rain: a type of precipitation that is common in Vancouver from September to May, but is not acknowledged by Vancouverites. Ex.: a non-Vancouverite needs protection from this type of precipitation, such as an umbrella or raincoat, but Vancouverites rarely need these.

snow: a type of precipitation that rarely occurs in Vancouver but is uniformly acknowledged by Vancouverites, as it causes all traffic to cease. A very cold, dense mix of ice and water falling to the ground in clumps, occasionally persisting for 20 minutes before melting.

suckerhole: a patch of clear blue sky that often appears about an hour before sundown on a rainy day, tricking you into believing the next day might be sunny. Often occurs within a 7-to-10-day stretch of rain.

summer: var. a. a season that lasts from July to August, with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-20s. Rain persists until the end of June, when the skies begin to clear, only to cloud over again by Labour Day. Occurs for two out of three years, often following a relatively dry winter. var. b. a season that lasts from May to September, with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-20s, with a week or two in the high 20s. Little rain. Occurs about once in three years, often following a very wet winter.

Grouse Grind: not, as the Granville Island lager ads confirm, a dirty dance move, but a hike up Grouse Mountain deemed necessary for outdoor enthusiasts.  The vast majority of the “trail” is paved and involves steep stairs; despite this it has a cult following. Cult followers get a time stamp at the bottom of the Grind and compete for the shortest time.

Kitsilano: alternately considered one of Vancouver’s most/least popular neighbourhoods, formerly housing hippies and now home to some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Kits culture includes yoga studios, dog walkers, coffee houses and strident environmentalists, which tends mask to mask the neighbourhood’s unique history and geography.

Commercial Drive: the last bastion of “working class” Vancouver, with a mix of shops, services, and interesting industrial land uses that predate the current Starbucks trend. That’s all Vancouverites want you to know about it. Anything else and you might want to move there…and you just don’t understand the unique culture, history and geography of the Drive.

East Vancouver: alternately considered one of the most/least popular neighbourhoods in Vancouver, with strong working class roots and humble dwellings, until recently quite affordable. Very stable, long-term community activists and vocal residents have led to a sort defensive stance about the community, a sort of “reverse snobbery” mostly directed to Westsiders who can’t possibly understand their neighbourhood, its unique history and geography.

Main Street: a formerly working class neighbourhood, now a hipster hangout with high-end, though independent, stores and restaurants. Socially-aware student types mix with a range of independent activist types, creating a unique culture, history and geography.

hipster: a middle- to upper-class individual who deeply identifies with the working class. Generally prefers to dress in second-hand clothing, currently with a heavy dose of retro 80s such as mullets, large clear plastic frame glasses, skinny jeans and plaid shirts. Musical taste features obscure local bands as well as well-known, but commercially less successful, Canadian bands. Interest in documentary films, bicycling, and pot culture required. Hipsters gravitate to Main Street, East Van and the Drive, having been largely displaced from Kits, Dunbar and Kerrisdale.

lifestyle: a melange of outdoor activities, beautiful scenery, mild climate, yoga, healthy eating, beach activities, self-righteous political and social advocacy, which is being threatened by outsiders moving to Vancouver. Syn. granola. Adj. livable: laid-back, scenic, with access to beaches, various outdoor activities, high-end condo living, and gourmet cuisine, but only for the wealthy.

fur babies: usually refers to dogs and cats who are kept as household pets and treated as the family’s children. A number of shops and services reinforce this image.

coffee shop: a small, independently-owned enterprise that supplies fair-trade coffee, a variety of herbal teas, and homemade treats, frequented by locals. Ant. Starbucks.

affordable housing: a form of shelter that is extremely rare in Vancouver, but is peppered throughout certain neighbourhoods and in adjacent municipalities such as Port Coquitlam and Surrey. Ant. most housing in Vancouver.

fleece: refers to both a fabric and a garment (usually a zippered jacket) that can be worn in any weather, any season, and on any social occasion. Usually worn with jeans, fleece is typically forest green or navy in colour with a prominent logo (eg. Columbia, North Face) on the front placket.

casual dress: typically jeans and a fleece (winter months) or khakis and a T-shirt (summer months). Hiking shoes or rubber sandals, often with velcro closures, complete the look. For women, yoga pants and tank tops, as well as capri pants, are common variants. Worn on all but semi-formal occasions, approximately 362 days of the year. Retail options: Mountain Equipment Co-Op, North Face, Lululemon.

semi-formal dress: a rare requirement in Vancouver, consisting of long-sleeved shirts and jeans or khakis (for men). Ties are not acceptable, nor is a jacket. For women, a skirt and a T-shirt with sandals, or occasionally low heels. Retail options: Spank, Aritsia. Ant. Dresses, especially long dresses or those made from silk, satin, or velvet.

great value for food: euphemism for some of the most overpriced food in Canada. Vancouver has many exclusive, gourmet restaurants, a smaller number of middle-range restaurants, and very little at the affordable end. Poor service can persist even to the high end. Similarly, grocery stores are uniformly overpriced, although some deals can be had at the smaller green grocers and in Chinatown.

