Daily Car Use: Mimicking a Bad Habit

from the Vancouver Sun

It’s no secret that our imitative nature is both a blessing and a curse. Our lives would be overwhelming if along with reinventing the wheel we had to recreate tables and chairs along with all the tools and techniques presently at our finger tips. Our ability to mimic also plays a role in the acquisition of a mother tongue and in learning languages of a mathematical, artistic or scientific nature. We base our behavior on that of family and peers to form satisfying relationships and to learn other cooperative strategies. These compensate for our relative physical weaknesses in a world where human beings cannot survive without the support of others.

But mimicking new practices on a global scale, those which technology facilitates even though they have not withstood the test of time, can have serious consequences. The average number of light vehicles per household in Canada—vehicles weighing less than 4500 kilograms—was 1.47 in 2009. In Alberta and in the United States the rate was close to 2, more precisely, 1.87 and 1.9, respectively. If it were not for an affordability factor for some families, the ratio would be even higher because car ownership seems so normal. People like the independence of car travel and the fact that despite traffic, it’s faster than public transit.

In 2010, in the six largest metropolitan areas in Canada, car users took an average of 27 minutes to get to work, while public transit users took 44 minutes. In mid-sized metropolitan areas (areas with between 250,000 and 1 million residents), the difference in average commuting times was larger—23 minutes for car users and 46 minutes for public transit users.   Statistics Canada

Better catalytic converters have eased the conscience of consumers. But these honeycomb-shaped appendages are far from being perfect filters, and how many drivers know about the existence of PM 2.5 pollution? Worse, CO2 emissions pass through the rhodium-palladium-platinum catalysts completely unscathed. No car manufacture or dealer will advertise the fact that the number of vehicle-miles traveled by passenger cars and light-duty trucks increased 35% from 1990 to 2013, and that they accounted for 60% of transportation’s 34% contribution to greenhouse gases in the U.S in 2013.

mallBut there’s more to it. When every household opts for two cars it creates a greater need for roads which are paved with asphalt, mostly a residue of petroleum distillation, fueling a demand for more oil. More roads entail more overpasses, which need more concrete. Almost two thirds of cement is calcium oxide, a compound generated from heating calcium carbonate, which of course releases more carbon dioxide. In cold areas, automobiles often idle, generating more pollution. Icy roads are treated with chloride salts, which eat away at concrete and metal, leading to the disposal of materials,  more cement production and more car manufacturing to replace corroded ones. The interior of cars is largely synthetic and derived from polymerization of cracked petroleum, again cementing the dependency on fossil fuels.

Cars change the landscape by other means. Drivers become more willing to live far from their work. Housing developments arise to accommodate them, often at the expense of good farmland that was close to a city. It implies that more food then has to be grown farther away from a population center. That creates the need for more transportation from distant places by large diesel-burning trucks and ships.

A view of some Bois Franc residences from one of the many walkways: Source: http://images.lpcdn.ca/924×615/201207/13/521291-on-voit-ici-situation-geographique.jpg

A generation ago, in Montreal, the Bombardier corporation had the foresight to design a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood close to one of their aircraft plants. Known as Bois Franc,  it won awards and was used as a model to inspire students of urban planning as far as Queen’s University.  In the neighborhood, green spaces abound.  Eventually the city added bike routes and protected a woodland area and even set aside an area for monarch butterflies.  Through contractors, the company offered initially modest and affordable homes to their employees and other citizens, hoping that the former would walk or bicycle to work. But few of their employees bought the homes. And the majority of those who did continued to drive to work.  The community is close to other industries, several schools, stores and many services, but most of its students and employees mimic the norm prevalent in the rest of the city and do not walk or cycle.

Some compensate for their lack of physical activity by driving to gyms whose artificial walkers and lighting consume electricity, something whose generation in most parts of the world depends heavily on burning coal and natural gas. The parking lots built for gyms are often part of large malls with tarred rooftops and huge asphalted parking lots, which absorb and radiate far more heat than grass and trees. Together with hot vehicles, tar accentuates the heat-island effect of urban centers. This increases the use of air conditioning, which is powered again by CO2-releasing combustion. Furthermore, any leaking ac fluids are also greenhouse gases. For many other drivers, their sedentary lifestyle increases the likelihood for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In 2014, worldwide , 9% of adults 18 years and older—about a half a billion people— had diabetes.

Another  important consequence of having so many cars on the road is that over 30 000 people in the United States are killed in motor vehicle accidents, twice the number who are killed by guns. In 2014 global terrorism claimed over 30 000 lives. Worldwide in 2010, there were 1.25 million casualties from traffic accidents. Yet no politician has ever declared war on automobiles.

The irony in all of this is that cars’ time-saving advantage disappears when people prioritize living close to their employment location. According to Statistics Canada, workers who walk or bicycle to work have shorter trips (14 minutes on average), about half of what drivers expend. What has to be undone is our one-dimensional rationalizations, symptomatic of copycatting behaviors that have no rational foundation.


