By Ken Greenberg
The reactions to the closing of the General Motors plant in Oshawa speak volumes. Leader of the Conservative Party Andrew Scheer absurdly tried to place the blame on carbon pricing–as if cheaper gas would induce more driving and stimulate sales of outmoded models of cars, just as the auto manufacturing business worldwide is attempting to respond to new market opportunities with electric and automated vehicles. At the provincial level, the Ontario government has also recklessly attempted to turn back the clock by dismantling the cap-and-trade framework that business had relied upon to make the shift, creating needless costly and painful disruption, rather than embrace the inevitable shift to new technologies and carbon reduction.
As many industry analysts have pointed out, this should have been a wake-up call for both governments to work with industry on this challenging transformation. Their focus should be on advancing new transportation and more sustainable product lines beyond the personal gas powered vehicle, thus opening up new career opportunities supported by retraining and education in an environment that makes the province attractive for the green economy.
Unquestionably, the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine was a remarkable invention for its time. For the past several generations it has had a profound influence on the shape of the urban world. But we now have an opportunity to re-evaluate this relationship, as powerful disruptions occur from the gas pump to factory floor, the parking garage, the street and the highway, and ultimately the oil fields. We’re also developing a greater appreciation of adverse effects cars have on our health, the environment inducing climate change and on the economy through congestion. Right now, we have a real chance to make a virtue of necessity, and move away from a detrimental overreliance on the car as we have known it and re-ground ourselves in more sustainable ways of living.
How we respond to this opportunity will say much about our ability to evolve successfully as a contemporary society.
Reducing auto dependence and making our cities more walkable, connecting where we live to where we work, shop and conduct our daily lives will increase quality of life and make cities more economically competitive. Streets need to be designed and retrofitted for a massive shift in mobility as active transportation, new transit options and automated vehicles drive the change in how we navigate our cities.
At the scale of neighbourhoods and buildings, planners and forward-looking developers are already embracing on-site mixed-use, and grappling with the fact that purpose-built and enormously expensive underground garages and parking structures will become white elephants if they cannot be converted to other uses as automated vehicles make them obsolete. This will free up the vast areas of our cities currently used for storing idle vehicles for new purposes.
The areas of our economy based on the extraction of fossil fuels need to rapidly diversify and make the shift to clean energy sources that are becoming increasing more affordable and will form the next multi-trillion dollar economy. The key at all these levels is to proactively plan and design for positive transition, not to desperately hang on to old patterns and expectations until the last gas-guzzling car comes off the assembly line; the last manufacturing job is cut; the last parking stall sits empty; or the last drop of oil comes out of the ground.
We can think ahead to ease the transition and avoid many of the painful disruptions by embracing the shift rather than retreating into futile denial.