Category Archives: Motor vehicles

The Priorities of General Motors: Ditching Holden

It seemed to be a case of grand misrepresentation.  Holden cars, those great Australian acquisitions, along with home, lawnmower and nuclear family, gave the impression of indigenous pride, the home brand.  It was also resoundingly masculine.  But behind that image was a mighty American thrust, with General Motors holding the reins on investment as benevolent parent happy to rebadge the car brand when needed.  Poor returns would invariably mean rough corporate decisions untouched by sentiment.

Between 2002 and 2005, things looked rosy.  Sales of 170,000 a year saw the peak of the company’s returns.  But Holden remained a distinctly parochial brand, incapable of moving beyond its Australian and New Zealand markets.

Breathing down the neck of GM’s Holden operations was the realisation that other auto companies were doing their own bit of wooing.  The Australian buyer, over time, developed a taste for other products.  Japanese car culture, with its clever alignments with game culture, seduced and won over buyers.  Vehicles such as the Mazda MX-5 impressed.  Toyota became a mainstay and South Korea’s Hyundai has proven more than competitive.

In 2017, GM ceased its manufacturing operations in Australia, a decision that was already promised by the company at the end of 2013.  Then GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson put it down to those “negative influences the automotive industry faces in the country, including the sustained strength of the Australian dollar, high cost of production, small domestic market and arguably the most competitive and fragmented auto market in the world.”  Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was less inspired before his fellow parliamentarians, and did not “want to pretend to the parliament that this is anything other than a dark day for Australian manufacturing.”

Australia had simply become too dear as a base, and the closure of the Elizabeth vehicle manufacturing plant in Adelaide saw the loss of 1,600 jobs.  Melbourne’s share was 1,300.  What took its place was, in the sexed-up language of GM, “a national sales company, a national parts distribution centre and a global design studio.”

The sweet promise of the transformation remained more aspiration than substance.  The sale run in 2019 proved so poor that it saw the cessation of the Opel-based Holden Commodore and Astra in favour of SUVs.  Such moves spelled doom for the entire Holden enterprise, and on Monday afternoon, February 17, auto-watchers witnessed an announcement by GM and Holden executives that Holden will close at the end of 2020.  Some 600 workers will lose their jobs by June, leaving 200 to provide the relevant customer service for the 1.6 million Holdens that are still on the roads.

A glance at the promotional messages on the GM website should have worried any Holden fan.  On February 16, the company stated in the cold language of the corporate boardroom that it was “taking decisive action to transform its international operations, building on its comprehensive strategy it laid out in 2015 to strengthen its core business, drive significant cost efficiencies and take action in markets that cannot earn an adequate return for its shareholders.”

GM President Mark Reuss was suitably cool in his statement.  “After considering many possible options – and putting aside our personal desires to accommodate the people and the market – we came to the conclusion that we could not prioritise further investment over all other considerations we have in a rapidly changing global industry.”

The federal government was notified a mere 15 minutes prior to the announcement, the sort of brusque treatment one has come to expect from the car manufacturer.  The treatment is even more stinging given that the federal government has, historically, been one of the biggest single customers for Holden cars.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison felt slighted, but despite noting the provision of some $2 billion for Holden over its existence, showed little surprise at behaviour he stopped short of describing as corporate vandalism.  “I am angry, like I think many Australians would be.  They just let the brand wither away on their watch.  Now they are leaving it behind.”

Nowhere in the mournful tributes is the prowess of Holden cars, in all their ranges, mentioned.  Family, sex and racing, yes, but nothing on the everyday competence of the products.  Like relatives past their prime, they are celebrated as figures of mythology rather than the toilers of achievement.  Former Holden worker Cara Bertoli summed up the sentiment of hope over corporate experience.  “There were those rumours going around that yes, the brand name might eventually die off, but I guess it’s one of those things, when you’re loyal to the brand, you hope as much as you can that it doesn’t happen.”

Holden employees, on being interviewed, have shown consternation at GM.  The alien parent, it was stated on ABC News Breakfast, had no idea about what a “home brand” might mean in terms of cars.  Calls to the American offices were ignored; the parent seemed befuddled.  Gary Mortimer, a professor of marketing and consumer behaviour at Queensland University of Technology, saw the Holden as lying at the “core” of a very Australian identity.  “General Motors,” he rued, “took it away.”  Australians may have fallen out of the love with Holden, but that was “because it fell out of love with us.”

Holden cars, repeatedly, tritely called “iconic”, have now lived up to that designation, a museum, or even church brand to be appreciated by collectors and the nostalgic.  Any future manufacture, as the British car-dedicated program Top Gear discovered regarding the Jeep SRT Trackhawk, will be by American enthusiasts.

Oil Industry promotes Automobility

Is it simply business as usual or a corporate conspiracy to destroy the planet? However one characterizes it our planet is being cooked so already wealthy people can make even more profit.

Last Friday the New York Times published a front-page story titled “The Oil Industry’s Covert Campaign to Rewrite American Car Emissions Rules.” The article pointed out that Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Marathon Oil, Koch Industries and other oil/refining interests won “rollbacks” to vehicle fuel mileage rules that “have gone further than the more modest changes automakers originally lobbied for.” The legislative changes are expected to “increase greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by more than the amount many midsize countries put out in a year.”

With internal combustion engines consuming nearly two-thirds of US petroleum, industry profits are threatened by measures that cut gasoline consumption (be it better fuel mileage, diverting funds from roadway, eliminating auto infrastructure, etc.). About 150,000 gas stations do hundreds of billions of dollars in sales every year. In The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World Paul Roberts explains that the oil industry’s business model is planned around the gasoline pump, “from the kind of crude oil it sought to the kind of refineries it built, to its intense focus on retail marketing.”

