Friday, October 27, 2017

Costs of Automobiles, and Solutions


No book about reducing our waste, simplifying our lives and creating more joy is complete without raising this subject –particularly in North America. Three of the most important subjects in our modern society –food/water, energy production & transmission and transportation have the largest impacts on both us and Mother Earth.

And, all three are necessary. Of these three, transportation injures and kills the most people directly (through accidents) and indirectly (via air pollution). Yet travel is extremely important. Let’s take a look at the history of travel and what we can do to improve it.

People have always travelled, by water-craft, walking/jogging and the use of animals (dog sleds and riding animals such as horses, camels, elephants, etc.) for all of human history. In our modern world travel is far more crucial because food, raw materials and products are often shipped thousands of kilometres to their destinations. Developed countries, and increasingly developing nations such as China and India, have essentially forced their citizens to travel longer distances to work, shopping, entertainment, school and such.

The most efficient mode of ground transportation, the bicycle, is what led to the construction of the first paved road surface in North America (in New York City), in the very early 1900’s. With the rise of the automobile (which was principally electrically powered!) pavement was extended to the use of motor vehicle traffic as well. As the car numbers grew bicycles and pedestrians soon began to be pushed off the roads (at least pedestrians were sometimes given sidewalks, but this move essentially “paved” the way for the car to dominate the streets. The “no jaywalking” law, recommended by the automobile industry, was quickly adopted, completing the transformation of streets from people to motor vehicles).

Henceforth the car/pickup truck became considered the gold standard of transportation, providing speed, convenience, independence, comfort and (in theory) safety –all icons of western society. Some would add that the automobile –having attained such a high stature– could very well be an object of worship, however subtle. Its presence alone has literally forced a complete redesign of cities to accommodate its huge requirement for space (up to 25% of the surface of a downtown is often dedicated to vehicles!). Accommodating it costs billions of dollars, kills and injures millions world-wide every year, isolates us, pollutes, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and far more. Only objects/subjects that are so highly desired could avoid being eliminated by the sheer costs these vehicles represent to societies.
Ironically what was sold as a dream has become somewhat a nightmare to the growing numbers of people stuck in traffic jams and essentially experiencing the TV show “survivor” five times a week. Urban sprawl has made cities expensive to maintain due to the large land base they have consumed. Schools, fire and ambulance stations, water and sewer mains have to be built to serve these far-flung outposts of urban centres. At what cost? An enormous one, financially, economically and socially, to say nothing of the cost to our health through collisions, pollution and disease. The liberal desire for convenience, comfort, and “security” all lure us into this growing planetary nightmare. While this has been “driven” by the baby boomers the younger generations are waking up to the dangerous and high cost of the automobile. Often, whenever possible, many of them avoid buying a car, or even get a driver’s licence. Increasingly they prefer to live in town centres –reversing the trend set by the baby boomers.

They are wise. Motor vehicles are neither safe nor affordable. World-wide, motor vehicles account for about one-quarter of all Greenhouse Gas emissions principally due to the high fuel consumption. Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day. An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. More than half of all road traffic deaths occur among young adults ages 15-44.  The death and injury from the pollution created by these vehicles, plus ships anchored in harbours, likely doubles the numbers cited above. Thus perhaps as many as 100 million people are injured or permanently disabled each year. This number does not include emissions that abort or injure perhaps another million foetuses yearly. So much for “security.”

