Of Pollution, Growing Up, General Motors, and Why I Miss the Bomb

June 16, 2009

 Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.
~Paul Graham

I am a little concern about reading all the news about the dead of the car. Fiat buying Chrysler and General Motors closing the Pontiac line and declaring bankruptcy is given enough stimulus and energy to some neohippie pundits to go all the month without food or water. A refreshing reading on the matter is the right-wing Driving Like Crazy from P. J. O’Rourke. He is a huge car lover, and the reading of his book’s subtitle can explain his points of view. I do not agree on half of what he says, but it is certainly a entretaining lecture.

A lot of people feel a natural hate for cars, which is as logical as hating a blender or a toaster, since car are mere appliance. This hate is even harder to understand since cars pollute so little today. 30 years ago you could smell the sunset, now the cars run so efficiently that the pollutants are going down every year:

Cars produced 1997- Hydrocarbons 0.26 grams/Km
  Carbon monoxide 2.1 grams/Km
  Oxides of nitrogen 0.63 gram/Km
Cars produced 96-86 Hydrocarbons 0.93 grams/Km
  Carbon monoxide 9.3 grams/Km
  Oxides of nitrogen 1.93 grams/Km

The problem is not only cars. Cows produce half a pound of methane a day, and methane traps 20 times more heat than CO2. Industry pollution, deforestation, the fact that some of us live in places that require a lot of energy just to keep us alive, all these factors are as important as cars when considering polluting and greenhouse gases emissions, but cars are an easy target because they are pervasive, because they are apparently politically incorrect, and because most car bashers do not own cars.

I do not blame the cars, I blame the cities.

Yes, the cities.

More specifically, city zoning in Residential, Commercial, and Industrial.

50 years ago everybody lived either in a farm or in a city. Not a city as we understand it today, but a close array of diverse buildings, neighbourhoods, and a mix use of soil. Farms were right outside the city, they fed the city, keep the air (somewhat) clean, and were an escape for the weekends. After World War II, in North America, and in a lesser extend in Europe, the city planners decided to create highways and suburbs. Gone were the neighbourhoods, the mix use of soil, and the liveable city. People of the likes of Robert Moses decided that cities must be divided in residential, commercial, and industrial areas, effectively separating people from the places they worked and shopped. The car became an appliance.

As the developers focused in Suburbia, the cities core languished. No main street could compete against the gigantic Shopping Centres from Suburbia. The price of downtown properties either plumbed and attracted the poorest people, or skyrocket and attracted banks and highly capitalized companies. There was not place for the middle class left in the city, and people moved to suburbs because they want to have their families in a better environment. Nowadays, people do not live in the cities, just students, bankers, very rich guys can afford live in the nice areas of the average North American city, while the rest is left to poor immigrants and commercial areas. Normal people live in suburbs, as much as they may hate it. Suburbs are designed to keep away people who do not live there, so everything is 40 kilometres of everything. You need to drive everywhere, and the windy roads keep public transit restricted to a few areas. Paul Graham makes an excellent read in Why Nerds are Unpopular, and the effect of suburbia and modern life in North American kids.

The car enables people to get out of the city and live in these places “as fake as a Twinkie”. If in a society you cannot get up, at least you can get out, and the car help you do so. We need to work in making our cities liveable again, but, contrary to Jane Jacobs who though that we all should live in high-raised buildings, I still think that you can live in a small house close to downtown and walk, bike, use the public transit, or why not, drive. To accomplish this, there are two major, major shifts on urban paradigms that need to happen:

1) Stop zoning. Houston is one example on how you can have certain urban restrictions (no slaughterhouse in a primary residential area) while keeping your neighbourhoods walkable. Midtown Toronto is also an example where residential areas all have a main street that can serve all the residents needs.

2) Decentralise. Megacities will be always problem-prone. Why so many people live in cities? Because they offer options that small towns do not; but a city does not need to be Tokio or Los Angeles to offer a reasonable amount of restaurant variety, theatre, festivals, and other cultural attractions. The middle city needs to be profit from. Places like Winnipeg, Austin, or Morelia are cities located in what could be boom areas in a future if we stop clustering all the services and companies in the same cities.

I understand that cluster happens and that they may be economically reasonable, but why we have clusters of clusters like in L.A. or Mexico City? A national policy should be created to populate areas outside the big cities to ease the impact on environment and the need of suburbs and one-hour commutes.

