The will to motorize: from utility to desire

Model T Ford and the Lincoln Highway.

“In 1927, for the first time since it introduced the Model T, Ford lost its sales lead to General Motors, never again to regain it.”

“Henry Ford came out with his “re-styled” Model A. The era of styling began.”

‘Actually, the problem the automobile industry was grappling with was on of maintaining a sales pace every year for a product that last for nearly a decade. Up to a point, a new invention like the automobile can show rising sales by simply meeting the demand for transportation. At the saturation point, however, the demand becomes less and less responsive to price reduction (The Model T had gone as low as $290) and functional improvement. A satiety threshold sets in that is similar to the limits which govern the consumer demand for food. But an emotional demand can be exploited for a much higher curve on the sales chart. There has never been established a human quota for the “status, power, fun, glamour, and freedom.” Thus the second stage in the evolution of a consumer product is reached: the time for catering to buyer’s wants instead of simply to their needs.”

Unsafe at any Speed, Ralph Nader, 1965, pp. 174-75

Vancouver’s “Herbie” seen in Strathcona

Vancouver’s “Herbie” seen in Strathcona

I saw this “Herbie” VW Bug in Strathcona and it made me think of a little bit from a book Asphalt Nation that was reading a little while ago. Published 22 years ago the book is sadly still relevant and worth reading. Interestingly, Vancouver would in the past 20 years implemented a lot of the recommendations for “taming” the car in cities.

1973 The Energy Crisis

A tiny bit of history from the bad days of the 1970’s. OPEC starts an oil embargo which reduces the supply of gas in North American. People lose confidence in their American fuel inefficient autos. The price of gas triples in less than a year. Driving patterns change, folks even change modes with car pooling and using public transit. Car buyers increasingly look to smaller cars from Japan and Europe.

Jane Holtz Kay notes in her book Asphalt Nation:

 “ Why did Americans have to spend a quarter of their income on automobiles, with more and going to accessories? Small imports, less expensive to drive than domestic gas-guzzlers, nibbled away at the Big Three’s sales. “Herbie”, Hollywood’s version of the adorable Volkswagen, also known as the Bug and the Beetle, and the less endearing Japanese vehicles offered low-mileage, low-frills mobility and gave Detroit stiff completion.”

In 1974 Disney comes out with another version of the movie “Herbie Rides Again”. With the American car industry, in a deep down turn, must not have been happy with free PR for Volkswagen. More importantly that move is emblematic of Americans love of the cars. Two tons of metal and toxic material is anthropomorphize into a chippy family member, romping around.



Its all about land use policy


For more than a century the automobile has become the preeminent form of transportation. The manufacturing of cars is central to our economy for jobs and also as a driver of resources for them. The use of cars is a choice for some of us and a de facto mode of travelling for many. While the impacts of the cars primacy on the environment, the landscape, our cities and our bodies are still being fully understood, the inevitability of cars in one form another are with us for a while is evident.

For many reasons the use of private cars has become problematic. From pollution, climate change, personal safety, to a desire to live a more active life style, cars become a transportation choice of last resort or an easy convenience. While the automobile’s dominance has been the past, clearly it won’t always be the only transportation choice in the future. A more complete and complex transportation system needs to be developed that values a multiplicity of types from walking, riding bikes, public transportation, rail, electrical vehicles and who knows maybe even driverless cars.

And while it has taken over century to roll out the primacy of the car it will take a while to transition away from its dominance. Part of this transition process is going to be to understand the histories of the car. With this in mind I have been reading Christopher W. Wells excellent and exciting book Car Country: An Environmental History, which chronicles the rise of cars in North America.

Being anti-car on a visceral level is an easy pattern of thinking that one can fall into. But trying to understands some of the complex reasons for cars success is a necessary step in the process of repositioning it in our transportation system.

“… Car Country refashioned, on a grand scale, both the basic pattern of interaction between people and the environment and fundamental structure and composition of the nation’s ecosystems.

