Worshipping the Automobile: Car Culture as Civic Religion

Sixty years ago, this city was a haven for pedestrians. There were well-developed streetcar lines, a bus system and frequent train connections to every city and town in the area. Life without a car was not only possible, it was commonplace. So, what the hell happened? How did Kitchener-Waterloo become a concrete wasteland, a place where the car-less life has become an odyssey? What fed the cancerous growth of suburban development, of big-box stores and streets without sidewalks?

There are two levels to the answer: policy and belief. Practically, the responsibility lies squarely with the city governments and business elites. In the post-war years, they embraced the distaste for everything old that was running rampant in society. The streetcar tracks were torn up (the city is now thinking of spending $140 million to rebuild them), density became a bad word, and endless suburban sprawl was encouraged as the economic and cultural wave of the future. After fifty years of urban planning as a ridiculous farce, we’re left with an anonymous sprawl that could be anywhere in North America, for all the local identity it has. There, in a nutshell, is the “what”. More upsetting is the “why”. It has nothing to do with making economic, aesthetic, or cultural sense. The twin cities, and most others on the continent, have been gutted by the unwavering worship of the car. Four wheels and a pile of steel apparently make an excellent graven idol –the city governments and businesses have been down on their knees for more than half a century.

Take Waterloo, for example. The council has recently taken a more progressive turn, approving the destruction of the parking lot in front of Waterloo Town Square to create a public square. Fine, great idea; a sixty-space parking lot has no place in the focal point of the main street. What’s amazing is the caterwauling that came from local businesses about this. Heaven forbid that we make people walk an additional 30 metres to do their shopping! Even downtown merchants, who should understand their dependence on foot traffic, have been seduced by the belief that catering to the car keeps them in business. Cities can explain away bad planning by arguing that they are just giving the people what they want, but that is nothing but a cowardly cop-out. This culture is a creature of their own social engineering. This is not only a matter of faith, of course –politicians have long been in the pockets of the developers.

Car culture hurts people. It makes us fat, it turns the air yellow throughout the summer, and it favors large businesses at the expense of small, parking lots instead of parks. As university students, we are many ways in the exception, largely living in the city centre. Most people here, though, live in a cancer -one destroying some of the best land in the country to replace it with sterile nothingness. If and when these cities ever pull their heads from the sand, there will be a hell of a lot of work to do.