Category Archives: Urban & Transport

Americans conserving big on home electricity

Americans conserving big on home electricity

Americans conserving big on home electricity
American homes are getting greener, like this one in Minnesota

by Jonathan Fahey, The Associated Press

NEW YORK – The average amount of electricity consumed in U.S. homes has fallen to levels last seen more than a decade ago, back when the smartest device in people’s pockets was a Palm pilot and anyone talking about a tablet was probably an archaeologist or a preacher.

Because of more energy-efficient housing, appliances and gadgets, power usage is on track to decline in 2013 for the third year in a row, to its lowest point since 2001, even though our lives are more electrified.

Here’s a look at what has changed since the last time consumption was so low.

Better homes

In the early 2000s, as energy prices rose, more states adopted or toughened building codes to force builders to better seal homes so heat or air-conditioned air doesn’t seep out so fast. That means newer homes waste less energy.

Also, insulated windows and other building technologies have dropped in price, making retrofits of existing homes more affordable. In the wake of the financial crisis, billions of dollars in Recovery Act funding was directed toward home-efficiency programs.

Better Gadgets

Big appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners have gotten more efficient thanks to federal energy standards that get stricter ever few years as technology evolves.

A typical room air conditioner — one of the biggest power hogs in the home — uses 20 per cent less electricity per hour of full operation than it did in 2001, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

Central air conditioners, refrigerators, dishwashers, water heaters, washing machines and dryers also have gotten more efficient.

Other devices are using less juice, too. Some 40-inch (1-meter) LED televisions bought today use 80 per cent less power than the cathode ray tube televisions of the past. Some use just $8 worth of electricity over a year when used five hours a day — less than a 60-watt incandescent bulb would use.

Those incandescent light bulbs are being replaced with compact fluorescent bulbs and LEDs that use 70 to 80 per cent less power. According to the Energy Department, widespread use of LED bulbs could save output equivalent to that of 44 large power plants by 2027.

The move to mobile also is helping. Desktop computers with big CRT monitors are being replaced with laptops, tablet computers and smart phones, and these mobile devices are specifically designed to sip power to prolong battery life.

It costs $1.36 to power an iPad for a year, compared with $28.21 for a desktop computer, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.

On the other hand…

We are using more devices, and that is offsetting what would otherwise be a more dramatic reduction in power consumption.

DVRs spin at all hours of the day, often under more than one television in a home. Game consoles are getting more sophisticated to process better graphics and connect with other players, and therefore use more power.

More homes have central air conditioners instead of window units. They are more efficient, but people use them more often.

Still, Jennifer Amman, the buildings program director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, says she is encouraged.

“It’s great to see this movement, to see the shift in the national numbers,” she says.

[quote]I expect we’ll see greater improvement over time. There is so much more that can be done.[/quote]

The Energy Department predicts average residential electricity use per customer will fall again in 2014, by 1 per cent.

Jonathan Fahey can be reached at

Motorized boats stir up problems for BC's salmon rivers

Motorized boats stir up problems for BC’s salmon rivers


Motorized boats stir up problems for BC's salmon rivers

by Will Dubitsky and Jean Clark

Two distinct pieces of federal legislation govern activities in and on our rivers, lakes and coastal waters: 1) The Canada Shipping Act, concerning the waterway surface and the protection navigation rights; 2) The Fisheries Act, pertaining to protection of the marine habitat, below the surface of these same waters.  But while they apply to the same waters, on and below the surface respectively, the two Acts do not connect.   In other words, under the current legislative framework, one cannot impose restrictions on certain types of motorized boats based on their impacts on the marine habitat.

In effect, regardless of the variances in environmental and community challenges from one waterway to another, the legislative challenges are the same, leaving communities across Canada without the means to protect their respective local environments and community interests.

BC’s ecologically sensitive salmon rivers left unprotected

Over the past 3 decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of recreational boaters on BC’s waterways.  Gone are the days when the only boat one would see was the occasional fisherman in his “tinny” with a small outboard motor.

Across the province, lakes and rivers, big and small, are now accessed by an increasing number of bigger, faster and much more powerful boats.  Recreation in BC is big business.  While the increased congestion on BC’s large lakes creates numerous safety concerns, it is on the smaller lakes and rivers that the harmful environmental effects are most evident.

