Ottawa protest is why we should ban cars in cities

Protesters stand in front of trucks during a demonstration by truckers against pandemic health rules and the Trudeau government, outside the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa on February 13, 2022.

Protesters stand in front of trucks during a demonstration by truckers against pandemic health rules and the Trudeau government, outside the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa on February 13, 2022.
Photo: Photo by Ed JONES / AFP (Getty Images)

Air pollution, noise pollution, pedestrian safety, quality of life and the health of fellow citizens — all of these issues have been brought to the attention of Ottawa citizens and their supporters around the world. In recent weeks, their town has become unbearable for residents as truck horns clog their roads and poison their air with diesel fumes.

It shouldn’t have been that way, and I’m not just talking about the Ottawa Police’s refusal to guard the downtown semis in the early days of the protest. While the Freedom Convoy has compounded these hardships of modern life, they have always been a part of life in Ottawa, as they are in any city. What was once simply tolerable has become unbearable, but can’t we do better than tolerable? As Ottawa prepares after the invaders, the remaining members of city council will have to ask themselves the big questions: How do we prevent this from happening again? How are we making life better and safer for Ottawa? I think this demonstration is a strong argument for completely banning vehicles from the city center. Not just big trucks, and not just in Ottawa, but all gasoline and diesel vehicles in downtowns around the world.

Now, my Canadian readers will have to forgive me, but some of my background material for this argument comes from American sources and is based on how American cities work. However, cars and trucks pose many of the same problems regardless of the country in which they operate.

Fossil fuel vehicles are dirty, noisy and dangerous, especially in cities. Sure, the pollution was there before the protests, but hundreds of idling diesel trucks highlighted the problem. A society made up of environmental scientists called Spatial Media mapped the impact of the Freedom Convoy. Ottawa is estimated to have gone from looking 12% better than World Health Organization guidelines before the protest to 32% worse.

It’s a problem for the people of Ottawa – and for anyone trying to breathe in a truck-crowded city. the Union for Concerned Scientists found that cars, trucks and buses are a significant source of some of the most harmful pollution to human health — particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameteror PM 2.5:

While PM2.5 is not the only air pollutant that harms health, it is it is estimated to be responsible for around 95% of the global public health impacts of air pollution. Long term exposure to PM2.5 causes increased death rates attributed to cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, and has been linked to other adverse effects such as lung cancer. Chronic exposure to PM2.5 in children has also been associated with slowed growth in lung function, development of asthma, and other negative health effects.

Particulate pollution is the deadliest form of background pollution, slashing the average lifespan of a person by 1.8 years World Economic Forum. Air quality isn’t the only way vehicles shorten our lives. Studies also show that living a car-centric life leads to lower quality of life in general, and longer driving times are associated with increased smokingobesity and deterioration of physical and mental health.

Even banning cars in part-time cities can work wonders, like in Bogotá, Colombia, which has banned cars on Sundays and public holidays since 1974. The result is the largest mass recreation program in the world, and it looks rather wonderful according to one article. to Northeastern University:

On an average Sunday, 1.7 million people take part in the event by cycling, running or walking through the streets of the city, unhindered by car traffic. Ciclovia is more than a chance for cyclists and joggers to take to the streets, it’s a community gathering. Food vendors, musicians and dancers are all known to gather along the streets to hang out and enjoy the cohesive atmosphere. The Bogota program has been credited with inspiring a global movement to open cities to car-free days.

Also consider the amount of space occupied by cars in a city. In the relatively small 23 square miles that make up Manhattan, the amount of land given over to cars equates to a space four times the size of Central Park, according to the New York Times. Many city centers dedicate up to 50% of their land to car parks, Voice reports. That’s a lot of space for something that stays empty 80% of the time. Streets and parking lots also absorb heat and keep cities boiling long after the sun goes down. Not exactly what you want in a warming world.

Cities have experimented with lane closures during the pandemic, and the results have been largely positive, but such programs have been pushed back by people mostly concerned about what else, where cars will go, according to Bloomberg:

Although designed to be short-lived, these changes often proved to be very popular. The use of newly created public space has skyrocketed and some street revisions found lasting supporters: About half of the programs were extended or expanded as the pandemic dragged on. A few, like Open Streets in New York, for example, were built permanent.

But these initiatives have also been pushed back. Retailers and residents objected to lost parking spaces, while commuters sometimes blamed the bollards for traffic jams.

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 more life to flourish in those areas. From BBC:

“Our main goal is to give the streets back to the people,” says Hanna Marcussen, Oslo’s deputy mayor for urban development. “It’s about how we want to use our streets and what they should be used for. For us, the street should be where you meet people, where you eat in outdoor restaurants, where children play and where art is displayed. To do this, Oslo has completely closed certain streets in the center to cars. They also removed almost all parking spaces and replaced them with bike paths, benches and miniature parks.

It’s not just what comes out of the exhaust pipe or the congestion of city streets that city dwellers have to deal with. Noise pollution is also a major risk to human health – something the people of Ottawa sadly learned at the start of the occupation as tractor-trailers honked for hours and hours. Standard traffic noise in central Ottawa is around 50 decibels, the same as normal conversation. The first week of the event saw decibels in the double of the heart of the city at 110 in places, similar to a jackhammer or a rock concert.

But even when noise is tolerable, it harms your health, according to Dr David Rojas of the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain:

“Noise produces a stimulus for the central nervous system and that stimulus releases hormones,” said Dr David Rojas of the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain. “(It) increases the risk of hypertension, and hypertension has been linked to many other cardiovascular (and) cerebrovascular diseases like infarction (heart attack) and stroke.”

[…]

“When we have background noise, the brain has the ability to adapt to that noise,” he said. “And you don’t see it so much as an embarrassment and you start to accept and adapt. But even if you’re not aware of the noise, it still stimulates your organ system.’

These are just a few of the passive issues of living around cars in a city. I don’t even know the number of people that cars are actively killing, which is increasing, or the astronomical personal and environmental consequences owning and operating costs a vehicle.

I like cars and trucks, and I love to drive, but when you own a car and live in a car culture in a car-centric city, every problem seems like a car can solve. But can anyone legitimately say they enjoy driving bumper to bumper in a crowded downtown or living in a smog-filled city? I strongly doubt it. There may be a better way. I don’t think we can or should ban all cars forever anyway, but there’s something to be said for designing cities for the humans who live in them, rather than cars and trucks slowly – and sometimes quickly – killing them.