It is Time to Bury the Car

By Tooker Gomberg, Toronto, Canada.

We buried a car to commemorate the centennial of Henry Bliss’ death – the first person killed by a car in North America.

Friends, welcome.

We are gathered to commemorate an important historical occasion. One hundred years ago today Henry Bliss stepped off a New York streetcar and was crushed to death by an electric taxi. Mr. Bliss became the first person in North America to be killed by an automobile.

How far we have come. Since then, 30 million people have been killed in car crashes. Today such deaths appear ordinary. One has only to pick up the daily newspaper to see headlines that scream of the latest motor vehicle tragedy. One day’s paper tells of people incinerated in an atrocious car crash. Another day’s television news shows walkers or cyclists run down by this internal, nay, infernal combustion machine. Such car-nage appears as inevitable as the weather.

Even the weather is being affected by this machine of our making. The earth’s climate is out of kilter as a result of burning ungodly amounts of fuel. There is little doubt that the thin layer of atmosphere that surrounds our planet like a skin is being profoundly fouled from too many tailpipes.

The air itself is a sight for sore eyes. Indeed, our eyes are sore from the smog, from the particulates, from the FILTHY exhaust of this Frankenstein in our midst. All of our senses are attacked. The noise assaults our ears, the stink sticks in our noses, and the sight of parking lots and endless asphalt grieves our souls.

Who among you has not been touched by the loss of a loved one, or the injury of a friend, mangled by an out-of-control automobile? Who does not know of a tragedy resulting from the deadly mixture of alchohol and gasoline? Is there not a child in our city, or in the land, who has not learned to fear the wheel of this speeding monster?

We must always consider the consequences that our decisions will have on our children. Yet, powerful oil and automobile vested interests in our society have made us accommodate this vehicle, this vehicle that is the greatest killer of kids in our city.

My friends, let us share a moment of silence. A moment without honking horns and screeching brakes. A moment of contemplation for the victims of the recent Highway 401 tragedy. Let our thoughts go out to those whose lives have been destroyed by drunk drivers, for the families of 16,000 Ontarians killed each year from the foul air, much of it from cars. Let us remember those killed in wars for oil, and the despoiling of nature from oil spills. Let us remember the Valdez. In silence.

Photo credit: Nick Schefter

Let us pray that this carnage cease. But more, let us also move to action.

In the hallways of power we must tell the truth: the costs of all this auto-mobility are much too high. In human terms. In dollar terms.

In 1997 alone, the costs in Toronto of car crashes was between two and a half and 3 billion dollars. Billion dollars. Three billion dollars would build a lot of bike paths. Three billion dollars would put a lot more streetcars on their roads, and would put our transportation system on track.

Mourning is not enough. Unless we move our hands to action the bloody carnage will continue.

When there is talk of widening a highway to make it safer, let us reply: cars, mixed with speed, booze and cellphones are unsafe. We all care about saving lives, and money. Those funds should instead be invested in safe and rapid train service.

Today, every second, a new car rolls off an assembly line. This population crisis of cars is out of control. We have filled North America, Europe and Australia with cars, and now the car companies are moving into the less-industrialized countries to do the same. China, India and most of the world still get around by foot and by bicycle. Unless we talk about and organize to stop them, Ford and Exxon will turn these countries into a gridlocked, grisly Gehenna.

Let us not be sombre. We can break the addiction, with willpower and with spirit. Amsterdam has voted to remove half the parking spaces from its centre. Copenhagen transforms parking lots into parks, and roadspace into extensive bike space. Curitiba, Brazil has built an extensive and inexpensive transit network.

Around the world groups organize “reclaim the streets” parties to celebrate in the streets without toyotas and subarus.

The great gift of the human species is our minds. Our minds have two great aspects: we can imagine, and we can alter our environment. Just one hundred years ago, Mr. Bliss was killed by a car. Today, sadly we are on the cusp of killing the planet for our convenience.

We must find ways to spice up our imaginations, and tap into our yearning for clean air and a livable city. We bury the car today in the hope that we can stop burying our friends and our loved ones. With spark and spirit we can end the carnage, and rebuild our city so that cars are hardly necessary; where what we need is in our neighbourhood or accessible by healthier means of travel. We can evolve our city into a healthy place for people and nature, not asphalt and poison. We can do it. If we will it.