The oil industry’s recent opposition to regulating automakers is consistent with its history of promoting automobility, as I and Bianca Mugyenyi detail in Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. As far back as 1925, oil representatives packed a committee organized by the US surgeon-general concerning the health effects of leaded gas. They successfully argued that lead was harmless despite the fact that companies such as Standard Oil of New Jersey knew leaded gasoline was a health threat. Over the next 60 years lead levels increased a hundred-fold until it was finally banned in 1986.

In the 1930s and 40s Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum were part of the corporate conspiracy against trolleys that changed the face of urban landscapes across North America. With General Motors and other companies they set up a network of front organizations that ripped up, converted and resold a hundred electric transit systems in 45 cities.

Amidst increasing smog in California in the 1950s, oil interests engaged in a fight against anti-pollution legislation. They financed the Stanford Research Institute to contest the findings of Professor Arie J. Haagen-Smit who demonstrated that automobiles and oil refineries were the major sources of smog.

In 1970 oil companies helped defeat California’s Proposition 18, an initiative to divert a small portion of the state gas tax to public transit.

Oil companies were part of the National Highway Users Conference (NHUC) that was set up during the Depression to lobby for roadway funding. When the Chicago Transit Authority proposed using $30 million in state fuel tax to finance improvements to mass transit in the mid-1950s, the NHUC sent in two full-time workers to successfully coordinate opposition (with the Illinois Highway Users Conference) against the proposal.

In 1951, the NHUC launched Project Adequate Roads, which called for a national highway system. Project Adequate Roads helped win the massive Interstate Highway System.

Oil interests were part of another group that lobbied for the Interstate. Beginning in 1942 the “Road Gang”, a secret society of men representing, automobile, truck and tire makers as well as highway engineers, top highway bureaucrats, etc. met regularly in a private Washington, DC, restaurant to push for more roadway.

The private automobile has risen to dominance in large part because of its ability to draw together a wide array of powerful corporate interests from steel makers to real estate developers, rubber companies to big box retailers. During the automobile’s embryonic phase, the oil industry was already big business. At that time, oil was mainly used to fuel the kerosene lamp, a business destroyed by the emergence of gas and electrical illumination. The powerful oil interests of the day, led by the Rockefeller family, were bailed out of this crisis and set up for life with the advent of the automobile. And as barrel upon barrel was drained from the earth and pumped into gas tanks, big oil swam in its profits.

So, in many respects, oil interests lobbying against restrictions on automakers is simply business as usual, given their history of promoting automobility. But, given the dangers of climate disturbances ‘business as usual’ takes on the appearance of a criminal corporate conspiracy to destroy civilization.

Larry Summers Trips Out

In a recent Financial Times article, Harvard economics professor and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers describes his excellent adventure driving from Chicago to Portland. As Summers writes, it “was a trip different to any I had ever taken,” full of revelations for someone who usually only travels long distances by plane.

Summers and his wife took two weeks to drive on two-lane roads across prairies and mountains, from Dubuque to Cody to Bozeman and beyond, “marveling at how much of this vast country is uninhabited.” They were sometimes far from any gas stations and even farther from phone chargers. Occasionally they had no mobile phone service at all!

Okay, so not exactly a Jack Kerouac odyssey, but well outside the Summers Comfort Zones of Cambridge, the Vineyard, Georgetown, Manhattan, et al.

Braving flyover country, separated from his usual tribe of “business leaders and cosmopolitan elites who are more worried about the concerns of their conference mates in Davos than those of their fellow citizens,” Summers marveled that local people in bars and restaurants where he stopped did not seem concerned with the ongoing saga of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation process.

And Summers noted with some puzzlement that “People in most of the places we visited have tended to vote Republican in recent decades.”

By far the most surprising revelation of the Summers travelogue was how surprised he seemed to be by what he was seeing.

Because, Larry, Larry, Larry, you’re the reason! Those were your economic policies during the Clinton years that shaped the country many of us have long known, but where you’re just now arriving. You were a senior Treasury official during that entire era and top dog, Secretary of the Treasury, from 1999 to 2001.

You advocated repealing key provisions of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that regulated banks for more than sixty years. And you helped frustrate efforts to regulate the derivatives that many analysts blame for the 2008 financial crisis. Foreshadowing Trumpian environmentalism, you argued that the U.S. should not honor the Kyoto Protocol or take the lead in greenhouse gas reductions.

You signed off on NAFTA! Even Ross Perot knew that was a bad idea, sending millions of jobs overseas and creating many of those “romantic ghost towns” and “abandoned cafes, gas stations and hotels” across the nation you are now so astonished to behold. From such ruins an opioid epidemic has arisen, with its suicidal rituals of despair. Did you happen to catch any whiff of that?

How complicit were you? Did you also advise Bill to end “welfare as we know it,” destroying the safety net for millions of our poorest citizens? Did you sign off on Bill’s “three-strikes” crime laws that mandated life sentences for repeat offenders, even non-violent offenders, creating the mass incarceration for which the USA is justly infamous?

You and Clinton were nominal Democrats, but you bent over backwards to placate Newt Gingrich so Bill could get re-elected (only to be impeached). What’s the point of voting for Democrats like you? Of course, we didn’t vote for you.

You returned to government in the Obama years to direct the National Economic Council response to the 2008 economic meltdown that you had helped to create. You bailed out the big banks but not their client victims. That may have pleased your friends in Davos and the Hamptons, Larry, but it didn’t help many people in Dubuque or Bozeman. You’re probably lucky that no one on your journey knew who the hell you were or they might have spoiled your lunch.

Do you really wonder why so many denizens of devastated communities voted Republican in recent decades?