In fact the dependence on the automobile alone leads to:
•    High incidents of injuries and death, as outlined above.
•    Current urban designs lead to car dependencies and lead to a lack of sufficient physical exercise through walking and cycling which significantly contributes to health issues such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and cardiovascular diseases.
•    Other health issues arise from noise pollution from traffic and air pollution, including strokes, respiratory issues, cancer, and more.
•    A lack of transportation options restrict non-car owners/users access to numerous services and facilities, namely jobs, education, leisure facilities, and health-care services, all of which are critical social determinants of health.
•    A lack of adequate transportation is also correlated with higher crime rates and thus a reduced sense of security and life satisfaction.
•    A lack of transportation options also reduce the economic performance of a city or region in part because money spent on cars leaves the region, and such prevents many of those in the lower socio-economic spectrum from getting work or gaining better paying employment.
•    Shockingly lower income earners subsidise higher income earners because they also pay property taxes (in one form or another) and rent or pay multi-residential (condo) fees that, in part, pay to maintain parking spaces –regardless of whether these are needed by the occupants of the building or not.
In addition a city’s economy and vitality is constrained by inadequate transportation systems.
•     Urban areas that encourage reliance on private motorised vehicles foster expenditures on cars and their related costs, such as gas, insurance, and parking. Money spent on cars and fuels is money that largely leaves the regional economy, draining it.
•    Without people-friendly transportation systems consumers are less likely to be enticed to purchase local goods, resulting in weak economic resilience of the community. Smaller shops (whose income is more likely to remain in the community) benefit from being located in walkable areas; big box stores benefit from motor vehicles.
•    A lack of transportation options greatly increases foreclosures at times of economic recessions
•    Businesses in the community may have difficulty hiring employees and suffer from lost customers
•    Regionally, poor transportation options results in higher benefit payments and reduced tax contributions

All but one of these bullets was gratefully furnished by Lan Le Diem Tran’s thesis on sustainable leisure.

What does it cost society for various ways of getting around? For every $1 spent on walking or cycling, society pays less than 10 cents. For every $1 spent on buses society pays about $2. But for car travel for every $1 spent society pays nearly $10! A further breakdown of the costs and benefits of the various modalities of travel may be extrapolated from this study, conducted on a medium sized city in North America.

But, and this is a BIG but, quoting costs and figures like these do nothing to convince most drivers of the need for change. Why? Simply because cars to our culture are like cows are to the Indian continent. They are sacred. Not to be touched. Since the 1930’s, and especially post-war, owning and driving one’s own automobile came to be expected with adulthood.  The automobile is the birthright of baby boomers. Owning and/or driving a car gives an owner their identity (thanks to the very clever and expensive marketing prowess of the automotive industry. The car/pick-up truck represents the peak of our culture, a culture of entitlement, convenience, speed and comfort. From the perspective of many drivers, society is supposed to cater to the car. Collectively we seem to behave as though driving a vehicle is an entitlement. Being sacred it is not ever to be criticised.

The kind of anger I have seen directed at any who would even dare to suggest alternatives to the car is totally incredible. Some drivers are impatient with pedestrians, even swearing or waving their fists at them; many more fail to approach street corners slow enough to avoid striking pedestrians. Some drivers become so enraged at bicycles they deliberately target riders by passing too closely or even side-swiping them! (These drivers might have the same attitude toward buses but the size different likely has a bearing on their behaviour...) I have seen people argue that hospitals should divert precious funds in order to build parking spots so that people can visit the ill. Yet those who rely on their cars for all travel are the most likely to get ill and need the hospital, the very institution that has rendered funds to pay for their parking! I believe we as a society have no idea just how much the automobile has taken over our psyche.
Relying heavily on the single-occupancy motor vehicle is not only costly for the user/owner and especially for society it also exacts a cost to our well-being –physically, mentally and socially. Car travel is usually isolating. This is counter to our need to be connected to others. The quality, not only the quantity of travel, makes a huge impact on us, for better or for worse.

What are the benefits of a more sustainable transportation design, one that includes greater density, easily accessible services (think of cities in the pre-war years where one could walk to shops, schools, work and such), dedicated walking and cycling trails and a robust interconnected easily accessible and fast public transportation system? One that gives easy access to carshare and bicycle sharing hubs? It provides the following benefits:
•    Better physical and mental health, including better work-place performance and fewer anxiety and anger issues,
•    reduced pollution & noise,
•    greater longevity,
•    much lower transportation costs,
•    lowered costs for the city
•    greater safety,
•    greater sense of community and belonging,
•    greater social cohesion,
•    much improved local economies and job opportunities,
•    more attractive to tourists
•    increased civic pride
•    greater numbers of young adults who provide needed services and perspectives (vital to a fully functioning city)

What city would not wish these?

Boiling all of this down, what constitutes a sustainable transportation system? It
1.    Allows the basic access needs of individuals and societies to be met safely and in a manner consistent with human and ecosystem health, and with equity within and between generations.
2.    Is affordable, operates efficiently, offers choice of transport mode, and supports a vibrant economy.
3.    Limits emissions and waste within the planet’s ability to absorb them, minimizes consumption of non-renewable resources, limits consumption of renewable resources to the sustainable yield level, reuses and recycles its components, and minimizes the use of land and the production of noise.

