In 1980, with our careers in place, our family started, with a modest house and modest travel plans as part of out lifestyle, we decided we could afford to buy our first new car. It was a big deal. Our first car had been a five year old 1970 Chev four door. It was huge and had a V8 engine. We didn't want that sort of a car. It seemed wasteful and the future seemed to belong to the newer models of compact cars. Toyotas and Datsuns were everywhere, that seemed the way to go. Even the big three America companies were introducing smaller options. It looked like wasteful excessive vehicles were a thing of the past.
Who would have guessed that half a decade later, with the world seeing even worse devastation that some of us early tree huggers were predicting, the most popular vehicles are oversized pickup trucks?
"In the United States, five of the 10 top-selling automobiles are pickup trucks."
But finally, with juridictions around the world planning for the end of fossil fuel-driven excess, the writing may finally be on the wall for the oversized gas-powered vehicle.
So let's get on with it. We can start curbing their use now, and while we're at it let's not just trade one menace for another. The problem with pickup trucks isn't just that they are energy hogs. It's a little deeper than that.
An article in the Globe recently took a look at the issue in an excellent article by Marcus Gee entitled,
"Pickup trucks are a plague on Canadian streets."
I will borrow from some of Mr. McGee's excellent observations.
And it's not just that pickups are more prevalent - they are bigger and badder...
“Since 1990, U.S. pickup trucks have added almost 1,300 pounds on average,” writes author Angie Schmitt in Bloomberg CityLab. “Some of the biggest vehicles on the market now weigh almost 7,000 pounds – or about three Honda Civics.”
Let's start with what wanting to drive a mini-tank says about the owner. Of course there are reasons for owning a truck. We had one when I was a kid on the farm. They are great if you need to haul stuff or tow stuff. Lots of guys (yes and some girls too) will insist that's why they "need" a truck. Some of these reasons can be legitimate, but we all know that there are millions of trucks in North America that are seldom put to real use.
Worse than that is the way in which the design and popularity of today's pickup truck encourage their misuse.
"A recent U.S. report found that more than half a million diesel pickups had been fitted with devices that override their emissions controls, dumping pollutants into the air. In the charming practice known as rolling coal, some pickup drivers blow past cyclists and electric vehicles and deliberately spew black smoke at them."
Utility is not even near the top of a real list of the attractions of the pickup truck. They are a fashions statement, a status symbol, an ego booster, a power trip...and more.
It's funny that in 1980, for some, a small car was also bit of a fashion statement. Does the fact that it was cool to drive a Toyota in 1980 and cool to drive a Ram 150 in 2022 help us understand why the world is in the state it is in?
This can be true in a dozen more subtle ways. Some time ago a friend bought a truck because he was working in construction. He had tools and materials to haul to work sites. Funny thing, at that time we had inherited an old Dodge Carvan which we used for a while. I started to notice that trucks these days aren't really designed to haul things. The boxes are generally short to make room for a rear passenger seat. My old van with the seats out had more cargo space. The cargo was dry and secure under a roof.
Okay, let's admit, trucks, the larger more powerful ones, are needed to haul trailers, especially the huge travel trailers that are so popular these days.
But wait a minute - is the fact that so many people have a spare house that they haul around with them, a good thing for the environment? Is it efficient in any way? That's a separate discussion, but I think its clear that that love of trucks and love of travel trailers share the same roots.
I think it is pretty obvious that utility isn't the underlying reason for the poularity of the pickup truck.
Unfortunately conspicuous consumption plays a big role in today's consumer culture. It always has, but the choices today seem especially harmfull. Somewhat different from collecting first editions, original art or heirloom furniture. Even gold faucets aren't especiallyharmful.
But trucks are.
If you are in an avergae sized sedan and you were about to be boradsided by a vehicle at an intersection, would you prefer that the vehicle bearing down on you was: A: My Ford Fiesta or... B: A jacked Up Ram 150?
Buying an armoured vehicle is just a tad selfish - as all elements of privilege are. Your safety trumps my safety.
But here's the additional downside. Driving a tank can only make you less carefull / more invulnerable as a driver.
On the lighter side, what we see in our neighbourhood is people having fun with their trucks, especially the 4-wheel drive ones. Curbs are no longer a problem for a truck driver - the once in our condo parking lot are all damaged from trucks running over them. Encourgaed by the ads touting the freedom a big "off road" vehicle gives one, spaces such as sensitive natural area and the green space across the street from us are criss crossed with truck tracks.
People don't buy trucks because they love nature or the natural world.
Mr. Gee summed it up perfectly:
"Even if they weren’t polluting and dangerous, the parade of pickups would be a blight on the roadscape and a finger in the eye of other drivers – a way of saying to everyone else: I am bigger, badder and richer than you. A vehicle that started as a practical tool for hard-working people has become, for many, an obnoxious assertion of dominance and division."
So, how do we encourage sustainable, safe vehicle choices?
At the federal and provincail level we need to use taxes, registration and insurance fee schedules to move towards getting people to pay the real environmental and safety costs of their decisions regarding vehicles. We know how to do that, we just need the will.
At a local level the first thing we could do is redesign parking lots with regular sized spaces in the advantageous locations for normal vehicles and large spots, farther away for larger vehicles. Another thing would be to start enforcing noise bylaws and traffic rules in general.
The death of the small car? Automakers pivot toward trucks and SUVs
Trucks, vans and SUVs now outselling smaller vehicles by 2-to-1 margin in Canada