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GREENINGS: What happens if we don’t want to go back to the “before” times? (July 2020)

August 7th, 2020 · No Comments

Pandemic shows we can live on so much less

While many of us are enjoying cleaner air in the neighbourhood, undoubtably there are people up at night worried about what happens if the air never goes back to being as toxic as it once was. Trillions of dollars are at stake if we, as a society, decide we don’t really want to go back to the “before” times where people drove hours to get to work and mindlessly went shopping for entertainment. 

Thousands of people are enjoying Toronto’s streets for physical activity. The old guard at city hall must be worrying, ‘What if voters decide they like this?’ Just letting us plebes see the light is a dangerous peek into Pandora’s box. 

That old guard has been protecting the car lobby interests for decades. They resist everything from bike lanes to increases in parking rates. Since I’ve been in Toronto, TTC fares have increased from $2 to $3.25, a whopping 63% increase while the upper end of street parking has increased a corresponding 43%. The $2 an hour street parking that existed a decade ago still exists now. 

These are not circumstantial decisions. Policy has a very direct impact on how a city runs and every decision maker knows it. More expensive transit and cheaper parking spots pushes people to drive more. This is a very simple supply and demand equation every student learns by 9th grade. Our policies have very intentionally kept congestion high. None of the politicians are so stupid that they don’t understand this. We live in a world where profits have always come at the expense of health and happiness. 

What happens if everyone enjoying the streets for the fresh air, physical activity, and other social, yet socially-distant activities that were meant to be the heart of living in a city, decide they don’t want to go back to the way things were? What happens if these reclaimed streets stay reclaimed? 

Fewer Canadians will die of air pollution and related illnesses. Fewer Canadians will die of car accidents. All this is terrible news for oil companies like Shell, who have openly admitted that they don’t know if oil will ever recover. Cars are getting 3 weeks to the litre right now and our new reality is a frightening time for those who depended on us being trapped in a cycle of consumption. Cleaner air means lower profits among the top tier of society in the economic system we have in place. 

The longer we stay in lockdown, the lower the appetite will be to go back to our once wasteful ways. This partially explains the rush to reopen despite the nearly 200 new cases of COVID 19 a day still being posted. 

What the world might look like post-pandemic is a scary thought for many, many people who depended on the way things were. These were the same people who insisted we can’t tackle the climate crisis because of, “the economy .” 

This pandemic is showing us that we can indeed live on so much less. We must not be afraid of telling the political class that we want to put people first. We must not be afraid of saying we want the streets for kids, not cars. We need an economy that doesn’t depend on compromising our health and safety to be strong. Teaching my daughter to ride a bike on nearly empty streets has been such an enjoyable experience. As frightening as the new reality may sound, I don’t want to go back.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy use, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths. Send questions, comments, and ideas for future columns to Terri at terri.chu@whyshouldicare.ca.

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Tags: Annex · Life