Friday, April 11, 2008

Article One: How we got here

This is the first of three articles on Active Transportation. Looking at North America's automobile dependent society, today's article will examine “How We Got Here”. Following articles will look at the problems caused by automobile dependence, and an overview of why active transportation – walking and cycling – provides a sustainable way forward for the 21st century.


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 fueled 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 dependent 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 affordable 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 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 several years studying the issue, and decided that automobiles were the answer. Rather, it happened because it was good for the automobile companies, who took a sexy product and ran roughshod with it over every other transportation option that existed.

Article One: Reference List

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.

Article Two: Where Are We

Article Two looks at the problems caused by North America's dependence on the automobile.


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 serious problems, for example 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 have an 89 percent higher risk of developing asthma than those who live 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 Association'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 after designing our entire society around the fossil-fuel guzzling automobile, we're now scratching the planet in desperation to get oil. As gasoline heads towards $1.50/litre, driving is going to become more and more uneconomical, especially as oil scarcity also causes our 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 (North Americans eat about double the recommended amount of protein [Bittman, 2008], and 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. One study in the New England Journal of Medicine foresees these problems causing 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). A lot of things – television viewing, video games, supersized colas – have caused the diabetes and obesity epidemics, but auto-centric urban planning, which discourages walking and cycling in favour of driving, has played its part as well.

The social costs of the automobile are best imagined by going back to Jane Jacobs' 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In this book Jacobs 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 housing, jobs and shops in one place, the idea being that these things 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 picture painted by Jacobs did not include the automobile, as trip lengths in her communities would be too short to bother using one. It certainly did not include subdivisions spawning themselves off towards ever further horizons, creating an eerie suburban seclusion as these housing developments leave behind all recognizable city centers and force people to spend increasing amounts of time alone in their automobiles. Jacobs’ vision of tightly knit, walkable communities did not include 2800 Canadians dying each year in traffic accidents (45 000 a year in the U.S.), people spending 1/5 of their income (or one working day a week) on their automobile, the best farmland in Ontario being buried under cement, or non-drivers, particularly the elderly, being excluded from life because there is no “life” within walking distance of their far-flung subdivision.

Nobody profits from the auto-centric style of urban design which is preeminent in North America, in fact, most of us suffer from it. Although the automobile is here to stay, there are things we can do to alleviate the problems caused by automobile dependence, 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.

Article Three - Active Transporation

This is the last of three articles about active transportation. After having looked at why North America became an automobile dependent society, and what problems this has resulted in, today's article will look at active transportation as a sustainable way forward for North American cities in general, and Orillia in particular.


If automobile use has caused a wide-array of problems in areas such as personal health, economic loss, and even planetary survival, and if it was never a well-considered transportation solution in the first place, what are we to do? Especially now that we’re running out of cheap oil and have designed our cities to be hostile towards anything BUT automobiles? Well, the best answer is to lace up your comfortable walking shoes and get your bike out of the garage. Active transportation (walking and biking) is one of the best solutions we have.

Now, no one is saying that automobiles are going to disappear, but every level of government in Canada knows that we have to get as many cars off the road as we can. That is why the federal Conservatives introduced their tax rebate for public transit use, and why then Environment Minister Rona Ambrose explicitly stated “Our transit tax initiative will take the equivalent of 56,000 cars off the road each year which will significantly reduce greenhouse gases here in Canada” (Department of Finance Canada, 2006). In Ontario, getting cars off the road is why the Ontario Liberal party is now waving the PST on essential bike accessories, like helmets and locks, and on all bikes under $1000.00 (Canadian Press, 2007). It is also why municipal governments across the country, including Moncton, Chatham, Fort Frances, North Bay, Vaughan, and such weather-challenged cities as Winnipeg and Whitehorse, have been implementing active transportation plans (in 2007 the federal government contributed to $1.27 million in funding for public and active transportation projects in the Northwest Territories[Transport Canada, 2007], and $17.9 million for the same projects in Manitoba [Ottawa kicks in..., 2008]).

Regarding active transportation, it is hard to find a professional organization which is NOT lobbying for an increase in active transportation these days. The OCGHEPA (a group of Ontario health professionals) applauded the most recent Ontario budget's allocation of $10 million towards the childhood obesity epidemic, but also warned that “public infrastructure to encourage safe, active transportation should be a top priority for the government's Inter-Ministerial Committee on Healthy Living” (Ontario nutrition..., 2008). The Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Lung Association and the Heart and Stroke Foundation recently joined forces to call for an “allocation of at least seven per cent of federal transportation infrastructure funds to active transportation infrastructure; e.g. bike paths, walking trails and sidewalks”(Groups demand action..., 2008).

The Ontario Professional Planners Institute released a report in 2007 titled Healthy Communities, Sustainable Communities, which looked at the problems stemming from our auto-centric style of urban design, such as obesity and social exclusion. Amongst their key recommendations is the following: “Neighbourhoods and communities must create an environment in which public transit, walking and bicycling become the predominant mode of transportation for people to get to school, work, recreational facilities, and convenience shopping” (p. 15).

