Summary of the two conferences on Day 1 of the 4th Annual Trottier Symposium on Sustainable Engineering, Energy and Design, held April 11-12, 2017, at Polytechnique Montréal.
- THE REAPPROPRIATION OF HISTORY
The Symposium opened with a look in the rear-view mirror from Peter Norton, associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. The history was that of the manufacturing of an ideal of freedom by players in the automobile industry.
Be able to go anywhere, anytime, right now: that was the idyllic future that North Americans were sold early in the 20th century. This promise of freedom, strategically constructed and widely disseminated, was what allowed the automobile to achieve domination, even while civil society was requesting other models of cohabitation with this new technology.
Taking us through a series of flashbacks, Mr. Norton had us rethink how we have come to hold up technology as the ultimate solution and to design our cities as parking lots.
The manufacturing of an ideal
The automobile industry succeeded in convincing us that a motorized city was what we always wanted.
One of the first steps in this fabrication came in 1932 with the publication of a hugely popular book, The New Necessity. In their account of the advent of the automobile in the United States, authors Charles Kettering and Allen Orth, both executives at General Motors (GM), heavily emphasized the supposed benefits of automobile use: speed, comfort and safety.
But they made no mention of the high number of fatalities – especially of children – caused by cars in the streets and roads. In response to this carnage, citizens clamoured for automobile use to be controlled, at least by imposing speed limits. Seeing such demands as a threat to its ascendancy, the industry hit back by looking towards the future.
GM resumed its campaign of seduction with the “Futurama” attraction at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, presenting its vision of the city of the future, the city of 1960. A spectacular animated model showed an American landscape intersected by automated highways leading to huge suburbs. The exhibit elicited visions of futuristic networks of flowing traffic where cars were in constant movement and parking problems nonexistent.
GM would continue to propound this vision throughout the country with its Parade of Progress until the 1950s. An animated mock-up was accompanied by narration that constantly repeated the same story: small isolated towns had the potential to become bustling cities, if room was made for cars. The vision was greeted enthusiastically by millions of Americans and provided a major springboard for the automobile.
Another milestone in this fabrication came in 1961 during a broadcast of “DuPont Show of the Week.” This popular television program was sponsored by the DuPont Company, which at that time owned 23% of GM’s shares. Tracing the story of the automobile, the “Merrily We Roll Along” episode conveyed a powerful message in its subtext: America’s love affair with the automobile – an idea that has since taken the root in the collective imagination. A very clever communication angle, commented Mr. Norton, because love cannot be the subject of rational criticism.
The roots of the strategy: dissatisfaction
All this propaganda was nothing but a logical response to the strategy set out by Charles Kettering, then GM’s director of research. In 1929 he wrote an article for Nation’s Business magazine entitled “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.” The key to economic success, Kettering claimed, was to create perpetual dissatisfaction in the motorist. In this way, consumers would constantly crave the latest products on the market: from a Chevrolet to a Cadillac – via a Pontiac, an Oldsmobile and a Buick. An organized creation of needs that kept the economy rolling and, in so doing, got citizens to pull out their wallets.
The same sense of dissatisfaction is still being stimulated today, with constant reports of the inadequacy or parlous condition of highway infrastructures.
The price of addiction
The public relations campaign described above turned out to be very lucrative for manufacturers, but society paid a heavy price, because the promised freedom turned into an addiction – an addiction that in many respects is toxic.
With land use and traffic routes now being developed around the car, alternative modes of transport rapidly became incompatible with the urban living environment. The automobile confined pedestrians to the sidewalk and dealt a severe blow to trams.
Next, the myth of unfettered travel has continued to crumble with the problems of road congestion. Traffic, denser than ever, brings multiple impacts: stress, delays, excess fuel consumption, and so on.
And with all the fuel burned by automobile engines, an ever-increasing quantity of pollutants is released into the air, with the attendant consequences for health and the environment. Because – as we need to be reminded – there is a direct link between climate change and the use of fossil fuels.
In the eyes of the manufacturers, all these problems are just more business opportunities. Faced with the damage caused, time and again the industry responds with technology – electric vehicles and, more recently, self-driving cars.
What worries Peter Norton is that influencers in the industry have mastered the knack of selling us these technologies and will blithely reproduce the pattern. Unless we can “re-appropriate forgotten history so that we can better map out our future.”