North America has a long way to go before catching up to Europe and much of the world in this regard. Local, provincial/state and federal initiatives are underway. All each of us need to do is to jump on board to any one of them while seeking ways we can improve the quality of our lives.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Value of Supporting the Nanaimo Recycling Exchange

Nanaimo’s heart and soul of recycling may be facing its demise. While the NRE has inspired citizens, businesses, the city and the regional district to adopt strong  waste-recovery practises, leading by example and helping to extend the life of the local landfill -costing us virtually nothing-, the NRE may be discarded early next year.
Why? Because the majority of the Nanaimo city councillors have been convinced that the NRE is the responsibility of the Regional District of Nanaimo (the RDN) while the Directors of the RDN are being steered by their staff to believe that the NRE is, in essence, not required.
The NRE primarily benefits residents and businesses in Nanaimo, yet technically its mandate falls under the RDN solid waste management. Yet the city utterly relies on the NRE to bolster its own recycling & composting initiatives. In fact the NRE is the principal waste recovery place to which the city’s website directs residents –because it is truly the one-stop centre, offering us far more than only recycling. The city and the NRE have been doing business together as long as both have existed.
The RDN’s plans on how it believes it will reach its goal of diverting 90% of the waste materials through composting, recycling and reusing those materials looks good on paper. They will try to take the region to a recycling/composting rate of 90% principally through education, enforcement and utilising private (for-profit) companies. While there is much in their plan that is worthy of praise it fails to appreciate that the NRE IS the flagship for authentic zero waste in our region. It inspires us to be better stewards of waste materials.
The NRE is special. It is sacred, even in its grittiness. The NRE represents the true essence of zero waste. It is our mascot. Fancy plans for taking us to zero waste are all fine, but such plans are dry and theoretical; they have no spirit. The NRE is gutsy and it has spirit!
Consider Nanaimo’s Colliery Dam Park. The bureaucrats decided (without sufficient information) that the dams were a) dangerous and b) the park would be fine if it were “re-naturalised” (no lakes, only a stream). Rationally, their plan made sense. But people were outraged! They felt as though the heart of that park was going to be ripped out! (It was.) This “logical” plan was a violation! It was as if people were saying, ‘The Park and its lakes are sacred!’ So the city kept the lakes. It was willing to pay the (likely unnecessary) price because of the value we put into the park as it is.
The NRE has easily saved us millions of dollars. Now it is asking for some assistance so that it can not only survive but develop into what could be called the ‘Nanaimo Waste Recovery Centre,’ generating more jobs and saving us even more money. Without the NRE/NWRC our enthusiasm for recycling will be trashed. Our mascot will be dead. Targets will be missed. We may begin to again hear about the necessity of a (very expensive) incinerator.

Without the NRE more garbage will likely illegally be dumped by road-sides and contaminating the yellow recycling bags.  What are the costs of these consequences? What is the cost of not expanding opportunities for new businesses that could utilise the recovered resources? What is the cost of ending the employee training program run by the NRE?

If the city and the RDN truly want to take us to a “zero waste” future, one without landfills or incinerators, while failing to invest in the centre-piece of our region’s efforts to reduce waste, then they are fooling themselves. 
But not us.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Save the NRE or pay (more!) later

This is the letter I have just sent to the mayor and council of the city of Nanaimo (mayor& is the e-address should you wish to do the same)

Mayor and Councillors:

I believe it was about three years ago I addressed the Regional District of Nanaimo, encouraging them to engage the Nanaimo Recycling Exchange, and noting to them how much the NRE benefits us all. Evidently the negotiations between the staff of the NRE and the City that followed went nowhere; the NRE simply did and does not have the capital to have met their expectations. Why should they? The NRE alone accepts materials that cost money to properly recycle. They do not get a slice of the income from recycling cans (apart from a few donations).

One of the materials they alone accept is Styrofoam. This material alone can occupy up to 25% of the space in landfills, but because the waste industry considers only the WEIGHT of materials the NRE is given inadequate credit for continuing to greatly extend the life of our regional landfill. In other words, they fail to appreciate the true value of the NRE.

