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How is it that our vehicles keep getting bigger?

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camions blancs

Andréanne Brazeau, Mobility Analyst, Équiterre

While many justify the oversized vehicles on our roads because of our vast territory, harsh winters, or large families, our cars haven’t always been this big. In reality, our country hasn’t changed size, our climate is getting warmer and we’re having fewer children than we used to. So how can we explain that our vehicles have gotten so large and that gas-guzzling light-duty trucks have become the norm?

To get some answers, Équiterre partnered with the Polytechnique Montréal’s Chaire Mobilité on a series of studies tracing the origins of the rising dominance of light-duty trucks – sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and crossovers. The number of these vehicles on Canada’s roads rose by an astounding 280% between 1990 and 2018, with a worrisome “bigger is better” trend occurring in recent decades.

Not only are there more of these large vehicles on our roads, but the studies show that their proliferation has completely changed the dynamics of Canada’s vehicle fleet.

Bigger, taller and heavier

The studies explore how vehicle characteristics have changed over the years.

From 1994 to 2019, the weight of the average vehicle sold in Canada rose by more than 25%, with serious implications on road infrastructure, not to mention on the safety of pedestrians (particularly children), cyclists and those travelling in smaller cars.

The average height and wheelbase of vehicles have grown as well, by some 7%, and their surface area, measured in square metres, is up by 11%. Our vehicles have become heavier, taller and bulkier.

The result for motorists? There is less available parking space in cities and traffic congestion is worse. In short, everyone loses out because of this dangerous trend of larger and larger vehicles.

Will traditional cars soon be a thing of the past?

It wasn’t so long ago that all vehicles looked alike. When light-duty trucks first appeared on the market, they were used strictly for business purposes and were therefore initially subject to laxer environmental standards to ensure competitive prices. The problem is that those standards have not been adequately brought up to date despite the fact that light-duty trucks are used by more and more people from all walks of life.

The democratization of the truck-style vehicle firmly took hold in 2008, and today we are seeing a strong increase in SUV and crossover ownership numbers among all age groups, for both men and women.

And even though the cost of light-duty trucks in 2019 was on average $10,000 more than traditional cars, there is an increasing number of factors contributing to the growing interest in larger vehicles: low gas prices, financing available over long periods, urban sprawl, the cohort effect and so on. Taken together, these factors could even spell the end of the traditional car.

To put the brakes on the expansion of these mega-vehicles and to reverse this alarming trend, we need stringent regulations, something to look and ask for as federal elections approach. Policy decisions must also foster better sharing of existing road infrastructure instead of constantly seeking to expand it to adapt to bigger and bigger (and more and more) vehicles.