Of course, political choice for the 99 percent consists of Tweedledumb or Tweedledumber. Why would anyone outside the Bos-Wash corridor bother with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process? The fix was in for his Supreme Court appointment from the git go, regardless of what evidence anyone, especially any offended female, might produce to undermine his fitness for the job.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people is a catchy, empty phrase for most of those who live between the coasts or on them, outside the privileged enclaves you frequent, Larry. The incessant media chatter is so much white (and token black) noise. Blah blah. Nothing to do with day-to-day reality.

And those Depression-era public works you admired – the libraries and courthouses, the bridges and national parks – are stately reminders that federal government largesse in communities big and small has vanished in recent decades. “Infrastructure” is just another content-free political buzzword. Like “public schools.” Our permanent war economy leaves less and less for the common good. We are really waging war on ourselves.

So, well, anyway, Larry, despite some of your dubious conclusions about your amazing journey into America’s dark heartland, it’s probably good that you finally caught a glimpse of reality on the ground, where many of your actions have had devastating consequences and most of your fellow citizens actually live.

But Larry, Larry, Larry, what took you so long?

Bylaws that Require Parking Drive Up Costs of Housing

While climate disturbances wreak growing havoc across the planet, Canadian cities continue to mandate pro-car measures that drive-up housing costs and contribute to global warming. Even the most walkable, bike-able and mass transit oriented neighbourhoods still require parking spots to be built in new residences. Finally, last week downtown Montréal eliminated parking requirements for new residential projects. Going forward developers in the Ville-Marie borough will no longer be forced to build a certain number of parking spots per new unit.

Across the country zoning laws require residential and commercial buildings to secure a certain number of spots based upon the number of dwellings or square feet of space. The city website explains that “Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw requires new developments, including homes, schools, offices and stores, to provide a minimum number of off-street parking spaces.”

Toronto’s website has a detailed list of parking requirements based upon various criteria. Per residential unit, Toronto usually requires between 1 and 1.4 parking spots while it’s between 1.15 and 1.95 spaces in Mississauga.

Unlike most zoning ordinances that simply prohibit something, parking requirements are coercive: They tell developers exactly what to do. Cities don’t ban the construction of apartments with one bedroom or bathroom but some ban the construction of apartments with only one parking spot.

Converting buildings to different uses can be difficult in places with substantial parking requirements. Sometimes a new business simply cannot move into a building that formerly housed an operation with lower parking requirements without adding more spaces (or obtaining a variance).

Extensive parking requirements have reduced many architects to designing buildings around parking laws. “Form follows parking requirements,” laments Donald Shoup author of The High Cost of Free Parking. A 2017 Corporate Knights article notes, “Ottawa’s Hintonburg  and the Glebe or Toronto’s Kensington Market and Yorkville would never be built today. These special places were developed before current parking standards came into effect.”

Since all units, irrespective of size, are generally required to have a parking spot, apartments have become larger and more expensive. No matter the size, Mississauga requires 1.15 spaces per (human) housing unit downtown, which acts “as a disincentive to build smaller, affordable units.” The financial and logistical burden created by parking requirements has restricted the rooming supply. “Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people,” writes Shoup. “By increasing the cost of housing, parking requirements make the real homelessness problem even worse.” (It generally costs $40,000 to $60,000 to build an underground parking space in downtown Toronto while a surface spot in a low-density area can be built for as little as $2,000 to $8,000.)

Most significantly parking requirements spur private car travel. Parking and car travel are mutually reinforcing; more parking means more car travel and more car travel means increased demand for yet more parking.

Sometimes zoning requirements mandate commercial and office spaces provide a certain amount of free parking. Even when zoning laws don’t mandate free parking, the saturated “market” creates an expectation that parking will be free. Would there be any need for parking requirements if people were willing to pay? Wouldn’t profit-oriented businesses sell as much parking as they could charge for?

The right to affordable housing must be prioritized over the “need” for parking.  Progressives currently running for positions in city governments across the country – Saron Gebresellassi, Derrick O’Keefe, Jeremy Loveday, etc. – should take up an issue that drives up housing costs while increasing private auto use. Let’s build cheaper housing, more liveable cities and a healthier environment by ending parking requirements in city bylaws! That should be a slogan all sensible people can rally around.

Public Space and the Bicycle: Copenhagenizing Cities

Indian cities are in crisis. Spend any length of time in a large city there and you will notice the overcrowding, the power and water shortages and, during monsoon, the streets that transform into stinking, litter-strewn rivers. At times, these cities can be almost unbearable to live in. Little wonder then that the concept of ‘smart cities’ is taking hold among policy makers, however flawed the notion might seem to be.

And, not least, of course, there is the horrendous traffic chaos and congestion, the choking pollution and the increasing number of massive concrete flyovers: monstrosities that have taken their place among numerous other planning disasters that blight so many Indian cities.

A couple of years back, Delhi introduced an ‘odd-even’ traffic policy whereby vehicles with certain registration numbers were allowed on the road only on designated days to try to cut down on traffic congestion and pollution. But this failed to solve the underlying problem that stems from a model of ‘development’ that associates a (wholly unnecessary) push for urbanisation and car ownership with progress.

Despite the problems, the greater the urban sprawl and the more road building that takes place, the happier are the real estate, construction and car manufacturing sectors. That’s not idle speculation: the documentary How Big Oil Conquered the World describes how the car and oil industry criminally conspired to undermine public transport systems in US cities to get the population and urban planners hooked on the car.

As long as urban planners prioritise the car and wrong-headed notions of ‘development’ governed by powerful players continue, Indian cities will not only sprawl ever outwards and be defined by traffic congestion and air and noise pollution, but residents will experience an ever-worsening decline in their quality of life and increasing dependency on motorized transport.

