Friday, April 25, 2008

May you live in interesting times

Well, Gary Duke just can't get a break. After his (classic!) bike store was utterly destroyed in the big fire in downtown Toronto this winter, he is now being charged $48 000 to finish the demolition.
It ain't easy being a cyclist.

Careful readers know that I moved from Toronto to Orillia this past autumn. When I lived in Toronto, and was riding a lot with theToronto Bike Network, I used to bike about 15 km north on Yonge (i.e. yucky city cycling) just to get to Finch station, where I met the other TBN guys, and then we would ride another 15km or so just to get out of the damned city and hit a country road.

Now, in Orillia, I have a little 1.5km pedal down a street and across a bridge, and it's country roads as far as the eye can see. The only drawback is that a good chunk of them aren't paved, so until I know my way around I might do my exploring on my cross bike and leave the new Trek for when I ride with the bike shop guys.

When I was younger, and writing a lot of fiction, I used to lament the fact that I lived in a boring era, and that I didn't have a chasing wolves into mexico or a Eastern Europe under Communism type of experience to write about.

But every day that passes right now, I am increasingly thinking that our civilization is about to experience an upheaval of societal and planetary consequences. It's like we're living in a tree house, and a number of factors are working together to cut down the tree.

In our lifetime… we will have to deal with a peak in the supply of cheap oil.
National Geographic Cover Story, 2004.

cheap oil

National Geographic. The End of Cheap Oil.
Globe and Mail. CIBC's Jeff Rubin - gasoline at $2.25 a litre by 2012.

The era of cheap food is over.
Economist Magazine Cover Story, 2007.


Economist. The Silent Tsunami.
Globe and Mail. Why grocery bills are set to soar.

P.S. - May you live in interesting times is an ancient Chinese blessing, and curse.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

despite not being a "lance" guy...

I finished the series of active transportation articles that I've been mentioning off and on, and they're posted at Orillia Gets Active if anyone wants to check them out.

  • Article 1 covers how North America came to be an automobile dependent society

  • Article 2 explores the problems that auto-dependence has caused

  • Article 3 talks about why active transportation is a sustainable way forward for city planners in a (soon to be) $1.50 / litre of gas world.

In other news...

I bought a new bike.
Maybe a year and a half ago I sold my 2004 Cervelo Soloist (aluminum with Ultegra) thinking that my duathlon days were over, and that I could just use my cross bike for the long Sunday rides I anticipated doing.
However, several things ganged up on me & convinced me that I still needed a real road bike:
a) as mentioned before, I'm a cycling shopaholic.
b) This spring, both my brother and a co-worker have been bike shopping, and I've been looking at bikes left, right and center in efforts to advise them on things like wheelsets and what level of Shimano components not to drop below.
c) In Orillia I've gone for two Sunday rides with the local bike shop guys, on our cross bikes, and I'm enjoying it, but as the snow and ice leaves and the roads clear, I would have been very pissed to watch them switch to road bikes and leave me chugging along far behind on my steel Jamis.

SOOO - I've been surfing EBAY and the Canadian Cyclist classifieds, and found a guy living fairly close by selling a 2007 Trek 5000 - the 53/39 double version. It wasn't stock, he'd put on a different wheelset and fork, but they were still good parts, the bike was my size, and he was asking what I considered a really good price. Even before I went to look at it, it was pretty much a certainty that I was going to buy it.

Haven't ridden it yet, just picked it up this morning, but I already have adjustments to make. I want to get some good (used) mid-level Mavics for the bike, a new saddle, and some pedals.

Thank God for spring and bike part fiddling.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tying a few pieces together

I just stumbled across a New York Times science & environment blog called Dot Earth, and read this passage in their "About Us" section:
By 2050 or so, the world population is expected to reach nine billion, essentially adding two Chinas to the number of people alive today. Those billions will be seeking food, water and other resources on a planet where, scientists say, humans are already shaping climate and the web of life.

Coincidentally, I recently reread Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress, which I wrote about a while back in my tough lessons from Easter Island post.
In "A Short History", Wright has two passages which came back to me as soon as I read the above Dot Earth passage:

a) On page 124 he quotes British scientist Martin Rees as saying "The odds are no better than 50 / 50 that our present civilization... will survive to the end of the present century... unless all nations adopt low-risk and sustainable policies based on present technology."

b) On page 129 If civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital, of nature. Ecological markers suggest that in the early 1960s, humans were using about 70% of nature's yearly output; by the early 1980s, we'd reached 100%, and in 1999, we were at 125%. Such numbers may be imprecise, but their trend is clear - they mark the road to bankruptcy.

So - here are the two pieces that I immediately drew together: if 6 billion of us are using 125 percent of the earth's output, which is already unsustainable, what the hell are 9 billion of us going to do to this place?

