The "War on the Car" Is Going to Get Worse Before It Gets Better

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© ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images/ People demonstrate amid tear gas smoke on February 16, 2019 in Paris. ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images/ People demonstrate amid tear gas smoke on February 16, 2019 in Paris

From yellow vests in France to convoys in Canada, it's all about carbon and cars.

In Canada, a convoy of trucks has been driving from Alberta to the nation's capital, Ottawa, to demand an end to carbon taxes and the immediate building of new pipelines to get Alberta oil to markets. Many are wearing yellow vests, inspired by the continuing disruptions in France that started with a carbon tax on gasoline and diesel purchases.

They are also demanding that immigration be halted and that Justin Trudeau by tried for treason or hanged.

Conservative politicians are conveniently ignoring the racism, xenophobia and death threats and are lining up along the route to lend their support to the cause, because this is, of course, just about carbon taxes and pipelines.

Where did all this come from? Writing in the Financial Times, Simon Kuper, who is about to buy a new bike, writes:

I’ll be riding straight into a class war. Two rival forms of mobility are coming into conflict: suburban and rural car owners versus unmotorised city dwellers. This class war erupted first in France, where Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise fuel taxes by 4 cents a litre prompted the uprising by the mostly provincial gilets jaunes, whose symbol is the yellow vest that all French motorists must carry. Now the conflict is spreading and will eventually reach even the US and UK, currently still distracted by the politics of the past. The new political battlefield is the road.

Suburban car owners fight congestion charges, low emissions zones, and of course, carbon taxes that increase the price of fuel. They say (and it is true) that they have no choice but to drive, and they like to get to work fast. Kuper writes:

No wonder gilets jaunes responded to new speed limits by incapacitating nearly two-thirds of French speeding cameras. Meanwhile, many German drivers were outraged when a government working party suggested introducing speed limits on the holy Autobahn.

The Edmonton Sun editorial board is all in favour of the convoy (if a bit leery of the yellow vest racist tinge to it), noting that unemployment has increased.

At first, this was because of plummeting world oil prices. But more recently carbon taxes, increased environmental regulations and opposition to pipelines by some or all of the federal, Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia governments have been scaring investment away by the tens of billions of dollars, and with it jobs and small business opportunities.

The fact is, the world has changed; the USA used to be the market for Alberta oil but it is heavy and expensive, whereas the American market is flush with its own fracked light oil that is cheaper to refine and transport. There are not enough pipelines to the east and west to take all the oil – and Trudeau enraged everyone else in the country by spending C$4.5 billion to try and rescue one. They take time to approve and build, and nobody is going to invest in Alberta oil that costs more to get out of the ground than you can sell it for. It is a lost cause.

Stickers for the revolution

Stickers for the revolution from the podcast, the war on cars/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Kuper thinks that things might well eventually work out:

One day, bikes and cheap electric cars will transform even rural areas. New electric bikes cost about €1,000 and can easily go at 25km an hour. The vast majority of French workers drive less than 15km to work, so switching to e-bikes, which can be charged at the office, would save commuters fortunes, improve their health, and cut carbon emissions. But for the meantime, the car wars are only going to worsen polarisation.

St. George bike lane

University of Toronto bike lane/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

After complaining recently that the car storage lanes were being used for snow storage and the bike lanes were now parking, drivers came after me on Twitter to complain that bikes shouldn't be on the road in winter. They just didn't understand why I thought my right to the bike lane was as important as their need to park. This, in a university surrounded by two subways and two major streetcar lines. There are two worlds colliding here; those who believe that we have a climate crisis and those, as Kuper puts it, "whose lifestyles depend on their cars will be tempted to dismiss environmentalism as an elite hobby."

It seems that the war on the car is the core of every debate we have, and Kuper is right – it is going to get worse before it gets better.