Indian planners might wish to take note of a recent New York Times article which highlighted that Los Angeles has decided against adding lanes to a freeway. Although Andre Gorz noted this back in 1973, policy makers are waking up to the fact that building extra lanes merely means more cars, more pollution and journey times increasing. As soon as you build a highway or add lanes to a freeway, cars show up to fill the available capacity (known as induced traffic demand).

This induced demand imposes costs on us all in terms of degraded public space and serious health risks (recent research shows that a congestion charge in Stockholm reduced pollution and sharply cut asthma attacks in children).

Just as some countries are now realising the folly of widening and building ever more roads and jamming cities with cars, Indian planners carry on regardless by blighting the urban landscape with ever more huge concrete flyovers and expressways snaking across cities and dividing and destroying communities.

Smart thinking

A day before Delhi implemented the second phase of its ‘odd-even’ vehicle policy, the city announced it wanted to support the construction of more roads to solve congestion by enhancing road capacity via new roads, road widening, elevated corridors, flyovers and underpasses.

One would have thought that smart cities call for smart thinking. Not so in Delhi.

If there is one city that seems to be on the right track, it is Copenhagen. The city believes that cycling should be the foundation for sustainable transport strategies and is key to making cities clean, green and liveable. Copenhagen’s urban transport solution gives space to cars but more importantly to bicycles, pedestrians and public transport.

Back in the early 1970s, Copenhagen was just as traffic-clogged as anywhere. Now it has around 400 km of cycle paths. The city’s 2017 Annual Bicycle Report confirms that cycling is the preferred mode of transport for the city’s inhabitants. Each day, some 62% of Copenhageners use their bikes to go to work or school/college.

Copenhagen has in recent years been voted the ‘best city for cyclists’ and the ‘world’s most liveable city’. Throughout the world, there is now a desire to improve public health and combat climate change. As a result, Copenhagen’s renowned cycle-friendly policies are serving as a template for some of the world’s most congested cities.

Aside from health and environmental considerations, an effective urban transport policy should be democratic. Unlike cars, even the poorest segments of society can gain access to a bicycle. The bicycle is indeed democratic, not just for those who cycle but also for the rest of the population who are too often impacted by planning blight, pollution and the colonisation of urban space as a result of planning that privileges car users ahead of everyone else.

However, the bicycle is only truly democratic when spatial segregation is limited and bike lanes and appropriate cycle-friendly infrastructure exist to properly connect all areas. Inspired by Copenhagen, Mexico City’s bicycle strategy is attempting to address this issue through a comprehensive cycle path network, which aims to create mobility through areas that have been closed off due to previous planning strategies.

The arrogance of space

For cities to fully embrace the bicycle, city planners must stop thinking like motorists or capitulating to powerful lobby groups and plan for the needs of cyclists. In Denmark, for example, the Copenhagen-Albertslund route is the first of a planned network that will comprise 26 Cycle Super Highways, covering a total of 300 km. The network is predicted to reduce public expenditure by €40.3 million annually thanks to improved health.

Consider that in Europe 50% of most city land is dedicated to streets and roads, parking, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs. And yet the average European car is parked for 92% of the time. Of the other 8% of time, 1.5% is spent looking for a parking space, 1% in congestion and just 5% is spent driving. There are 30,000 deaths per year on European roads and four times as many disabling injuries. Consider too that an average European car has five seats but carries 1.5 persons per journey.

In Copenhagen, city planners tend to give an adequate proportion of road space to cyclists: proper cycle lanes with curbs that separate cycling space from car space; cycle lanes that are usually also sufficiently wide. After all, why should cars hog so much road space when the majority of road users are cyclists?

In the article ‘The Arrogance of Space’, it says:

We have a tendency to give cities human character traits when we describe them. It’s a friendly city. A dynamic city. A boring city. Perhaps then a city can be arrogant. Arrogant, for example, with its distribution of space.

For too long the arrogance of car-obsessed urban planners has degraded our health and our quality of life. But when you have good-quality public transport and the opportunity to cycle thanks to appropriate infrastructure, there is no need to hand over excess space to cars and produce endless concrete sprawl for car parks.

Walk (or cycle) around Copenhagen and you will immediately appreciate there is much less traffic noise and pollution compared with other cities. It is indeed a spatially friendly and a compact city – and a less “arrogant city”. It is also less hectic and more tranquil than many other cities and – taking things even further – arguably more community-oriented.

The slow life

Of course, community-oriented living isn’t just due to transport strategies, although Andre Gorz said that to love your place or space, it must first of all be made liveable, not trafficable. He went on to state that the neighbourhood or community should be shaped by and for all human activities, “where people can work, live, relax, learn, communicate, and knock about, and which they manage together as the place of their life in common.”

In Copenhagen, the municipality encourages outdoor living by offering open-access communal table tennis tables, basketball facilities, well thought out kids’ parks, landscaped parkland and lakes. Even during cold weather, Copenhageners congregate on the streets and in the parks to socialise and embrace the concept of ‘hygge’, probably best defined as: a conscious appreciation, a certain slowness, and the ability to recognise and enjoy the present. Get to know the city and you will soon realise that hygge isn’t just a cliché.

The key word in that definition is ‘slowness’ because from there we arrive at the concept of ‘slow living’.

Writing in 1973, activist and writer Ivan Illich stated:

The use of the bicycle… allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance… In contrast, the accelerating individual capsule [the car] enabled societies to engage in a ritual of progressively paralyzing speed.

