Petro prices could drive more to bus, try walking

Focus, Tuesday, November 8, 2005, p. A13

Repopulating of core, better transit are key to going without car

DALLAS HANSEN

ECONOMISTS and geologists have offered ample warning that the days of cheap oil would not last. This year, however, their words took on new meaning when gasoline prices rose beyond a dollar per litre.

Were it any other product, consumers might be induced to substitution, even a change in lifestyle. But most Canadians have instead opted to take the hit and keep on motoring, with many venting their anger in nasty letters to our dithering prime minister, demanding he take action.

On a macro level, even a complete elimination of the gasoline tax would do nothing to change the laws of supply and demand, conditions over which the government is helpless. But on a micro level, householders decrying the unaffordability of petrol could adopt one simple policy to rein in their transportation budgets. They can quit driving.

It’s not impossible. Motorists living in such urban enclaves as Toronto’s Bloor West Village or Vancouver’s West End will admit to seldom using their car for anything other than weekend getaways that seldom happen every week. Even here in Winnipeg there exist districts scaled to the wayfarer rather than the driver.

Upon closer inspection, the Everyday Low Prices of suburbia’s big boxes aren’t necessarily so low. To begin with, their location and layout presuppose automobile ownership.

At current gas prices, owning and operating even a basic vehicle will average over $400 per month. Driving something that invites ignominy will cost closer to $700 per month. Shopping at local grocers in the walkable central city might mean paying more for some items, but there’s little chance that the difference will add up to hundreds a month.

Corner store

Moreover, the overpriced independent grocer seems to be more myth than substance. Recently I ran to the corner store for an emergency bottle of lemon juice which I bought for $1.99. The nearest chain supermarket sold the same bottle for $2.69.

Besides the fiscal, other benefits to quitting driving concern one’s quality of life. Having somewhere to buy fresh produce between the transit stop and one’s home means fresher food. Missing ingredients can be had without wrangling through traffic and navigating a sea of seemingly endless parking. Smaller grocers are often family owned, and some, even in this day, still allow regular customers to run an informal tab.

Quitting driving can improve health too, for walking offers us exercise without the tedium or cost of visiting a fitness club.

While few would disagree that the automobile is unessential for the bachelor life, most Canadians would say that a car (or minivan or SUV) is a must for raising families. But the inner cities are filled with zero-car households that often comprise more than a kid or two. Many of these families can’t afford a car, but many can. Their children are obliged to get around on their own: walking, bicycling, skateboarding, even riding public transit. Our nation of chauffeured children is really a nation of coddled, overprotected, spoiled brats.

Until gas prices rise yet further, life sans auto won’t be a catching trend. How far up need they go? It’s possible that oil at $100 a barrel will draw mass demonstrations, even rioting, before it will draw people from their auto-centric lifestyles.

But in the last year or so, Winnipeg Transit buses have seemed much fuller, with many routes standing-room-only not just during peak hours, but throughout the day and indeed even the evening.

Most of these new riders likely did not opt out of driving; they were forced out, by economic circumstances. It would be an interesting statistic, the number of Winnipeggers who spend more on transportation than they do on housing.

Winnipeggers frequently congratulate themselves on having a lower cost-of-living than Canada’s three overpriced metropolises. What they fail to mention, however, is that in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver — in the central city at least — it’s possible to live without a car and not be stigmatized, ridiculed, or inconvenienced.

In Winnipeg this might not be so, but given a proper transit system and the repopulation of the inner city, more of us who can afford to drive will make the choice not to.

Category: Editorial and Opinions
Uniform subject(s): Inflation, prices and salaries; Oil and petrochemical industries
Length: Medium, 584 words

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