Air pollution, sound pollution, pedestrian safety, quality of life and the health of fellow citizens — all of these issues have been thrown into the consciousness of the people of Ottawa and their supporters around the world. Over the last few weeks, their city was made unbearable for residents thanks to honking trucks crowding their roads and poisoning their air with diesel fumes.
It didn’t have to be this way, and I’m not just talking about Ottawa police’s refusal to keep the semis from downtown in the first days of the protest. While the Freedom Convoy increased these hardship of modern life, they were always part of living in Ottawa, as they are in any city. What was once merely tolerable before has become unbearable, but can’t we do better than tolerable? As Ottawa mops up after the invaders, remaining city council members will need to ask the big questions: How do we keep this from ever happening again? How do we make life better and safer for Ottawa? I think this protest makes a strong argument for banning vehicles altogether from the city center. Not just big trucks, and not just in Ottawa, but all gas and diesel powered vehicles in city centers the world over.
Now, my Canadian readers will have to forgive me, but some of my reference material for this argument comes from American sources and are based around how American cities operate. However, cars and trucks pose many of the same problems no matter what country they operate in.
Fossil fuel powered vehicles are dirty, loud and dangerous especially in cities. Of course, the pollution was there before the protests, but hundreds of idling diesel trucks have thrown the problem into sharp relief. A company made up of environmental scientists called Spatial Media mapped the affect of the Freedom Convoy. It’s estimated that Ottawa went from having air 12 percent better than World Health Organization guidelines before the protest to 32 percent worse.
That’s a problem for the people of Ottawa — and anyone else trying to breath in a truck-choked city. The Union For Concerned Scientists found cars, trucks and buses are a significant source for some of the pollution most harmful to human health — particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or PM 2.5:
While PM2.5 is not the only air pollutant that adversely affects health, it is estimated to be responsible for approximately 95 percent of the global public health impacts from air pollution. Long-term exposure to PM2.5 causes increased death rates attributed to cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks, and has been linked to other adverse impacts such as lung cancer. Chronic exposure to PM2.5 in children has also been linked to slowed lung-function growth, development of asthma, and other negative health impacts.
Particulate pollution is the deadliest form of background pollution, shaving 1.8 years off the average person’s lifespan, according to the World Economic Forum. Air quality isn’t the only way vehicles shorten our lives. Studies also show living a car-centric life leads to lower quality of life in general, and longer drive times are associated with an increase in smoking, obesity and worsened physical and mental health.
Even banning cars in cities part time can do wonders, like in Bogotá, Colombia, which has banned cars on Sundays and holidays since 1974. The result is the largest mass recreation program in the world, and it sounds kind of wonderful according to an article on Northeastern University:
On an average Sunday, 1.7 million people participate in the event by bicycling, running or walking in the city’s streets, unencumbered by vehicle traffic. Ciclovía is more than just a chance for bicyclists and joggers to take to the streets, it is a community gathering. Food vendors, musicians, and dancers are all known to gather along the streets to spend time outdoors and enjoy the cohesive atmosphere. Bogota’s program has been credited with inspiring a global movement to open up cities for car-free days.
Consider as well the amount of space cars take up in a city. In the relatively small 23 square miles that make up Manhattan, the amount of land devoted to cars amounts to a space four times the size of Central Park, according to the New York Times. Many downtowns devote up to 50 percent of their land to parking lots, Vox reports. That’s a lot of space for something that remains empty 80 percent of the time. Streets and parking lots also soak up heat and keep cities steaming long after the sun has gone down. Not exactly what you want in a warming world.
Cities experimented with closing off lanes of traffic during the pandemic, and the results were largely positive but such programs saw pushback from mainly folks concerned about, what else, where the cars will go, according to Bloomberg:
While designed to be short-lived, these changes often proved quite popular. Usage of newly created public space soared, and some street revisions found enduring supporters: About half of the programs were extended or expanded as the pandemic dragged on. A few, like New York City’s Open Streets, for example, were made permanent.
But these initiatives also faced pushback. Retailers and residents objected to lost parking spaces, while commuters sometimes blamed the bollards for traffic tie-ups.
The city of Oslo, which banned the majority of vehicles from its city center in 2019, found that blocking cars from certain side streets allowed for more life to flourish in those areas. From the BBC:
“Our main objective is to give the streets back to people,’’ says Hanna Marcussen, Oslo’s vice mayor for urban development. “It is about how we want to use our streets and what the streets should be for. For us, the street should be where you meet people, eat at outdoor restaurants, where kids play, and where art is exhibited.” To do this, Oslo has closed off certain streets in the centre to cars entirely. They have also removed almost all parking spots and replaced them with cycling lanes, benches and miniature parks.
It’s not just what comes from the tailpipe or the congestion of city streets that urban dwellers have to deal with. Sound pollution is also a major risk for human health — something folks in Ottawa unfortunately learned early on in the occupation as semis blared their horns for hours and hours on end. Standard traffic noice in Ottawa’s core is about 50 decibels, the same as a normal conversation. Week one of the protest saw decibels in the city’s core double to 110 in some spots, similar to a jackhammer or rock concert.
But even when noise is tolerable, it’s doing damage to your health, according to Dr. David Rojas from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain:
‘Noise produces a stimulus to the central nervous system and this stimulus releases some hormones,’ said Dr David Rojas from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain. ‘(This) increases the risk of hypertension, and hypertension has been related with many other cardiovascular (and) cerebrovascular diseases like infarction (heart attacks) and strokes.’
‘When we have a background noise, the brain has the capacity to adapt to this noise,’ he said. ‘And you don’t see it as an annoyance so much and you start to accept and adapt. But even if you are not conscious of the noise, this is still stimulating your organic system.’
These are just a few of the passive problems with living around cars in a city. I haven’t even gotten to how many people cars actively kill, which is on the rise, or the astronomical personal and environmental costs of owning and operating a vehicle.
I love cars and trucks, and I love driving, but when you’re a car owner living in a car culture in a car-centric city, every problem looks like is can be solved by a car. But can anyone legitimately say they enjoy driving bumper-to-bumper in a crowded downtown area or living in a smog filled city? I highly doubt it. There can be a better way. I don’t think we can or should ban all cars for all time in all cases, but there’s something to be said for designing the cities for the humans that live in them, rather than the cars and trucks slowly — and sometimes quickly — killing them.