As the Canadian population grows and climate change continues to have devastating impacts across the globe, a city that can function without the use of cars can be a move in the right direction when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. While it’s easy to say—less cars means less pollution—there are many other benefits to highlight.

Canadian cities are moving toward car-less lifestyles

Why are Canadian cities making the shift to car-free?

“Today, there seems to be a consensus around climate change that it is a challenge, and we need to do more to reduce our carbon footprint as mankind,” says Cam Forbes, a REALTOR®, Toronto-based broker, and Chief Operating Officer at RE/MAX Realtron. 

Cars are the obvious culprit; transportation is one of the largest sources of carbon pollution in Canada, with automobiles and light-duty vehicles accounting for around 11% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Forbes says he’s seeing signs cities are beginning to de-centralize cars and prioritize pedestrians in urban design. In the Greater Toronto Area, for instance, major investments are being put into mass transportation—specifically Toronto’s Ontario Line and Eglinton Crosstown LRT—and sidewalks are being widened in certain areas to accommodate increased foot traffic.

Forbes adds, whether the reasons have to do with affordability, eco-consciousness, or preference, having a car is becoming less of a requirement for Canadians. 

“First-time buyers moving into condominium apartments, they don’t necessarily have cars,” he says. “This is probably the first generation that’s actually been able to think of a life without a car.”

Carless Canadian cities

Car-free: it’s not just about getting rid of cars

“I think the key thing for cities going car-free is mass transit,” says Forbes. “The major population centres, I think most of them are investing in a significant amount of mass transit with federal, provincial, and municipal governments’ help.”

In addition, an effective car-free city is one that’s walkable and bicycle-friendly, and maybe even de-incentivizes the use of vehicular transportation. Forbes points to global cities as an example.

“In Europe, you’ll see a lot of the cities have very high parking fees—you can’t even bring a car to the centre of the city, like in Florence, Italy,” he says. 

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, the metro system runs 24 hours a day, and transit is free for children on the weekends. And in Oslo, an additional 50 kilometres has been added to the city’s bike lane network since 2015. 

“Those sorts of things have to happen [in Canada], and that will help people make the choice to be car-free,” adds Forbes.

Prioritize pedestrians and decentralize cars in urban design

The impact of car-free on real estate markets

In one regard, without having to account for parking spaces and roads that are wide enough to accommodate vehicular traffic, more space is freed up for housing, and this can be particularly helpful in cities facing urban sprawl. 

There is also a strong argument to be made that freeing up this space paves the way for more housing development at a time when new supply is sorely needed. According to calculations from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Canada will need more than 22 million new housing units by 2030 in order to restore affordability to its housing market.

Forbes notes a car-free model could also help to dissuade some of the arguments commonly used for NIMBYism—people saying “not in my backyard” when new developments are proposed. 

“One of the challenges with intensification has to do with traffic congestion. A neighbourhood will get up in arms when it comes to development, because they’ll say, ‘we’ll have no place to park,’ and ‘there’ll be a bunch of traffic,’” he says. “But if we get to a situation where we don’t need the same number of cars, developments won’t have to have the parking, won’t have to have the congestion associated with cars.”

Real estate markets in car-free cities
Image via Enoch Leung on FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0

That said, one of the challenges associated with the car-free model is not all residents in a given city will be affected equally by the narrowing of transportation options. For instance, someone living in a suburb may find themselves disconnected from public services and the amenities of the city without the use of a car.

“Canada has a bit of a disadvantage, unfortunately. We’re a small population in a large geographic landmass,” says Forbes. This is where something like mass transportation comes into play—but still, it comes at a cost.

“Mass transit has to be more accessible, it has to cover more geographic territory, and the Canadian population has to agree to the taxation required to invest in that,” says Forbes. “The biggest challenge, I think, is people have to believe if they invest in this now there will be a payback for them personally over the mid- to long-term.”

Shifting to car-free cities is one way to combat rising greenhouse gas emissions and achieve Canada’s net zero goals by 2050. It’s not as simple as making the change tomorrow, but as more cities start to focus on pedestrians and public transit, it’s possible we’ll see car-free cities become the norm—especially in dense downtown cores. 


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