Modern culture is an advocate of speed, epitomised by car worship. Cars, speed and high-energy living have become essential facts of life. In the process, our communities have become disjointed and dispersed. We have sacrificed ‘slow living’ – in terms of intimacy, friendship and neighbourliness – for a more impersonal way of accelerated living.

Where would be the need for the car when work, school or healthcare facilities are close by? Less need for ugly flyovers or six lane highways that rip up communities in their path. Getting from A to B would not require a race against the clock on the highway that cuts through a series of localities that are never to be visited, never to be regarded as anything but an inconvenience to be passed through.

Instead, how about an enjoyable walk or cycle ride through an urban environment defined by community and intimacy? An environment free from traffic pollution or noise and where ‘neighbourhood’ has not been deadened and stripped of its neighbourliness, local stores and facilities.

Clearly, many of the problems associated with modern cities are not just due to cars or transport systems. Urban planning and the colonisation of space mirrors capitalism and the needs of powerful corporations.

By focusing on capitalism and how culture reflects the division of labour, Andre Gorz said:

It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.

Although it would be naïve and misguided to think that the bicycle (and cultural change) could transform the social relations of capitalism, it is at least emblematic of a different form of urban planning and smart thinking.

Exchanging Cars for Housing

Who could possibly be against doing something that would be both good for the environment and improve housing affordability in our biggest cities?

By turning public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles into social/co-op/rental housing it is possible to put a dent into runaway climate change while improving housing affordability and urbanity.

Radio Canada recently reported on a 14-storey co-op set to be built just behind the Bell Centre on the southern edge of downtown Montréal. The Coopérative Montagne Verte will have 136 units, which will make it the largest housing co-op in a single building in Montreal. Having received a piece of city land, the co-op will be financed in equal measure with public funds and a long-term mortgage. If all goes according to plan, hundreds will gain access to affordable housing in an area with easy access to employment and services by foot, bike and mass transit.

In discussing the barrier to building more co-ops Radio Canada claimed, “the scarcity of land in Montreal is also an important issue.”  This is absurd. In fact, one of the city’s principal problems is the abundance of public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis (40 per cent of Montréal’s greenhouse gas emissions are from transport.)

Near where the Coopérative Montagne Verte will be located, for instance, is a highway that has gobbled up a large swath of the city centre. Thousands could be housed on the public roadway and adjacent areas destroyed by it.

In what would be a more straightforward cars-for-shelter exchange, Boulevard René-Lévesque is wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. Thousands of family sized social/co-op/rental units could be built and it would improve the city for its inhabitants and the planet. While it may seem radical, this move would simply be a return to before buildings were demolished to widen the street in the 1940s and 50s.

Other car spaces in the city centre could easily be turned into affordable housing. The three blocks of McGill College between Cathcart and Sherbrooke and a number of other non-through streets between Sherbrooke and Saint Catherine on the western edge of downtown could be reclaimed for multi-story dwellings. To the east, avenue du Parc Lafontaine between Sherbrooke and Rachel is wide enough to build a row of smaller units with a narrow street on each side.

With housing affordability an even bigger issue in Toronto and Vancouver there would be much to gain by turning public roadway into co-op/rental/social housing there. The land destroyed by the centrally located Gardiner Expressway could house thousands. Rather than spending $3.6 billion to fix the monstrosity, Toronto could subsidize co-op/social housing on this prime piece of public real estate.

Proof that cars-for-housing exchange is not pie in the sky, Vancouver’s city council voted to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts at the eastern edge of downtown. Their plan to build thousands of housing units (30% “social housing”) is better than the status quo, but not ambitious enough. The city should eliminate the boulevard that is part of the current plan and turn it all into a car free social/co-op/rental housing oasis. Ideally located for getting around by foot, bike and Skytrain, the area reclaimed for housing should also be extended along Georgia Street into downtown.

A whopping 27.4% of Toronto is roadway (another 13 per cent is parks and open spaces — a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic filled streets). I was unable to find the exact proportion of Vancouver and Montréal devoted to roadway, but a significant share of those cities is also devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles.

We need to build an environmentalist/urbanist/housing rights coalition that would push to turn swaths of this land into social/co-op/rental housing.

Project Montréal is Right to Stop Car Traffic over Mountain

Do you support humanity and livability? Or the “right” of people to use private cars?

This question is aimed particularly at the left end of the political spectrum, to that part of the public who should know better.

It’s been dispiriting to see progressives echo a right wing municipal party/dominant media campaign against curtailing car traffic through Montréal’s mountain park. Anyone concerned with humanity’s fate should avoid amplifying the reactionary backlash to a move that would mitigate Québec and Canada blowing past unambitious carbon targets for 2020 and probably 2030.

Recently Montréal’s new city government announced a five-month pilot project that will block through traffic on a road over Mount Royal — a dominant geographic feature and the city’s namesake. Private cars would still have access to parking lots at the top of the park, but there will be cul-de-sacs to deter drivers from using Camilien Houde street to cross the mountain.

Project Montréal’s rationale for curtailing through traffic is that a cyclist was killed by an SUV on the roadway five months ago while city reports dating back many years have suggested curbing traffic to improve the park.

Unfortunately, numerous leftists have joined the all too predictable reaction to this modest challenge to auto hegemony. While the particulars of each meltdown differ, almost every challenge to car dominance elicits a media storm. There have been howls of outrage since Toronto reduced parking spots and car traffic on 2.5 km of King Street to facilitate streetcars, which move 65,000 riders through downtown every weekday. With auto manufacturers/dealers their biggest advertisers, the media gave King Street business owners ample space to drone on about lost sales yet four months into the year-long pilot project credit card and Interac data show that business activity was actually up (in line with seasonal patterns).

