High-Speed Rail in Canada?

Canada's flirtation with high-speed rail (which ended prematurely in 1968 when the TurboTrain crashed into a meat delivery truck) is covered in June's edition of The Walrus. The piece, by Monte Paulsen, is a great read. Besides the short-lived career of the TurboTrain, it also covers the slow demise of Canada's passenger rail service and the many near misses that have marked attempts to bring it back to life.

Forget about "high-speed." Anyone whose done long distance rail travel in Canada knows that even "average-speed" trains would be nice. On rails where freight has priority, you can wait on a siding for 45 minutes for a freight train to pass you buy before you get back on your way. Besides the lack of dedicated passenger track, I've always though that Canada didn't have the population to support high-speed services. Apparently I was wrong. Here are a few excerpts, but I highly recommend getting a copy to read the full piece [addendum, here's a link to the full article]:

"The driver of an empty meat truck near Kingston was used to beating trains across a level cross and tried to outrun the Turbo... We cut the truck in two, like a hot knife through butter."

"Why are [Japan, South Africa, France, Iran, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and many other countries] planning and building high-speed rail lines? Because they're a kind of insurance policy for the twenty-first century. High-speed rail ensures that cities remain connected the next time the price of oil rises... Because it is so much more fuel efficient, high-speed rail is far, far greener than flying, and in a century of dwindling oil it's also far more economically sustainable -- a fact that Saudi Arabia seems to grasp, but Canada does not."

"Since the Turbo's demise, a parade of proposals to restore high-speed passenger rail to Canada have come forward. [Primarily for the Quebec City-Windsor corridor and to connect Calgary and Edmonton] 'What is the point of another study?' asks Paul Langan [head of the citizen's group High Speed Rail Canada]. 'It was viable in the 1980s. it was viable in 1995. Like all the previous studies, this one will come back and say, 'Yes, we have the population to support it. Yes people will ride it. Yes, it will pay for itself.' "

Now if only they could get one up and running before I do the Montreal-Edmonton run in a few weeks...

BIXI and The Montreal Bike Path Explosion

Montreal's new BIXI bike system has been grabbing headlines since its launch last Tuesday. The 3000 bike system is an upgrade of similar bike-public-transit programs, like the ones established in Lyons and Paris . After riding around on a BIXI this weekend, I can say that the bike is great – and the system that manages the fleet is even better.

They look a bit clunky and they've only got three speeds, but they're surprisingly light and agile. If you've got some BMX skills, you can even bunny hop it over a curb or two (although I am not sure the BIXI folks would want me to mention that). There are some elegant design details, like the rear LED lights that built right into the rear stays, and the frame is designed to fit all sizes. Three gears may not seem like much, but they've spaced them right for dealing with Montreal's hills. The only minus is a wimpy rack -- something they apparently scaled down to prevent people from doubling on it.

Renting a bike is dead easy; you swipe your credit card, retrieve a pass code, grab a bike and go. For five dollars, you get a day's worth of short haul bike acccess. More details on fees are up on the BIXI site. What needs to be seen to be believed though, is the coverage of the network they are proposing. Take a look at the map. By the time the full system is up and running, you won't be able to walk more than two or three blocks within almost all of the central portion of the island without passing a station for renting and returning bikes.

Tooling around with the interactive map, you can see that more bikes are clustered around metro stations, and the wider network means that wherever you need to go you'll find a convenient place to park your ride. Using RFID tags and wireless networking, the solar powered base stations update the online map with a real-time feed so that you can see how many bikes or parking slots are available in any given spot. It's all quite slick. If you could use you cellphone to check the availability of local bikes as you got out of the metro, it would be even better. Maybe that's on the way?

The Montreal Bike Path Explosion
But the BIXI is only the tip of the iceberg of what's been going on recently in the Montreal bike scene. It's a flashy tip, it's true. But if you'd introduced BIXI in Montreal ten years ago you would have had a disaster on your hands. Montreal drivers are still famous for breaking every rule in the book. In 2000, Montreal only had 125km of bike paths, most serving scenic routes that were next to useless for commuting. There were no bike paths crossing the downtown core, and only the brave (and the bike couriers) carved through rush hour traffic. Growing up in Montreal, I admit that I loved the challenge of weaving through the cars (and missed it when I moved to Vancouver's peaceful bike paths). But I also had many friends who simply refused to bike in the city.