Suburbs have a negative impact on transit, on economy, on children development, and force us to live in our cars. They are boring places to live and to growth. Yes, they are safer for our children, but I remember growing up in a city, with all the excitement and the challenges, and still coming back to a small house with a backyard and a tower of tires that were used by a myriad of cats to sleep in. There is not need to chose between an apartment in downtown or a huge house, identical to the next huge house, 30 kilometres away from were your best friend lives.


Welcome to BIXI

May 12, 2009

Are we building cities for people or for cars?
~Jane Jacobs

I have never totally agree with Jane Jacobs’s vision of what a city should be: Her vision of high-density, highly concentrated cities is like a living hell to me, and my impression is that, for her, all cities should look like Manhattan; people cramming in high raises.

What I applaud of her vision is the pedestrian city, the city of parks and walkable avenues. I also think that any big city needs to cater to cars, AND public transit, AND pedestrians, AND alternative forms of transportation. There is no need to chose one over another, and I always tough that the cancellation of the Spadina Expressway and its branches was a huge mistake driven entirely by political, but not economical, social, or environmental reasons (Please moderate your hate mail, I have children reading this!).

The mere fact that megacities exist is antinatural. Such high concentration of people cannot be healthy, no matter how much environmental precautions are taken. Toronto likes to call itself a Megacity, but thank God is not, it is a very livable city, 2.5 Million people (aroung 6 in the GTA), with plenty of parks, ravines, rivers, bike lines, a not so good public transit system, and a not so good street/highway grid, BUT you can chose between a very livable downtown, an exciting midtown, and a familiar suburb, after all, Jane Jacobs also said that “the point of cities is multiplicity of choice”.

That is why I am impressed with Montreal’s new program: Today, at 11:00 EST, BIXI kicks off. The program is simple: You go to one of the 300 BIXI stations (BIXI=BIKE+TAXI), pay for a bike (first 30 minutes are free), ride it to your destination, and leave it in the nearest station. With 300 stations and 3,000 bikes just for starters, you would really have options.

bixiYou can also pay an annual fee of $78, taxes included, and ride unlimited. The bike looks cool, feels cool, and surely will improve your health. No more waiting for the bus, no more trying to squeeze in the subway: Take your bike and go!

These kind of simple ideas are what make a city works: To offer options, to let you chose your lifestyle, where you will raise your kids, and cater to your needs. I will be parking my car more often now that I have a choice (My famous bike was donated to one of my wannabe neohippie friends), and I think that is the way to change a city and its environment: person by person, ride by ride.

Public Roads Privatised

November 24, 2008

The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.
~Milton Friedman

With the falling of the first snow flakes, I declare finished my biking season. I am too tropical to endure not the weather but the ice on the paths of my biking route to Downtown Toronto, so I need to decide whether to use my car or take public transit. In my town, public transit is controlled by a municipal agency called TTC, which despite claims that its acronym stands for Toronto Transit Commission, really stands for Take The Car.

Biking time from my place to my work is 25 minutes, driving is 30 minutes, but transit takes 50 minutes.

Now, if I am going to use the car and pay taxes over gas, car ownership, road privileges, and extraordinary expensive parking, you will assume that at least I could select the optimal route to minimise driving time, idling in traffic, and polluting cost. Think again. As I bike through Rosedale, a very affluent neighborhood, I assumed I could also drive to the streets everybody is paying with our taxes, but I find out that no, that this privileged neighborhood forbids going though OUR streets at rush hour.

I cannot turn into Rosedale from 7:00 to 9:00 in the morning, and I cannot turn out of Rosedale from 16:00 to 18:00. Giving the orography of Toronto, my only other route is through a congested street that doubles my driving time and my driving distance; The yellow route is 3 kms, the dark red is 6:

Yellow route is half than dark red route


Now, I may agree that the roads of Rosedale may not handle road traffic in rush hour, but everywhere else in Toronto (everywhere else is neighborhoods with less than certain family income levels) parking in the streets is prohibited, the streets are adapted to traffic, and people pay the price for living close to the downtown core.

In this case, everybody in my neighborhood who goes downtown (and this is pretty much everybody in my neighborhood) has to drive double, hence polluting double. Yes, alternatives exist, as carpooling, but the mere fact that a handful of privilege people can dictate when can we go thought their (our) streets stills bothers me. Besides a poor road planning, now we also need to fight a virtual privatization of the few alternatives to drive.

I love how Rosedale looks, and I pity other neighborhoods that have gone through massive change on traffic patterns, like The Annex, but I also think that either all on the same boat or not. Why some places in Toronto have seen their streets take away by traffic while others are protected? Why we force people to pollute more just to keep some others comfortable? Why people in the Danforth have to suffer what people in Rosedale do not?

