COVID is highlighting the need for cars — even downtown

By Johanne Brownrigg

COVID 19. We know it’s changing us and those around us. Families and work lives have been impacted. We simply aren’t yet sure if these changes are permanent. Some though, if not permanent, are definitely long-term.

A lot has been written about the potential gutting of downtown cores, from New York city, to Toronto, to Vancouver. Buyers are looking for homes with more green space, the private kind. And they are moving farther out to get it. It’s changing the landscape literally. But another need has asserted itself in our hearts.

COVID 19 has us falling in love with our cars all over again.

If you don’t own a car, you probably depend on someone else who does. Whether it’s Skip the dishes, Uber, taxis, family or friends, we either need to own a car or pay for use of someone else’s car. Either way, this pandemic has placed the four-wheeled wonder firmly back in our hearts.

Riding a bike in a walkable neighbourhood is an upper-crust luxury. Using it to commute is not for the average person. It isn’t the average working mom, single or not, who is bringing home her children’s school supplies for the year, on a bike. Dad’s aren’t hauling bags and bags of groceries from the ‘nearest’ grocery store on their bikes either. In fact, downtown, or some of our other tony neighbourhoods, a neighborhood grocery store cuts a very wide swath. Thank you, Lyft. And generally outside those postal codes, it’s vroom vroom.

People have legitimately been put off of public transit. Social distancing is not a problem there. Just ask the minuscule number of people taking the bus or the train. Better public transit is a good thing but along with cycling, it is not the only thing. COVID has made the limitations of mass transit very personal.

Ottawa’s very recent Transportation Committee meeting had plenty of cycling advocates calling for more cycling infrastructure. It also had groups and associations calling for the city to make a declaration of zero deaths on Ottawa streets. (Honestly how much power do these people and Councilors Menard and Fleury think they have? Did their job come with a cape?). Ecology Ottawa’s Robb Barnes asked for car-free zones and reduced car lanes. No voices were heard on behalf of our beloved cars. Pity.

In the early days, cars were loved for the amazing machines they were, as people realized just how connected they could continue to be in spite of distance. Whether visiting their children, parents, relatives and friends in faraway places, distance was no longer the barrier it had once been.

Now vehicles are loved as people realize just how dis-connected from others they want to be.

Camping, RVing, day trips, cross country trips, we are resorting to our vehicles for safety on the road and safety in our bubble.

It is doubtful that we will soon board a train or a bus as willingly as we have in the past. Will it not take years for people to return fearlessly to mass transit? Or to move back to downtown cores?

Ottawa city planners and councilors have to rethink their approach to cars. It is clear we need traffic enhancing measures, not calming measures. As our city council promotes intensification, they will have to work around their disdain of cars and parking them. Zoning that grants permission for builders to erect towering condos and even smaller apartment buildings, without a minimum of one parking space per unit, has to stop. Even if they are on the O Train line. There needs to be a moratorium on the approval of the il-equipped infrastructure of these buildings. The long-term repercussions of ignoring reality will impact neighbourhoods forever. Parking overflow will be the neighbourhood nightmare created by their daydreaming.

We want our cars. We aren’t letting them go anytime soon but especially not now. Because it’s 2020 and it feels like it will be for some time to come.

Photo: Unsplash