t give that all away for the car?

Think about having a vibrant, thriving downtown – not just during summer Victoria Park festival months – but like in European cities or Montreal where bike lanes are everywhere and whole downtown blocks are open for people and closed to car traffic. London is making a few baby steps in the right direction with King Street’s bike lane and the Flex Street, not only for locals but for tourism. However, if people maintain the mindset that they’ll only come downtown if they can find (cheap or free) parking, there will continue to be nothing to come to downtown BUT parking!

“… the real estate now used to facilitate the movement and storage of private automobiles is public, and it can be used anyway we decide”.

Charles Montgomery, Happy City

The Courage to Change

Pointing out the elephant in the room is not the most comfortable spot. But it is not possible to prove us wrong. It’s too obvious. 

  1. We need to stop sprawling
  2. We need to stop widening roads
  3. We need to reduce free parking

This is necessary in order to have more people walking, cycling and taking transit. And we won’t get that if the city doesn’t design and invest significantly more to make those options convenient.

“The sum of individual choices directly affects the system. Conversely, the system influences individual choices. There is no ‘me’ and ‘them’, there is only ‘us’!”

Luis Patricio

The benefits of walking and cycling on a systemic level are inarguable. They promote healthier lifestyles, boost the economy, pollute less, and strengthen the social fabric. But, on an individual level saying no to cars is a hard choice. It’s far from convenient and there is only so much that individuals and community groups can do without a massive and sustained governmental investment in walking and cycling. However, if we all acknowledge the elephant in the room and pursue alternatives to the car, we can make shift happen. A better future requires change, both on the individual and systemic level. Is London ready to look at the elephant in the room and make a real shift?

All cartoons by Andy Singer.

Map by Luis Patricio

Written by Hailey Tallman and Luis Patricio

Updated October 5, 2019


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