Public roads belongs to the public. We cannot create traffic jams and advocate for a greener city at the same time. The solution presented to the problem of traffic in certain neighborhoods cannot be at expense of everyone else. If we are going to protect certain areas from traffic, we should:

1) Include all areas affected and not only the affluent neighborhoods
2) Improve public transit
3) Improve and create alternative roads

Earth Day 2008

March 28, 2008

Nobody can be so amusingly arrogant as a young man who has just discovered an old idea and thinks it is his own.
~Sydney J. Harris

April 22th is Earth Day 2008, a day dedicated “to grow and diversify the environmental movement worldwide, and to mobilize it as the most effective vehicle for promoting a healthy, sustainable planet. We pursue these goals through education, politics, events, and consumer activism” (http://ww2.earthday.net/~earthday/about).

Similarly, tomorrow March 29th is Earth Hour, where we are invited to turn the lights off for one hour, between 20:00 and 21:00, with the sole objective of reducing greenhouse gases emissions and to have people talking about what to do to reduce people’s ecological footprint.

The event was born in Sidney, and it came from one of my favourites organizations, WWF. I have sponsored this organization since 1998 (http://mexicanphoto.tripod.com) and have always praise them to the point that I have solicited to work with them several times (they never called me, I sadly confess). In Talking With Perspective I elaborated about this organization and its efforts to make our world a better place. Having said that, I think that Earth Hour is just another feel-good ecological gimmicks.

The interviews of people promoting Earth Hour denote the “fun” part of being without electricity for one hour. They recognise the limited effect on greenhouse gases emissions but they mention that the real objective is having people talking about what can they do for the environment. The idea is amusing, but the problem I have with these events is that people often get a holier-than-thou feeling, talk about the problem, but do nothing more to address the issue.

The futility of such events derivates from the fact that real measures are really painful, no fun. To reduce greenhouse gases emissions we need to reduce consumption in our lives. We need to park the car, to reduce non-recyclable consumptions, to eat locally (no oranges in winter, unless you live in Spain), to stop spending our money in non-sense products. Lighting candles for an hour is fun, but in Canada, where almost our our electricity comes from hydroelectric power plants, lighting candles instead of a light bulb effectively increases greenhouse gases emissions.

What we can do to really have an impact? I propose some ideas in
Organic Versus Local, How to Eat Ethically?, My bulb is Burned, A Real Alternative to Ethanol? I, and A Real Alternative to Ethanol? II.

I will love to hear some of yours!

Seal Hunting. As we speak, several Quebecois seal hunters are heading to the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence for the annual harp seal hunt. Although the Government of Canada defends seal hunting, and despite my usual attitude towards commerce and the invisible hand that leads the markets, I can only regret that we are still pursuing such a barbaric custom, with no use whatsoever; seal products are non-sense idiotic luxury items that have perfectly substitutions. Going there and protest will do better than turning your light off for one hour, I will protest tomorrow in Montrèal, I hope you will too, wherever you are. I will trade you your one-hour with no electricity for one hour in front of a Canadian Embassy or Consulate, or if you live in Canada, write to your MP, or participate in one of the protests. Find more information in http://www.seashepherd.org/.

Untouched World

November 1, 2007

Take only pictures, leave only footprints

Is there a real place on the world that is actually unaffected by the human activity? Is there still a “middle of nowhere”?

National Geographic Magazine published in September 2005 this map showing the world and the human direct interference on it. Red is heavy, Yellow is medium, Green is low.

The good news is that there are still places where humans do not have a direct influence
, the bad news is that the effects of pollution, ozone depletion, and greenhouse gases are global.


The neo-Malthusians and the Kuznets Curve

October 3, 2007

They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?
~Lady Diana Spencer

The neo-Malthusians had their origins in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when books like The Population Bomb (Paul Ehrlich) and The Limits to Growth (the Club of Rome) were published. Their main premise was different than Malthus’s doomsday omen, it was more focused on environment degradation: The richer people get, the worse things become for the earth. When Goklany sees progress everywhere he looks, the neo-Malthusians see impending disaster: air pollution, the disappearance of habitats, the emptying of aquifers, the demolition of forest cover, and the proliferation of new diseases. Goklany sees us advancing toward progress, the neo-Malthusians see us advancing directly to the rift.

