Friday, February 26, 2010

The Coming Energy Shortage, Part 2: Me & My Community

I started writing the following blog post, intending that this be a discussion on what I perceive to be the impacts of peak of oil on the City in which I live. Instead, what I’ve ended up with is a lot of personalized background information about my community, and the lens through which it is viewed by me (my "bias" for lack of a better term).

Please consider this "background information" for the next post, which will deal with my observations on how I anticipate the coming energy crisis will impact my community.

You may not have to read this to follow along with the next post, and given the length of this post, you might not want to anyway. But, if you do read, hopefully you'll have a little bit better understanding of me, my values, and the way in which I perceive certain aspects of my community.

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I did something unusual today: I took the car into work this morning. I parked downtown at the parking garage attached to the Rainbow Centre Mall, as they seem to have the best parking rate in Sudbury’s downtown. Today, it was cheaper for me to take the car in, because I was saving my wife a trip on the bus as well. Her one-way bus fare plus fare for me two ways would actually exceed the price of parking, hence the car made for a better choice, financially. And as a time-saver too. The trip downtown took less than 5 minutes by car from our house. Usually, I take the bus to work in the mornings, and have it deposit me right across the street from the 7-storey office building that I work in, which is convenient, but still takes about 20 minutes. The return bus ride though is a little shorter, at about 15 minutes. That’s if the bus isn’t stopped by one of the many trains which traverse our downtown. And since I like to read on the bus, the extra time isn’t such a big deal for me. Still, though, driving my car to work is unusual for me.

My commuting habits haven’t changed considerably throughout my lifetime. Growing up, I always walked to school. Luckily, my schools were located fairly close to my parent’s home in the J-Section of Bramalea. I went off to Ryerson for University, while still living at home. My commute usually involved hitching a ride to the GO-Train station with my father or sister in the mornings, and then hopping on the Georgetown line for the train trip into the City, then walk through the underground as far as the Atrium north of Dundas and I was pretty much at Jorgensen Hall, just behind the Yonge Street strip. On lazier days I’d hop on the subway at Union and take it up to Dundas.

Later, I moved to the City and lived at Yonge & Eglinton for a few years, while working at College and Bay. I had a sweet commute, as my apartment building sat on top of the Yonge-Eglinton Centre, which sits on top of Eglinton Station. College Park sits on top of College Station. I didn’t actually have to go outside to get to work. I used to wear shorts to the office on Casual Day (up until the time that the subway went out of service at Rosedale Station on that -20 degree January day). From there, I moved to an apartment building just off of Bathurst, north of Finch. The bus stop was right in front, and I’d ride the bus to Finch Station, and take the subway south. Then, I moved to Sudbury and bought a house with a bus stop right in front.

I didn’t actually own a car until I moved to Sudbury. Despite the proximity of the bus to my home and office, I figured that there may be a few things that I would need a car for. About 250,000 km’s later, I’m glad that I purchased my little Cavalier; it’s come in handy living in this City, even though I don’t take it to work very often at all.

I wonder: is my commuting experience typical? For me, it’s always been about public transit and walking, and at every opportunity, finding a reason to leave the car at home or at the very least dump it part way to a destination where parking is free. But is that an atypical experience?

Most of the people that I work with in this office drive their cars to work. Yes, a few take the bus, but we’re in the minority. I don’t think anybody walks here, except for me, and that’s only on occasion (I probably should do it a little more often, but I can’t walk and read at the same time). In the summer, I try to take my bike as often as I can, but you take your life into your own hands if you bike in this City, unless you’re prepared to ride it on the sidewalks, which you shouldn’t be doing, but it’s awfully tempting because the sidewalks are typically devoid of pedestrians outside of the downtown.