Since then though (after a change of mayors) Montreal has been making serious investments in bike infrastructure. There are now over 700kms of bike paths, with more coming between now and 2013. Crucially, these are commuter paths – not just leisure routes. The city even keeps some of them ploughed it the winter. BIXI serves an area that has received many of these upgrades in recent years (including a median separated dedicated lane that now crosses the downtown, linking orphaned eastern and western paths.) [see the 2008 Map of Montreal Bike Paths, PDF]

Readers around the web are asking whether a BIXI-like system might work in other big North American cities. What about New York? or Toronto? or Chicago? Most of the attention so far has been focused on the bike itself.
Setting up BIXI cost CDN$15million, that's about as much as building another 150km of bikes paths. If Montreal's system takes off, its going to have at least as much to do with the impressive new cycling infrastructure as with BIXI itself. So if your city is thinking about it, I'd say start with the paths. Bikes are great, but only once you've got a safe place to ride them!

Get Smart: Reprogramming North America's Largest Machine

ReNew Canada is a Toronto-based infrastructure magazine with a strong focus on green and innovative design. I wrote an intro to smart grids in the Canadian context for their May - June issue. I've reposted it below.
Science fiction author William Gibson once quipped that the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed. Turn on your computer and you have a prime example. The electricity that powers it runs through a system whose basic principles haven’t changed in over 100 years.

Smart grids are now promising to help spread the future around a little more evenly. Think of them as the Internet for electricity. Modernized grids would integrate information technologies into the way we generate, transmit and use energy. The payback? More sustainable, reliable and efficient access to electricity. General Electric estimates that if 50 per cent of households in the United States installed smart meters (one basic component of a smart grid) resulting efficiencies would reduce CO2 emissions by 19 million tons.

But efficiency is only half the story. Smart grids lay the groundwork for more ambitious plans that would profoundly change the way we produce and use energy.

Our current energy system is an enormous one-way conversation: our electricity use tells utilities how much power we want; they either give it to us or the grid goes down. Making
the utilities’ job even more difficult is the fact that individual energy use is highly uneven. Home electricity use can increase by 700 per cent in the space of minutes as we arrive home to cook dinner, and by 300 per cent every time we boil a kettle of water. The end result is a costly and inefficient system. Generators have to be built, maintained and fuelled to meet these spikes and then idle for much of the rest of the day. Some estimates show that the top 10 per cent of our generation capacity is used as little as one per cent of the time.

Smart grids offer an alternative to this dysfunctional set-up. The new grid is made up of a series of components: Smart meters provide minute-by-minute billing, allowing the utility to give clients incentives to shift major appliance use to times when electricity is plentiful, and therefore cheaper. Smart-switching allows clients or utilities to automatically disable non-essential appliances at times when the grid is under strain. Visual displays mounted in your kitchen can show you when electricity prices are high, how much each of your appliances is using, and remind you to reconsider the way you are using power.

Overall, this helps even out energy use throughout the day and significantly reduces both peak energy demand and the increased generation capacity needed to meet it. Just making
the way we consume electricity more visible to us can reduce overall consumption by 15 per cent.

Evening the load is the most immediate impact of smart grids, but they open the door to much more. Smart meters allow customers to be paid for power that they feed back into the grid from, say, a solar panel on their roof or a local combined heat and power plant (CHP). They also synchronize the integration of all these small power producers into the grid. Combined with the right feed-in tariff incentives, this could cause a major shift. Instead of bringing electricity in from inefficient sources in the hinterlands, with all the associated transmission losses (up to five per cent in Ontario, and averages of 9.5 per cent nationally in the U.S.), it’s produced from a renewable energy system close to where it’s used.

Along with innovative financing mechanisms and a decrease in start-up costs for small-scale renewables, smart grids may push us into an era where homes and buildings will be both producers and consumers of energy.

The same technology that makes this possible also allows the grid to detect disturbances and reroute electricity to prevent cascading outages like the ones that closed down the Eastern Seaboard in 2003, and to heal itself after more minor disruptions.

People have been working with these technologies since the early 1990s. But only now are major developments underway, in part because of the U.S. administration’s $4.5-billion investment package for smart grids and Ontario’s plans for a Green Energy Act (see page 24).

How far these changes will go is anybody’s guess. Fundamentally, smart grids open up
the energy grid to innovation. Already, even more creative applications of smart grid technologies are being dreamt up: it’s rumoured that newly-formed vehicle leasing companies in the United States are working on energy systems in which idle electric vehicles act as storage for intermittent renewable. They could use what is essentially a fleet of mobile batteries to buy electricity from the grid when it’s cheap and sell it back later. As well as turning a profit, they’d be helping balance loads from distributed generation sources.

There are also large-scale plans to use smarter routing technology and major new transmission infrastructure to deliver renewable energy from a point of production
to where it’s needed: for example, solar power from the southwest to larger urban centres
further north, or wind power from the Maritimes flowing down to U.S. customers.
By some accounts, the energy grid that criss-crosses North America is the world’s
single largest machine. Over the next few years, we’re going to see what happens when
portions of that machine take a big step into the future.