     Almost from the beginning, these changes inspired a legion of vociferous critics. By the time full-blown discontent with America’s car culture and its destructive environmental effect finally percolate up into national politics in the 1060s and 1970s, however, patterns of sprawling, low-density development had already become thoroughly ingrained in the American political economy. Moreover, Car Country’s critics too often focused on particular problems–factory pollution, tailpipe emissions, roadside eyes sores, suburban “boxes made of ticky tacky”, the loss of public “open space” and “pristine wilderness”-without understanding the broader, interconnected forces at work that continued to roll out new car-dependent communities year after year. Environmentalists secured new regulations that limited some of low-density sprawl’s more damaging environmental effects, but they failed to stop sprawl itself or the engines driving its expansion. The overwhelming tendency among critics, with a few important exceptions, has been to focus on cars rather than roads and on the behaviour of drivers rather than the powerful forces shaping American land-use patterns. “


Car Country: An Environmental History

Christopher W. Wells, 2012

University of Washington Press

A park under every parking spot

Is there a park under every parking spot? Can car sharing reduce the demand for parking in cities? If cities needed less parking because residents were walking, riding, using public transit and using car sharing the space that was being used to park cars could be transformed for other uses. Public space is a valuable thing in cities and has the power to create more inclusive communities and to give residents greater access to nature.

Cars on average are parked 95% of the time. Large areas of all cities are dedicated to parked cars. Streets, which connect the city’s various destinations account for a large amount of public space and could be, used many different ways.

While the last century has seen the invention of the car and its increased dominance of its use of civic space, we are now in a time where a “multi-modal” future will transform cities and the people who live in them. Smart phones will make the car just one of the periphery devices that will give residents of the city more transportation options.

Car sharing will become one of the choices of residents from walking, public transportation or other modes of active transportation. The fabric the city will change. Parking spaces could be transformed to other uses.

As density in the city increases the space between buildings and public space will be more important. Public space will present more opportunities for residents to experience and envision the city in different ways. From parks, gardens, and new forms of building, thinking about space in proximity to density will open different cityscapes.

A mini van in every drive way

IMG_1414“A mini van in every drive way” Acrylic on recovered plywood, 48″x48″ in progress

The Ford Pinto

Pinto, 48"x48", acrylic, on recovered plywood.

Pinto, 48″x48″, acrylic, on recovered plywood.

My memories of the Ford Pinto are from my Dad’s car pool pal “Curly” Kennedy who owned one. Curly was a giant of a man in many ways. As a boy, when I was sent out to tell him that my Dad would be right out, I would tease him about his car, which he always took with grace. I have a memory of his knees being at his chin sitting in the front of that Pinto. But the real joy of the job was to sit on the curb and talk with Curly before him and my Dad went to work when they were on the afternoon shift.

The 1970s were a hard time for the auto industry in North America. Cars where big, poorly manufactured and gas-guzzlers. The oil embargo in the Middle East and the strengthening market share of foreign imported cars, which were better on petrol with higher quality techniques in manufacturing, necessitated a massive rethink of car design in Detroit.

The Ford Pinto was a response to cheaper more fuel-efficient imports. The Pinto was Ford’s car to counter the enduring popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle, which is a testament to the enduring power of the bug which was designed in the early 1930s in Germany.

The Pinto was marketed as a “carefree” fuel-efficient car, like the pinto horse, a high utility animal with little demands. The car was piloted through the design phase by auto industry legend Lee Iacocca. Iacocca was also the driving force of the Ford Mustang and pushed for a minivan at Ford too, but had to realise the idea when he move to Chrysler with the Caravan. The Pinto was intended to be a car 2000 pounds and to sell for $2000. A car that was more affordable than a VW super beetle.

