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Private car ownership is Public enemy number one

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Last week, the assertion was made that private car ownership should be deemed public enemy number one. How could the one possession which has granted us freedom of movement, also inadvertently made us slaves to a lifestyle that is unhealthy, unsustainable, unproductive and unnatural?


It is easy to overlook the devastation caused by our driving culture. It has resulted in the urbanised portion of Trinidad being more or less one large, sprawling mess of architecturally inarticulate suburbs, generic automobile-oriented shopping malls, seas of parking lots, and miles of scorching asphalt. 


What does it mean for our quality of life and the social sustainability of the nation when the majority of us spend hours every day in traffic, only to go home to a house located in an economically-homogenous enclave, where one can’t walk to a grocery store, a park, or for that matter, even find a pavement to walk on? There is a connection between driving, the health of people and the environment. The more we drive, the less we walk or cycle, and the more we pollute our air supply. 


It should come as no surprise that walking, the forgotten mode of transportation, is incredibly beneficial to our health. Research by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine has shown that walking to work instead of driving makes one 40 per cent and 17 per cent less likely to develop diabetes and high blood pressure, respectively.


In a country where we are willing to adopt North American trends, will we take note of this anti-car movement, or will we dismiss it as un-Trinidadian and complain that our hot climate prevents us from walking, as we line up at the fast food drive-through during our two-hour commute home?


Clearly, our idea of what constitutes a well-functioning city is skewed. Long-term mobility problems cannot be solved by building more highways, overpasses, and interchanges. It has been proven and is intuitively evident, that the more convenient you make it to drive, the more people will choose to drive, and the more congested roads will become.



A change in mentality is key
We are collectively striving to imitate a city that is desperately trying to reinvent its own image. Yes, Miami, in its current incarnation, is certainly not an example of sound urban planning. If we want to imitate Miami, then we should look not at what it has done in the past, but what it is now trying to do.



According to a Miami Herald article titled Miami Wants Pedestrian-Friendly Downtown, city commissioners want to turn the city’s streets into a “Downtown Pedestrian Priority Zone” by widening sidewalks, creating tree-lined canopies, reducing clutter, and slowing down traffic. In other words, Miami understands that its automobile culture is holding it back from becoming a truly great and liveable city.


Our problems were created over decades and will take just as long to ameliorate. The solution lies in a functional, multi-modal public transportation system; urban design standards, retrofits that create aesthetically pleasing streets and prioritise the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, and densification.


A change in mentality is key. We cannot all live in a 5,000-square-foot house on a half-acre plot of land, and we cannot view single land-use districts as ideal. Vibrant, sustainable neighbourhoods are created through the adoption of mixed-use zones, where one can easily walk to a park, pharmacy or restaurant. 


Limiting our cities to exclusively commercial uses exacerbates the problem. Increased density necessitates decreased home sizes. However when planned right, the new-found proximity to amenities and the ability to easily access your daily needs by foot or bike in a pleasurable environment more than make up for smaller spaces.


There needs to be a revision of archaic planning policies at the Town and Country Planning Division, to allow for mid-rise buildings ranging from four to ten storeys to be built in major urban centres, where currently only two to three storey buildings are allowed. From an economic perspective, it is not attractive to develop a low-rise residential building in the heart of an urban area, as the cost of land is prohibitive.


In addition, financial incentives, possibly in the form of tax breaks, will also be needed for builders that construct housing in the urban cores, revitalising areas like Port-of-Spain, San Fernando, Chaguanas, Point Fortin and Arima. If you take nothing else away, remember these three things: walking is free; good public transportation is your right, so demand it; and the love of driving is enslaving you. These are exciting times, and it should be evident that a paradigm shift will benefit all.


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