The Freedom to Innovate: Urban Transitions (2)

Innovative urban habitats were the main focus of the second day of the Urban Transition workshop in Manchester. But strangely, most participants focused on examples that were anything but urban. Presenters drew on examples from the transition towns movement, grassroots (almost literally, in the case of straw bale buildings) innovations in sustainable housing, and DIY experiments in building low carbon rural communities.

The emerging conclusion was that if you want to encourage innovation, you need to give it room to grow. Highly regulated urban spaces drive out inventive, skilled and creative people. People who could otherwise help develop affordable and sustainable housing.

When the oil shocks met 1970s counter culture it produced a back-to-the-land movement easily caricatured as being escapist and Utopian. Many of the examples presented during these final Urban Transitions sessions looked like they were pages from the same book (the Whole Earth Catalogue maybe?) – but as the presenters were clear, what these individuals and communities have accomplished both socially and technically shouldn't be dismissed.

Gill Seyfang, looked at how individual builders had used straw bales, and other locally sourced materials, to build zero carbon housing that was also, unlike high end eco-developments like Bed Zed or One Brighton, very affordable. One of the houses she featured, Tony Wrench's Roundhouse, cost just £3,000 to build. She argued that despite their more rural roots, similar materials and princioles could be successfully applied in an urban context.

Jenny Pickerill, a researcher from Leicester University, covered a variety of low-impact developments (LIDs) in the UK both rural and urban. “LID is a radical form of housing, livelihood, and lifestyle that works in harmony with the landscape and natural world around it.” she explained, “It's a a site for practical innovations and attempts at low carbon living. The core principles are that in order to reduce our environmental impact we need to radically redesign our homes, satisfy our needs ourselves or through local provision, reduce our needs (by reducing consumption), and dramatically reduce our travel.”

But of the communities she covered, the most successful examples were all rural. Urban attempts where few, and inevitably had to cut sustainable features (like grey water reuse, local agricultural production, on site waster water remediation) because of the limits imposed by urban spaces, and the rules and regulations that govern them.

Innovative ideas have often come to cities from smaller centers. (London's push for local energy generation was originally designed in the smaller neighbouring town of Wookin). And the guiding principles of many of these experiments (localization of energy and food supplies, permaculture, and more collective living) can all apply to the urban context. But the specific forms they assume in rural areas don't transfer easily to denser urban spaces. Much of the closing discussion focused on ways that these primarily rural innovations could be scaled-up and transfered into urban spaces. But wouldn't it just be easier if we could keep the ecologically innovative in cities to begin with?

Recode Portland, a project that I have written about before, is a good example of how cities can help retain and nurture innovative communities. The Tryon Life Community Farm is a collective living experiment located between parkland and a residential area in outer Portland. The city has granted them official and unofficial exemptions from certain local building and land use regulations. In exchange, Tryon acts as a living lab for urban sustainability. Motivated by a desire to create exceptions that end up changing the rules, they coordinate the ReCode project (funded by a small grant from the City of Portland), which leverages their experiences to lobby for change in the state and local building codes. So far they have successfully lobbied the State government to lift a ban on residential grey water reuse.

With support from the city, they have combined a quasi-rural freedom to experiment and innovate, with an urban context that both shapes their work, and gives them the networks they need to scale up from individual projects to systems level change. The final Urban Transitions discussions all made clear that “city limits” is much more than a line on a map. The workshop made a convincing case for the benefits that cities could get by loosening those limits and opening up urban spaces to innovation.

Learning Cities: Urban Transitions (1)

How can cities become better learners? Faced with changing conditions in everything from climate to energy and food availability -- cities need to be able to learn from and respond to uncertain times. But how? Established institutions are resistant to change. The physical shape of the city and its infrastructure ties us into old ways of doing things. What we know is also familiar. How can we encourage ourselves to take a risk on doing things differently? Those were the questions of the day, at the opening of the Urban Transitions workshop currently running in Manchester.

The consensus that emerged was that we need more open and participatory planning processes. That, in itself, is not news. Participation of one kind or another has been a favourite in cities striving to be more sustainable. Often it takes the form of large and flashy one-off processes of public consultation. The input of thousands is synthesized into a vision and key goals that define sustainability for the municipality. Implementation though, is often difficult (or never really attempted). Presenters in Manchester argued for a substantially different approach.

City authorities can't just implement utopias,” said Rene Kemp, researcher from UNU-MERIT in the Netherlands, “You can't limit collaborative planning to one time events.” Detailing an approach called Transformative Evaluation, he argues that collaborative planning, reflexion, and innovation need to be included into the basic practises of our institutions. In a similar vein Bernhard Truffer, from Cirus in Switzerland, argued that more interdisciplinary and inclusive planning processes need to be embedded in the way we govern our cities. “It isn't just the end result that we should be focused on” he elaborated, “the processes themselves create real change.”