What also seems to be evident that they and we fail to recognise that the NRE is capable of creating local employment by spurring new industries using our waste materials. Unlike most investments by the city these jobs would continue to increase over time, would benefit all people in our region, and would benefit the environment. Unlike any other investments a waste recovery centre would retain materials rather than burn or bury them, thus benefiting future generations, and would actually bring us to the 90% diversion rate envisioned by the city.

The NRE is the only true way we have been able to make up for the inadequate curbside provincial recycling program, a program that gives the RDN and city more than $2 million a year. Why isn’t at least some of this income being invested in the NRE and its vision of better utilising waste materials?? Please do not confuse the contract funds paid to the NRE with subsidy (an error I have heard made). The NRE is paid to engage in public education and to accept yard waste at its facility. This is not a subsidy. As far as I know it has never received any donations from the city or the RDN.

Given the fact that recycling, reusing, repurposing and composting generate double the number of jobs as do landfilling or incinerating waste materials, these measures also retain the latent energy required to create those materials in the first place, saves dwindling resources (we live on a finite planet), and that the NRE is uniquely poised to expand the opportunity to create local jobs, improve the environment, retain resources, spur industries in our region, and improve the local economy, why are the City and the RDN not seriously investing in this amazing non-profit?

I believe we have been getting a free ride for too long. Either the city and the RDN get serious about the benefits of the NRE or we fill up our landfill more quickly and/or get a far more expensive and polluting incinerator far sooner.

Nanaimo hosted Canada’s first Zero Waste International conference. Mr. McKay took in the event (then as a councillor). The City was a sponsor of that event. The international community is now watching to see if Nanaimo and the RDN will turn their backs on the opportunities that are laid at its feet.

I urge you to put some serious money on the table, and encourage the RDN to do the same.

Readers: if you wish to e-mail the RDN Directors here are their e-mail addresses:;;;;;;;;;;;;;;; To contact Director Houle click here. Please note that Ian Thorpe, Bill McKay, Bill Bestwick, Jerry Hong, Kim Kipp, Gordon Fuller and Bill Yoachim are all city of Nanaimo councillors. Be respectful; they receive a ton of e-mails.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

My picks for Nanaimo's By-election

All 13 candidates have desirable qualities for the one councillor position up for grabs on July 8th. 
In order to attempt to prioritise them I used a 10 point scale as follows:

Ability to:
1.      connect with and really hear where people are coming from, including genuine consultation with the local Snuneymuxw First Nation
2.      be astute managers –which includes putting sufficient effort to listen to people; do their own research; attend meetings and public events; and be able to make their own decisions (vs. blindly vote along with others)
3.      think through problems creatively, preferably by finding “win-win” solutions for all involved
4.      balance fiscal restraints with community needs
5.      sniff out when staff are trying to manipulate councillors to vote a certain way
6.      have a vision of sustainability and affordability for the community and our planetary home
7.      be authentic (not fake or egotistical)
8.      be a team player: genuinely work with other councillors and the mayor
9.      Extra point for being a woman (my bias: we need more of them)
10.  Extra point for being younger (my bias: the Millennials better understand what we need to do to attract this needed population and become more sustainable)
Please note that none of the above parameters consider the usual “right-left” wing perspective, although those who are stuck in a narrow perspective are unlikely to score very high on most of these parameters.
I score one point for each of the above 10 considerations. A candidate who (in my estimation, of course) does not obtain at least 5 of the possible 10 points is not on my top picks. From the top:
Sacia (pronounced “Sasha”) Burton is a young female and full of good ideas such as improving individual and community well-being (food security, active transportation, affordable housing, citizen engagement) and being a team-player. Her profile and answers on and have the most pragmatic and thought-through policies of all the candidates. She is bright, positive, and able to make points without disrespecting others who disagree with her (“My experience as an advocate in University governance taught me to match thoughtful critique with an empathetic ear.”) She was the only candidate in the Chamber of Commerce/Young Professionals event to ask the audience questions (not easy when one is given only one minute to reply to a question!) and after her poll was completed she replied to the responses with “That’s interesting.” She is likely resilient, which will be necessary if elected to the current Council. She is as unique as is her name. 10/10

