Blog – The Transformation of Canadian Personal Mobility: Some Lessons from History

Nov 24, 2020 | Blog, Personal Mobility

By Cameron Roberts, PhD

Discussions about sustainable mobility can often carry a sense of fatalism. Sure, we should probably change our transportation system to one that causes fewer greenhouse gas emissions, less air pollution, and fewer road fatalities. But gasoline-powered cars have been the dominant means of transportation in Canada for over half a century, and as progress in electric vehicles, public transit, and active transportation infrastructure has been slow, profound change may seem a long way off.

At the start of the twentieth century, however, you might have said much the same thing about rail-based transportation, which was so dominant that it was hard to imagine an alternative. In 1908, there were just 3,003 registered cars in Canada. Today, you could easily fit that many vehicles in the parking structure at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Most people travelled by train outside cities, and by streetcar within them. This situation, of course, did not last long. By 1930, Canadian roads were full of automobiles, while the railways and streetcars were entering a commercial death-spiral.

This suggests that the kind of rapid and profound changes that we will need to develop a sustainable, low-carbon passenger transportation system on the timelines demanded by climate change would not be unprecedented in history. A careful reading of Canadian transportation history, provided in a new Transition Accelerator report, gives some clues for how we might achieve a more sustainable transportation system during the twenty-first century.

The collapse of incumbents

Theories of technological change often reference socio-technical regimes: big systems of multiple complex technologies, combined with entrenched interests, and business and policy arrangements that impede technological change. The rail-based transportation that existed in Canada around the turn of the twentieth century was a good example of a socio-technical regime. Railway and streetcar companies aggressively defended their market share against competitors using legal strategies, political influence, and even outright physical violence.

This, however, created a public pushback. Fed up with monopolism, people across Canada turned against both railway and streetcar companies. It took time for politicians to respond, but they gradually started to place tough regulations on railway and streetcar companies. In most cases, these regulations weakened the incumbent transportation systems to the point that they were not able to undermine competition from the automobile as effectively as they had in the past.

Could we see a similar collapse in today’s car-based transportation system? Since the 1970s, there has been a growing pushback against car-centric transportation systems, with neighborhood organizations, cyclists, and climate activists questioning the dominance of the private automobile. In some cases, this has translated into new policy ideas. Concepts such as Vision Zero, Complete Streets, and Paris Mayor Anne Hildago’s recent pitch for a “fifteen-minute city” all suggest that there are real challenges to the socio-technical regime that locks-in mass use of private automobiles.

Domesticating new technologies

The word “domestication” usually applies to animals or plants. We domesticate a species when we take it from the wild make it do something useful for us. Scholars have observed that we do something similar with new technologies. To make a technology useful, people must find ways to apply it. A new kitchen appliance, for example, allows new kinds of cooking, but also requires electrical power, and space in the kitchen.

In the year 1900, cars were not useful for very much other than upper-class recreation. They were expensive, unreliable, and uncomfortable. Going for a country drive meant bouncing around on a hard, wooden bench, inhaling dust, and likely having to stop at least once to do some kind of major repair. As cars gradually became more reliable and easier to use, utilitarian use of them began with those who had particular need of the flexibility they offered. Doctors, for example, used them to make house-calls. People in Canada’s far-flung rural areas used them not only for travel, but often as a source of stationary power for farm machinery. To reach truly mass appeal, though, cars needed to be supported by a whole new range of travel and living habits such as an explosion in suburban living, changes to shopping practices, and new forms of automobile tourism.

This tells us that users matter. Finding new ways to travel is as much of an innovative process as designing new kinds of vehicles or infrastructure. In designing and implementing low-carbon mobility systems, it is as important to listen to the travellers who will find ways to use them as it is to listen to the engineers and planners who design them.

Technological momentum

Very few technologies can exist in a vacuum. Without a system of roads, gas stations, mechanics’ shops, and parking structures, the automobile would be virtually useless. To describe these kinds of interdependencies, historian Thomas Hughes developed the concept of a Large Technological System: A complex interlinkage of different technologies which, acting together, serve a single purpose. Large technological systems are built up step-by-step in an iterative process as engineers, entrepreneurs, and managers solve the system’s problems by expanding it. In doing so, they develop biases and standardized ways of working that shape the system’s development.

The early Canadian automobile and its growing community of users had to be supported with new infrastructures, maintenance facilities, and types of expertise. Early Canadian roads were particularly inadequate to the task of carrying a nation of drivers. Most were un-paved. Some were impassable in the winter. Some were only passable in the winter, by horse-drawn sleighs.

Early improvements to roads as more and more cars travelled on them were piecemeal. But in 1919, the federal government passed the Canadian Highway Act, committing federal funding to road construction for the first time. Provinces began major road-building projects. This required new institutions, industries, and forms of expertise. The nascent trucking and bussing industries lobbied for an expanded road network, while civil servants hired to plan road networks tended to have a bias in favour of building new roads. The system acquired its own momentum for expansion, leading to the nation-spanning networks of asphalt Canadians drive on today.

For low-carbon mobility transitions, this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, technological momentum could rapidly accelerate the growth of a new transportation system. On the other hand, it could also entrench new technologies with negative environmental impacts. We should think very seriously about technological momentum as we consider the future of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing, which already have been shown to have potential environmental harms.

Looking forward

If the next 30 years see the same rate of change in our transportation system that we saw from 1900 to 1930, then our patterns of mobility in 2050 could be very different from what they are today. This suggests that it is possible to rapidly reduce the carbon emissions that come from personal mobility. The detailed processes by which this might happen, however, are extremely complex. We need to consider social factors such as political power, personal habits, professional training, and commercial developments. Above all, we should realize that in processes of large-scale technological change, people are as important as machines.