The 2007 Toronto Public Health report on air pollution in Toronto found that traffic causes 440 premature deaths and 1700 hospitalizations per year in Toronto, and causes children 1200 acute bronchitis episodes per year. They also found that a 30% reduction in vehicle emissions in Toronto would save 189 lives per year and result in 900 million dollars in health benefits. One of their key recommendations? “There is a need to reassess how road space can be used more effectively to enable the shift to more sustainable transportation modes. More road space needs to be allocated towards development of expanded infrastructure for walking, cycling and on-road public transit (such as dedicated bus and streetcar lanes) so as to accelerate the modal shift from motor vehicles to sustainable transportation modes that give more priority to pedestrians, cyclists and transit users” (Executive summary, p. ii).

Why are all these groups talking about active transportation, and demanding that all levels of government do more to encourage it? Well, for many reasons, but the main one is that active transportation is ideally suited to replace one terribly damaging practice with an all-around beneficial one. Perhaps the worst common practice in North America is when a single occupant vehicle travels less than 5km. Per km travelled, trips under 5km cause more C02 emissions than longer trips, because they finish before a car warms up and begins operating efficiently, and before it’s anti-polluting mechanisms truly kick in (Tomlinson, 2003, p. 10). Trips under 5km by a single person could easily be replaced, in a properly built city, by a bike ride or a long walk. Instead of one person driving and contributing to the climate change, air pollution, gridlock and health care problems, we instead have that person getting his or her recommended level of daily exercise, and hopefully not contributing to the nearly $10 billion burden that obesity and inactivity causes the Canadian medical system each year (Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, 2004). As well, that person travels from point A to point B with almost no impact on the environment.

If there is one thing that the current generation of municipal leaders and planners needs to do, it is to give the next generation a head-start. If our environmentally conscious children are going to want to walk to work, we have to leave them an inheritance of walkable streets. If we don’t, we’re forcing them to redesign the city before they can start using it sustainably. We have to install the bicycle parking posts for them. We have to ensure that housing developers plan bike lanes and large sidewalks along all their roads. We have to look at the bridges and roads that connect the different parts of our towns together, and figure out how someone on foot or bicycle could get to these places safely. If an answer doesn't currently exist, we have to make one.

In 2004, Ronald Wright wrote a book titled A Short History of Progress. In this work, Wright explores past civilizations which had failed (the Romans, Mayans, Sumerians and the natives of Easter Island), and compares their mistakes to what we have done in the 20th century. While past civilizations were small enough that the earth was able to recover from their collapse, he believes that our present civilization is different:

The future of everything we have accomplished since our intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the next few years. Like all creatures, humans have made their way in the world so far by trial and error; unlike other creatures, we have a presence so colossal that error is a luxury we can no longer afford. The world has grown too small to forgive us any big mistakes (Wright, 2004, p. 3).

Currently, there are six billion people on this planet, and we're using 125% of the earth's yearly output of natural resources (Wright, 2004, p. 129). By 2050 there'll be nine billion of us here, at which time there'll be even less oil, food and water to go around. In Canada we're fortunate to live in a land of relative plenty, but we need to use this “plenty” sustainably – we have 0.05% of the earth's population, but we emit 2% of all Greenhouse Gas emissions, ranking us amongst the world's worst GHG emitters per capita (Simpson, 2008, p. 16). As well, we've let our GHG emissions from the transportation sector increase by 35% from 1990 to 2004, despite having made progress in fuel efficiency (Simpson, 2008, p. 26).

Active transportation may seem like a small weapon to use against these massive global problems, but these small solutions are all that we have. In Orillia, this means that ideas like a pedestrian/cycling bridge across Highway 11, or turning the two side car lanes on the West Street bridge into sharrows (shared bicycle / car lanes), have to become genuine considerations. And we have to take all these small steps before we do any more damage to our own health, or the health of this pale blue dot, floating in a great darkness, that we call home.


Reference List

Photos for this post primarily from Ski Epic and Picasa and Clever Cycles

Canada News Centre. (2007). The Governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories boost Public Transit in the Northwest Territories. (6 November 2007).

Canada Revenue Agency. Children's Fitness Tax Credit. (26 February 2008)

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

Ontario drops tax on most bikes. CBC News. (9 November 2007).

Department of Finance Canada (2006). Taking public transit is now more affordable in Canada.

Groups demand action on environmental health. News (6 March 2008).

Metrolinx. (2008). Active transportation: Development of a regional transportation plan for the greater Toronto and Hamilton area (Green Paper #3).

Ontario nutrition and physical activity professionals applaud government investment in childhood obesity strategy. Canada News Wire. (26 March 2008).

Ontario Professional Planners Institute. (2007). Healthy communities, sustainable communities.

Ottawa kicks in $17.9 for transit. Winnipeg Free Press (28 March 2008).

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

Tomlinson, D. (2003). The Bicycle and urban sustainability. York University graduate research paper.

Toronto Public Health. (2007). Air pollution burden of illness from traffic in Toronto.

Transport Canada. Wheel to work in Whitehorse. (24 July 2007).

Wright, R. (2004). A Short history of progress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.