Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Money for nothing and your klicks for free

While people might be statistically against road tolls (just based on online discussions), support seems to be building. The logic is hard to argue with. Pay for what you use. If you take a step back and look at the high costs of providing the infrastructure, and consider the fact that people use it as much as they want once they pay a flat fee for their license plate, the current system doesn't make sense. This isn't even considering the air pollution associated with using our roads.

Look at our water supply. Water is a relatively cheap utility compared to all the asphalt and paving machines that are constantly resurfacing our streets. Water is not only essential to putting in a day's work, but it is, some would say, essential for life. We still put a price on it and make people pay for what they use.

Roads seem to be another story though. I think it's all about car creep. Over the years, we've slowly adjusted to the idea of repaving roads more and more often, and assumed that everyone benefits equally by road improvements.

As we transition to a society where transportation by personal-automobile becomes less popular, the percentage of the population putting the stress on the roads becomes less, and the benefit to non-users is less. For example, if the customers of your store all arrive by foot, then the road infrastructure doesn't affect your store's income in the same way.

An interesting essay on road tolls and the importance of taking advantage of the free market is on the Truck News website. (You didn't know I read that site?) Instead of suggestions for "carbon cost labels", we should stop messing around and let people decide with their money.

Now how should we take advantage of the free market? I've been talking about the costs of road use, but the costs of driving are many, even if they don't always hit the driver in the pocket. Pollution in the form of smog and greenhouse gases is a big one that car drivers get to do for free. There are a few different ideas floating around on how to charge people.

Tyler Hamilton in the Toronto Star's Clean Break column interviews the CEO of a Toronto company called Skymeter. The idea here is to give people a little GPS receiver for their car, and let them track their road use, then they pay at the end of the month. Not a bad idea, and it gives a city flexibility in terms of how people are charged, which roads, which times, parking locations, and more.

The other, more simple, instrument would be to incorporate into the gas tax a charge for using the atmosphere to hold your carbon dioxide or other pollutants. Last week on TV Ontario's Agenda, the program was called "The Debate: The Long Goodbye to GDP". (you can download the show's audio from the site). There was some discussion about how people should pay for CO2 emissions. CO2 tonnes could be priced by a government set price or by auction. There was clear agreement between Elizabeth May (Green Party leader) and Andrew Coyne (National Post writer) that the best way is to have an open auction-style market for the rights to emit CO2. Elizabeth May joked that she'd be giving Coyne party membership after they got off air. An auction would seem like the fastest way to come up with a price for CO2 and make the market solve the problem quickly (although possibly painfully). The severity of the impact would all depend on how fast we scaled back emissions (ie. how many tonnes we allowed ourselves to emit each month or year).

Imagine if the gasoline company, along with selling 25 litres of gasoline, had to sell the appropriate number of emission credits with the gasoline. As we scale back our emissions nationally, the price of those emissions goes up, because of a more competitive auction, and people adjust their consumption. This becomes less painful if the money from the credits goes into transit, sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure.

It would be really interesting to see if the price of gasoline actually dropped due to reduced gasoline consumption. I suspect that would only happen if many jurisdictions in North America implemented a carbon pricing scheme.

As long as people like money, the market will remain powerful.

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Darren J 2/28/2007 08:30:00 PM | 2 comments |

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ice Bike Race 2007


Good times had by all. The shot above is from the finals. In case there's any doubt, the racers didn't hold back.



I was one of many people there taking pictures. I made a few little videos with my camera. Here's one of them from the final rubber round.



This is one of the early heats. I know it's slightly evil of me, but I was sort of expecting (hoping?) for a few more crashes. I was probably wandering around too much.

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Darren J 2/25/2007 11:22:00 PM | 0 comments |

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Winter is for Bicycles

Are you feeling like a champion for riding your bike to work in the winter? Well, you are a champion, but you know when you're pedaling along, saying to yourself, "If it were 1 degree colder or that wind was any stronger, I ... just ... couldn't do ... it." The truth is, you probably could. Just check out these two people.

Jill in Alaska just did her second annual Susitna 100, a 100 mile race through the Alaskan wilderness. Her first report is here, and an extensive write-up follows. Jill writes real good, er I mean really well, and it's always a pleasure to read her stories.

Another winter cyclist, who's becoming famous in each town he passes through, is the Viking Biker. He's crossing Canada in the winter and currently near Winnipeg. Yes, Winnipeg in February, on the TransCanada Highway. Take a look at his video with the train. The cold doesn't get this guy down.