You can read more about the pinto here: Wikipedia on Ford Pinto 1971-1980

Of course, the most infamous part about the Pinto was the exploding gas tank. Ford became aware of the design defect, but decided against a recall of the car. A cost benefit analysis was done comparing the cost of recalling against the potential cost from the lost of life and property. Ford executives made the decision, that not recalling was a better business decisions despite the loss of life and suffering. One of the worst business decisions made by the auto sector it is used as a case study now on business ethics.

You can read more about it here, The Ford Pinto Case;

1970 Pontiac Station Wagon


There are a plethora of stories embedded in every car. Whether it’s the thinking behind the design or our personal tales of our relationship to the car, memories and histories are the substance of a fascinating narrative.

One of the more exciting cars that my family owned when I was growing up was the 1970 Pontiac station wagon. My  uncle Vernon had  a station wagon and it was a favourite activity to be allowed to rattle around in the back of that wagon on family visits. So when my Dad brought home a big green station wagon my sister, brother and me were thrilled. Our huge green wagon was no disappointment with an automated rear tailgate and even a rumble seat that allowed us to sit backwards and look out the rear window!

Station wagons back then were the equivalent of our mini vans: a domesticated utility vehicle. Like a contractor’s truck for carrying their tools, the station wagon is the workhorse of the suburbs and families, carrying kids and stuff. Not the most beautiful cars that were every built, but with a lot of cargo capacity to be sure.

The allure of the station wagon was based on its cargo capacity and mobility. This was a generation of cars that not just promised to get you somewhere, but also with the ability to bring a lot of stuff with you. Car camping and the family vacation were the dreams of this vehicle. The station wagon’s position in the suburb was a form of latent desire to escape to nature.

The expansion of freeways across North American induced a desire to go anywhere. The freeways paradoxically both transformed the landscape and gave us access to remote areas that for generations where inaccessible. The promise of the post war industrial culture was a well-paid job and leisure time and the station wagon was a symbol of this promise.

My Dad had 3 weeks off every summer, which was a real treat. We would go away camping often and it was a journey we looked forward to all year. We would carry a little sailboat on roof racks on the top, pull a small aluminum boat on a trailer, packed with camping equipment and fill the station wagon to its roof with our personal possessions. Essentially we carried a smaller more compact version of our home and take this on the road.

One of my fondest memories was when we were going on vacation and we packed up the station wagon the night before my Dad’s last day at work. My Mom would drive the car from Hamilton to Oakville and park it on the side of the highway beside the Ford plant. When my Dad was done his shift, he ran across the field and hopped the fence and we started our summer camping vacation. It was a beautiful thing.

Jim Deva Plaza and Davie Village public space improvements

photos of Jim and the plaza

Whenever I climb a ladder I think of Jim Deva and remind myself to be careful. Jim died in a tragic accident, falling off a ladder while pruning a tree at his home. His death was a shocking surprise to everyone.

Jim was a hero to many of us and the undisputed mayor of the West End and particularly the Davie Village. Jim was a trail blazer of human rights. There weren’t too many projects and issues in the West End that Jim was not participating in. I respected his opinion in all things and feel privileged to have known him and had the chance to participate in a few projects with him!

The city of Vancouver is proposing naming a public plaza after Jim on the south side of Bute St. at Davie St. The proposed plaza will be at the heart of the Davie Village and the LGBTQ community. The plaza is just half a block from Little Sisters Book store one of Jim’s legacy of his life.
CoV report the new plaza


I whole heartily support the naming of the plaza for Jim. I am also super keen on the idea of creating more public space in Vancouver for people.

This plaza has a “Living Legacy Statement” which states:

A safe space, inspired by Jim Deva’s lifelong passion for freedom of sexuality,

gender diversity, and the fight against censorship. Where LGBTQ people and

allies can meet, share ideas freely, dare to dream, and love unapologetically.

The plaza will have a speaker’s corner to commemorate Jim’s life long passion for the protection of freedom of speech. There will also be a drinking fountain and water bowl for dogs as Jim was a huge lover of dogs.