Studies dating back to the 1950’s (Lagler et al) identified the harmful effects of boat-caused erosion and sedimentation on aquatic plants and animals.  Lagler found that prolonged use of an outboard in 75 centimetre deep water, and a propeller 35 centimetres from the bottom, removed all plants and silt from a swath 1.5 metres wide.  In the ensuing six decades, study after study in the US and Canada have indicated that operating a boat in water less than 2 metres deep damages the aquatic ecosystem.

The erosive effects of boat wakes are also well-documented.  In studies too numerous to mention, boat wakes have been shown to cause shoreline erosion and disturbance to aquatic mammals and nesting waterfowl while boat noise chases waterfowl from their nests.  These disturbances devour the birds’ scarce resources and can lead to a serious long-term decline in waterfowl.

BC is blessed with hundreds of salmon-bearing rivers and streams.  Hundreds of thousands of salmon fry live suspended in these shallow waters before making their way to the Pacific Ocean.  With the advent of jet boat technology, high-powered aluminium hulled boats can travel at high speeds in these extremely shallow and ecologically sensitive marine environments.

wake boat
Powerful, modern “wake boats” are kicking up waves and protest

One BC boat manufacturer has a model called “Extreme Shallow” designed for “skinny water” fun and boasts it can operate in just 5 inches of water.  The impellers of these jet boats can pump as much as 3000 to 4000 gallons of water a minute.

The result?  Salmon fry, and the aquatic insects that are their food supply, are crushed or washed ashore by these powerful forces.  Similar impacts are associated with other types of motorized watercraft that generate wakes in these highly environmentally fragile salmon-bearing rivers. Nevertheless, though all this evidence in studies dates back more than 60 years, communities remain powerless to do something about this in the absence of a modern legislative framework.

While Transport Canada’s safe boating guide states that a 10 kph speed should be observed if less than 30 metres from shore, these common-sense guidelines do not apply to our rivers, where the 30 metre rule would effectively restrict boats to a no-wake speed on most inland rivers and streams.

Legislative framework hinders constructive solutions

The Canada Shipping Act, administered by Transport Canada, ensures that there are no impediments to navigation and that marine transportation is conducted in a safe manner.  Not only is the Act ill-suited and not intended for protection of the environment, but also Transport Canada requires that all non-regulatory options be explored before a municipality can proceed with a request for a regulatory solution.  In this regard, Transport Canada strongly encourages communities to adopt a voluntary code of conduct with near 100% adherence.  This latter requirement is a source of irresolvable conflicts across Canada because few communities can achieve the necessary level of voluntary support for the code of conduct to be effective.

Accordingly, municipal governments and community organizations across Canada have been unable or unwilling to tackle this issue, anticipating a complicated and potentially controversial process that can take years while, all too often, pitting neighbour against neighbour in what may seem like a never ending ordeal.

The second piece of legislation, the Fisheries Act, administered by Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was created in 1867 and remains one of Canada’s oldest existing pieces of legislation. While its mandate is to conserve and protect fisheries resources in all Canadian waterways by protecting the marine habitat, the current government has rendered the Act an empty shell, at the request of the pipeline industry.

Moreover, recent DFO enforcement changes include the reduction of DFO staffing to levels last seen in the 1980’s and the removal of the term “Habitat Management Program” from their organization and offices.  DFO offices are being closed across the country and habitat protection staff are being laid off.  The confluence of massive new industrial development and severe cuts to staff, can and will surely, harm habitat and fisheries of the future.  There is no will presently within DFO to take the action required to protect our waterways from harm caused by recreational boats.

Suffice to say that: 1) neither of the two Acts were designed to address the current pressures that recreational boating poses for communities across the country; 2)  the Fisheries Act is now so weakened that it has to be re-written, practically starting from the equivalent of a blank page; and 3) the two Acts must be linked in order to protect the marine habitat via restrictions on certain types of boating activity.

Will Dubitsky is a Quebec-based contributor to The Common Sense Canadian. Jean Clark is the Director of the Lower Shuswap Stewardship Society. Both are co-founders of the newly-formed Coalition for Responsible and Sustainable Navigation, which will work with communities across Canada to drive legislative protections for waterways from motorized boating.

Quebec to invest half billion in green transportation

Quebec to invest half billion in green transportation


Quebec to invest half billion in green transportation

Quebec plans to spend more than a half-billion dollars on a green transportation plan over the next three years.

