Sunday, June 15, 2008

Carlessly Negotiating a Parking Lot

Ever tried to walk to the store? One of the things I like about my neighbourhood is the amenities within walking distance. On my way home from the park I thought I'd walk over to the drug store to see if they had a Wii Fit. Video games at a drug store, you say? Never mind.
It seems simple enough. The boy sits on his tricycle while I steer from behind. I seemed to ignore the fact that the Shopper's Drug Mart is on the far side of a big parking lot that some urban planner thought made sense. It makes sense if your in a car, but to a pedestrian, especially one with a stroller or other child-wheeling device, this parking lot is a nightmare.
Why would it occur to the planner of a parking lot to think about people arriving by foot, or even walking from one store to the other. Are feet only for accelerators now? On one side, the sidewalk goes right past the plaza with no walking entrance. I would have to dodge traffic in the lane or walk all the way around where there are a few token level ramps on a sidewalk-island that leads to, surprise, the other sidewalk-island. Of course to get to the store, you have to negotiate an ten-inch curb. Not easy with a stroller or a toddler on a tricycle. I can just imagine the planner picturing the pedestrians doing laps back and forth on the island on his layout while cars whiz by to actually do shopping. Hmm... pedestrians sure are, well, pedestrian. Those clever people in cars are brilliantly whiz right past them.
So, I managed to dodge the two thirds of drivers who don't care to notice the heartbeat-powered travellers on their parking lots thanks to the one-third who care enough to stop and let a man with a toddler cross in front of them. I walked past rows of idling cars, waiting for their pampered master to arrive, empty or with one air-conditioned occupant, and couldn't help thinking like we're doomed to expend all the oil we can without even taking a second thought. I just don't think most people get it. Gas is approaching a dollar-forty. Your conveyance is hurting your bottom line and you leave it idling so that we don't have to spend more than 20 seconds without airconditioning.
It's not just the minds we have to change, the attitude is built right into the infrastructure. We've cemented our fate with ten-inch curbs.
Realizing this, I seriously hope the debunkers of Peak Oil are right -
As I suspected they were sold out, so I'm going to have to drive somewhere to get my Wii Fit so I can exercise in private.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Fine Eye on the Signs

Well, I made it to work and back for another day. Gas jumped 4 cents as oil has another jittery day on the market. Every morning, the radio announcer gives another excuse for the spike or dip in the price of oil. Every dip seems to be punished by a two or three-fold swing in the other direction. Usually some far away matter is used to shoulder the blame – a riot in Nigeria, an war-like statement from Israel or a dire prediction from an expert in the field.

It’s funny that the media now can announce what the exact price of a litre of gasoline, down to a tenth of a cent, will be tomorrow morning. Amazingly, all of the signs fall in line, right behind the announcers like the colour guard following the drum major.

Not too long ago, gas used to swing up and down ten cents every other week without a batted eyelash from any media outlet. Then, after Hurricane Katrina, oil companies began releasing excuses for gas price jumps. We began to hear when a refinery was down or deliveries were disrupted. Now, they have created a mini-industry of PR staff searching for the next excuse.

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. I want to explore alternatives to the theory of a sharp decline. Alternative is a word that evokes windmills, solar panels and cars that plug in overnight, but I am looking for an alternative future to the one predicted by The Peak Oil Theory. I find it hard to believe that my whole community will pick up and abandon the neighbourhoods in the outskirts and run back to the city centre like a reversal of the White Flight of the seventies and eighties. Besides, the new condos downtown are way to small for a family of three or four.

Still, every time I look out the window of my train to see the windmill, turning or not, I scoff at the idea that it is somehow making a dent in the energy shortage. A windmill can power something like 500 homes. Well, I can see 500 homes from my front window and I live in what’s called a medium-high density area. We can dot the whole landscape with windmills and still can barely run a laptop in every home much less heat them all. I doubt that that a windmill can even produce enough power to push the train I ride for a one-way trip.

To me, an alternative is the laptop I am writing on right now. It will allow me to work from home, stay in my community and improve my lifestyle. Oil prices be damned. Of course this is only one small piece in the solution to save the cul-de-sac, but so is wind power. Let's not abandon ship just yet. There is more to the suburbs than cookie cutter houses and manicured lawns. I think it's worth saving if indeed it is on a disaster course.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cul-De-Sac Under Attack

The Cul-de-sac Hero is under attack. Well, this is nothing new. He is certainly used to adversity. He learned how to navigate the tricky channels of political correctness. He weathered the storms of the millennium bug, the tech bubble and 911 to steer towards supposedly calmer waters. Pushed out of the city by rising housing prices, he finds himself with a property that was going nowhere but up, now threatened by the US mortgage crises. He’s in a relationship in which both parents work and care for the kids just to make ends meet, nothing like the patriarchal marriage of his parents. His time is squeezed between traveling to learning, arts and sporting activities for the kids and a job that bursts at the seams of the eight hours required per workday and demands constant skills enhancement.

Cleverly and with the help of a strong female partner, he has finally charted a course that meets all his work-life desires, covers the future education of his children and leads, hopefully, to a warm port-of-call when it is time to give up sailing. Now, the proponents of the Peak Oil Theory state emphatically that his hard fought for way of life has reached the end. With oil prices nearing the very stars by which he navigates, it’s hard to ignore the once fringe theorist who now garner headlines.

It can hardly be called theoretical. Every time he starts his dream car, the Cul-De-Sac Hero turns the corner only to be awoken from his fantasy by gas signs displaying prices nearing a dollar-forty per Litre splashing his face like icy, cold water in the morning.

Good morning and welcome to the new era. Today the headline reads: “How Would You Like to Walk to Work?” If it takes 35 or 45 minutes to commute by car or train at 100km/hr and you walk briskly at 7 km/hr, your commuting time has suddenly risen to six and a half hours. Add a 10 minute break each hour and a quick lunch and you should be at work in time to sign your pink slip. ‘Wake-up Mr. Cul-De-Sac,’ say proponents like author James Howard Kunstler, ‘your suburban neighbourhood is going to be the next great slum.

What is a hero in the land of cul-de-sacs and mega shopping centres to do? Faced with the possibility that oil production is at or near its peak and there are not enough new reserves available to keep it there. Dropping production even five or ten percent will cause prices to skyrocket, crippling the global economy. This while global demand rises.

When basics like food, heating and water prices could triple and quadruple in price, how does an area of super-centres, box stores and SUVs, dependant on commuter rails and super-highways maintain its property values and remain a vibrant community in which to raise your kids? Does the hero have any tricks up his sleeve? Has his time run out?