(To get a sense of why the Montréal Gazette is on the warpath against curtailing car traffic over the mountain, car ads covered the bottom of page 1, two thirds of page 4, one third of page 5, all of page 6 and 7, two thirds of page 9, two thirds of page 11 and the entire back of the 12 page front section on March 12. Additionally, nearly half of an eight page “Driving” section was car ads.)

On Facebook progressive auto enthusiasts have presented two specious arguments to oppose the pilot project to ban through traffic across Mount Royal. They’ve cited the needs of older and differently abled folks, which is bizarre since private cars will still (unfortunately) have access to the mountain. More fundamentally, do people actually believe a city structured around the private car is better for the blind and differently abled? Or, older people who no longer have a license? And how about those under driving age?

People without licenses and with physical mobility issues generally benefit from dense living spaces that have goods and services nearby.

The most commonly expressed argument for opposing the mountain pilot project and – other efforts to reduce car pathways – is that it’s wrong to punish driving until new transport services are in place.

It is no doubt imperative to expand mass transit as part of inducing individuals to ditch their cars. In a small step in that direction the city council recently purchased 965 buses. Yes, the provincial and federal governments should be pressed to fund the large new Metro line Project Montréal proposed during the recent election, but every mass transit supporter – instead of opposing a pilot project to curtail traffic on the mountain – should challenge Project Montréal for dropping their previous proposal to build light rail along a number of major streets. While our ecocidal political culture may view a new Metro line as ambitious, a post–private car Montréal requires the new Metro line, new buses, multiple light rail lines and more. (Montréal’s per capita share of the federal government’s $60+ billion warship program would cover the cost of the Metro line or multiple light rail lines.)

The ‘we cannot encumber the private auto until there’s greater public transit’ is effectively an argument to continue the steady expansion of Montréal’s car stock, which increased by 200,000 vehicles between 2011 and 2016. It ignores the depths of our urban planning/climate disaster whereby billions of dollars in public and private funds continue to be plowed into far-flung areas designed to maximize driving, which partly explains why transport now represents 40% of Montréal’s greenhouse gas emissions and Arctic temperatures have been 30°C above normal this winter.

More concretely, the don’t ‘encumber private autos until all alternatives transport modes are in place’ argument ignores the fact that the dearth of political pressure for better mass transit is tied to the convenience of getting everywhere by car; the billions of dollars plowed into roadway every year could go to public transit; when roadway and parking are largely free, and injury, policing and pollution costs externalized, people cross town for what is often available closer at hand (and certainly would be if folks weren’t driving multiple kilometers for groceries), etc.

Or to look at it from a broader perspective, the ‘we can’t encumber the auto’ argument is akin to saying don’t oppose pipelines, encourage alternatives to oil dependence; don’t restrict donations to political parties, offer more public financing; don’t cut military spending, encourage peace, etc. In fact, it makes even less sense than these examples since urban space is finite. There will either be a road, light rail, bike path or sidewalk on a piece of land (ideally large swaths of public land currently devoted to roadway would be turned into social/co-op/rental housing). Camilien Houde Road, for instance, replaced a trolley line through the park.

To a large extent urban planning is an either-or proposition. Either we make decisions to enable private car travel or walking/biking/mass transit. Highlighting one impact of the either-or dynamic, University of Waterloo planning professor Brian Doucet recently noted, “there’s no sugar-coating it: We can only make our streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists when road space is taken away from cars.”

By feeding the backlash to Project Montréal’s modest pilot project curtailing car travel through a public park, leftists are increasing the likelihood it will be reversed. More troublingly, they are putting a brake on larger scale efforts to reorient the urban landscape away from the most dangerous, loud, classist and polluting form of transport.

The sooner private cars drive off into the sunset, though not over the mountain, the better off our cities and planet will be.

Drinking the Self-driving Car Kool-aid

Recently, a Tesla on autopilot slammed into a parked fire engine at 65 mph. It turns out that there was no malfunction. According to Tesla’s manual:

Traffic-Aware Cruise Control cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h) and a vehicle you are following moves out of your driving path and a stationary vehicle or object is in front of you instead.

So whereas any half way decent human driver would have braked and/or swerved to avoid the collision, Tesla’s “smart” car proceeded full-speed ahead.

Even if you choose not to buy a self-driving car, you or your loved ones could have been in that parked vehicle struck by a stupid “smart” car. This is not just about technophiles who want to be able to play World of Warcraft while speeding down the highway…this technology is potentially dangerous to all road users and any deaths, injuries or property damage caused by this flawed technology should see the drivers, manufacturers and approving authorities prosecuted or sued…no high-tech exemption!

It is not only Tesla; according to the Wired article referred at the start of this article:

Volvo’s semi-autonomous system, Pilot Assist, has the same shortcoming. Say the car in front of the Volvo changes lanes or turns off the road, leaving nothing between the Volvo and a stopped car. Pilot Assist will ignore the stationary vehicle and instead accelerate to the stored speed.

The article explains why these self-driving systems are engineered that way but blithely promises that in the future LIDAR (Light Identification Detection and ranging, which uses lasers) will replace and/or augment radar and cameras to solve this problem. However, one can discern the real agenda when it informs us that:

Lidar’s price and reliability problems are less of an issue when it comes to a taxi-like service, where a provider can amortize the cost over time and perform regular maintenance. But in today’s cars, meant for average or modestly wealthy consumers, it’s a no-go.

Self-driving cars are a promising new profit center for auto and technology companies. They want to own personal and commercial road transportation which they will provide as a service (at a tidy profit, of course). They repeatedly argue that the technology is safer that using human drivers using flawed statistics while self driving cars cause fatal accidents because the car’s cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky or knock over motorcyclists.