Premier Pauline Marois says the plan includes up to $8,000 in subsidies for the purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles; and up to $1,000 for people installing a charging unit at home.

She says the goal is to add 12,500 electric vehicles on Quebec roads by 2017, accelerating a program introduced under the previous Charest government.

It also calls for 5,000 public charging stations; 525 electric taxis; and 25 electric trolleys in Montreal.

In the days leading up to the announcement, there was some controversy over the fact that Hydro-Quebec chairman Pierre Karl Peladeau had been sitting in on Parti Quebecois cabinet meetings about the plan.

Peladeau is also the president of Quebecor, which owns the province’s main tabloid papers and private TV network, along with the Sun media chain in English Canada.

Before the announcement, his Journal de Montreal newspaper reported exclusive details of the plan in a multi-page spread, promoted on the cover.

Old buildings get new life through architectural innovation

Old buildings get new life through innovative architecture

Old buildings get new life through architectural innovation
shipping containers are now being converted into homes – part of a growing trend of recycling architecture

VICTORIA – The concept of a house is changing as architects and home owners reinvent the buildings they decide to use for their homes.

Vancouver architect Tim Ankenman has been part of designing many spaces that he calls “building recycling.”

Ankenman’s designs repurpose abandoned warehouses or even multi-purpose commercial space, including movie theatres, into mixed-use residential spaces.

But the vision for his building recycling is based upon the same approach he uses for new buildings: making sure the spaces have the longest life possible.

“The main motivation for these projects is the environment,” said Ankenman. “Even in our new buildings we are designing we try to keep in mind what could happen should that use ever change and we try to design the project accordingly.

[quote]A lot of buildings that are purpose built are stuck being what they were designed for, and either have to be torn down or undergo extensive renovations in order for them to be reinvented.[/quote]

Ankenman has recently been involved in the conversion of two abandoned Vancouver warehouses: the Bowman Block on Beatty Street and the Paris Block on West Hastings.

Old buildings bring seismic challenges

While the environmental benefits of recycling old buildings is important, Ankenman said there are challenges such as zoning and seismic upgrades.

“You have to look at everything from the existing foundation to the ability to put in an elevator and new stairs and looking at whether there is the possibility to add storeys to the existing building and have it make economic sense,” he said.

For both the Bowman and Paris Blocks Ankenman designed the buildings to accommodate commercial space on the bottom and either penthouses or studio and one-bedroom residential spaces in the upper floors.

Schoolhouse lofts

Warehouse loft spaces have become increasingly common in cities like Vancouver, but in Escott, Ont., northeast of Kingston, one entrepreneur brought urban lofts into a former elementary school.

John Simpson had originally purchased the school with the intention of converting it to a seniors complex. When he ran into issues with the surrounding farmland he decided to make the school his home with options for generating income through offices and self-storage units.

“My son and my daughter thought I was crazy when I bought it,” said Simpson. “I had a beautiful farm where I raised horses, alpacas and llamas.

[quote]They couldn’t figure out why I would go from that to an old commercial building, but I’m a big hit now that I’ve done it. All the birthday parties, anniversaries and get-togethers are at my place now because of the space.[/quote]

Switching the building from a 1965 elementary school to something suitable to live in required a considerable financial investment by Simpson. He said the renovation cost between $220,000 and $240,000.


But instead of changing the character of the space, Simpson worked on restoring much of the school’s charm and adapting it to his residence.

“My living room is at least 2,500 square feet (232 square metres) if not more,” he said. “I was able to bring back the original clay tile floors and in the rest of the house like the bathroom I restored the terrazzo floors.”

In Simpson’s bedroom, which was once the school’s performance stage, he brought back the original birch floors.

“A lot of it was in great shape but needed to be revamped,” he said.

New coalition revved up about wake boats on public waterways

New coalition revved up about wake boats on public waterways

New coalition revved up about wake boats on public waterways
Not your grandfather’s lake boat: powerful, modern “wake boats” kick up waves and protest

All across Canada, many small communities face great difficulties in trying to establish regulations regarding the protection of navigable waters environments – that is, waters which fall under federal regulatory jurisdiction, The Canada Shipping Act in particular.

