Putting the brakes on electric vehicles

This Magazine

The government is pushing us toward electric vehicles, but it's not as simple as it seems

By Paris Marx

May 20, 2022

close up of electric car plugged into a public charger

Photo by byNRQEMI; Design by Valerie Thai

Over a century since their introduction, cars dominate the streets of cities and towns across Canada to such a degree that many people feel there is no real alternative. In January 2022, Turo Canada in partnership with Léger found that 83 percent of Canadians have their own or lease a vehicle and 81 percent of vehicle owners feel it would be impossible not to. There’s a reason for that: car-dependent communities are the product of decades of collaboration between industry and government.

Today, the supremacy of the automobile can feel like an immutable reality—but it wasn’t always that way. In 1913, there were only about 50,000 motor vehicles on Canadian roads, but the year prior, the Canadian Highway Association had already started pushing for a national highway system. By 1919, they were starting to get their way. The government of Robert Borden passed the Canadian Highway Act that year, directing highway funding to the provinces, followed by even more during the Great Depression. Finally, in 1949, the government of Louis St. Laurent passed what became known as the Trans-Canada Highway Act to set federal standards and provide federal funding, which reached up to 90 percent on some segments. The Trans-Canada Highway was considered complete, as per the Act, in 1971.

The history of highway funding is one example of the central role that governments have played in enabling the automobile-dependent society we live in today, but it is not the only one. Over the years, federal and provincial governments expanded road networks, provided incentives for automotive manufacturing, and created the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation to make mortgages more accessible to people, while setting standards that encouraged suburban development. This partnership between industry and government was mutually beneficial, but it hasn’t been without consequences.

Vehicle ownership costs on average between $8,600 and $13,000 a year, according to the Canadian Automobile Association, and that was before recent inflation. Meanwhile, 1,762 people were killed by motor vehicles in 2019, and another 8,917 people were seriously injured. The environmental toll is also significant, with suburban living having a bigger carbon footprint than urban dwelling, and transportation accounting for 25 percent of national emissions in 2019, second only to the oil and gas sector. Those emissions grew by 54 percent between 1990 and 2019, in part because of the increased number of large trucks and SUVs on Canadian roads.

To address the transport sector’s contribution to climate change, the Canadian government and its provincial counterparts have coalesced around a plan to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, with a goal of reaching 100 percent of passenger car and truck sales by 2035. To incentivize that shift, the federal government is offering rebates of up to $5,000 for the purchase of a zero-emissions vehicle, subsidies for the construction of electric vehicle chargers, and is working with industry to ensure production facilities are in place.

On its face, electrification seems universally positive since it will be essential to any transition in the transportation sector—but it also signals a lack of vision. “Automobility as a technology and as a set of desires is never fundamentally challenged,” explains James Wilt, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk. Instead, Wilt says, the government’s policy assumes “all you need to do is get people out of an internal combustion engine vehicle and into an electric battery vehicle.”

Read the full article in This Magazine.