By Terri Chu
While we all wait for vaccines to bring us back to some sense of “normal” (don’t hold your breath as the variants might beat us at this game), let’s take a moment to reflect on how much normal really sucked.
For so many Torontonians, “normal” meant sitting in the car for two hours to get a short distance to work.
Despite six decades of warnings, we could not come close to wrestling climate change under control — emissions kept going up no matter what accords or protocols we signed. The promise of cheap energy was supposed to free us of our labour and give us time to enjoy ourselves. Instead, we got busier and used that cheap energy to move further and drive longer distances.
Hopefully a “new normal” of work from home can reverse this trend.
It’ll be bad for an unsustainable economic system dependent on infinite growth and consumption, but the reality is that we should slow life down, and none of us will suffer an iota in our standards of living. In fact, we will enjoy what we have much more and free ourselves from the pointless grind of accumulating and throwing away stuff and sitting in traffic.
What we should focus on however, are our interactions with each other, our experiences, and physical and mental health. A post-COVID-19 economy based on people, not stuff, is possible, but none of this is feasible without massive investments in transportation. As we discovered during lockdown, we don’t need very much stuff at all to meet our basic needs and the things we really missed more than anything are social interactions, not material accumulation.
Social interactions, experiences, physical and mental health activities mean that we need to get around, both within the city and to recreation outside of it. Doing it all by car will simply get us back to a choked-up world, sitting in vehicles for two hours to get 10 kilometres across town. This is not the normal we want.
We need to get people out of cars for short distances, particularly for things like grocery and errand runs. At the moment, if I want to buy an electric cargo bike, the bike itself will run me around $10,000, but renovating my front deck to store it will cost me multiples of that. However, for the same cost I can get a used car, and the city will gladly give me a parking permit to park it on the street, taking up public space that could be better used for green or play space.
What is stopping us from having publicly available light vehicles (think glorified golf cart) for small grocery runs? Vehicles that are light weight, not so terribly fast that they are dangerous (unlike cars) and relatively easy to operate. This can decrease so many less than five kilometre trips made by cars.
Where are the city run cargo bikes at the bike share? Why is transit still so expensive? Taking your family for brunch by car will cost can be as little as pennies for gas since there is so much free street parking, but over $20 in public transit fees.
Imagine a Toronto with such decreased traffic that we can reclaim roads for green and public spaces. Instead of yelling at our children to watch for cars the moment they step out the door, we can turn our backs and let them run into community gardens or a local piazza the moment the door opens. We have come to normalize so much going to the car that we can no longer imagine what life can be like if we didn’t give up so much space to these murderous polluters.
COVID-19 is a perfect opportunity for us to rethink our car-centric society and build a better a future. Normal was awful, and we don’t want to go back to it, but unless we put money into building a society that will support our need for human interactions, experiences, and recreation, we are going back to “normal”.
Terri Chu is an expert in energy systems, with a Masters in Engineering specializing in urban energy systems. Terri founded the grassroots organization “Why Should I Care”, a not-for-profit dedicated to engaging people on issues of public policy.