There is a general love-fest for things regarded as cool technology. However, unlike the great innovations that have made driving safer like ABS, ESP, collision avoidance systems, air bags etc. the real intent of self-driving cars seems to be creating a new industry that will be dominated by auto and tech giants who would ultimately control all road traffic…a truly huge potential market.

You probably didn’t hear about the conclusions of Germany’s Highway Research Institute (BASt) that:

After many thousands of kilometers of testing, BASt reportedly concluded that Autopilot represents a significant traffic hazard. Judging that is was not designed for complex urban traffic situations, the report declared that the car’s sensors are too short-sighted to cope with the reality of German motorways.

Or that:

American research conducted by John F. Lenkeit of Dynamic Research, which concludes that forward collision warning systems for automobiles fail dramatically to detect motorcycles.

Before concluding that self-driving cars are an inevitable part of a rosy future one should read an article like The “Self-Driving” Car is only an Oxymoron. In it you might learn that:

…in the first week of March, Uber’s 43 test cars in three states logged some 20,000 miles on public roads. Their drivers had to intervene and take control away from the software, an average of once every mile. Critical interventions, required to save lives and property, were counted separately; they occurred every 200 miles.

In a world where millions would love to have the job of driver and where training and technology geared towards supporting safe driving provide accessible solutions to improving road safety, self-driving cars seem to be of dubious value and downright dangerous as well.

Climate Change Demands an End to Excess and Greed

Man-made climate change, and the interconnected environmental catastrophe more broadly constitute the most urgent crisis facing humanity. It has come about as the result of a certain way of life, a materialistic approach to living in which greed and excessive consumption has been championed.

Voracious consumerism and values based on individual material success, competition and division lie at the very heart of the crisis, and if global warming, desertification, pollution, and the destruction of ecological systems are to be arrested, a fundamental change in attitudes and behaviour is needed. Without this, little of substance can be achieved – technological advances, whilst crucial in breaking the dependency on fossil fuels, are not on their own enough. It’s a way of life – principally a developed world way of life – that needs to drastically change, as the Cloudburst Foundation states: “Balancing the carbon cycle requires much more than technological solutions. It requires a paradigm shift in how we approach economic growth and development”: a shift away from excess, socio-economic injustice and environmental vandalism to sustainability, social-environmental responsibility and sharing.

A new Approach

Together with deforestation, burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to meet humanity’s insatiable appetite for energy, most of which feeds industry, is the major source of the greenhouse gases that are generating climate change. Whilst nations’ production of these noxious elements vary, global emission’s overall are reducing, and despite some developing countries increasing their output, emission levels appear to have finally peaked; the task now before us is to drastically reduce them. Central to this work is the need to inculcate a new approach to how we live: to change the values that determine our actions and to alter the relationship we have with one another and the natural environment.

The most noxious greenhouse gases are Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4) and Nitrous oxide (N2O).  Of these CO2 is the biggest culprit, making up almost 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. It enters the atmosphere, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains, “Through burning fossil fuels, solid waste, trees and wood products, and as a result of certain chemical reactions (e.g., manufacture of cement),” and is extracted or ‘sequestered’ (from the atmosphere) when it’s absorbed by plants.

Of the total amount of CO2 cast into Earth’s atmosphere from fossil fuels in 2015, Carbon Brief relates that, “41% came from coal, 34% from oil, 19% from gas, 5.6% from cement production and 0.7% from flaring.” Almost half of all CO2 emissions remained in the atmosphere; a third was absorbed by plants and 26% by the oceans. The burning of coal, natural gas, and oil to meet the demand for electricity and heat is the sector responsible for the largest amount of global greenhouse gas emissions, making up 25%. This is followed, the EPA says by agriculture (crops and livestock) and deforestation. Coming in a close third is industry with 21% of all greenhouse gas emissions, then transportation at 14%.

China emits almost a third of all greenhouse gas emissions and is the world’s biggest polluter, followed by America with around 15%, then the European Union (28 countries) with 11%. Europe has made substantial reductions in emissions and in 2015 they were down 22% compared with 1990. India, with a fifth of the World’s population and global business ambitions is pouring greenhouse gases out at an alarming rate; in 2015 emissions were up 5.2% on the previous year, to 6.3% of the global total.

If we are to halt climate change, and begin to heal the natural environment, we must stop burning fossil fuels and turn to alternative sources of energy (solar and wind e.g.) for the majority of our energy needs. This process is well underway in certain countries: According to the Climate Reality Project, Germany, which produces 21% of the EU’s greenhouse gases is meeting 78% of its electricity demand from renewable sources. In 2015, Sweden proposed a plan to eliminate all fossil fuel usage in the country and immediately increased investment in solar, wind, energy storage, transport and smart grids; Costa Rica met 99% of its electricity needs from renewables in 2015. Denmark drew 42% of its energy from wind turbines in the same year and aims to be fossil fuel free by 2050; Nicaragua supplied 54% of all electricity production from renewables in 2015 and is aiming for 90% by 2020. America, which has the second highest wind energy capacity in the world (after China) is generating only 13% of its electricity from renewables, but an optimistic study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the US “could reduce emissions by nearly 80% in 15 years.”

While these and other examples offer hope, renewables currently only account for 2.4% of global energy consumption and 4.7% of electricity generation. If the Paris Agreement of limiting the increase in global temperatures to 2˚C, or 1.5˚C (above pre-industrial levels) has any hope of being achieved a massive increase in renewables is needed, coupled with a reduction in the overall energy demand. A study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) shows that for net emissions to peak by 2022, renewable sources of energy would need to increase by around 5% per year. In order to achieve this target a move away from lifestyles and economies built around consumerism and excess is essential. This necessitates a shift in attitudes from selfishness and greed, abundance and endless consumption, to sufficiency, sharing and environmental responsibility. It also demands a radically different economic system, one that is sustainable and just. As the Cloudburst Foundation puts it, “To truly reverse global warming we must overturn the current economic and development systems at play, and work to create alternatives that benefit not just some but all.”

