Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Sun's War on Sense

"Who needs a car in L.A.? We have the best public transportation system in the world."
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1988

God forgive me, but over the weekend I bought - actually paid money for - a copy of the Toronto Sun.

I was only ever a casual reader of the Sun at best, and that was nine years ago, and only because its tabloid format fit conveniently on the counter of the gas station where I worked at the time. The only reason I bought their Sunday edition this weekend was that it provoked what may be my first instance of stopping and laughing at a newspaper box, just from the sheer stones its front page exhibited.

"GETTING THE GEARS," the headline goes, a remarkable departure from the ordinary for the Sun considering it does not have anything to do with the Leafs or a murder - a predilection pointed out by James D. Schwartz at Toronto Sun Sucks, who has also commented on this story. It is, in fact, a Sun Media Special Report "on fixing the decline of our great city," bylined by Jenny Yuen. Its subheadline elaborates thus: "T.O.'s war on cars: Transit gets the dough while gridlock's a way of life for city's beleagured drivers."

Because if there's one word that can adequately describe the cultural and political force that has shaped the patterns of urban development in North America for the past seventy years, it's "beleagured."

Yuen and, undoubtedly, the editors-in-charge of the Sun come shooting right of the gate, attacking Metrolinx's 25-year, $50-billion "Big Move" transportation initiative as having "no plans to make it easier for cars to move throughout the city." Gridlock, you see, accounts for two wasted work weeks per year, and the only alternative to that is simple, at least if you're the Toronto Sun: insufficient vespene gas roadways! The city council is described as "anti-car" for its support of the Sheppard East LRT - there's no mention of the Finch or Eglinton LRT, strangely enough - and its projects to expand the city's network of bike lanes.

"It's city policy to put pedestrians, cyclists, and transit ahead of automobiles," Yuen writes. What isn't said, but what the reader is obviously meant to hear, is "and this is a bad thing." The special report, occupying three full pages in the Sun's print edition, does its best to not only cast the issue as "the automobile vs. everything else," but to make the automobile the underdog.

So what is anti-car in the Sun's estimation? Beyond the obvious hot-button issues which already frustrate drivers, such as the potential demolition of the Gardiner Expressway east of Yonge or a lack of parking at their destinations, it appears that anti-car encompasses everything that prevents a driver from getting anywhere he wants as fast as possible. The "What Cars Are Up Against" infobox has every appearance of being directly transcribed from a whiteboard after an editorial brainstorming session; apparently cars are threatened by, among other things, scramble intersections (because those extra twenty seconds at Yonge and Dundas will throw your whole life off kilter, don'cha know), highway tolls (apparently it's written in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that all citizens have the right to use taxpayer-funded multi-lane expressways to their hearts' content, and transit systems shall have to beg and scrape from whatever scraps may fall from the table), transit expansion (because your lonesome self in your car is way more important than the ninety people in the streetcar ahead of you), and speed bumps.

Goddamn speed bumps. How wrong we were to dare to limit internal combustion's roar! Please, charge through this quiet residential subdivision as fast as you like!

The automotive-liberation and automotive-adulthood memes - "a car means freedom" and "you're not really a grown-up until you have your own set of wheels" - have had nearly a hundred years to cement themselves into almost every facet of North American life. What seemed like a good idea in the 1920s, after the Armistice put an end to war and the world was luxuriating in prosperity that would never end, has since become a straitjacket that most of us don't even see anymore. Public transit, by comparison, has to deal with the "only poor people and losers ride the bus" meme that, since the end of the war and the explosive growth of suburbia, has become entrenched outside of major urban centers. It may be that this idea is stronger in the United States than in Canada, but the aggregate effect is the same.

The way I see it, the 21st century is going to be characterized by the realization that we have dug ourselves into a damned deep hole, and it's starting to get dark outside and the rope we have may not be long enough to climb out. One of the best things we can do now is to invest in alternative means of transportation, transportation that isn't predicated on the assumption that everyone has their own set of wheels, and encourage new patterns of travel.

Cars in and of themselves aren't negative or bad - in my mind, it's what they encourage that's bad. Sprawling subdivisions where everything is far removed from everything else, winding roads that cut through forests as cleanly as a lumberjack's axe, rows of cardboard castles groaning between the weight of a return-to-rural ideal that has no place in the modern age. They encourage dependency and they encourage isolation.

I'll admit that the article does have its bright spots. It points out, for example, that a 15% decrease in car emissions by 2031 could result if active measures were taken to reduce congestion and increase transit use. Nevertheless, that's still only an estimate, and I have to wonder if it would take into account the additional emissions that would be produced through the induced demand which new road systems would provoke. "If you build it, they will come" will always be the case so long as our civilization retains its present shape. We will be exactly where we started, except even more land will be buried under asphalt and concrete, and calls to give drivers a break will start anew.

Nevertheless, through this report the Sun is, at its core, agitating for business continue as usual. It would have us continue following the blueprints of a bygone age until they crumble to dust in our hands - and when that day comes, rather than build something new, we'll just redraw them just the way they were.

The worst part of it, though, is that this special report is also available on the Sun's website, and I needn't have laid down my money for it at all. The North York Brain Rays must have got me again.

north york brain rays would make a good name for a rock band

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