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Now it’s really over: Margaret Wente says the car-free culture is here to stay

I wrote recently about the end of GM, and noted that many advocates of sustainable transportation were looking forward to a new era of cycling, walking, transit, and reduced car use. While I count myself among these, I also acknowledge the difficulty of this transition for most North Americans considering our economic dependence on oil and the car-dominated spatial patterns of our cities. But when Margaret Wente says the love affair is over (“Object of desire or necessary evil?”, Globe and Mail, Saturday, June 6, 2009), the times they are a-changin’.

Let me explain. Wente is conservative, irreverent, controversial. She’s stirred up so much anger the Globe won’t even allow her column to be read online anymore. She writes from a white, upper middle-class perspective, and often comments on current affairs, politics, social issues, and lifestyles. Her attitude towards people of different cultures came under fire last October when she agreed with IOC Dick Pound’s controversial comment that Canada was a country of “savages” a few hundred years ago. Many of her columns show an insensitivity to the variety of ethnic cultures and religions that make up mainstream Canadian cities. An American and naturalized Canadian, Wente once called Newfoundland “the most vast and scenic welfare ghetto in the world.” As far as social trends go, Wente is regularly surprised by lifesyles of younger people, including Facebook addiction and commitment to environmentalism. She became a climate change convert at the same time as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in September of 2006: very late in the game, when it became a sign of insanity to deny it any longer. Most environmentalists, democrats, and transportation advocates consider her laughable, a symbol of the type of conservative boomer culture that keeps Canada from achieving any real success in enviromental protection, alternative transportation, race relations or tolerance.

Today’s column is a case in point. Wente begins her article profiling people she finds truly unusual: young 20- and 30-somethings who live and work in the city and do not own cars. While this is news to none of us living in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and a growing number of other cities, Wente still finds the lifestyle surprising decades after the terms yuppie (young upwardly-mobile professionals) and dink (double income no kids) were coined. She then moves on to profiling several of these other oddball car-free types closer to her own age: “Fifteen years ago, it was almost unimaginable for a middle-aged, middle-class family man not to own a car. Such a person would have been regarded as mildly eccentric. Now I seem to be surrounded by them.” She writes about the average $8,000 it costs to run an average car each year (the Toronto Transit Commission has been advertising this info on posters for over a decade), the growing popularity of cycling and car sharing (which she feels the need to define) and of course the death of the automotive companies. But halfway through her article, there is a change in tone: Wente, that conservative bastion of right-wing ideology, concedes that “Maybe our love affair with cars is over.” In response to a man who confesses there is freedom in being car-free, she asks, “Isn’t freedom the very thing that cars used to stand for?” Halfway through the article she writes “For most of us, cars aren’t much of a status marker anymore…It’s really just a very big, very costly appliance with cup-holder.” She characterizes cars as shifting from “the wheeled embodiment of outsize ego and swattering masculinity…the product of the American empire at its peak” to representing “arrogance, deliberate disregard for the enviroment, and wretched excess.” While she confesses she still believes cars have the potential for personal liberation, progress and opportunity, “these days there are fewer and fewer who agree with me.”

Perhaps most advocates of alternative transportation would not see much hope in Wente’s article: she’ll probably continue driving until the steering wheel is pried out of her cold dead hands. But considering her personality, socio-economic profile, and personal beliefs, just admitting the times are changing indicates that, indeed, they are. They’d have to be for her to notice.


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