The neo-Malthusianism have consistently underestimated the beneficial effects of technological change. Three decades ago, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren invented the angular stone of the movement:

neomalthusian formula

Environmental impact (I) = population size (P) times level of affluence (A) times technological efficiency (T)

This means that technological change has a multiplier effect on population size and the wealthiness of the population, so we need to place strict limits on human behaviour. There is some logic on this theory: “As societies get richer and more populous, they do consume more resources, and, especially in the early phases of economic growth, they do so with a measure of indifference to the overall impact on the environment”(J. Surowiecki).

But the flaw in the equation is that technology can also reduce environmental impact. In the past 40 years, productivity gains have dramatically reduced the environmental burden of farming and shrunk the amount of land needed to feed the world. Technological improvements in the scrubbing of power-plant smokestacks have brought a sharp reduction in the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air. Improvements in the efficiency of wind and solar power have reduced (a least at some extent) the demand for fossil fuels.

Technological change is actually the result of increased affluence, which makes it likely that an economy will get cleaner even as it gets richer, Goklany explains that “developed countries do generally have cleaner air, cleaner water, more forest cover, and less cropland devoted to food production than developing countries do, even though the latter are much poorer”, with the exception of CO2.

United States is not less polluted than it was in 1787, but arguably less polluted today than at any time in the last 100 years or so. The same is true in the rest of the developed world. Why? Because technology first evolves to increase production output, and then evolves to efficient that output. This is called the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC)


When graphed, the relationship between prosperity and environmental degradation looks like an upside-down U. Initially, as countries grow, they trade off environmental well-being for economic growth; the richer they get, the more polluted. Then a wealth’s critical mass is reached, basic needs are met, and, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, the concern goes to non-basic needs, like a better environment. People have the time to form NGOs and to push for cleaner industry, and technology is serving efficiency instead of brute production. The economy becomes prosperous enough to shift their priorities and begin to seek out ways to grow more cleanly

Goklany even suggest that richer countries open the path to poorer ones, since the invention and spread of new technologies make it easier and more likely for countries to get on the right side of the U-curve quickly, even before they have become rich; the “green revolution,” for instance, allowed poor countries to reduce the environmental burden of farming.

So we can modify the neo-Malthusians formula distinguishing between technology for mass production (P1) and technology that efficients the production process, having less waste and yield (P2):


The turning point of the EKC will be when PAT1<T2. Different pollutants may have different EKC since some pollutant’s effect are more obvious, and that could explain why greenhouse gases emissions are not yet in decline: their long-term effect is less obvious that a chimney spewing coal.

A Real Alternative to Ethanol? II

August 3, 2007

Ask not what the government can do for you. Ask why it doesn’t.
~Gerhard Kocher

Now, for the second part of what I would suggest as real alternatives to ethanol and other feel good but not efficient solutions to pollutants…


1) Promote the use of smaller cars, tax the Hummer and the nine seats SUV, do something, stop the madness of bigger, gas guzzling transportation.

2) Get Real with Public Transit System. Do not promote it based on good intentions, people won’t wait 45 minutes for the bus, neither will pay big bucks for bad services. Control cost of public transit and maintenance, keep the transit affordable so people will really prefer it over using the car. I had to buy a car because it was taking me two hours each way from home to work, while with the car it took me 35 minutes.

3) Control Suburbia. I do not agree with politic leaders taking about making denser residential areas to reduce the size of the city. For some politics easy street means having everybody living in condos, and then they call it the city of the future. No thank you, if you want your house with a front yard, back yard, side paths and a river close-by, go for it, but stop making suburbia streets looking like a spiderweb. Public transit need straight streets to be viable, and private cars need them for having options when commuting. Suburbia is plagued with thousands of cul-de-sacs that feed over used main roads, that are always in traffic jam because you have one or two options for getting out of the neighbourhood: Can you drive a bus here?


What about his pattern?


Which pattern should we encourage?

4) Stop subsidizing easy solutions, like corn-based ethanol. Promote the use of smaller cars, build efficient roads, spend money in real public traffic needs, not in pleasing greedy unions.

5) Enforce traffic law for automobiles, but also for bicycles and pedestrians. Automobiles running yellow lights and making turns where they can’t create traffic jams, but bicycles running red lights and no making the four-way stop also create traffic jams. Pedestrians abusing the right of way, crossing on already stop-signals create a lot of traffic because the lights are designed to accommodate both pedestrian and automotive traffic; pedestrians abusing the right of way just cause more traffic jams by preventing vehicles’ left and right turns.

All these alternatives are going to affect our lives, but they for sure will create a more green environment where pedestrians, cyclist, and drivers will be better of.