Bringing planners and decision makers together with residents and professionals from other fields encourages everyone involved to consider innovative possibilities beyond the options they already know and understand. New options, like decentralize power generation, can be put on the table when they would other be dismissed out of hand because they are unfamiliar and poorly understood:

“Radically new alternatives were considered," Truffer said discussing an infrastructure planning process in Switzerland, "and in the end were seen much more favourably than they were initially. At the same time, incremental solutions – the kind that tend to come from conventional planning processes – fare very badly when people have a chance to consider a broader set of options.”

The question of who to involve, and how, is very important. Many proposed approaches called for small numbers of relatively expert participants to be brought together. Often these were key decision makers within the city, already in positions of power, but separated by professional or institutional silos.

Malcolm Eames, of the Low Carbon Research Institute (Cardiff), presented on a Citizen Science for Sustainability program (SuScit) that bridges the gap between these elite groups and poor and marginalized urban communities. “Sustainability has to be about more than justs reducing emissions. We need to be addressing those issues while also creating cities that all of us can live in in an equitable way.” Having truly productive conversations between residents and experts is no easy thing. SuCit uses citizen created short films as the basis for a multiple stage where residents and researchers collaborate to create local sustainability plans.

In a paper that touched on ideas that I've covered here before, I looked at why this inclusivity is so important. The outside linkages that it creates are the perfect solvent for loosening the constraints of trained incapacity. Institutionalized into the management structures and professional culture of an organization, it makes innovation possible and large scale change more likely.

Doing planning this way may take more time. But the impacts of our decisions, particularly around infrastructure that will last for 30 or 40 years, will be around for much longer. In that context, it should be a pretty easy argument to say that we are better off taking a bit longer to make the best decisions that we can.

Cities and Low Carbon Transitions

In the next 48 hours, I'll be wrapping up here in Senegal and heading to Manchester (UK) to present at the Urban Transitions workshop that is being co-hosted by Durham University's Department of Geography, and the University of Salford's Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (SURF).

We rarely get the chance to start from scratch – that's the nub of the workshop. Whether you need to retrofit American suburbs or improve the Senegalese public transit network, the challenge is always to find ways to take the old and make it new again. The workshop is going to be looking at that challenge, focusing on technical transitions in urban infrastructure and the social transitions that made them possible.

That link between the social and the technical is what really grabs me about this event. New technologies are seductive; but social and political dynamics can make or break a particular technology in practice. As I covered in my previous posts on Durban (South Africa), social and technical innovations are inextricably linked. Workshop participants are going to be looking at similar issues in a variety of North American and European cities.

I'll be blogging on conference highlights. Until then, I've posted a more detailed overview of the conference after the jump.

Urban Transitions/Technological Transitions:
Cities and Low Carbon Transitions

Department of Geography, Durham University, and SURF, University of Salford. Manchester

May 7th - 8th 2009

Cities may be responsible for up to 75% of global emissions of carbon dioxide. Consequently cities are emerging as critical sites for “innovative” responses to climate change through the development of relevant forms of knowledge, expertise and capability to shape low carbon transitions in the social and technical organisation of their networks and built environment. Despite increasing policy and academic interest in the concept of low carbon urban transitions there has been little explicit attempt to bring together researchers with knowledge and expertise of “urban transitions”, “sociotechnical transitions” and “low carbon transitions”. Co-hosted by the Urban Transitions ESRC Climate Change Leadership Fellowship and the SURF centre the purpose of this workshop is to address this deficit and bring together leading researchers from each of these broad (and often diverse) disciplinary approaches to examine three sets of issues and questions.

Understanding Transitions. What is a “transition”? How is the concept of a transition understood in the different disciplinary contexts? What can be learned from historical studies of transitions and applied to contemporary contexts? How, where and why do sociotechnical transitions take place – what is the role of the urban? What is distinctive about low carbon transitions? How valuable is a transitions approach for understanding the transformation of urban socio-technical systems in response to climate change? What are the limitations?

Shaping Transitions. Can cities “shape and direct” transitions? What is distinctive about the urban scale and what are it relations to other scales? What forms of knowledge and expertise are required to shape low carbon transitions? How is capacity and capability developed to shape such transitions and how does this vary? What are the temporalities of urban transitions – can rapid transformations in response to climate change be achieved? What are the constraints and limits to cities ambitions and expectations for low carbon futures? How do low carbon transitions resonate with cities wider economic and social priorities? What are the implications of low carbon transitions for issues of social and ecological justice?

Researching Transitions. How are urban transitions empirically “researched” and their wider consequences understood? What forms of knowledge, social relations and material consequences are produced? Do these reinforce or challenge existing urban hierarchies and inequalities?


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.