Sometimes I wish I didn't read so much. Nearly all of it turns out to be negative. I do find some good stuff sometimes, like the Earth Charter, endorsed by UNESCO, but still, the good news is invariably overshadowed by the sheer weight of the bad.

I hope the Amish and the Mennonites feel like saving our sorry butts when civilization crumbles.

Incidentally, it was Can People Have Meat and a Planet Too? that led me to that Dot Earth blog. Does anybody else find the idea of breeding meat protein in petrie dishes, in order to avoid factory farming's massive problems, an unbelievably scary, sci-fi solution to a problem that could be fixed by just reducing how much meat we eat?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Where are we?

Below is the 2nd article of the three which should soon(ish) be in my local newspaper. Any criticism, fact-correcting would be totally welcome. After looking at why North America became automobile dependent, this article looks at the consequences of automobile dependence.

P.S. - frequent readers of this blog may notice that I've borrowed from myself a few times here. Oh well, as long as you aren't John Fogerty, that's okay isn't it? : )

In a previous article, I argued that North American cities became dependent on the automobile not because it was a good idea, but because the automobile lobby did two very effective things: a) they convinced governments to redesign public space to be pro-automobile and anti-public transit, making people NEED cars whether they liked it or not, and they used advertising to convince people who didn't need a car, WANT a car: To be without an automobile was increasingly a form of public nakedness in which a man, as one commentator put it, “ran the risk of being singled out among his fellows, especially on Sundays and holidays, as either hopelessly poor or perversely out of the swim (McCarthy, 2007, p. 53).

In this article I want to look at what one hundred years of automobile dependence has given us – what environmental, social, and health issues the automobile century has left in its wake. I'm barely going to mention climate change, believing that everyone already knows that our cars' C02 emissions are causing problems like the 200 million climate change refugees that the IPCC expects to be looking for new homes by 2050 (Leake, 2007). Before climate change became such a major issue, the biggest problem associated with the automobile was the PM 2.5 and carbon monoxide emissions from our cars contributing to air pollution. It's a shame that this issue doesn't get much press anymore, because the findings from air pollution research are horrendous - children living in smoggy areas lose 1% of their lung capacity every year (Gauderman, 2004), living in Madrid is the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day (Ham, 2006), a pregnant woman who lives for as little as a month in a high smog area is three times as likely to have a baby with a physical deformity as women living in healthier areas (Ritz, 2002), children living within a quarter mile of a freeway had an 89 percent higher risk of developing asthma than those who lived a mile away (Gauderman, 2005), “people who live near congested freeways are at least twice as likely to develop cancer from breathing vehicle pollution than those who live next to factories” (Tamminen, 2006, p. 47). And are you thinking about driving for a living? You're opening yourself up to increased instances of cancer and respiratory disease (Toronto Public Health, 2007). Finally, the Ontario Medical Assocation's Illness costs of air pollution report has put the number of premature deaths in southern Ontario, due to smog, at 5800 for 2005.

Climate change and air pollution are the most infamous legacies of the automobile, but there are many other problems to consider. The first, and the one with the most far reaching consequences, is that rampant automobile use has brought us to the end of the cheap-oil era. As recently as 2002, a barrel of oil traded at about $20.00 (U.S.). Six years later a barrel costs over $100.00, and the CIBC recently released a report saying that their research shows oil hitting $150.00 by 2012 (Hamilton, 2008). Oil prices are not the only measurement to consider however. Thomas Homer-Dixon would have us pay more attention to a factor known as Energy Return on Investment (EROI). EROI refers to how much energy you put into a project compared to how much energy you get out of the project. The nightmare scenario is when EROI is 1/1 - you get no more energy out of something than you put into it. In the Texas Wildcatter days, all you had to do was dig a hole in Texas and you had a geyser of oil shoot out of the ground. Today, after using up all the easily recoverable oil, we're drilling through unbelievable depths of water and scrounging through all the tar in northern Alberta to meet our petroleum needs. From the 1970's to today, EROI has fallen from about 25/1 to 15/1. The EROI of the Alberta Oil Sands is about 4/1 (Homer-Dixon, 2006). What does this mean? It means that we're now scratching the planet in desperation to get oil. As gasoline heads towards $1.50/litre it is going to become more and more uneconomical to have any sort of long drive to and from your workplace, especially as oil scarcity also causes your heating and grocery bills to rise.