 “What destroys the poetry of a city? Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry. All over America, all over Europe in fact, cities and towns are under assault by the automobile, are being literally destroyed by car culture. But cities are gradually learning that they don’t have to let it happen to them. Witness our beautiful new Embarcadero!  “Embarcadero4_1000x386

Toxic Bloom Despite Josh Bloom’s Rosy Views

Satellite shot of Lake Erie, revealing an algal bloom from previous year when winds did not bring algae close enough to the reservoir. This year(2014), they were not so lucky.

Since the early 1980s, the media has played a roller coaster game with the coverage of environmental issues. The public’s appetite for such coverage seems to unfortunately ride the waves of economic growth and recessions.  Meanwhile groups at each end of the spectrum play political games and distort realities that are difficult to pin down. As a result, the environmental movement has been scattered, and its less admirable fragments are perceived as being representative of the whole.

Here’s a comment from a blog by Josh Bloom, an experienced, ex-pharmaceutical chemist who has some strange things to say about environmentalists. It’s from the comment thread of his post entitled Environmentalists Killed My Friend , which describes how one particular Long Island, NY community refused to spray mosquitoes. Eventually his friend caught West Nile encephalitis. This made him emotional, but he echoed a common and deeply flawed sentiment.

I consider myself to be a rather serious environmentalist. But a practical one. Anything that can reasonably be done to materially decrease air and water pollution is great.
But this when this turns into dealing with hypothetic, minuscule, or just silly risks, this is when I have a problem. Unfortunately, much of today’s environmental movement relies on this.
Why? My guess is that the environment has gotten so much better (unleaded gas, catalytic converters, not dumping shit into rivers anymore…) that in a way, environmentalists have put themselves out of business. In order to keep going, they are focusing on silly stuff, like BPA on cash register receipts and other non-issues.

Much of the environmental movement is not focused on silly stuff, the so-called insignificantly dilute amounts of toxic substances which in theory should not affect us. One of the highly diluted components of the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, now makes up 0.04 % (400 ppm) of the atmosphere. That small and growing amount is leading to a fair amount of climate change with all sorts of serious repercussions for the present and future.(A few years ago Canada’s Fraser Institute circulated a brochure in schools arguing that  CO2 could not possibly be wreaking havoc due to its small percent in the atmosphere!) PM 2.5 pollution has not gone away, especially in China. They produce it partly because of their lax standards, which are tied in to our consumption of their “low-cost” goods. And finally–and I wish there only three areas of concern—I want to address the problem of eutrophication, the out-of-control growth of algae following the runoff of fertilizer (not entirely equivalent to Josh Bloom’s “dumping of shit” but significant nonetheless) into bodies of water like lake Erie.

No-till farming of soybeans near Lake Erie; invasive zebra and quaga mussels; intense growth of cattle and pig farms; altered wind direction and larger spring rainfall amounts(possibly linked to increased CO2 concentrations all played a role in concentrating the blue green algae and their toxins near Toledo, Ohio’s water treatment plant . (see Why Blooms Are Taking over Erie Again) Since present and past concentrations of microcystins have not yet been released by the municipality of Toledo, its residents still feel insecure about how close to and over the threshold their drinking water has come.


Cyanobacteria (blue green algae) thrive and some species produce toxic peptides known as microcystins . Blue-greens grow well with increased turbidity in the water caused by the bloom of other algae from elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen. They survive temperatures from 5 to 30 C range, preferring the upper range, and can tolerate pHs from 6 to 9.  Most blooms occur in late summer and early fall, but this one affecting Toledo was early in the season. The 65 known varieties of microcystins are released after algae cells die. Once making through city filtration systems, microcystins cannot be destroyed by boiling water, and they persist for weeks or months. (sources: EPA  and Health and Welfare Canada) The compounds attack the liver by being potent inhibitors of a pair of enzymes that transfer phosphate groups , and they are also skin, eye and throat irritants.

There is a World Health Organization drinking water guideline of 1 microgram per L(µg/L or 1 part in a billion) for microcystins. This was put in place partly because in 1996, 101 dialysis patients became ill and 50 died from liver failure in Brazil after microcystins contaminated the water in one specific reservoir. The substances can also be tumor promoters  The proposed guidelines for the US, Australia and Canada are in the 1 to 1.5 µg/L range. In laboratory animals, the amount of microcystins in the liver that is associated with acute hemorrhagicshock syndrome is approximately 60 to 70 µg/kg of body weight, a very small but deadly concentration.

BMAA(beta-Methylamino-L-alanine) is another toxin released by some blue-green algae, and it bioconcentrates in the food chain. A hypothesis regarding its link to neurodegenerative diseases has been under investigation and has not been dismissed so far.


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