Road romance vs. planetary survival

A 1979 Mercedes 450SL.

Sometimes, love means letting go

I have a strange and mostly useless skill.

I can recognize and remember the make and model names of most cars made before 2000, and some since. I don’t recall learning this in any systematic way. It’s just information cluttering my brain when I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast.

It’s likely because I have, for as long as I can remember, loved cars. The first one I recall noting was a late-’60s Corvair. I was eight at the time, standing at a bus stop watching it glide by. Something about its flowing lines and double round headlights spoke to me.

By the time I was a teenager I had magazine photos of Porsches, Maseratis, and Jaguars on my bedroom walls, not heart-throb actors or musicians like my friends. And when I visited dad in Vancouver in the late 1970s, I was besotted with the Mercedes 450SLs, the graceful convertible roadsters.

“You should buy me one,” I teased. And he kind of did. The last time I saw him he said I should “get one of those little cars you used to love” with some money he would leave me. Backstory: I wasn’t close to my dad. Years went by when I didn’t see him as a child. So, I was touched that he remembered my roadster infatuation, and I took his advice. I found an old 1979 450SL online at a car lot in St. Louis, Mo. I smile and thank dad whenever I drive it.

I get that this is all hopelessly out-of-step with a warming climate, and that we live in a world that desperately needs to get over the oil and gas addiction.

And yet, cars and driving have always represented freedom and independence. For 100 years, that’s been a big part of North American culture. Car manufacturers marketed their products with images of happy people driving along idyllic coastal highways. Car culture — in movies, music, literature — is deeply entrenched. Think drive-ins, drive-throughs, lovers’ lanes, hot-rodding, road tripping.

Insert screeching tire sound effects here.

Those days have to be over. For the health of our planet and all of us who live here cars can no longer come first. If this seems obvious, check out rush hour almost anywhere on the Halifax peninsula.

But if you’re like me, and you love your ride, the keys may have to be ripped from your grasping hands.

Don’t worry. Halifax Regional Municipality is going to help. The region’s new Integrated Mobility Program is pushing automobiles aside, sometimes literally, to make more space for buses, bikes, and pedestrians. And those who insist on driving face new restrictions. For example, traffic calming projects such as the speed bumps on Allen Street, or curb bump-outs on Romans Avenue, will slow you down. Bright green bollards, like those at the corner of Bell Road and Sackville Street, protect cyclists, while green paint on the pavement at a growing number of intersections is meant to indicate spots where cyclists and cars are at greater risk of collision.

Drivers: we’re on notice.

Cyclists are finally getting recognition for the role they play in reducing traffic and emissions, and they’re being rewarded with attention and space.

The city is prioritizing pedestrians too, with crossing lights at some intersections that give them a head-start to cross the street before traffic starts moving, and more visually arresting crosswalks.

There’s lots more “active transportation” infrastructure promised. By 2024, HRM staff say there will be almost 57 km of bike lanes and paths in the regional centre.

If we haven’t soon been convinced to abandon cars (after all, there’s nowhere left to park!) then we better hurry and get our carbon neutral on.

According to the energy industry publication Power Technology, global sales of electric vehicles are up 160 per cent in the first half of this year. Personally, I’m rooting for hydrogen cars. But either way the world is going to be a lot quieter without internal combustion engines.

And there’s hope for my old 450SL in a post-gasoline world. A couple of years ago a research engineer and his student at Dalhousie University converted a classic 1971 Triumph Spitfire to an electric car.

The call of the road is still strong, but even more urgent is accepting what we have to leave behind in order to get to where we need to be: net zero. Forget “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Unless we get past the romance of car culture, we’re on the “Highway to Hell.”

Or, in the more mournful lyrics of yet one more driving tune:

You got a fast car?
Is it fast enough so we can fly away?
We gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way

— Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

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