Not only are these communities paralysed in their efforts to address the growing numbers of motorized boats on waterways, but they also find themselves helpless to deal with the proliferation of “Hummer” type boats, or wake boats, with their 330 horsepower (HP) to 550 HP engines. The powerful,  destructive waves they generate cause shoreline erosion, damage docks,  make non-motorized boating unpleasant and disturb shoreline enjoyment.

Laws don’t work

Unfortunately, The Canada Shipping Act is an inefficient tool to address the aforementioned challenges, because the Act, which dates back to the early years of Canada, was not conceived to protect the environment.  More precisely, the prime purpose of the Act is to protect the rights of navigators and minimize barriers to navigation.

But the worst part about this Act is that it makes it exceptionally difficult for a local government to obtain federal approval for a new regulatory proposal – up to 5 years from the time a request is made to the moment when a proposal may be approved – and the guidelines on the Act make it abundantly clear that the federal government seeks non-regulatory solutions by way of voluntary codes of conduct.

The latter point is the source of eternal conflict within communities, as they must achieve nearly 100% voluntary adherence to a proposed code of conduct.  Surveys and referendums are not regarded by Transport Canada as a basis for a community to formulate a new regulatory proposal.

Consequently, most communities are not able to follow through to achieve federal regulatory approval.

It is against this legislative backdrop that the matter of the proliferation of wake boats on Canadian waterways has contributed to community dialogues of the deaf over irresolvable conflicts.

New breed of boat

Wake boats are not at all like conventional motor boats. The combination of 1) horsepower ranges similar to those offered for Volvo tractor-trailer trucks and 2) ballasts ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 lbs, produce high, powerful waves, even at modest speeds.

As if this is not enough, the turbidity caused by wake boats churns up sediments and fuel consumption is in the stratosphere. With respect to the latter point, so much for tackling climate change!

For other water bodies, the depth and size of the lake may mean little environmental tolerance for any type of powerful boat.  In BC, on the Shuswap River, the environmental challenges pertain to jet boats navigating up sensitive spawning habitats.  These jet boats can travel upstream at high speeds in very shallow water.

To address the increasing environmental challenges posed by problematic boats,  I was involved in forming the Canadian Coalition on problematic boats, otherwise known as The Coalition – officially created on September 1st in a small Quebec community, St-Faustin-Lac-Carré, Québec.

Coalition calls for legislative changes

In effect, the Coalition wishes to see modifications of two pieces of legislation, the Fisheries Act and the Canada Shipping Act.

With regard to The Fisheries Act, prior to the Harper administration’s changes to it, the Act was a very effective tool to protect marine life habitats.  But in response to a request from the pipeline industry, the Conservatives considerably weakened the protection of the marine habitat.


Accordingly, The Coalition’s objectives entail the modification of both the Shipping Act and the Fisheries Act, plus the linking of the two Acts, in order to make it possible to impose restrictions on certain types of boats, based on impacts on the marine environment and community decisions.

Clear national environmental criteria and local government authorities would be the pillars of the new legislative framework and the concept of voluntary codes of conduct would be abolished.

Of course, to be politically realistic, The Coalition does not have any hopes with the current government. In this regard, it proposes an inter-regional and inter-provincial Coalition to formulate innovative legislative recommendations for the next federal government, in 2015.

As for the rationale for the inter-regional and inter-provincial approach, it is a reflection of the fact that a small community, acting on its own, cannot hope to have sufficient influence to request a change to two Acts and the linking of the two. By contrast, a pan-Canadian Coalition would be hard for any future government to ignore.

For more information on the Coalition, contact author Will Dubitsky directly:

Let’s get serious about cigarette litter – no ifs, ands, or butts

Let’s get serious about cigarette litter – no ifs, ands, or butts

Let’s get serious about cigarette litter – no ifs, ands, or butts
photo: Rick McCharles

Not long ago, dining out, going for a drink, working in an office, riding an airplane or intercity bus and going to a movie meant being subjected to second-hand smoke. Cigarette smoking was a fact of life, and smokers were everywhere – indoors and out.

In many countries, including Canada, that’s changed. But it wasn’t without a fight. Restaurant and bar owners fretted loudly that regulations to limit smoking would destroy their businesses, and tobacco companies lobbied and launched massive PR campaigns to convince people that smoking wasn’t harmful, that new laws were an infringement on smokers’ rights and that reducing smoking would devastate the economy.