Finally, in case you haven't seen elsewhere, this Saturday night in Toronto is the Icycle Race, 8 PM at Dufferin Grove Park. More info at Martino's Bike Lane Diary. Maybe I'll see you there (I'll be a spectator with a thermos of hot chocolate).

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Darren J 2/21/2007 10:55:00 PM | 0 comments |

Monday, February 19, 2007

Dr. Suzuki Makes House Call to Markham


David Suzuki has a way of talking that manages to express the great urgency of our situation while always remaining positive about solving the problem. Yesterday, he spoke to a group of people in Markham about climate change, the history, the problems and solutions. What I found most interesting was how he relates to his audience. Even though I'm sure he knows many people in the room are essentially causing (knowingly or unknowingly) the problem he's so concerned about, there's never a moment of judgement. As long as you're not flashing a camera in his face, he likes you.

Markham is a somewhat unique town, because, while being a huge suburban development, there is some momentum to make changes and to make environmentally friendly progress. For example, Markham is making faster progress than any other town in York Region in implementing the new bike plan. Markham also has made big changes in density in recent years. Densification is quite visible, especially near the Viva stops. If you stand on Highway 7, with Richmond Hill to the north and Markham to the south, you can see a distinct difference in building heights, locations, and connections to sidewalks.

From what I gathered, David Suzuki has been going to towns where he's been invited by a local environmental group. There were a few people from the environmental group in the room, along with a couple of the local councillors. He told us that he's hoping that everyone will help spread his message after he leaves, with the local environmental group providing some solid support.

As for his message, one thing he stressed was that our politicians are really not leaders. I think this was obvious to us all when we saw what happened with the Conservative Party after the poll came out saying Canadians put the environment at the top of their list of concerns. Not surprisingly, he had an opinion on the current round of Conservative attack ads. There wasn't a lot of love. During all this talk about politicians, we had a few laughs and listened to some of Suzuki's stories about conferences over his decades of experience. He gave the example of Al Gore as someone who wants to make a difference and has been on this issue from the beginning.

This all led to the key point: that everyone should stop worrying about the politicians and start to participate in the solution. The politicians will follow. His list of solutions is on his web site. You may have seen it before. The idea is to give people very acheivable goals (like avoiding driving a car on one of your workdays per week), and commit to meeting them. It seems like a very good way to get as many people on side as possible.

During the brief Q and A, one person (who I suspect was a reporter) asked what we are to make of these polls. We hear that everyone is concerned about the environment, but if you ask them if they're willing to pay more for gasoline or deal with any specific changes in their lives, people will not support it. The person pointed out that she suspects many of the people who want cheap gas are in this room. This was the first moment of confrontation in the event. The tension was quickly diffused as David Suzuki talked about asking people to pay extra, not for a litre of gasoline, but to pay something more for their children's future. The applauding crowd agreed.

After the talk, my friend and I left the crowd behind, hopped into my car and steered it over to the Cornell development, a highly touted new urbanist neighbourhood. With all these environmental issues on the top of our minds, it seemed like a good time to see what was being done in this town.



Maybe it was the fact it was bloody cold outside, with a biting wind, or the fact that we were in one of the new parts of the development, but it wasn't exactly bustling with life. The photograph is of one of the town-centre-style streets. It looks quite idylic, although a bit too new (unavoidably, I guess). This particular street appears to be brand new and still filling in with tenants. We saw another area that was a bit more active, with a hockey rink in the park outside the shops. We both noticed the distinct lack of a grocery store. The neighbourhood also failed the "I would like to sit down and have a coffee" test.

However, I'll take a page from David Suzuki's playbook and avoid passing judgement yet, because, like any neighbourhood, it could have been a matter of getting to know it better. The development was surprisingly large, and for all I know, we were just a couple of tourists in the wrong part of town. Cornell may still be one of Markham's small steps of progress. Unfortunately, with it being on the far edge of Markham, it'll be a long time before I go back.

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Darren J 2/19/2007 01:30:00 PM | 1 comments |

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

If I were Prime Minister ...

I have to link to the excellent account given on Torontoist of the Stephen Lewis, David Suzuki and Eleanor Wachtel meeting in Toronto this week. You can even listen to the entire event on BlogTO. One of the best moments is when Stephen Lewis says that it's us who have put the environment on the agenda. Our government is following, not leading, so it's up to us to make ourselves heard.