Two innovative features of the plaza that are interesting and could be models for Vancouver are the idea of an “outdoor museum” and a “plaza stewardship” group.

The proposed plaza in the West End will be an added asset creating more public space for residents and visitors. Think of all the new friendships and social connections that will be made in the Jim Deva Plaza!




What is going on in Kits?

kits_peoplepathCan anyone tell me what is going on here? It seems pretty vindictive, futile and a waste of staff time. Late in summer out of the blue the Vancouver Park Board put up barriers on a little path near the Kits pool that people have been riding and walking on for years. Rather than go to the corner of Balsam and Cornwall St. folks have been taking a little shortcut which is faster and safer to get to a paved path at the edge of the park. I wonder how much a little project like this cost? My bet is folks can be pretty stubborn about their favourite little paths.

Are painted lines enough for S.W. Marine Drive one of the marquee rides of Vancouver?

S.W. MarineDrUpgradesWR

The City of Vancouver (Cov) is proposing upgrades to the bike route on South West Marine Dr. Here is the staff report for the full details of the project. Here

One of the great cycle routes in the City of Vancouver is SW Marine Drive. S.W. Marine Dr. is designated a bike route by the city, connecting UBC and the Endowment lands to Granville St.. This iconic ride is one the best in Vancouver. But the bike path is fraught with unacceptable risk that need fixing.

Strava is an online site for logging and sharing rides and runs. The site uses data from smart phones and GPS devices and is very popular with road cyclist. Strava states that there where 140 million runs in rides in Vancouver between Jan. 2014 and May 2015! If you look at the “heat maps” that Strava generates you can see that SW Marine Dr. is a popular route the city.Heat Map

The bike path on SW Marine Dr. is non existent in some places and very narrow in other places. In addition to the variability of the width is the condition of the surface with many patches, bumps and holes that really require riders to pay careful attention to the road conditions. More importantly is the path’s proximity to the road and the lack of physical separation. There are many large trucks and buses that use this route. Also, there are high volumes of traffic on this road because it is an arterial road and is an important route in the context of Metro Van traffic management.

Particularly at intersections where there is no left hand turn bays, people driving cars regularly and recklessly drop to the right into the bike lane to get around left turning cars. This is one of the biggest dangers to folks riding bikes on this route. There is also a significant risk with the number of cars that park along this route and the potential to get doored.

The City of Vancouver states: “From 2009 through 2013 (5 year period),there were twenty-six (26) collisions that involved vehicle traffic and people cycling along Southwest Marine Drive approximately six collisions per year).The collisions attributed to factors such as vehicle dooring and parking in the bike lane, drivers passing too closely to people biking, and vehicles turning at intersections or in and out of driveways”

proposed road design for SW Marine Dr.WPClearly this route needs upgrades. In fact the bike route does not meet the CoV design guidelines and if not improved should be dropped as a designated bike path. However city staff are not recommending full separation and triple A upgrades that would be suitable for “all ages and abilities”. The reasons for the proposed upgrades to the route are because Metro Van is upgrading the road and it was view by engineering staff as a opportunity to improve riding conditions in the area in a more cost effective way.

CoV staff are not supportive of full separation because of the following reasons:

“Any widening beyond the proposed bikeway improvements would have significant impacts on costs, trees, and utility relocations as well as introduce substantial delays to project implementation”. (for more details see page 8 of the CoV report. Estimated cost for AAA path is $11 m! )

It is a bit disappointing at this time that a full upgrade is not possible, as this area would be great for families to ride around in, there are some beautiful rides down on the Fraser River. The proposed design upgrades will make incremental improvements to cycling conditions in the area. The city is planning on spending $3.1 million on this project. The proposed design is to construct a path that has consistent width of 1.8 m. $200 k is ear marked for high risk area such as intersections and corners where full concrete barriers will be deployed so cars can’t move right into the bike lane!