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Yves Engler has been described as "Canada's version of Noam Chomsky" (Georgia Straight), “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I. F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), "ever-insightful" (rabble.ca) and a "Leftist gadfly" (Ottawa Citizen). His latest book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper's foreign policy.

Green Party sop to auto industrial complex

| October 17, 2015
Photo: Christ Keating / Flickr Creative Commons

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Why would the Green Party take a more environmentally regressive position on an important issue than Stephen Harper?

During a recent visit to Montreal, Elizabeth May added her voice to the main opposition parties telling suburbanites they should expect the federal government to continue aggressively subsidizing the most costly, unhealthy and ecologically destructive form of land transport.

May told Le Devoir that her party didn’t necessarily support the Harper government’s plan to implement a toll when the Champlain Bridge is rebuilt at a projected cost of over $4 billion.

“The Green Party doesn’t have a rigid position on the issue,” May said. “Before talking about a toll, we need to agree on what kind of mass transit we want to put in place between the South Shore and the island [of Montréal]. Maybe if there is an efficient system a reduction in traffic on the bridge will take place naturally and the toll won’t be necessary.”

Either this is political opportunism of the worst sort or a lack of real commitment to combatting climate change.

Anyone with the least respect for climate science ought to oppose building an auto-centered bridge of any sort (toll or no toll). But even a fully bike/pedestrian/mass transit oriented bridge, which isn’t being seriously discussed, should include a toll. A light rail dominated, private car free, bridge would still include a lane for trucks, emergency vehicles and buses. While buses and emergency vehicles ought to cross freely, trucks should pay to use a multi-billion-dollar bridge since they are dangerous, noisy, high carbon emitting and mostly transport goods for private businesses.

Perhaps the Green Party’s unwillingness to publicly back a toll on the Champlain Bridge has little to do with a serious analysis of its ecological or social implications. Perhaps it’s a sop to a political culture, shaped by the auto industrial complex, that tells drivers it is their right to be subsidized every metre of their 10, 40 or 80 kilometre daily drive (alone) into the city. Having been seduced by land developers into buying big houses far from work, suburbanites are outraged at the prospect of paying the direct – leaving aside climate and health – costs for each kilometre of their trek.

But, surely a Green Party leader ought to publicly declare that climate science makes this state of affairs unsustainable. If not her, then who?

And if electoral politics makes this an impossible position to take then no moral, ecologically minded person should enter party politics. (The Green’s opportunism is made more depressing by the fact that they have little chance of winning a seat on the South Shore.)

The Green’s ambiguity towards a bridge toll reflects a larger problem with groups challenging the dominance of private cars. They generally shy away from supporting policies that increase the costs or make lives more difficult for drivers and instead focus on inducing individuals to leave their automobiles through new transport services. While expanding transit options is often necessary, those of us who really care about human health, the livability of urban spaces and humanity’s capacity to survive on this planet shouldn’t fear initiatives that punish private car travel. We must tell the truth.

Increasing gas taxes, tolls and congestion fees, as well as eliminating parking, tearing down highways and otherwise freeing streets from vehicles, should all be pursued in the struggle against private automobility.

Dedicating a lane to buses or even building a light rail on a new bridge is unlikely to substantially reduce car travel if other automotive infrastructure is maintained or expanded. One reason for this is that cars usually fill whatever space is devoted to them. Another part of the explanation is that areas built entirely for cars can’t simply adopt mass transit. Car dominated urban landscapes must be radically revamped and one way to encourage these transformations is to make drivers pay more of the cost of their trips.

While I believe in challenging the private car at every turn, there is a tactical/social argument for focusing on corporations driving auto dominance rather than individual drivers. But the Green Party is not articulating these types of policies either. If they wanted to challenge automotive hegemony, but avoid angering individual drivers, they could target automakers’ omnipresent advertising, which largely explains the private car’s immense cultural standing. Many times more damaging than cigarettes, car advertising should be (as with tobacco) steadily eliminated. Or, how about pushing for a quota system whereby automakers’ are compelled to steadily increase the production of rideshare vehicles, buses, bikes and light rail cars in exchange for the right to sell private cars. The objective would be to push auto companies to produce less ecologically/socially damaging products all the while maintaining employment levels.

While it’s unclear how best to curb auto dependence, current efforts are failing. Greater Montréal’s car stock is growing by some 45,000 vehicles a year and new auto sales, driven by gas guzzling SUVs and light trucks, are on pace to reach a record in 2015.

In the current political culture many find it easier to imagine the collapse of civilization than the replacement of a transportation/urban planning system that harms our health and destroys cityscapes. But, either we curtail the private car or accept that human civilization is unlikely to survive much longer.

Et tu Elizabeth May?

 

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Photo: Christ Keating / Flickr Creative Commons

A version of this article appeared at Richocet

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