By the way, if I were Prime Minister, the first law I would pass would be called the Freedom of Speech Act (following the same naming convention as the "Clean Air Act". If there's already an act called that, I could consider calling it the "Freedom to Freely Expose Your Thoughts And Face The Consequences Act"). This Act would promote free speech with the following features:

1. Any television newscaster would be immediately banned from appearing on our public airwaves after saying "bet they don't believe in global warming in (insert region dealing with snowstorm here) anymore!"

2. Any person dropping a kid off at school in an SUV on a snowy day who says "Whew, good thing I bought an SUV!" would have the gas tank disconnected and the floor cut out on the SUV, so the person could get around Flintstones-style. Or they could just walk with their kid to school.

You might be able to catch up with David Suzuki at one of his other stops on his tour. He'll be in Markham this weekend.

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Darren J 2/14/2007 01:25:00 PM | 0 comments |

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Don River in February


This weekend I was aching for some time outside. I decided to ride as much as possible through the parks and make my way towards the lake. I wanted to get all the way out to the Leslie Spit and get a good view of the city in the winter, but those plans would change.

This is along the Don River Trail, passing under one of the many bridges.


The river bank was actually sandy under this bridge. Seeing sand and ice together seems unusual to me here, just like when I see the two together in movies about the Arctic.


The tree on the right has been ringed by a beaver, I assume. If you click on the photograph, you can see a bigger version. Now that I look at it, I see that two trees on the left may have also been ringed a while ago. I think this beaver is faced with a problem I know too well - too much ambition, too many ideas, and too much beer in the fridge.


This is Riverdale Park. It has one of the most impressive sledding hills around. On my way home, I managed to ride my bike about half way up it. I had to stop because my tires started to slip and I didn't want to ride into any kids, especially since some were more crazy than Super Dave Osborne and riding on sleds without helmets.


A church on the east side of the river.


Expressway, river, bike and walking path, train tracks, road.


At this point, my bike got very tired and I had to make my way home.

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Darren J 2/13/2007 09:08:00 PM | 1 comments |

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Giving winter a try

I haven't felt that cold fresh air deep in my lungs for a long time. I feel awake. My toes are aching as they thaw out. My face is tingling.

Unfortunately, this is only the second day I've cycled to work in the new year. I've biked around the neighbourhood for errands, but trips to work have been sacrificed because of Home Depot runs and spending every waking hour (outside of work) replacing the knob and tube wiring in my house before the day we moved in.

The weather reports said -13 C with a 60 km/h wind from the west. Since I wasn't following the "take it one day at a time" winter cycling method, I was a bit apprehensive about tackling these temperatures. I remembered (possibly imagined) last year, when I would have said "60 km/h wind from the west? Sweet tailwind!" So I rode.

And it was a sweet tailwind.

As a cruised along Yonge, crossing York Mills, I'd swear one woman standing on the sidewalk mouthed "oh my god" as she looked at me. Maybe another figment of my imagination. It's not like I'm the only cyclist out there. I'm seeing quite a few this winter. And pedestrians, being our closest cousins, are less likely to be in disbelief upon seeing someone outside. The pedestrian has a far better understanding of what it's like to bundle up and spend some time outside.

Maybe it was because of my clothing. I really bundle up. Under my cycling jacket, I'm wearing a sweater, a fleece, a scarf, a turtleneck, an undershirt. It's enough that it looks like I've gained 30 pounds after zipping up. My balaclava and orange sunglasses make me look serious. The other cyclists I see are often wearing a toque and a regular winter jacket. One guy I see often just wears a plaid lumberjack coat 5 months of the year. All these other cyclists make the onlooker think cycling is something totally ordinary.

The ride was good. I pushed a bit, but not enough to give myself a heart attack (like I nearly did last week). The only problem I faced was on a sidewalk along Leslie Street. During the winter, the curb lane becomes too narrow from the snow, so riding on the sidewalk is a chance I take. This particular sidewalk was cleared for most part, but where it crossed the 407, the road slush had been dumped on top of it so I had to walk.

It's lunch time now, and I just checked my bike to see if the thaw was making a mess. No problem there. I noticed my chain is covered in salt crystals. I'll have to lube up for the trip home.

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Darren J 2/06/2007 12:37:00 PM | 4 comments |