Let me tell you a little bit about the City of Greater Sudbury. It’s the biggest municipality in all of Ontario, and the second biggest in Canada, in terms of size. There are about 155,000 people who live here. The City is composed of a number of communities, with the former City of Sudbury being the most populous (about 90,000 people). The City of Greater Sudbury came into being back in 2000 when the municipalities which made up the former Region of Sudbury were forcibly amalgamated by the provincial government.
The former City of Sudbury is comprised of many neighbourhoods. Some, like the one in which I live (The West End), are older and more compact, and have quite a mix of built form. Others, like New Sudbury, are traditional 1960s and 70s style suburban areas. Although subdivisions continued to be built throughout the 1980s and 90s, the population of the City has actually decreased from the early 1970s, which has meant that the overall level of suburbanization hasn’t been as significant here as it has in say my old hometown of Brampton, which is almost all one big suburb. All in all, Sudbury has a little bit of a smaller urban footprint than most Ontario municipalities.

Besides the former City of Sudbury, there are a number of smaller communities, which we here in the central area refer to as "the outlying areas". Some of these communities are pretty big in their own right: Chelmsford, are largely francophone community of about 15,000, is a fairly compact little community. There are, however, a number of other communities which are largely rural strip development sprawling out in four directions from a central commercial crossroads, where large lots with wells and septics rule, such as Val Caron and Garson. And then there are some smaller communities, built to house miners, such as Copper Cliff and Coniston.
It takes about 45 minutes to travel east to west through Greater Sudbury, and that’s if you hit the lights right. Although two thirds of the City’s population is located in the former City of Sudbury, most people drive their cars to work, as a good portion of even the former City is primarily low density. And, cars are often necessary to get to some of the more popular locations to work: Vale and Xstrata (formerly Inco and Falconbridge) are located on the urban fringes; Laurentian University is tucked away in the middle of nowhere down a long and windy road; the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines’ main office is along the same road, while the Ministry of Natural Resources is out in a very rural area along the highway. The Federal Taxation Centre, while in town, is at the corner of a suburban crossroads, where you have to dodge 8 lanes of traffic if you’re a pedestrian. Yes, there is a vibrant downtown where some offices are located, including City Hall, and my own, but it’s fair to say that our businesses are somewhat spread out.

If you want to shop, well, chances are you’re not going to go to the Rainbow Centre Mall that I parked my car at. There’s a reason that they have the best parking rates in the downtown; they offer 3-hours of free parking to entice shoppers, but everyone who parks there benefits (hey, I bought a coffee this morning from the only place left on the upper floor who’s still in business). Currently, about half of the commercial space is empty, and the owners have been vigorously renovating parts of the mall, converting it to office space, which they seem to be able to fill. When the plunked this mall down in the early 70s, long before I came to town, I understand that they did so as part of an urban renewal initiative, getting rid of an area of town which, although somewhat vibrant, had a bit of a negative reputation. Like many downtown malls, initially it ended up sucking the pedestrians off of the street, and the little stores along the main roads began to close. Of course, ultimately the anchor stores abandoned the little downtown mall, fleeing to suburban New Sudbury or the Four Corners, leaving the downtown mall a hollowed-out building surrounded by a hollowed-out downtown. Not an unusual story at all.

Our downtown in Sudbury has a bit of an unsavoury reputation. People are often seen just "hanging out" downtown; there’s a perception that crime is concentrated here (which is nonsense, as there is crime everywhere). People say that they won’t come to to the downtown, because it’s not safe and it costs too much to park and there’s nothing here anyway. That’s not my perception, but it is a prevalent one. I happen to think that the downtown has been doing a decent job of revitalizing itself over the past decade. There are many places at which I enjoy shopping and eating, and recreating at. Nevertheless, the perception remains, even by those who inhabit the downtown’s offices during the daylight hours.

Most of the shopping that’s done in Sudbury occurs at the New Sudbury Mall, which has a recently expanded Wal-Mart. There’s a Power Centre with a Costco and a movie complex out on the fringe of the City too. And recently, another Wal-Mart opened up down by the by-pass where few people live. Grocery stores are located almost entirely in the suburbs, except for a run-down little one in the Flour Mill, and a newer Loblaws-owned one which opened not too far from the downtown, but on the other side of the train tracks, so really it’s only accessible on foot or bike from one part of the City. They used to have a bike rack there for people to park at, but a customer tripped over one day and maybe threatened to sue or something, so they took it out. It does have a nice parking lot though where they set up a garden centre in the spring and summertime.

