In Toronto recently, I was intrigued by the vehicle stream during the morning commute on the Gardiner expressway. As compared to the U.S., I felt as if I was seeing many more compact cars and minivans, and fewer SUVs and massive pickup trucks. What might explain this, I wondered — higher taxes, fuel prices… or something else?
An interesting answer is proposed in Tim Falconer’s Drive, an enjoyable and far-flung journey into our conflicted relationship with the car (we made a few shared stops along the way, like the office of Donald Shoup at UCLA).
A research company called Environics did a survey in 2004 comparing U.S. and Canadian attitudes on a number of things. One question asked people to agree with the statement: “A car says a lot about a person — it must reflect my personal style and image” or instead thought “A car is just an appliance, something to get me from point A to B.” Some 62% of Canadians went with the appliance bit, while only 40% of Americans did. “If Americans have a passionate love affair with the automobile,” the researcher wrote, “Canadians have a mild crush.”
I wasn’t wrong to sense a minivan abundance. Writes Falconer: “In fact, minivans are twice as popular north of the border because they are cheaper and better on gas than SUVs and are more understated, just like the people who own them.”
Falconer goes on to note other reasons that might explain a weaker Canadian ardor for the car (and I’m not sure the American situation is as much love as a kind of terminal co-dependence), such as the fact that despite the sheer size of the country, 39% of its population lives in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, where the need for constant car usage is less pronounced. Higher taxes and fuel costs, Falconer adds, do play their part as well (and recent gas spikes have probably left Canadians better situated to deal with higher pump prices).
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