The automobile has also had a profound influence on the health of North Americans. In conjunction with the fact that we eat far too much (one fast food meal can contain 2200 calories, which would require a full marathon to burn off [Maziak, 2008]), automobile use has reduced our daily level of exercise and caused obesity and diabetes rates to soar, and one study in the New England Journal of Medicine states that these problems will lead to the current generation of children, for the first time in history, to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents (Olshansky, 2005). 23.1% of Canadian adults are now obese, up from 13.8% in 1979 (Tjepkema, 2004). Between 1995 and 2005 the number of people in Ontario with diabetes grew by 70% (Hall, 2007). Aside from the fact that automobile dependence has helped to make people sick by reducing their activity levels, these problems entail massive monetary costs – the cost of physical inactivity in Canada has been estimated at $5.3 billion, and the cost of obesity estimated at $4.3 billion (Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, 2004). Physical inactivity's burden on the health care system was such a concern to the Federal and Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Sport, Recreation and Fitness in 2003, that they set a national target to increase levels of physical activity by ten percentage points in each province and territory by the year 2010. A primary reason that they set this target was that “Physical inactivity levels in Canada remain a serious public health burden. Fifty-five percent of Canadians do not meet minimum guidelines for regular physical activity necessary to attain health benefits. Physical inactivity increases the risk of chronic disease, premature death and disability.” (Government of New Brunswick, 2003).

Finally, I'd like to mention the social costs we're paying due to automobile dependence. In 1961, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacob argued for closely packed communities where you met and mingled with your neighbour every time you took out the garbage. She argued for a concentration of people and shops in one place, the idea being that the two would support each other, and that a vibrancy would arise from the constant interplay of people meeting on the streets as they went about their daily lives.

The automobile quite emphatically does NOT create a vibrant interplay of people. It creates suburbs and isolation. “Cars are increasingly inhabited by lone individuals, often insulated cocoon-fashion from the world around, rather like mobile gated communities” (Freund, 2007, p. 41). Not only do we travel by ourselves in our steel cans, building cities for our cars, rather than for ourselves, means that we live farther away from each other, and farther away from the places that we want to visit. Remember when you used to be able to walk to main street (or yes, drive to it), and do every single one of your errands – groceries, banking, post office, pharmacy – on foot? Meeting your neighbours in the shops? Probably not, and if you do, you're probably over 30 years old. Today's reality is making about 5 car stops to complete your errands, with a distance between each one of around two to five kilometres (and incidentally, these short trips, because they finish before a car's pollution control mechanisms kick in, cause more pollution than longer sustained trips).

Nobody profits from this style of urban design, except the automobile and the oil companies. In fact, most of us suffer from it. Although the automobile is here to stay, there are a few things that we can do to alleviate the problems that automobile dependence has caused, and the simplest solution, and perhaps the best solution, is active transportation.

Article Two – Reference List

Bittman, M. (2008 January 27). Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler. New York Times.

Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. (2004). Physical Activity Monitor and Sport.

Freund, P. & Martin, G. (2007). Hyperautomobility, the social organization of space, and health. Mobilities, 2(1), 37-49.

Gauderman, W.J., Avol, E., Gilliland, F., Vora, H., Thomas, D., Berhane, K., et al. (2004). The effect of air pollution on lung development from 10 to 18 years of age. New England Journal of Medicine, 351(11), 1057-1067.

Gauderman, W.J., Avol, E., Lurmann, F., Kuenzli, N., Gilliland, F., Peter, J., et al. (2005). Childhood asthma and exposure to traffic and nitrogen dioxide. Epidemiology, 16(6), 737-743.

Government of New Brunswick. (2003) News Release: Federal and Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Sport, Recreation and Fitness Target Increase in Physical Activity.

Hall, J. (2007 March 02). Diabetes soars in Ontario. Toronto Star.

Ham, A. (2006 February 11). Spain chokes under ‘Grey Beret’. The Age.

Hamilton, T. (2008, January 11). Economist predicts $1.50 a litre for gasoline. The Toronto Star.

Homer-Dixon, T. (2006, November 29). The end of ingenuity. International Herald Tribune.

Leake, J. (2007, April 1). Climate change ‘could create 200m refugees’. The Sunday Times.

Maziak, W., Ward, K.D., & Stockton, M.B. (2008). Childhood obesity: Are we missing the big picture? Obesity Reviews, 9, 35-42.

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

Olshansky, S.J., Passaro, D.J., Hershow, R.C., Layden, J., Carnes, B.A., Brody, J., et al. (2005). A Potential decline in life expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century. New England Journal of Medicine, 352(11), 1138-1145.

Ontario Medical Assocation. (2005). The illness costs of air pollution: 2005-2026 health and economic damage estimates. (OMA Publication ISBN 0919047548).

Ritz, B., Yu, F., Fruin, S., Chapa, G., Shaw, G.M. & Harris, J. (2002). Ambient Air Pollution and Risk of Birth Defects in Southern California. American Journal of Epidemiology, 155(1), 17-25.

Simpson, J, Jaccard, M. & Rivers, N. (2007). Hot air: Meeting Canada’s climate change challenge. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

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

Tjepkema, M. (2004). Adult obesity in Canada: Measured height and weight. Statistics Canada.

Toronto Public Health. (2007). Air pollution burden of illness from traffic in Toronto: Problems and solutions. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from