When I bought my house initially, I had to ask my neighbours why the front parts of everyone’s driveways looked like they’d been resurfaced on the cheap. Turns out they had been. A few years before I moved here, the City came along and tore up the sidewalks in front of everyone’s home along one side of the road, leaving only a single sidewalk. This was done quite often in older parts of town, in an initiative to catch up to current development standards, as the newer subdivisions usually didn’t have any sidewalks at all. And why not tear out the sidewalks? It made perfect economic sense. Rather than the City having to plow sidewalks on both sides of street in the winter time, they’d just plow one. No one really uses the sidewalks anyway, besides maybe a few kids in the mornings and afternoons, going to and from schools (although most kids in Sudbury take a bus to and from school).

Land widths throughout Sudbury have a bit of a reputation of being narrow when compared to suburban streets in Mississauga or Pickering (although I think streets here have actually been getting wider). Sidewalks, where they exist, are flush up against the curb; they aren’t separated by a patch of grass from the street. When you walk along a sidewalk, you feel like you’re walking in traffic, especially when a driveway or other entrance angles the sidewalk down towards the street. The sidewalks are anything but straight, but they are somewhat narrow. No wonder very few people walk on them.

But by and large pedestrians in Sudbury have it pretty good when compared to those who choose to brave it out by riding bikes. There is very little bike infrastructure anywhere in the City. We have one road with a seasonal bike lane; there’s another part of another major road where a narrow path exists between the sidewalk and the road for two-way bike traffic, which admittedly is probably safer to use than trying to bike on the narrow street in these locations. The worst part about biking, though, isn’t the narrow lanes or lack of infrastructure; it’s the fact that drivers just aren’t expecting bikers to be on the road, because there are so few of them anyway, and it seems like such a ridiculous thing to want to do in the first place.

Cars, though, have it pretty good. All intersections are designed for the safe and efficient flow of traffic. There are no signalized pedestrian crosswalks in the City; where there are crosswalks, cars have the right of way. At some intersections, pedestrians are only allowed to cross on two corners, to better facilitate left-hand turns. Cars always have the right away (actually, that’s not true: in Sudbury, trains always have the right of way, as just about all rail crossings are level crossings...we have a massive railyard right in the downtown, but the VIA rail station re-located to a suburban stop on the line which you can’t get to on the bus).

Back in the 40s and 50s, there used to be a streetcar line which you could take for quite some distance, but that’s all gone now. For what it is, I find that the City’s transit system is pretty good, and services the far-flung areas of our City as best it can (although I might have a different perspective on that if I had to wait for 2 hours to catch a bus in Val Caron). Most buses, though, are half empty, unless going to or from the University or the one of Sudbury’s two colleges, both located in suburban areas of the City. I guess most students really don’t have a choice.

I attended workshop not long ago on the development of a Sustainable Mobility Plan for the City. Apparently, one third of the people in Sudbury don’t drive. Yet, for the most part, our community is designed to facilitate the movement of cars. Especially in the winter.

If the picture I’m painting of my City isn’t the most flattering, it’s for a few reasons. First, I wanted to paint this picture not to illustrate all of the charm of my community, but rather to show that I, someone who has always tried to leave the car at home when it comes to commuting, inhabit a City which is built for the car. I sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land here (especially when I ride my bike to work!). My City has a lot of charm and character, and there are a lot of good things about it. But our car-dependency and outright hostility to pedestrians and cyclists leaves a lot to be desired. But then again, I expect that’s really little different from a good number of Canadian communities. We don’t have a monopoly on car-dependency here.

What’s going to happen to my City, though, when fewer and fewer people can’t afford to drive their cars? Or heat their homes? What might happen to our food supply, given that Sudbury is located about 4 hours north of Toronto by truck (and that we produce very little of our own food here, despite having some pretty good agricultural land in "the Valley" formed by the centre of the meteor crater on whose lip the former City of Sudbury sits).
How will the looming energy crisis effect people’s jobs, and their engagement with government? What about poverty and housing issues?

I’ll try to discuss these potential impacts in my next post (or at least I’ll offer my opinion on what I perceive the impacts will be like). All in all, I’m concerned about my northern community’s future.

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