Through a combination of public education and government regulation, including taxation, profound societal change took place over a relatively short time. In 1965, half of Canadians smoked. By 2011, that had dropped to about 17.3 per cent, or 4.9-million people, with only about 13.8 per cent daily smokers. Unfortunately the downward trend has levelled off in recent years, and tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death in Canada, according to researchers at the University of Waterloo. “More than 37,000 Canadians will die prematurely this year due to tobacco use. Each day, 100 Canadians die of a smoking-related illness,” the 2013 report, “Tobacco Use in Canada: Patterns and Trends”, says.

With increasing regulation, high cigarette prices driven by “sin taxes” and the current stigma attached to smoking, it’s bewildering that people take up the pointless habit in the first place. Smoking prevalence is still highest among young adults, especially those aged 25 to 34, although education is a factor, with smoking rates for university graduates less than half those for people with less education.

I sometimes wonder if it’s lack of education that causes many smokers to litter their butts without giving it a second thought. It’s astounding how many people who would likely not otherwise drop garbage on the ground see nothing wrong with flicking butts without regard for where they land. It may seem trivial, but it’s not.

According to the Surfrider Foundation’s Hold on to Your Butt campaign, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world, with 4.95-trillion tossed onto the ground or water every year. The U.S. spends about $11-billion a year on litter clean-up, and 32 per cent of that is butts. They’re washed from the streets into storm drains and rivers and eventually to oceans and are the most prevalent type of debris collected in beach clean-ups around the world.

The environmental impacts are nothing to sneeze at, either. Surfrider notes that cigarette butts are made of “cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradable plastic, which can take up to 25 years to decompose.” The toxic butts can be ingested by children and animals, especially birds and marine animals. Tossed cigarette butts are also a major fire risk.

Obviously, the best way to reduce cigarette butt pollution is to step up efforts to prevent people from starting smoking and help those who have to quit. But we aren’t going to stop everyone from smoking overnight, so we have to find ways to address the litter problem. Again, a combination of public education and regulation will go a long way.

In San Diego, Surfrider installed outdoor ashcans and gave smokers pocket ashtrays. Many places, including Vancouver, have banned smoking on beaches and in parks. Stepping up enforcement of litter laws also helps. Some people even recommend banning filtered cigarettes or at least requiring filters to be biodegradable, arguing they’re more of a marketing ploy than a safety feature. In Vancouver and other cities, some people have been pushing for a deposit-and-return system similar to those for bottles and cans.

Besides reducing litter and environmental damage, methods that also increase the price of cigarettes have proven to be effective in reducing smoking rates.

Some consider tobacco a sacred herb. It’s used by many indigenous peoples for ceremonial purposes. With widespread use spurred by marketing, it became a costly and unhealthy addiction and a toxic blight on the environment. Smoking trends in countries like Canada show that societal change is possible and – with education and regulation – people will do what’s best for themselves and for the world around them.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.


Cycling is smart but some cyclists need to get smarter


Bicycles are an increasingly popular, affordable and practical transportation option. Many cities are making life easier for cyclists by building separated lanes, implementing bike-share programs and introducing regulations to reduce conflict between bikes and cars. You can now find bicycle sharing in 500 cities in 49 countries, including Beijing, Montreal, Chicago, Paris and Mexico City.

In my home city of Vancouver, we’re still waiting for a planned sharing program, but cycling is the fastest-growing transportation mode here, jumping by 40 per cent since 2008, from about 47,000 to 67,000 daily trips. This is mainly thanks to an ever-expanding network of bike lanes and routes.

The personal and societal benefits of getting out of your car and onto a bike are well-known: better mental and physical fitness and reduced health-care costs, less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, often speedier commutes and significant cost savings, to name a few. Studies also show the exercise benefits of cycling exceed negative health effects from pollution and injury.

Still, despite the many arguments in favour of cycling, increased infrastructure always incites criticism – most of it unwarranted. And the behaviour of some cyclists doesn’t help.

Let’s consider some claims from opponents. Two main ones are that bicycling initiatives hurt local businesses and impede car traffic. Numerous studies show the opposite is often true: over the long term, business usually improves and car traffic is reduced. When bike lanes do affect car-commuting times, it’s often by a small amount.

Research by the New York City Department of Transportation found retail sales increased 49 per cent along Ninth Avenue after a protected bike lane was built, compared to just three per cent for the rest of Manhattan. A Toronto study focused on Bloor West Village found far more customers arrive by foot, bike or transit than by car and “visit more often and report spending more money than those who drive.”

