Winter, Car Culture & City Planning
I have recently realized that I genuinely enjoy so many aspects of wintertime — including the cold, the snow, and even the darkness to an extent. The lack of daylight can be depressing, but I think it would feel weird to have long daylight with cold weather (if that’s even possible?). I love going for walks during a snowfall, and I love the feeling of the cool air on my face as long as I’m appropriately dressed for the weather. I enjoy the way the winter makes indoor spaces feel so much more cozy and intimate. I find winter landscapes to be especially beautiful, the way a blanket of snow seems to truly put the world to sleep for a few months. Ted Harrison has been my favourite artist since I was a child, and I think the way that he painted snowy Canadian landscapes captures exactly what I love about winter.
What I truly dislike about the winter months is the need to commute and drive a car around in darkness, on icy roads, in terrible weather, and unsafe driving conditions. I hate being in traffic even in the best circumstances, but winter means I have to be more concerned about myself and other drivers and the increased potential for collisions. It’s not the cold, or the snow, or the darkness, or the length of winter — it’s that we have to deal with all of that on top of having to commute to jobs that many of us may find unfulfilling.
Before moving home to Calgary, I already knew there would be certain things that I would miss about living on the west coast. Cycling and running outside all year, the earlier spring, and living by the ocean to name a few. Somebody once mentioned to me that I would probably miss Victoria when I have to scrape my car windshield in the morning, and this made me question why people despise this task so much. I don’t think that scraping our windows is the real issue here. I think the problem is having to get up early, leave our homes and commute to a job that requires our labour for 40 hours a week until retirement. Scraping windows is just the first task required before our workdays can even begin, so that we can earn money to survive in a capitalist society. I don’t hear anyone complaining about scraping their windows on the way to the ski-hill, so I think the issue stems from our alienated labour under capitalism.
Another contributing factor to this issue is that we live in a city that prioritizes roads, private car ownership, and the fossil fuel industry — rather than providing adequate public transit for a city of our size. We live in a world where the daily lives of most working class people have become so busy that we feel we don’t have enough time to accomplish everything we need to get done beyond work and our basic survival. Between working multiple jobs, commuting to and from work, feeding ourselves, supporting children or other family members, it seems like our lives are busier than ever before with many people feeling that they are just scraping by. As a result, it’s no surprise that many people turn to the most convenient, or the quickest way to get through our days, whether it’s ordering takeout or delivery instead of home cooking, or commuting in personal cars rather than taking slower, more sustainable options — like public transportation.
Calgary has such a poor public transportation network with limited coverage across such a vast metropolitan sprawl, that it incentivizes people to own their own vehicles and drive themselves instead of choosing to take the bus or the C-Train. Public transit is not only less expensive than owning and operating a vehicle, but it is significantly more environmentally friendly because of the lower emissions produced per person — since a bus or train can carry more people over the same distance than single occupant automobiles. The lower cost of public transportation makes it a more equitable option for people who are unable to afford a car themselves due to the many (primarily financial) barriers to entry including (but not limited to) the initial purchase cost, lack of approved credit, insurance, gasoline/electricity, repairs, and parking etc.
Calgary also has some of the highest parking costs of many major cities across North America, which means that regardless which mode of transportation we choose, commuters still get screwed. This means that despite Calgary having an inadequate public transportation network for its size and population, our city has made it more convenient to traverse by automobile, despite the obvious fact that not everyone can afford to own a vehicle. This also means that even if someone — like myself, were to own their own vehicle — which I do, but wanted to use public transportation to commute, I would be more likely to take my car instead because of our lack of alternatives. Calgary — through intentional planning, encourages people to take the more convenient, and more expensive option, rather than catering to the people without the privilege of wealth that enables private vehicle ownership.
The city has been constructed in a manner that ensures recurring revenue to the fossil fuel industry. Urban sprawl, subdivisions, lack of investment into and active resistance against public or active transportation means that cars are king in Calgary. Forcing people to drive themselves around the city ensures that more gasoline is burned and purchased — it keeps money flowing into an industry that is toxic for ourselves and the environment. Calgary incentivizes automobile transportation to such an aggressive extent that the city is continually willing to steamroll through Indigenous lands — lands that have already been reduced over generations, just for the convenience of drivers (i.e., the southwest quarter of the ring-road), instead of placing that same level of investment into expanding or improving public transportation to the benefit of everyone.
My wife and I are fortunate that we were able to purchase an electric vehicle (EV) together, which has helped to reduce our reliance on the fossil fuel industry to some extent. The electricity that charges our car is still produced through the burning of fossil fuels, but there are significantly fewer emissions than if we were still driving a gas-powered vehicle. However, we are currently unable to charge our EV at home, which means that I rely on public/private charging networks which aren’t very extensive in Alberta — to no surprise. The lack of charging infrastructure in Alberta is an intentional resistance against the coming energy transition we will be forced to navigate in the face of climate change, despite the fact that having more EV chargers would still benefit the oil and gas industry in the near term.
However, I would gladly give up our EV in exchange for more walkable neighbourhoods and increased investments into public and active transportation. We should be expanding our C-Train lines, electrifying our buses and trains, incentivizing ridership by reducing fares, and expanding safe cycling infrastructure. These initiatives would not only make Calgary a leader in the fight against the climate crisis, but I think it would make Calgary more attractive overall by making the city easier to navigate without the need to own a vehicle. I hate driving in the first place, but I hate driving even more when it’s cold and dark and icy outside. I love the cold, I love winter, I love being outside in the peace and quiet of a winter snowfall on the prairies. We can’t expect everyone to be able to afford to buy their own car and every other cost associated with car ownership, and we shouldn’t force people to drive in such unwelcoming conditions.
Despite the horrific losses caused by the pandemic, I feel somewhat grateful that it has changed much of our typical workday habits, because the thought of waking up early to shovel, scrape off a car, and drive to work, five days a week for the rest of my life, in darkness, shitty weather, and traffic, sounds so fucking miserable that I struggle to comprehend that so many of us just accepted this as normal for so long. Extensive, reliable, and sustainable public transit is an intersectional need which could help address climate change, wealth inequality, and personal safety. The present moment demands an ideological shift away from petro-nationalism and car culture to ensure a more equitable future for all Calgarians.