Originally published in Kamloops This Week as a letter in 2010:

In the words of Fred Hansen, ex-deputy director of USEPA and regional planner for Portland, OR, “It’s not about MPG, its WBF”.

WBF= Weeks Between Fill-Ups. What Fred is getting at is that cars represent only 25% of our fossil fuel emissions, and no matter the degree to which we improve fuel efficiency, we will only be going a little way to solving the problem. There are hundreds of other reasons why further pursuing the auto-mobile centric form of urban planning is ridiculous.

We need to drive our cars rarely and take advantage of all the other forms of transport available. Walking is a good one, a living in a place where this is practical is a good investment. This is a huge step towards independence of oscillating fossil fuel prices and green house gas emissions. Creating a community in this ideal benefits us all– not to mention liberating our children, teenagers, differently abled and seniors from their isolated sub-urban homes, while relieving parents/caretaker’s cum taxi driver’s.

It’s not Miles Per Gallon, it’s Weeks Between Fill-Ups.

Kamloops does understand’s that rising fuel prices–which will only climb ($100 /barrel in a recession)– have made sprawling sub-urbs economically unsustainable. Peter Mutrie of NSBIA writes in Kamloops Business Magazine of his vision for a pedestrian oriented Tranquille Road/Market. Both KAMPLAN and the Kamloops Sustainability Plan recommend infill development and an end to single family home subdivisions.     Interestingly a letter to the editor in Kamloops This Week remarked that the dense development of Mission Hill “destroyed a once pristine ridgeline in Kamloops, blighting the image of the city.” I am curious how this dense development blights the city while Aberdeen blankets the hill with detached homes?

Somehow new single-family sub-divisions are granted, despite the cities current infrastructure being a debt tough to service, in the meantime, large areas of Tranquille and Downtown remain vacant and empty. New strip malls are being built at City Plaza and at the Accent Inn, despite huge vacancies in existing buildings in Sahali, an empty complex on Hillside drive, and empty spaces all over Valleyview. As the Daily News reported early in the month, despite growth in the building sector (measured by building permit valuations), our population remained stagnant this year.

Who are these new amenities for?

While new building’s might seem to offer employment for citizens, it is short-lived, and as long as it is promoting and relying on cheap oil–as strip malls and detached single family homes do–Kamloops and its citizens will only be adding to the financial distress of the recession.

Even in construction, it’s not about using recycled tires to pave a footpath, it’s not needing to build that footpath in the first place, because there are so many (nearly 100km) un-utilized sidewalks already.

It’s not about Miles Per Gallon, it’s about Weeks Between Fill-Ups.

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The point I am getting at here is this:

So much of the dialogue, the marketing and the politics surrounding; green issues, cultural issues, social issues and health issues, surround things that we can subtly alter to continue doing exactly what we are doing, or hopefully even more of it.

Unfortunately the conversation, marketing and politics do not actually look at what we are actually doing in the first place–asking question like:

-Is this something to be proud of?

-Does this make me happy?

-Is this actually helping me to… raise children (or as I look to put is, ‘raise adults’).

-Is my life actually easier because of this?

-How exactly does this product really “reduce” my impact on the environment?

 

Lets put some specifics to these same questions?

-Should I be proud of the fact that I almost never walk?

-Does my pool/home theatre/3rd car/3rd bathroom/2nd family room/large backyard/small backyard actually increase my happiness?

-Does living in a detached home up a hill and a 20 minute walk from school for the “advantage” of a big yard actually give my children more place to play/learn/explore/grow and interact with society?

-Now that I need to drive my teenager to parties, my 10-year old to violin and my 8-year old to soccer after a long day at work, as well as drive to get the groceries and return the bottles and buy a light bulb…did this car really make my life easier?

-How exactly does smaller caps on my bottled water really address the plastic litter and trash problem?

The idea of “Weeks Between Fill-Ups” is this. You do not need to get rid of your gas guzzling Camaro for a Prius, you need to look at how you live your life, how that enriches you, and what effect that has on those around you, and those who you may care about in the future. I would argue that trading in a used car for a new car that gets 4 mpg better than the last will not help your pocket-book or your environmental foot print. Altering where you live, work and play to be more conducive to a walking lifestyle, that’s where the money and the carbon foot print is really saved.

Similarly, getting 30 solar panels on your roof to heat your un-used extra bedrooms, your pool and your second living room also is not the point. In that instance your pocket-book and carbon footprint are not greatly affected. Insulating your house and only having as many rooms as you need and leaving great public amenities (theaters and pools) to the public domain is going to be much better for society, the environment and your pocket-book. Turning un-used rooms into a secondary income suite will have similar effects to leaving public amenities in the public domain, they will make a difference to the environment, they will help your pocket-book and provide safe affordable accommodation.

A note on economics here:

Let’s take a pool, one of my favorite mis-allocation of personal resources. I like this picture:

Its Kamloops, it’s June, there is a light wind, its 8:00PM and it’s 32 Celsius. I am a moderately successful business person, and I have decided to make a great margarita with some tequila bought in Mexico this past winter. I put my legs in my pool. Listen to the birds chirping, admire the cherry blossoms on my cherry tree (which this year I seriously plan to pick–this year…). What a lovely evening I think to myself, only, wouldn’t it be lovely to share this experience with some friends (who are all doing the same thing beside their pools, having the same wish). Such a shame this pool that costs me an arm and a leg to build and maintain isn’t used for more than just a couple of foot soaks alone a handful of nights each year…

Now I am in somewhere else in Kamloops, the sun is blistering hot, and I just finished my Friday night homework. Some friend and I from college would love to hang out at a cool down pool, but the one in our neighbourhood has some pretty reduced hours and it’s quite a ways away. We would have to bike there and home, and even it was open, coming back in the dark across town in my bike might be pretty dangerous on the roads. We would drive but we can’t afford a car, and transit to Riverside Park or Pioneer Park is either non-existent or does not go late enough to provide a reasonable return time. Looks like we will just see what’s on TV.

 

I am aware that these are stereotypes and they are nearer some extremes of income levels. That said, if all the high income bracket levels leave the public service of neighborhood pools, or movie theaters for private ones in their own home, it is at the expense of the convenience of lower-income levels. As fewer people now attend the public pool, the price charged so the pool can break-even must rise, and thus it becomes even less likely that the lower-income levels in our city can afford to go regularly. This same argument can be used against private healthcare and private schooling. As a society, when we all participate, all boats are truly brought up with the tide. This is why we do not need 5000 sq.ft. homes, or even 3000 sq.ft. homes to accommodate all these “private” amenities like pools, multiple dining and living rooms, home theaters, etc. They can become jobs and businesses for local people, while bringing the price down and increasing the convenience for everyone. That is a “Weeks-between-fill-ups” perspective. That is saying, is the way I am living really convenient? For me? For my neighbour? How am I contributing? To my carbon footprint? To my fuel usage? To job security?

We need to avoid surface encounters with short, medium and long-term action to our local economy, social stability and our environment. To get deeper we need to do more than look at the fuel economy on our car, we need to look and whether we need to drive this car for this trip in the short-term, and whether I can move somewhere that may not even require a car in the medium term. That’s because the real impact happens not in the efficiency of an in-efficient system, but lies in abandoning in-efficient systems for better ones, and perhaps in transition using the old system as little as possible.

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