Saturday, March 29, 2008

How we got here

The Toronto Cyclists Union is holding an Advocacy Workshop on Sunday April 13 - 11:00am to 4:00pm in the Toronto City Hall Council Chambers at Queen & Bay.
The Facebook group is here, and the workshop is for anyone who wants to learn how, with the support of the Toronto Cyclists Union, to improve cycling conditions and get more cycling programs that are specifically targeted to your ward."


So it looks like I will be writing three articles on Active Transportation for my local newspaper, and the first one will be a "How we got here" piece - i.e. how did we end up with an automobile dependent society?

Since I'm a fairly biased left wing vegetarian cyclist, I'd be especially interested to hear what the pro-automobile people would say in reply to any claims that I make. Anyway, give it a read and tell me what you think. Take care!


In his 2006 book Lives Per Gallon, Terry Tamminen asks the following hypothetical question – if you had the chance to wipe the slate clean, and redesign all the cities in the world, would you put the homes and the workplaces about 50km away from each other, connect them with concrete highways, and force people to travel in 3 ton steel containers which are fuelled by one of the most precious resources on earth, and which burn it in the most environmentally damaging manner possible? (p. 165). Hopefully, we would answer his question by replying “No.” This leads to another question however, why did we design cities this way?

Before discussing the benefits of active transportation, and recommending it as a useful form of transportation for Orillia, I think it is useful to talk about how we ended up in the situation that Tamminen describes above – in cities without adequate public transportation, where people cannot travel safely on foot or bicycle, and where we are completely dependant upon automobiles. The answer, although multi-layered, eventually boils down to the fact that companies like GM and Standard Oil could make more money if you drove than if you took public transit.

Up until 1908, when Henry Ford put the Model T on the market, automobiles were exclusively toys for the fabulously rich. Playboys like William K. Vanderbilt raced at high speeds past bicycles and horse drawn carriages and stirred up a powerful mixture of emotions – outright hatred (noisy, polluting, and reckless automobile driving frequently led to motorists being stoned, shot at by farmers, and mercilessly beaten if they stopped after running over a pedestrian, leading to the “hit and run” [McCarthy, p. 9]), but more importantly, jealousy. If owning an automobile meant that you were rich, not owning one meant that you were poor. “The emotions that the speeding sportsmen aroused... sparked the automobile revolution of the 1910's and 1920's.” (McCarthy, p. 30).

Between 1908, when the reliable and affordably priced Model T was introduced, and 1927, the number of cars on American roads jumped from 200 000 to 20 million; and 15 million of these cars, snapped up by people who wanted to prove themselves a “have” rather than a “have not”, were Model T's (McCarthy, p. 30). Jealousy provoked such a desire for car ownership that many families living barely above the poverty line gave up real necessities in order to own an automobile (Davis, p. 2).

Now, without a doubt, the automobile was a positive innovation in many ways: it allowed farmers and people in rural areas to travel to and from towns much faster, and it offered relief from situations like New York in 1900, where horses were dropping 2.5 million pounds of manure every day, along with 60 000 gallons of urine (Flink, p. 136). But the usefulness of the automobile doesn’t explain why North American cities didn’t support a healthy mixture of different transit styles – the automobile in conjunction with electric streetcars and bike lanes for example.

The pro-automobile lobby got started destroying the competition at least as early as 1910, when automobile advertisements slurred public transit with ads that asked “Why be part of the ten-cent common herd?” (McCarthy, page 152). City business leaders, who very emphatically were NOT part of the ten cent public transit herd, bought automobiles and then became powerful voices on city councils:
“City planners and politicians largely ignored the needs of the autoless for better public transportation, while undertaking a massive restructuring of cities at public expense to accomodate middle-class motorists.... the main reason why planners almost totally neglected the needs of the urban working class and the poor for better public transit is that planning commissions were dominated by commercial civic elites” (Flink, pgs. 151-152).

Public transportation suffered heavily with the rise of the automobile. Cars gave people the ability to live far from where they worked, buying houses in temporarily idyllic suburbs and escaping sometimes industrial conditions in city centers. As cities spread out, population density became thinner and thinner, and it was no longer profitable for a transit operator to run a streetcar line on routes with only a handful of regular passengers. Just as public transit was dying, cities were sprawling, giving us situations like the eastern part of the GTA, where Scarborough oozes into Pickering then Ajax then Whitby then Oshawa, all of which was once gorgeous farmland, but is now a collection of housing developments and box stores linked together with four to six lane mini highways.

So public transit was dying, active transportation was almost unknown, and the auto lobby kept consolidating power. In the late 1930s, GM formed an alliance with companies like Standard Oil, Firestone Tires, and Mack Trucks, to destroy public transit systems (i.e. their competition), by buying up public transit companies and replacing light rail / electric streetcar systems with GM buses. Eventually convicted (though only lightly punished) for monopolization of bus sales, Government Attorney Bradford Snell eventually summed up GM's actions this way: “[GM's motor buses] ultimately contributed to the collapse of several hundred public transit systems and to the diversion of hundreds of thousands of patrons to automobiles. In sum, the effect of General Motors' diversification program was threefold: substitution of buses for passenger trains, streetcars and trolley buses; monopolization of bus production; and diversion of riders to automobiles” (St. Clair, p. 16).

