Our Love Affair with the Car is Killing Our Cities

toronto traffic
Photo of Toronto Traffic: George Socka
toronto traffic
Photo of Toronto traffic: George Socka

This week, WalkScore released their results for the most pedestrian-friendly cities.

The Seattle-based technology company says Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are the top three most “walkable” cities in Canada, while New York, San Francisco and Boston are the safest places to walk in the States.

The company uses walking distance to public transit, restaurants and other amenities as its barometer to measure these pedestrian-friendly urban centers.

However, if you really look around in most large cities, the automobile rules. Our love affair with the car is killing our cities.

In Canada’s largest city, Toronto – which came in second as “most walkable” – it isn’t uncommon for city councillors to clash with motorists whenever they kill a lane of active traffic to put in a bicycle lane, a streetcar stop, or expand the sidewalk for pedestrian travel.

Ever sit in a traffic jam in New York City? If the foul language from other drivers doesn’t put you in a bad mood, the length of time inching forward in bumper-to-bumper traffic will.

NYC now and thenOur cities have constantly pushed pedestrians onto narrower and narrower sidewalks, to make room for vehicle traffic.

Yet, as the roads widened, the traffic has become far worse. Instead of easing traffic congestion, the increased space for cars has served as an invitation for motorists: “Come on down, and bring your car, we’ve widened the road just for you.”

As sidewalks and front yards were paved over, people that could afford it moved to the suburbs where they could have lush green lawns and sidewalks that stretched on into the sunset.

Even in the suburbs, we see how our love affair with the car is killing our cities.

Look down any suburban street and you will notice the nice manicured lawns and the freshly washed cars in the driveways. However, there is something missing, which shows how dependent we’ve become on our cars.


That’s what’s missing.


There aren’t any people on the sidewalks.

They are so empty, it’s as if they are out of bounds.

They aren’t out of bounds, it’s just everything in the suburbs is so far from everything else, you need a car to just go to the corner store for a container of milk.

We see this lack of pedestrian “walkability” in the way shops and other places people interact are designed in suburbia.

Big box stores, which litter the suburban landscape, are built for this car-dependent society. They are surrounded by gigantic parking lots, which you must walk through before you get even close to the entrance doors.

That’s because they weren’t designed for people walking, they were designed for people driving. The parking lots are the size of football fields, to accommodate people in cars, not people taking public transit or walking.

The only interaction people have with each other at these big box stores is usually angry stares, and disgruntled glances, as they fight over parking spots.

Cars are killing our cities, because the lack of “walkability” is making us a more hostile, less caring society.

Urban planner, Jane Jacobs, wrote about this in her popular book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it, she writes about how our cities require urban design that allows us to look after each other. We are the “watchers” as she called us, looking out for each other when our cities are inviting for people traffic, as opposed to car traffic.

She writers about how you are more likely to check in on your neighbors if it is easy to see your neighbor during their daily pedestrian travels, rather than if the only time you see those neighbors is when they get in and out of their cars.

In a sense, because our cities and surrounding areas are more car-friendly, than people-friendly, we as a society are less social.

Jacobs called this phenomenon “social capital” – which sociologists loosely define as the collective benefits derived from individuals and groups of people helping each other out.

Social capital has constantly been declining over the years, as our neighborhoods have become ever more car dependent, forcing us into our private vehicles, where we rarely interact with those around us.

This lack of interaction is caused by our love affair with the car. It’s killing our cities because, in a sense, it’s killing us. Not just in the amount of smog sent into the atmosphere, warming our planet. On a more basic level – we just don’t care about each other as we once did.

So “walkability” shouldn’t solely be based on the nearness of amenities, it should be based on how our cities are designed to encourage walking, caring societies, instead of societies which are car-based and uncaring.