It's not my idea of a fun time, but I agreed to hang out in a car for a while as a way of driving home Evergreen Brick Works' point that we're getting taken for a ride by traffic congestion and car dominance.
As part of its MOVE! The Transportation Expo, York film student Tanner Zurkoski is living for a month in a Toyota hybrid offered up by AutoShare. The stunt is a way of dramatizing the fact that an average Toronto adult spends 80 minutes each day, or almost a full month of 12-hour days annually, going nowhere fast in a traffic jam.
Zurkoski sleeps and eats in the car (bathroom breaks are the only exception) and, like a regular driver, wastes a lot of time, but he prefers driving people around and discussing solutions.
As his car-mate the morning of July 2, I lead him on a tour of my daily treks in the Beaches - one of the city's several urban villages where groceries and restaurants can be easily and affordably reached on foot.
If everyone lived in a food-friendly neighbourhood, I pitch him, we could cut car trips by an estimated 20 per cent, enough to lower traffic levels below the point where they cause jams.
Zurkoski's an easy-going guy with a smile that reaches right across his face to his curly hair. He's got a camera in the car and hopes to make a doc, but with one week down and three to go, he already looks the worse for wear. I comment that evolution poorly prepared us for the labour of the 21st century - sitting on our butts driving to places where we work sitting at computer screens.
In its own way, being sedentary is as stressful and harmful as the stoop work of agriculture or the heavy lifting of blue-collar construction and machine work. This physical wear on the back and psychological tear on the mind isn't included in estimates of the yearly cost of a car - $9,000, according to the Canadian Automobile Association, which counts insurance, fuel and the like, but not massage, chiropractor bills or anti-stress remedies.
Nor are health or enviro costs included in the standard estimate for the civic cost of lost time in traffic congestion by commuters in and around Toronto: about $6 billion, according to both Metrolinx and the Toronto Board of Trade.
Our city suffers more from a war on main streets than one on cars. Otherwise, city planners, traffic managers and politicians would support retail thoroughfares and we'd have lots of them across Toronto, diminishing car trips and traffic jams.
Organizing successful retail zones where most everyday needs (food, banking, personal care, clothing basics, but not furniture, appliances, cars or other occasional big-ticket items) can be met by walking can't be left solely to the landlords who monopolize main street frontage.
Landlords want a minimum number of shop rentals with maximum rent and security - real estate offices, banks, large bars, takeouts, drugstores, chains wherever possible, with high margins and deep pockets. These are their ideal tenants, whereas main streets thrive when a range of independents provide low-profit goods and services for a wide mix of ages, incomes and cultural groups.
More landlords would have fewer vacancies if they thought more creatively about citizen and customer needs, but there's no business org that promotes such enlightened self-interest, and few governments that support residents against landlords.
Making that point, my first stop with Zurkoski is a behemoth that sells pretentious coffee, pastries and sandwiches, an example of how modern chains evolved from taking some of the cream away from small main street businesses.
Tim Hortons, Starbucks and Second Cup stay open long hours and sell enough pastries and sandwiches to take the margins from similar stores a block away. This business model - what used to be classed as predatory behaviour toward competitors in the olden days when governments used to regulate monopolies - is how chains begin to kill main street diversity.
I show Zurkoski the big convenience store opposite, which has turned Slurpees into an entire food group for local teens and knocked out an independent variety store on the next block a few years ago.
A few blocks away, a hardware chain store occupies the huge space where I used to buy healthy deli sandwiches at a Hasty Mart. The huge format is a godsend to landlords, who thereby rent a lot of space with one transaction, but not a favour to the street, which needs a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop.
We drive by a stretch with a pastry shop that specializes in gluten-free goodies, an exquisite chocolate shop, not to mention Ed's Real Scoop (luscious ice cream) and two Korean cafés. We pull up opposite a former bank, now an organic food shop. If organic stores were taking over from banks on every main street, our problems would be solved, I say. Then I ask Zurkoski to find the parking lot. There isn't one, he says. Exactly.
A few stores down, adjacent to a solar laundry and rep movie house, is the Remarkable Bean, with store-roasted coffee and ramshackle tables and chairs. This is what planners call a "third place," a bit like the bar in the old TV series Cheers, where everybody knows your name.
Close by is a mid-size supermarket where a homeless or under-housed person is usually standing outside selling papers. I got to know one of these men. He'd endured a rough childhood, got hooked on cocaine, but worked his way out by peddling papers. He even kept it up after a shopper offered him a room and he had to spend most of his time receiving cancer treatments. When he died, a local minister held a service for him in front of the store. He did not leave this world alone.
Main streets aren't just for businesses and landlords. They are social centres, and relationships get formed among walkers, not drivers. After his week in the car, Zurkoski says he's coming to feel like he's in his own private world. That's why busy sidewalks are better than cars for solving congestion - and for social cohesion.