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Scandinavian Tourists 'Horrified' By Canada's Car Culture

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Two Scandinavian tourists were left "horrified" after observing the scale of Canada's car culture. | Chris Thomaidis via Getty Images

Two Scandinavian tourists are honking their horns at Canadian car culture after a recent trip left them “horrified” by the sight of sprawling freeways and “unfulfilled communities.”

They were so unimpressed by the country’s apparent display of excessive car-serving infrastructure, they penned an open letter to Canadians and politicians urging “radical steps” to “make Canada a healthy, happy and sustainable country.”

English-born Holly Chabowski and her Danish girlfriend were “horrified to see great oceans of car parks deserting the landscape and 12 lane high ways, rammed packed with huge SUVs, with people going nowhere” during their five-week vacation – visiting cities including Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, and Halifax.

The duo live in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, but were lured to Canada in the first place because of Canuck co-workers and their love of “hiking in national parks", Chabowski told HuffPost Canada. Though she says they had an “incredible adventure,” the most salient memory they have is of parking instead of parks.

They also backed up their observations with a few testimonies from locals they met on their travels.

“Trying to solve traffic problems by building more roads is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger trousers,” one unnamed Ottawan told Chabowski. It’s a cheeky analogy supported by government data, too.

According to Transport Canada, the National Highway System now boasts 38,000 kilometres of roadways – a 56 per cent boost between 1988 and 2011.

In contrast, there are approximately 10,000 kilometres of national bike routes in Denmark, according to the Danish government.

So what solutions do they present to inspire Canadians who live in a country nearly 232 times the size of Denmark to give up their car-driving ways? Trains are a feasible place to start for both citizens and tourists, says Chabowski.

“You can relax, socialize, read a newspaper, enjoy a glass of wine or sleep. It becomes part of your holiday or trip,” she explained in an email.

To deal with Scandinavian winters, Chabowski says a salted route, extra layers and winter tires go a long way. Electric bikes are also a popular choice for occasional trips to IKEA and among the elderly, she says.

"They can keep fit, socialize with friends and remain independent into old age."

Read the full letter below:

An open letter to the people who hold power and responsibility in Canada,

My girlfriend and I (Danish) were tourists in your country for 5 weeks this summer. We had the most incredible adventure and met the most wonderful Canadians, who welcomed us warmly into their homes.

Apart from these people, who sincerely do your nation credit, our overwhelming memory of Canada is one of cars, traffic, parking and the related obesity and unfulfilled communities. It is an impression that we have since shared with other tourists who have visited Canada.

Before arriving in Canada we had a genuine impression of a clean, healthy and sustainable first world country. Upon arrival in Toronto we were horrified to see great oceans of car parks deserting the landscape and 12 lane high ways, rammed packed with huge SUVs, with people going no where. A greater shock came when we discovered that this kind of infrastructure is not reserved just for the sprawl surrounding towns and cities but that highways actually run through city centres too. As humans trying to enjoy Canada's major cities (Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa and Halifax) we were treated like second class citizens compared to cars. The air was dirty, and the constant noise from horns and engines was unpleasant.

An observation that was especially noticeable in Halifax was the sheer amount of land in the city centre given to parking. Ginormous swaths of prime locations for living (parks, shops, cafés, market squares, theatres, playing fields etc - human activities which are key to quality of life) concreted over as homes for an ever increasing number of SUVs (most trucks and SUVs we saw contained only one person. The most SUVs we saw in a row were full of singular people driving through Tim Hortens). We asked the Canadians that we met how they felt living in such a car culture, here are a few of their responses:

'Trying to solve traffic problems by building more roads is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger trousers.' Ottawa

'It's only 10km to my work place. I would love to cycle, it would only take 30 minutes but it is simply not possible. I don't feel safe. Instead I park and sweat, meaning after 25 minutes stuck in traffic I drive my car to the gym and waste another 25 minutes of time I could spend with my family.' Quebec City

'I hate cars in the city so much that I actually find myself slowing down as I cross the road, in a tiny effort to exert my authority as a human being over all that metal.' Toronto

'It seems to me that birds fly, fish swim and humans walk. Except in North America where you are expected to drive-everywhere. You wouldn't put a fish in a submarine!' Montreal

'I am obese. My children are overweight and most of the people who live around here. I am surrounded by fast food chains, car parks and highways. I would love to ditch the car. My neighbourhood doesn't even have sidewalks.' Levis

As we explored more of the country we tried to console ourselves that at least a few cities were making an effort to make life liveable for humans - small local businesses, cycle infrastructure and pedestrianised streets. However, it felt like a token gesture rather than a genuine effort to make Canada a healthy, happy and sustainable country. Pedestrians were squeezed onto narrow pavements and forced to stop every 100m to cross the road, bike lanes were little more than paint on the ground for the cyclists to help protect the parked cars lining every street. We heard that the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, is actually tearing up bicycle lanes to make way for more cars!

Walking and cycling are human activities that bring great life, health and economy to communities. Streets that prioritise cars over humans are bad for business, bad for health (mental, social and physical), unsafe and break down communities.

I write this letter to appeal to you to take radical steps to transform Canada into the healthy, happy and sustainable country we were expecting. You are a nation of the most fantastic people, we know because we met them everywhere! As citizens they deserve much, much better.

Come on Canada! When tourists visit Canada make sure they remember it for for its parks rather than parking.

Sincerely yours,

Holly Chabowski
Denmark

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