As for impacts on car commuting, bike lanes often have a negligible or even positive effect. More people cycling means reduced car traffic – the real cause of gridlock and slowdowns. Not everyone can use a bike and sometimes cycling isn’t practical. But as people opt for alternatives to cars, the roads open up for those who must drive. A study by Stantec Consulting Ltd. found Vancouver drivers thought it took them five minutes longer to travel along a street with a new bike lane, but it actually took from five seconds less to just a minute and 37 seconds more.

Studies around the world also show that bike lanes have significantly reduced accidents involving cyclists, as well as the incidence of speeding cars.

But if we really want to increase safety for cyclists – and pedestrians and motorists – we all need to take responsibility for our behaviours. People navigating on foot must be aware of surrounding bikes, buses, cars and other people and not wander with their eyes fixed on electronic devices. Car drivers need to follow road rules and be more aware of cyclists and pedestrians. Some cyclists just need to be smarter.

A lot of criticism of the growing number of cyclists in cities is valid: too many blast through stop signs, don’t give pedestrians the right-of-way, refuse to signal turns, ride against traffic, don’t make themselves visible enough and use sidewalks. Many seem to have a sense of entitlement compelling them to ignore laws. It doesn’t take much to learn and follow the rules, and investing in proper gear – including lights and reflectors – is absolutely necessary. You’ll not only be safer; you’ll also be less likely to anger motorists, pedestrians and fellow cyclists.

Some jurisdictions have resorted to increased regulations and penalties to make cycling safer and to reduce conflicts between cyclists and drivers. In Chicago, bike riders face increased fines for disobeying traffic laws, as do motorists who cause bike accidents. The fine for “dooring” a cyclist (opening a vehicle door without looking and hitting a bike) doubled from $500 to $1,000.

There’s really no doubt: anything that increases bicycle use, from separated lanes to bike-sharing programs, makes cities more liveable and citizens healthier. Cyclists must do their part to build support for initiatives that make cycling easier, safer and more popular.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.


Great public transit makes for a great city


New sudy-BC carbon tax effectively tackling emissions

What makes a city great? Among other things, great cities are tolerant communities that welcome and celebrate ethnic diversity. They support and foster local arts, have access to venture capital to spur entrepreneurship and innovation, and benefit from healthy local environments with clean air, clean water and access to nutritious, locally grown food.

New York City is world class, not just because it’s a driver of global finance and a hotbed of cultural innovation; it’s also known for its green spaces, like Central Park and the award-winning High Line.

San Francisco is celebrated for its narrow streets, compact lots and historic buildings. These contribute to the city’s old-world charm, but they’re also the building blocks of a more sustainable urban form. They facilitate densification and decrease the cost of energy and transportation for businesses while improving walkability.

When it comes to urban sustainability, cities in the U.S. and Canada are employing innovative programs and policies to improve the health and well-being of residents and their local environments, like reducing waste and improving recycling (Los Angeles), containing urban sprawl (Portland), conserving water (Calgary) and passing policies to combat climate change (Toronto).

But most cities in Canada and the U.S. are lacking in infrastructure to move millions of people safely and affordably. With some notable exceptions, such as Vancouver and Calgary, no successful rapid transit infrastructure projects have been built in Canadian cities for decades.

Rapid transit systems such as Vancouver's projected plan need to become reality to create a better quality of life for urban dwellers (Wikipedia Commons).
Rapid transit systems such as Vancouver’s projected plan need to become reality to create a better quality of life for urban dwellers (Wikipedia Commons).

A recent survey of urban experts and other “city-builders” across Canada – planners, municipal politicians, academics, non-governmental organizations, developers and architects – concluded the abysmal state of public transit is the Achilles’ heel of urban sustainability and is holding many cities back from achieving greatness.

Toronto residents spend more time battling congestion to get to and from work than in any other city in North America. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as successive governments have failed to sustain and expand transit systems, even though the region has grown by about a 100,000 new residents a year. Toronto now scores 15th of 21 on per capita investment in public transit among large global cities – well behind sixth-placed New York City, which spends twice as much.

This failure to address transit infrastructure is serious. The Toronto Board of Trade estimates congestion costs the economy $6 billion a year in lost productivity.

