Friday, September 30, 2011

Series of Significance: “Frustrated about traffic congestion? Greater concerns are coming.”

PT 1 “Frustrated about traffic congestion?”

[“The survey found that traffic congestion is the biggest frustration for all commuters. More public transit means less congestion, another message that has to be delivered forcefully and effectively.” Aug. 27, J. Hendry, London Free Press]

Each year many of us are spending more and more time in our cars. We love them.

We’re driving more miles in more comfort than ever before now that seat warmers are becoming standard fare. Our rear ends love them.

Urban sprawl has created longer commuting times and the automobile is seemingly the fastest and most convenient method of travel for most workers. The economy loves cars.

Cars come equipped with so many other creature comforts (“Kids, wanna watch a movie?”) and conveniences (“The bus stop is three blocks away. The car sits outside my front door, waiting to serve.”) most people will never give them up. Our children love cars too.

But, our addiction level is in the red zone.

So, when city leaders wonder how they will ever get commuters out of cars and onto electric trolleys, diesel-fueled buses or light rail in order to reduce congestion and pollution levels, they’re up against the power of love, comfort, convenience and addiction.

["The 1961 Falcon had a nifty air-venting system..."]

City leaders, along with urban thinkers, environmentalists, bicycle enthusiasts, and other concerned citizens, will face a great challenge when attempting to reduce the number of drivers on the road.

One writer, Jim Hendry, suggests ‘forceful messaging’ and a “well-publicized 50% off day - or even ride free day” to get people to try public transit. (Aug. 27, London Free Press)

About that, all I can say is, “Good try, Jim.”

Recent discussion about commuting times and costs have caused me to rethink my own relationship with the 2005 Honda Civic that sits outside my own front door. I don’t love it, but I do like it enough to keep feeding it. Where did this connection all start?

Like many other boomers (people born between 1947 and 1966) I developed an appreciation for the auto back in my teens. My dad’s 1957 Dodge and 1961 Falcon stand out in my memories, cars that didn’t totally suck in appearance or performance and got me around town and to the movies in a very reliable and fun-filled manner. (The Falcon had a nifty air-venting system that included a small box - with a fairly easy-to-reach door near the driver’s left knee - that was big enough in which to hide two beers in stubby bottles. Put them in warm, pull them out cool, even cold, after a short drive. That feature is one I’ll never forget).

The first car I bought - to get to work across town - was a well-used 1964 Volkswagen, for $400, with no working heater or gas gauge. My wife and I rubbed our hands together a lot in the winter, kept the defroster on high, and, because the reserve tank didn’t work, checked the fuel level by sticking the butt end of a hockey stick (one came with the car) into the gas tank.

Our later cars were in better shape but, if given the opportunity to get one of my earlier cars back, I’d ask for the Volkswagen, dented hood and all.

Twice in my life I’ve tried living without a car, the first time (mid-1970s) because money was really tight, the second time (about 7 - 8 years ago) in order to see if my wife and I could survive without one. Both instances ended with another car purchase, for reasons that seem applicable to the current discussion related to people’s feelings about commuting.

My feelings: Though a recent survey found that traffic congestion is the biggest frustration for all commuters (I bet the love we have for our vehicles decreases in direct proportion to the amount of time we spend sucking carbon monoxide from the back of somebody else’s pickup), I think congestion should be the least of our worries.

PT 2 “Frustrated about traffic congestion? Greater concerns are coming.”

[“Entering Linfen (China) is like entering another dimension. At dusk, when pollution levels are highest, it’s difficult to see more than twenty feet in front of you. As I take a left turn into my hotel driveway, two people wearing surgical masks appear on bicycles as if out of nowhere; they emerge from the smog. It’s surreal.” Pg. 63, You Are Here by T. M. Kostigen]

Oh, the frustration of it all.

According to a recent survey report from Stats Canada, “the average commute for Canadians in 2010 was 26 minutes, but longer on average for those who live in big cities.” (London Free Press, Aug. 25, 2011)

I can hear the grinding of teeth already. Can you?

And according to a survey by Workopolis, average Canadian workers “spend $269 a month on costs related to working out of the house.” (London Free Press, same date)

Sure, we love our cars, are addicted to their comfort and convenience, but congestion and costs are so frustrating, believe me. After all, the Stats Can report stated that traffic congestion is the biggest frustration for all commuters.

Some will ask, “When will it end? How can I cut time off my commute?”

Traffic congestion and the dent in our wallets, however, should be the least of our worries. Though we love our cars, and the struggling economy loves our cars (“Buy more of them, please!” say car manufacturers), one day - likely sooner than later -there will be a much bigger price to pay than a mere $269 per month.

