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In Canada, more suburbs means more cars - and more problems

In the fight to halt the already irreversible impacts of climate change, we are now turning to an underutilized tool: urban planning. A critical aspect of managing the effects of climate change across our most populated regions, the need for bold, progressive urban planning policy has never been more vital in Canada. 

The stock approach of developing ever larger and more sprawling suburban neighbourhoods outside of major city centres, where residents are forced to rely on cars to meet their needs is no longer working. To make this change, Canadians will need to make monumental shifts, including how they define success and home ownership, and a complete overhaul of how we currently perceive and live our lives.

Historical context is key to understanding the surge of suburbanization across North America. Canadian families sought the idyllic life of detached family homes and commuting by car on uncongested streets in the production, immigration, and population booms following the end of the Second World War. 

Factors including land availability, improved transportation networks, and the promise of a more tranquil lifestyle – influenced in part by
popular media of the time – led to the rapid expansion of suburbs around major cities. Suburban development, marked by single-family homes, manicured lawns, mostly white neighbourhoods, and a heavy reliance on cars, became the norm.

As migration of major urban centers, and wartime automobile production returned to serving its consumers, close to
80% of all Canadian passenger travel was done by automobile by 1953. Suburban sprawl and extensive road work began ramping up to meet the demand, leading to the construction and paving of some of Canada’s largest highways, including the TransCanada highway and Ontario’s 401, the famed Highway of Heroes. 

Every urban center presents its own unique challenges. Canada has had a historically heavy reliance on suburban, car-focused infrastructure to meet demand. Across the country,
more than two-thirds of Canada’s population lives in the suburbs. And despite a fast-deteriorating housing market, crippling interest rates, and an unprecedented cost of living crisis, people are still eager to move to the suburbs. Ultimately, the rising costs of fuel, groceries, and mortgages required to purchase the homes themselves are quickly making this desired lifestyle inaccessible to millions.

While suburbanization and car-centric infrastructure have helped contribute to the economic growth and development of the province, the inherent reliance on automobiles has also led to a range of challenges facing Canadians as a whole – making them spend more time gridlocked in traffic, while releasing more pollution into the atmosphere, all for very few gains in return.

Emissions & Traffic

The prevalence of automobiles, of course, contributes to decreased air quality. Emissions from cars, particularly in stop-and-go traffic on the province’s numerous oft-congested highways, release a steady stream of pollutants. Traffic congestion has had a profound impact on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

In 2022, for example, transportation in Canada contributed to an increase of nearly 180 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (or MtCO₂) into the atmosphere – an increase of 7% versus 2021. While this isn’t limited just to suburban motor vehicle travel, heavy reliance on cars in suburban areas further exacerbates this issue, making it challenging for the province to meet its emissions reduction targets.

There have been efforts to combat this. In Ontario, for example, emissions testing standards were first introduced in 1999 as part of Ontario’s Drive Clean initiative. These standards were relaxed in 2019 following criticisms of inefficiency and costs to taxpayers and canceled outright by Premier Doug Ford in 2018. In 20 years’ time, manufacturers have been able to design and engineer cleaner engines; instead, the more relaxed DriveON program was introduced for diesel-powered commercial and light-duty vehicles.

But as suburban sprawl advances further, more highways and road infrastructure are often touted as necessary in order to serve them. The irony is that more highway infrastructure needed for car-dependent suburbs and drivers in general only increases traffic congestion, and does nothing to relieve that congestion. Increasing highway lanes increases development, which results in more commuting, which results in more congestion. So more road capacity leads to more individual driving, local driving, and commercial driving.

In economic terms, building more highway infrastructure to relieve congestion is the concept of induced demand in action: if you make something easier to access by increasing the supply, more people will do it. If travel demand is high, the induced result is more cars – and more sunk public costs in infrastructure that only further compounds the issue.

Rapid Expansion, Small Gains

Suburban expansion is, in part, due to ways of thinking about infrastructure and housing that might have worked in the past but are fast losing their effectiveness in the present day. It is also driven by political decision-making and the appeasement of taxpayers, the vast majority of whom are, like politicians and legislators themselves, suburban residents. 

The reality is this: suburban sprawl costs often outweigh the amount of tax revenue they generate. Conversely, more tax revenue is generated in densely populated urban areas. Suburbs simply cost more, and are subsidized by the cities they surround. This fact is true wherever you can find suburban sprawl in North America. Simply put, suburbs are net-negatives for tax revenue. And they’re getting bigger all the time.

Expansion of suburban areas
often results in the loss of vital biodiversity and natural habitats for local wildlife. In the ongoing quest for low-density, single-family housing the fragmentation of ecosystems and the opening of protected lands for development all appear to be negligible risks. Emphasizing the importance of green space preservation is often in direct conflict with the realities of projected population growth in Canada and the challenges, such as affordable housing and high costs of living, they face.

A Way Forward

There are numerous solutions to this problem that can help satisfy these needs while shiting toward more sustainable, eco-friendly solutions:

  • Transit-Oriented Development 

    • Encouraging higher-density, mixed-use developments around transit hubs can help reduce reliance on cars and promote greater public transportation service area coverage and usage.

    • Investing in active, pedestrian-friendly transportation infrastructure such as cycling lanes and walking paths can be viable transportation options for residents to freely commute in car-dependent areas

  • Green Infrastructure Support

    • Continue to promote energy-efficient and environmentally friendly building practices in suburban developments with increased tax credits

    • This extends to developmental infrastructure, too – investing in projects to manage stormwater, improve local water quality, and create and enhance suburban green spaces for residents to enjoy. Engage local community residents in the planning process to ensure needs and concerns are raised and properly addressed

  • Local Business Support

    • Support for local businesses to reduce the need for long-distance car travel. Building out local business networks can create greater self-sustaining suburban communities while providing residents with easily accessible options that can be reached by honourable means of transport – by bike or on foot, for example

Addressing these issues necessitates a shift in urban planning strategies towards a more sustainable approach: adopting transit-oriented development, promoting active transportation, and implementing green building practices, Canada can work towards a more environmentally responsible and livable future. 

As the country continues to grow and urbanize, it is essential for policymakers, urban planners, and residents to recognize the consequences of well-researched car-centric infrastructure, and take proactive steps to mitigate them. Through informed and sustainable urban planning, Canada can strike a balance between progressive economic growth and environmental conservation, thereby ultimately creating more resilient and healthy communities for all.

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Tags: ecosystem environment sustainability politics emissions canada revenue taxes public policy driving traffic urban suburban cars urban planning automobile suburbs


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