Throughout the 20th century, the automobile lobby and the big three sold more cars by creating demand for more cars. After the rich playboy market became saturated, they sold cars to middle class people for weekend rides to the country. When they wanted to force urban dwellers to use their car to get back and forth to work, they tore away public transit and lobbied for a pro-automobile redesign of urban environments. When they wanted to make the automobile the best choice for cross country travel, they lobbied federal governments to conduct massively expensive freeway building programs. When, in the 1950's, they had sold a car to every single family, they targeted housewives - When the male population empties out of Suburbia each workday morning – millions of housewives are left virtually prisoners in their own homes (Ford advertising copy quoted in McCarthy, p. 151) - and began selling two cars to every family.

So, back to our original question – why is North America dependant upon the automobile? Unfortunately, it is not because an interdisciplinary group of experts spent 10 years studying the issue in the 1920's, and decided that automobiles were the answer. More accurately, it is because a good technology came under the manipulation of very greedy powers, and if something like a bike lane or a bus route wasn't going to be good for them, they were going to fight it, even if it would have been good for us.


Davis, C. (2005). On these very streets: The automobile and the urban environment in St. Louis, 1920—1930 (Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri - Columbia).

Flink, J.J. (1988). The Automobile Age. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Fotsch, P.M. (1988). Stabilizing mobility: Transportation and isolation in urban America. (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, San Diego).

Gutfreund, O.D. (2004). Twentieth-century sprawl : highways and the reshaping of the American landscape. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCarthy, T. (2007). Auto mania : cars, consumers, and the environment. New Haven : Yale University Press.

Miller, G.R. (1983). Transportation and urban growth in Cincinnati, Ohio, and vicinity: 1788 – 1980. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati).

Schlosser, E. (2001). Fast food nation: the dark side of the all-American meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

St. Clair, D.J. (1986). The Motorization of American Cities. New York: Praeger.

Tamminen, T. (2006). Lives per gallon: The true cost of our oil addiction. Washington: Island Press.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

For the good of American civilization

Geoffrey left me a comment below the last post about Tommasini bikes. Tommasinis are hand-crafted Italian bikes, that have now set up distribution in the U.S. I guess the love of cycling runs in the Tommasini blood (this is also my surname). I would L.O.V.E. one of those bikes, maybe I should do some research and see if there's a family connection in the not so distant past, maybe they'll give me a free frame!

I'm still doing some background reading to prepare me for three articles on active transportation, and my plan is that the first article will be a "how did we get into this mess?" story about why North America adopted the automobile to the extent that it did.

Part of the answer, apparently, is that people in the 1920's were just freaking insane. Listen to this, from The Automobile Age by James Flink:

Family togetherness was a major benefit anticipated by early proponents of automobility. Next to the church there is no factor in American life that does so much for the morals of the public as does the automobile, E.C. Stokes, a former governor of New Jersey and the president of a Trenton bank, claimed in 1921. Any device that brings the family together as a unit in their pursuit of pleasure is a promoter of good morals and yields a beneficent influence that makes for the good of American civilization. If every family in the land possessed an automobile, family ties would be closer and many of the problems of social unrest would be happily resolved… The automobile is one of the country’s best ministers and best preachers.

Errrr.... so, if Jesus (or Buddha etc, take your pick), were alive in the 1920's, he'd have been an automobile?

The Automobile Age also mentions another book, which seems a bit more in line with my thinking. In the late 1950's, someone named John Keats wrote a text titled The Insolent Chariot. A critique of the American automobile industry, the book was summarized in the New York Times as portraying contemporary American cars as “overblown, overpriced monstrosities built by oafs for thieves to sell to mental defectives."

Check out Ethicle.
I don't know why there isn't more hype about this, but this version of the Google search engine allows you to do searches which contribute a penny per search to organizations like Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Amnesty International, and a few others as well.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Another form of active transportation

I don't really remember how it came up, but I was talking to a co-worker and I started saying "You know, I've owned...." and then I had to pause, trying to remember how many bikes I've owned since I became a full on bike commuter back in about 2001.
The answer, including two bikes which were given to me, is nine (a bunch of them are pictured in this post). I've given a couple away, and sold a couple, and I currently own four bikes (only one of which has gears, the others are singlespeeds).

Now I remember how it came up, I've been helping another co-worker research bikes because she is going to buy this spring, and I was telling the first co-worker that I was living vicariously through Jennelle (who is bike shopping) because spring for me means coming down with bike lust, and I currently have no business whatsoever spending any money on bikes.
Now, if I DID have a spare $1000 bucks for a bike, I think I'd have to find a shop that could sell me a Felt F85. I came across this bike in the current Bicycling buyer's guide, and I cannot believe how much bike this is for about $1100 bucks. It's a sub 20 pound bike, with carbon fork and seatpost, and a mix of Ultegra and 105!!! components! I mean, holy crap - that is such a bargain it's almost worth giving up food for to be able to afford.

At my last job, in Oshawa, I did what many of us do, and I brought my bike into my office for safety. come to think of it, I commuted to that job on 5 different bikes over the course of just over a year. Life in Orillia is a little bit different however. The snow just doesn't stop falling in Orillia, and here, you park your snowshoes in your office after your morning commute.