T.M. Kostigen mentions the following related matters in You Are Here [Exposing the vital link between what we do and what that does to the planet]:

“A figure that sticks in my brain is the number of items the typical US household has: ten thousand. In the US we shop until we drop, but it takes a lot of energy to manufacture all that stuff. Moreover, it takes a lot of fuel to transport it - and us - to stores. Energy for transportation and manufacturing causes the most pollution.” pg. 58

Undoubtedly, rising fuel costs will only make commuting in the future more expensive. And if more cars are manufactured and purchased per capita in Canada and the US, congestion will only increase as well. If we build more roads, we’ll continue to build more cars to fill them, only extending the already very frustrating cycle of rising costs and congestion. Oh, the inhumanity of it all!

And then, more importantly, there’s the increase in pollution, carbon emissions, rising average global temperatures and climate instability. Talk about your inhumanity.

About one of the world’s giant centers of manufacturing and pollution, Kostigen says,

“The reason Linfen (China) and the province in which it is located are so polluted is coal plants. There are forests of coal plants here. A new one gets built every four days. Coal is cheap to burn and easy to derive power from. And these days, China needs a lot of power...

“Coal plants supply electricity to the nearby cities, towns, and villages, but more so to the industrial plants that manufacture products - products, of course, that are shipped all around the world.

“Manufacturing is the real culprit in creating air pollution. With exports on pace to break one trillion dollars, China is leading the pack in terms of economic growth in the world market. At the same time, China has surpassed the United States when it comes to carbon emissions and is now the world’s leading polluter on a total tonnage basis.” pg. 62

Readers may ask, “Why mention China in a post about commuting and traffic congestion?”

Read on...


PT 3 “Frustrated about traffic congestion? Greater concerns are coming.”

[“The reason Linfen (China) and the province in which it is located are so polluted is coal plants. There are forests of coal plants here. A new one gets built every four days. Coal is cheap to burn and easy to derive power from. And these days, China needs a lot of power...” You Are Here, T.M. Kostigen]

Rising fuel prices will make North American commuting more expensive and it’s already a frustrating activity.

Our continued rampant consumption (of cars, fuel, manufactured goods) will only increase the congestion commuters already face day in, day out.

Then, related to the above frustrations, there’s China and growing pollution problems there.

Why mention China in a post about commuting?

Because, when we’re not driving our shiny black SUV or pickup to work, we’re driving it to a big box store and parking our soon-to-be XXL body behind a shopping cart the size of a ’64 Volkswagen. You think commuting costs and congestion are frustrating. Try climate change on for size.

In the book You Are Here, T.M. Kostigen shares his thoughts in a more polite manner.

He writes, “To reduce its air pollution to be on par with stable climate levels, China will have to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent - a seemingly impossible task. But there are alternatives that can be sought - cleaner energy, cleaner coal even. And then there’s our participation in this mess.”

See? “Our participation...” Very polite.

He continues, “About 25 percent of the pollution - and 35 percent of carbon dioxide emissions - in China comes from manufacturing goods for export to Western countries. Interestingly, as much as 25 percent of the pollution in Los Angeles comes from the emissions of coal plants - coal plants in China, that is - the winds carry it across the sea.” pg. 64

Many North Americans already know about the links between their commuting (and some job-related activities, driving to the mall, and many areas of consumption) and climate change. (As a result some people are travelling more kilometers/miles on bicycles. Some are decluttering, buying less stuff. Some are car-pooling, taking public transit. Still, carbon emissions in many countries continue to rise except when they are in the grips of an economic recession and rising unemployment.)

Some North Americans also know that when the US economy is humming the air quality in Ontario goes downhill due to the emissions from coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley, south of my home in London and Lake Erie. But it was a surprise for me to learn that China is not only exporting many goods of questionable quality to the US but their smog and pollution as well.

About the goods and the smog Kostigen writes, “We (in the US) are contributing to our own demise and health hazards by the products that we buy and the choices we make. The United States is China’s second largest trade partner. Americans buy more than $300 billion worth of goods each year that are made in China.”

Of course, with a much smaller population, Canada purchases far fewer goods from China. Still, as we pull items off shelves in local Wal-Marts, Dollar Stores and Canadian Tire stores, it’s instructive to know we are contributing our fair share to coal-fired production in China, the increase in toxic pollution in the Canadian north, the erosion of shorelines in Inuit villages and the melting of ice shelves in the Canadian Arctic.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, most North Americans are at present fully committed to commuting in cars and will be for some time. A car’s comfort and convenience wins the day.

Most will continue to shop until they drop and only feel a mild to irritating sense of frustration because roads are congested and costs of travelling are high.

["Measure the 'cool' factor vs the 'warming' factor."]

Even as congestion and costs grow in the future - and they surely will - most North Americans will hang onto their cars like an addict to his drug of choice.

While commuting and shopping, should congestion and the price of fuel be our chief concerns?


Please click here to read more about Climate Change Concerns.


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