An enlightened future
Clearly, the focus of Mr. Norton’s criticism of technology is its intrusive implementation – the way that, all too often, technology blazes its trail on the basis of social acceptability that has been bought by propaganda campaigns.
By helping us re-appropriate history, Mr. Norton reminds us that technology should be questioned rather than welcomed with open arms. A critical view will enable us to recognize that we have a range of choices: high-tech, low-tech and no-tech. It is up to us to choose what we really want. It is also up to us to make best use of what technology can offer us, in the pursuit of our goals for humanity.
- SOCIAL CLIMATE AND TRANSPORT POLICY
Anthony Perl, Professor of Urban Studies and Political Science at Simon Fraser University, brought a message of hope regarding the success of the transition to post-carbon mobility in Canada’s three largest cities. He sees Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto as the flagship cities driving this transition in the medium term.
Cities have opened up to the world and become the hubs of modern economic development that we know today by organizing their development around the needs of commerce and transport. And there are lessons to be learned from the way that this urbanization of the land has been carried out.
Regarding the design of transport systems, the solutions chosen by Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto to secure both funding and social acceptability are still valid today.
For both Montreal and Vancouver, major international events catalyzed the development of transport infrastructure.
Investment was stimulated by two international fairs in particular which, in 1967 for Montreal and in 1986 for Vancouver, triggered the completion of a series of major projects. The subsequent holding of Olympic Games (1976 in Montreal in 2010 in Vancouver) led to improvements in these infrastructures.
“Once they realize that the world will be watching, even the most tight-fisted politicians and risk averse mandarins suddenly grasp the value of shelling out for metros and expressways whose legacy will endure long after the party ends” said Mr. Perl.
Montreal is a beacon of success, because the city has the highest share of urban mobility in its metro network, with 1.7 million users out of a population of 4.1 million inhabitants.
Where Vancouver still stands apart is in rejecting the construction of freeways inside cities. By 1986, the wind had turned and the public was now fiercely opposed to the idea of highways tearing apart the urban fabric. Investments were therefore used for the deployment of public transit structures instead, and freeways were built in the suburbs.
The situation gave rise to the phenomenon of “Vancouverism” a term that refers to the city’s urban density and pedestrian-friendly environment. As the car became optional, the quality of life improved. This model of a sustainable city could not of course have emerged if a freeway had run through the heart of Vancouver.
Unlike Montreal and Vancouver, Toronto adopted a different strategy. The opening of the Yonge Street metro line in 1954 marked a turning point in the growth of public transit in Canada. The reason was that the municipal body managing the project – which has today become the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) – funded the metro by means of a budget surplus accumulated during and after World War II. No new taxes or government budget allowances were necessary for the construction process; this was a first.
Because the Toronto Expressway cut through flourishing neighbourhoods, it was subject to strong criticism. Thereafter, the provincial government, fearing protests, stopped injecting money into other urban highway projects in Toronto. This is what led to the 1971 cancellation of the infamous Spadina Expressway project.
In this way Toronto acquired its own model of infrastructure development. Up until the 1960s, the city used accumulated excess revenue from public transit services or signed agreements with various levels of government to secure funding.
“The magical thinking that has enabled Canada’s urban mobility investments, by either strategy, is what we term policy equivocation – the political embrace of infrastructure development that shape cities and suburbs in conflicting ways,” said Anthony Perl.
On this point, the description of Toronto as “Vienna surrounded by Phoenix” backs up his view. This expression, now widely imitated, was used by the TTC planning manager to describe the consequences of the parallel construction of a fast public transit network and expressways.
Now, to overcome austerity measures, it remains to be seen how this equivocation can guide our cities through the next round of infrastructure investment that is necessary to improve their resilience.
In Mr. Perl’s opinion, there is no single solution. To create a favourable climate for cleaner travel, we will have to rely on a range of interrelated policies.
The main idea is to invest, starting now, combining incentives and disincentives. For example, if preceded by the availability of new mobility choices, the introduction of tolls on roads and bridges in a target sector could bring about a change in motorists’ behaviour. With alternatives available to them, drivers will not see themselves as being held hostage by tolls. They may then more easily contemplate the advantages of switching modes of transport.
In short, the key lies in the deployment of complementary actions that will emerge depending on the volition of the political classes.
- Read the text of Anthony Perl published in La Presse+
- Read summary of day 2
- Relive the event by watching video capture :