Furthermore, air pollution from traffic congestion is a major threat to public health, especially for our most vulnerable citizens, like children and the elderly. According to the Toronto Board of Health, pollution-related ailments result in 440 premature deaths, 1,700 hospitalizations, 1,200 acute bronchitis episodes and about 68,000 asthma-symptom days a year.

Fortunately, politicians are starting to respond. Ontario’s government plans to spend billions to expand its regional transit system in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, under a plan called the Big Move. It’s also looking at new financing tools to ensure funding levels are adequate and continue into the future. But before we spend enormous amounts on improvements, we need to ensure projects contribute to a region-wide rapid transit network using the latest technology and adhering to the highest sustainability standards. They should also move the most people in the most cost-effective way.

That’s why a proposal to use diesel trains for the Air-Rail-Link plan to connect downtown Toronto with its international airport in Mississauga is concerning. A rapid transit link with the airport is long overdue, but heavy diesel trains emit particulates and other contaminants, including known carcinogens. The proposed rail line would be close to dozens of schools and daycare centres, several long-term care facilities and a chronic respiratory care hospital.

Numerous experts, including Toronto’s Medical Health Officer, have urged the Ontario government to abandon its diesel plan in favour of electric trains that could be better integrated into a region-wide rapid transit network.

Vancouver, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and New York City have consistently ranked among the most livable cities on the continent, in part because they take the environment into account for planning decisions. They all have world-class public transit systems that move residents in a safe, affordable and sustainable way. It’s time for Toronto and its suburbs to do the same. Effective transit and transportation solutions can spur economic productivity, protect the environment and improve quality of life.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Ontario and Northern Canada Director General Faisal Moola.

Why the electric automobile is for real

Why the electric automobile is for real this time


Why the electric automobile is for real

The electric pump station furthest north in British Columbia belongs to someone by the name of Robin S. in Fort St. John, a small city in Northeast B.C. — a place smack dab in the middle of an oil-and-gas feeding frenzy.

In fact, when comparing the map of such fuelling stations in Western Canada with a 2006 Government of Canada oil-and-gas pipeline map (the latest of its kind), there’s an interesting theme that emerges. In regions that see the highest oil-and-gas activity, there are the fewest electric fuelling stations.

Calgary and Edmonton are both on the top five largest cities by population in Canada list, yet they contain a combined 12 public electric pump stations. Compare this to Vancouver, Canada’s eighth largest city according to 2011 census data, which boasts more electric fuelling stations than both Edmonton and Calgary combined in its downtown core alone.

A comparison between pipeline and electric vehicle fuel pump infrastructure in Western Canada (Graphic by John King).
A comparison between pipeline and electric vehicle fuel pump infrastructure in Western Canada (Graphic by John King).

In the autumn of 2012, the B.C. government announced a massive program to help fund the installation of electric pumps throughout the province. The electric vehicle charging stations are funded for a total of 454. The money for the project was derived from a $2.7 million Community Charging Infrastructure Fund. Municipalities, regional districts, and senior levels of government applauded the program because of its diverse make-up — more than 70 universities, organizations, and governments signed on to the project.

Some legacy news outlets, however, balked at the idea and offered up their predictable, cynical commentary à la carte. The Vancouver Sun went so far as to suggest the program created too much access to electric pumps, which represented a “niche” automobile market.

This is a theme among the news organizations that refer to themselves as the “legacy” news media, which is an overused term attributed to essentially newspapers, news channels, and radio stations. To air on the side of fairness, however, some legacy news organizations reported how the options are getting better for consumers looking for alternative ways to get around.

This is the real story when talking about electric vehicles. The rise of the electric automobile is really about how practical the alternatives to fossil-fuel dependent vehicles are. In recent days, Tesla Motors announced the expansion of what it calls the “Supercharging Network” so that electric motorists are able to travel from LA to New York for free.

In Canada, a quick glance at the Canada Plug Share map reveals a consistent pattern of charging stations extending across the country that may indicate the ability to travel from B.C. to the Maritime Provinces without getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. There are sections that look somewhat dicey, and one would want to do a thorough check on whether such a cross-country trip is feasible. Of course there are a chorus of concerns about whether an electric vehicle is able to stand up to the harsh Canadian weather. On the flip side, there is a counter-chorus suggesting electric vehicles are able to hold their own against the snow and ice.