At the heart of such alternatives must be sharing, cooperation and a profound sense of group responsibility. Such principles arise quite naturally from the realization that humanity is one, a fact that is strengthened when we express such qualities. We are brothers and sisters of one-humanity, and we have a duty of care for one another and the Earth itself.

Taking Responsibility

The current economic system is fed by endless consumerism, so too is climate change. It is our constant demand for stuff, much of which is made in the factories of the developing world — where workers are poorly treated, have no or few rights and are badly paid — that is perpetuating the industrial demand for energy, which is met by burning fossil fuels.

If we are to halt global warming, reverse the destructive effects of climate change and allow the planet to heal, our approach to how and what we consume needs to fundamentally change and the materialistic value system, which promotes competition, selfishness and greed, rejected. Simplicity, sufficiency and responsible consumption need to be inculcated and encouraged, in place of expediency, waste and ignorance.

Systemic change to alter the socio-economic conditions in which we all live is desperately needed, but more importantly a shift in thinking, a change in consciousness is imperative, and this is taking place within large numbers of people, particularly young people who in many areas lead the charge. Governments have a duty to listen and act, to introduce policies based on environmental considerations; to produce electricity from clean sources (not fossil fuels and certainly not nuclear) to provide efficient and cheap public transport systems run on renewable energy; to promote environmental awareness campaigns to educate and inform the public; to incentivize the use of renewable energy sources and to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. And individuals have a responsibility to elect politicians that prioritize environmental issues, to act in an environmentally positive manner, to consume responsibly and to reduce consumption. After the economic crash in 2008/9 there was a sharp drop in the production of greenhouse gases in Europe as a result of reduced industrial activity — people felt uncertain and were buying less stuff, which is what is required.

The impact on the environment should be the first factor for consideration when making any and all purchasing decisions, including food, services and utilities: Find an electricity/gas supplier that is fed from renewable sources, a bank that invests in environmentally sensitive companies and projects; be serious, be responsible. Research the choices available, look into the ethos of the company making the product, find out how the item is manufactured or grown and the environmental (and human) impact of production, how long will it last — the longer the better — what resources does it use and were employed in its manufacture and development, cultivation, etc., etc. Buy secondhand, reuse and recycle whenever possible, become a conscious consumer. Transportation is responsible for 14% of all greenhouse gases; this is made up of airline travel, rail and cars/vans/lorries, etc. If you’re buying a vehicle, go electric. If you have a diesel car or van — the most polluting type of vehicle — sell it immediately (preferably scrap it) and replace it with either a hybrid or an all-electric model; in fact, don’t buy a vehicle unless there is really no other option. If you’re travelling – holiday or work – go by train or bus, don’t fly unless it’s absolutely essential; use public transport, walk or cycle as much as possible.

The responsibility for halting climate change rests firmly with each and every one of us. Our individual actions can either inflame the crisis or strengthen the collective fight to heal the natural environment in which we live and usher in a new day in which humanity lives in harmony with the planet.

Toronto: Too Much Public Space Devoted to Cars

Does Toronto have too little or too much public space?

Depends on what the “public” space is used for.

This seems such an obvious answer but one of Toronto’s best urban affairs writers can’t seem to separate the private cars from the public space they destroy.

In an otherwise excellent defence of the square where younger, poorer and darker fans enjoy Raptors and Maple Leaf games outside the arena, Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume concludes that “the lack of public space in Toronto is a perennial problem.” Huh! How could a commentator, who has promoted sensible urban planning as much as to be expected in a newspaper that relies on auto ads for much of its revenue, express such confusion?

It is the exact opposite. To build a healthier, safer, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable city Toronto needs to jettison a significant share of its current “public space”.

Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that even one of Toronto’s most enlightened urban affairs writers can’t see it: Most public land is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis. What’s more, the city pays to pave, repair, police and clean land that generates little or no tax revenue.

Roadways take up 27.4 percent of the area of Toronto while parks and open spaces cover 13 per cent. Many beautiful, walkable, old cities have less than half as much as Toronto’s 40 percent “public” land. On the Old Urbanist blog Charlie Gardner writes, “the traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen per cent [public space] perfectly adequate.”

Last year I had the opportunity to visit a handful of wonderful, old Italian cities. Homes, shops, restaurants, public buildings etc. cover the bulk of the cityscape with narrow, mostly walking oriented, streets facilitating travel. In these areas even small squares and parks are attractive since there are few (or no) noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles destroying the ambiance or taking up space. The famed Piazza del Campo in Siena is a tenth the size of Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square but feels as big and is considerably more impressive. Ten different streets, alleys and staircases funnel pedestrians into the remarkable square.

Paradoxically, Toronto’s dominant form of public land ruins large swaths of its park space and public areas. Few people want to relax in a square or park next to multiple lanes of traffic.

The ongoing effort to turn 1.75-kilometers of wasteland under the western section of the Gardiner Expressway into an appealing place to walk, bike and hang out will test this dynamic. About $25 million is being invested to reclaim an area that currently acts as a barrier between downtown and Lake Ontario. Hopefully the “Under Gardiner” project will work, but the surefire way to improve this prime piece of the city is to remove the expressway.

Probably the largest swath of public space ruined by the dominant form of public land is the area along the Don Valley Parkway. It is barely used partly because of the highway running through it.

While Toronto needs more publicly owned housing, daycares and businesses, it doesn’t need more public land or park space. It needs less area devoted to private cars.