Noah Routley is a current school board trustee. He seems to be a team-player (“I will increase overall stakeholder and community advocacy if elected. My mandate is to be available and accessible to constituents, bringing public concerns to the board. Now more than ever in our school district we need advocates with a heart and a powerful voice... My co-working style is collaborative and supportive, while also being a strong advocate and leader.” –see his trustee profile at; see also his first points noted in the current “First and foremost we need to hear from Nanaimo residents”) as well as comments made at  He seems to support active transportation based on what he wrote in the Our Nanaimo website just cited but I see no evidence on how he would accomplish this, especially given his stance against raising taxes. He is more likely knowledgeable about what is needed to reduce the growing mental health issues due to his related background.   He advocates for a collaborative and practical approach to the city’s social issues.  7/10

In Kevin Cantelon’s responses to the Greater Nanaimo Cycling Coalition’s survey in the last general election ( he strongly advocated for an improved cycling infrastructure. In his recent response to the Our Nanaimo ( his views on how to make the city more responsive to current and future needs are practical and sustainable. As a lawyer he seems to have an idea how to respond to conflict and says he will work collaboratively. In my experience a number of lawyers are able to do this. “My platform calls for a return to civility and functionality.” Kevin seems keen to improve the social and economic conditions in the city. He seems to balance fiscal and social needs. 6+/10

Sheryl Armstrong is a retired RCMP officer. She’s interested in both economic development and reducing the city’s mental health issues, bringing leadership to the Council, and listening to/connecting with the electorate. Sheryl will likely be able to stand up to the bullying by some councillors. She has training in interest based negotiation, conflict resolution and conflict management. ( While her principals are noteworthy it is not clear to me what policies, apart from mental health, she wishes to accomplish. She seems to be a fiscal conservative who may also be approachable by the electorate. She made mention of the need for bike lanes (  She seems to place a lot of trust in the abilities of the city’s CEO (see  6/10

Kevin Storrie has previous civic experience (two terms on the Campbell River Council) that would bring needed experience to Nanaimo’s Council. He is a former builder who has a social conscience. He seeks to be a team player. He’s been through enough personal trials to have developed empathy for others. He has plenty of good ideas. My sense of him is that he would be a fairly typical councillor and offer little in terms of making Nanaimo sustainable. 6/10

Alexis Taylor Middleton seems to have done her homework on how to make the city more sustainable (see her responses at the One Nanaimo website, She would not likely get into conflicts with other councillors as she seems not to be pushy. I would have preferred to see her be more assertive at the Chamber/YPN event. She seemed shy to pull the microphone toward herself well enough to get a good sound quality. Her closing remark showed some passion. 5+/10

Kelly Whiteside is a young adult who was unfortunately unable to attend either all candidate event due to work commitments. She says of herself that she is “a young, queer woman: a voice/face rarely seen in politics” ( and that she is even-handed and independent Her focus is primarily on downtown revitalisation, infrastructure, good governance and an improved active transportation (see Not enough information to give a score but at least 5/10.

Leon Cake: Into charities, hockey, instrumental in saving the colliery dams, seems willing to listen to the residents; wants to greatly reduce in camera meetings; ask tough questions of staff (he had passion and people responded well). Likely a fiscal conservative. He doesn’t seem to know much about how to make us more sustainable. In his responses to the Greater Nanaimo Cycling Coalition’s survey in the last general election ( he seemed interested in learning more about active transportation and supporting some positive changes. Has he learned anything more about the importance of active transportation now three years later? A lack of his participation on Our Nanaimo’s website makes rating him not possible.

Brunie Brunie and Al Thompson interestingly are the two eldest and the most colourful candidates. They are worlds apart, however, when it comes to sustainability. Examples: for economic development Brunie supports greenhouses that utilise solar energy while Al would burn “garbage” to heat them. Brunie gets around by bicycle and Al is a former truck driver who advocates the replacement of the railway with a paved surface meant for seniors in scooters.
In 2014 city residents were very clear in their opposition to burning waste resources (aka “garbage”) near the city. Al seems unaware of this. No candidate seems to be aware that waste resources can be used to create local employment (as have other municipalities around the world), creating far more jobs than either dumping or burning. I do not believe they could improve the atmosphere at the Council chambers.