Change is not change until it’s made at the source. Whether someone drives a pick-up truck or hybrid, the use of gasoline at the consumer level is a large demand for its parent — oil. While it’s well known oil is used for a variety of products, it’s most used in industries requiring massive amounts of energy, this includes creating the energy to move large objects. The electric vehicle is not perfect. There remains concern over how eco-friendly it really is, which is a subject well explored.

What people must not lose sight of is that this technology is still in its infancy. What the Tesla Motors story shows us is that there are power structures in place that do not wish to see alternatives succeed. The best recent example of this is Ballard Power. The creation of new clean technologies is critical to the success of the human species. The method to harness power in cleaner forms will get better if our free markets are not manipulated and capital is allowed to flow into human agencies that again improve people’s quality of life, as well as the environment.

If humans play their cards right, there is a future where personal, commercial, and industrial transportation is fuelled by sustainable technologies that equal the power created by oil.

This will only happen if people allow it to happen. And this time they are despite the interference.

Sustainable Transportation Experts Call New Port Mann Bridge Antiquated Thinking

Sustainable transportation experts call new port mann bridge antiquated thinking


Sustainable Transportation Experts Call New Port Mann Bridge Antiquated Thinking

Read this story from Metro News on the opening of the new Port Mann Bridge, which is drawing criticism from a leading sustainable transportation experts for driving climate change-causing car-based transportation instead of more sustainable, modern alternatives. (Nov. 30, 2012)

Its historical significance and sheer wow factor is unquestioned.

But everything else about the new Port Mann Bridge is fair game for sustainable transportation advocates.

Gordon Price – Simon Fraser University director of the City Program and board member of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities – says the government missed a golden opportunity to promote smart regional growth when the 10-lane, $3.3-billion megabridge between Coquitlam and Surrey officially opens Saturday.

Instead the project promotes urban sprawl, car use and champions outdated, 20th century “motordome” thinking, flying in the face of emerging trends indicating decreased car use and more demand for public transportation.

“The most frustrating thing is that [the Port Mann] doesn’t do what they said it was going to do: reduce congestion,” said Price. “The claim is disingenuous when you pass on the opportunity to include rapid transit within the budget. When that happens, expanding the capacity for cars [without an alternative] increases the demand. If people can travel farther in the same amount of time from cheaper land, they will.”

The original Port Mann, which cost $25 million in 1964, opened the region up to expansion south of the Fraser River.

That growth strained the road network, creating a situation today where the old five-lane Port Mann Bridge is congested in both directions 13 hours of the day.

Price doesn’t dispute that a replacement was required and doesn’t doubt commuters will give the bridge plenty of use despite its tolls.

But he calls the final design overkill and unnecessary.

“Why do we need the world’s widest bridge when all the planners said eight lanes would do?” he said. “I doubt you’ll ever need all 10 lanes. It’s today’s Granville Street Bridge, which never reached its designed capacity and never will.”

Robin Lindsey, a transportation expert at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business, believes the effectiveness of the Port Mann won’t be known until 2014.

“People need time to adjust and experiment with their routes and decide for themselves about tolls,” he said. “I think it will cope fairly well. Best-case scenario, the peak times drop by as much as an hour and the effect of high capacity works. What happens in 50 years, I haven’t the foggiest idea.”

Forecasting done last year by Steer Davies Gleave, for Port Mann operator Transportation Investment Corporation, showed that traffic volumes on the existing Port Man have steadily decreased from 2005 to 2010, by approximately 8,000 vehicles in that period.

A Frontier Group report on driving behaviour in the U.S. shows the average annual number of vehicle-miles travelled by people between the ages of 16 and 34 have dropped 23 per cent from 2001 and 2009.

While the recession is a factor in both cases, the Frontier Group states high gas prices, licensing laws, improved alternative transportation (public transportation, primarily) and changing attitudes about driving and the environment represent the start of a generational shift.

Meanwhile, increasingly aggressive urban planning on a municipal level emphasizing livable communities, public transit and non-vehicle infrastructure is dramatically changing driving behaviour.

The City of Vancouver, for example, has reduced traffic volumes in the downtown core to 1960s levels.

Price feels governments have been slow to react because leaders grew up in driving cultures and new statistics showing a shift away from that mentality are so dramatic “it’s easy to be skeptical”.

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