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Cars won't stand still during transit debate

I was asked to be part of a panel recently in my city. A transit panel.

At first blush, having someone who writes about automotive issues take part in a discussion about transit might appear to be at cross purposes. In reality, I was glad they asked, because I think any discussion of transit has to include cars.

It was interesting to hear from a local counselor, as well as a Toronto counselor, those at the helm of the massive revamp of transit in the Greater Toronto Area and those measuring local impact. Elaborate diagrams with proposed routes were coupled with intricate formulas, professing to hold the answers to bringing those programs to life.

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Congestion, lost time, carpooling, increasing populations, crumbling infrastructures, built-out cities, commuting, polluting, agreeing and refuting: it's all there, the debate chasing its tail.

I'm fully sold on the need for a massive overhaul of our current transit system; in most places, we have a skeletal joke that gets very few people to even fewer places at an exorbitant cost. What people seem to forget is that car manufacturers are doing everything in their considerable power to keep selling you cars.

How can you uncouple the auto industry from the transit debate? Gas prices skyrocket; cars become incredibly fuel-efficient. The time wasted in a commute becomes costly downtime; your car is now a travelling office. Pollution is destroying our planet; stricter emissions on new cars are light years ahead of those of even a few years ago and, hey, I'll drive an electric car and take care of those emissions for good.

When Portland, Oregon, made a push to get cars off their roads, the mayor of that city made a simple, yet elegant point: everyone should be on board with the plan, because fewer cars means those still driving will have less congestion. The problem, of course, in places with such lethal gridlock as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal is that I want you to take transit so I can keep driving.

I remember when transit was touted as a time to rest up and provide you with needed downtime. Now the argument is that it will furnish you with the ability to have no downtime at all – keep working!

You can use all your devices on a bus or a train; but you can also use most of them in a car now, too. Car sellers want you in that car, not on that bus. The law says you can't text or e-mail and drive. No problem; build a system that will read such missives out loud, and they will come. Laws are made by politicians whose jobs are dependent on annoying the smallest number of people. People hate laws. Car manufacturers don't have to do much to stay ahead of the politicians.

It matters little how many studies are published explaining that distracted drivers are worse than drunks. Canada and the United Kingdom ban handheld phones, but only 11 U.S. states have followed suit. Hands-free phones are just as distracting, but show me a single manufacturer who will abandon this technology. And as a consumer, I don't use it, but I'm not going to buy a new car without if for the simple reason that if I want to resell my car, the next purchaser is going to demand it. Manufacturers make essentially the same argument: they are creating technological marvels because that is their business; how you choose to use that technology is yours.

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We have a hodgepodge approach to in-car tricks. Some cars shut down some operations so you can't fiddle with them while the car is in motion. This is a good, safe thing to do, unless you are a passenger and then it's just annoying.

Because they couldn't possibly put in all the knobs you might need to access the many howdy-doody acrobatics your car is capable of doing, many manufacturers are turning to touchscreens. Touchscreens are terrible as you are forced to concentrate on a screen, usually covered in fingerprints and often obscured by the sun. Ford, long a leader in pushing touchscreens, recently announced it would go back to knobs on many of its functions. Thank you, Ford.

The transit debate should be framed around two distinct groups: those who don't drive, and those who always have. With the former, you're preaching to the choir. With the latter, you'll be climbing a mountain to make the alternative alluring.

The auto manufacturers are determined to win. They have to be.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More


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