Expo ’86: an international transportation fair held just after the worst recession in BC history (1981-83), which led to Vancouver’s rapid growth and development. Widely credited with being the best and worst thing to ever happen to the city.

2010 Olympics: an international sporting event discredited by most native Vancouverites, many of whom vacated the city for the 10-day period, leaving the Games to be celebrated by national and international tourists. Although locals disparaged the event, they did not lose a second in renting out apartments and condos to tourists at exorbitant rates.

11:00 pm: last call for bar patios on many of Vancouver’s main streets, except the bar-laden three-block section of Granville downtown. Time for bed so you can get up early for that hike tomorrow morning!

Toronto: Yoko to Vancouver’s Beatles, ie. the source of all discord in Lotusland. Some Torontonians have moved to Vancouver and infected it with their urban, workaholic, corporate vibe.

Ontario: Toronto.

Canada Day: a holiday largely celebrated by tourists in Vancouver.

Decreased car ownership rates among youth and increased transit use in several US cities are certainly not widespread, but each offers us unique insights into urban growth and development: the US cities with increased transit use often had recently made major investments in public transit, while decreased car ownership may be related to demographic shifts or increased environmental awareness. There has been a lot buzz lately about more radical initiatives adopted by some cities, such as car-free streets, car-free zones, and even car-free cities. Again, while these trends may not yet be widespread, their popularity is growing.

Transportation planner Jarrett Walker suggests that the cities with the largest percentages of car-free people are older cities with dominant universities and higher than average poverty.  Walker examined the fifty highest percentages of car-free people living in incorporated cities over 100,000, using the Carfree Census Database. His method is hardly scientific: he reasoned that most of the “top 50” cities on the list are older cities with an urban form created for walking and transit. Newer cities like Portland, despite all its transit-oriented development and progressive land use planning, still has only a fairly low car-free population at 14%. This pales in comparison to New York City (#1 at 55.7%) and cities we wouldn’t expect to have a high car-free population: Buffalo (31.4%), Atlanta (23.6%) Detroit (21.9%) and Los Angeles (16.5%), which are all in the top 50. While Walker’s suggestion about age of city makes sense, it is indeed puzzling that Portland could have fewer car-free households than these other cities, which we usually associate with car-dominant sprawling cities. The fact that poverty might be a factor explains Buffalo and Detroit, and many others on the list.

Treehugger.com recently made a list of the six cities that could easily go car-free: Geneva, Switzerland; Davis, California; Paris; Guadalajara, Mexico; Malmö, Sweden; and Guangzhou, China.  Many of these cities  have already made concerted efforts to increase transit use, decrease car driving or commuting, and increase or redesign pedestrian and bike infrastructure.  However, Guadalajara and Ghangzhou are just starting to realize the value of sustainable transportation: Guadalajara and Guangzhou are about to introduce BRT systems. Guadalajara closes 15 km of its streets to traffic for six hours every Sunday and is considering a proposal to pedestrianize its historic centre. In Ghangzhou, pedestrian alleyways still predominate over car-dominated streets, but as in many parts of China, it may be a hard sell to keep them that way as the cities grow rapidly and become more Westernized.

Car-free lifestyles may not be for everyone, but there are definitely areas of our cities that could stand to be car-free for a few hours or days of the year. We see this every month or so with festivals that close down roads for a couple of days. Many European cities have car-free city centres or zones that remain permanently closed to cars. New car-free developments have also been built, and decreased car parking requirements give people the option of paying less for a condo while giving them the option of car-sharing. While these are small steps, they may add up to lasting change in the way people think about car ownership, transit ridership and active transportation. I mean who would have thought that Buffalo and Detroit had such high car-free populations? This is definitely something to explore further, particularly whether poverty is indeed strongly linked to car-free lifestyles.

An interesting development has been sweeping away the iconic ideal of homeownership in the US. It isn’t a new idea, but in recent years it has certainly been an unpopular one: renting. With the housing market so unstable, many Amerians are turning to renting for an affordable and, surprisingly, more stable housing type.

Mark Whitehouse reported in the Wall Street Journal (“Default, then Rent”, December 16, 2009) that many homeowners have recently discovered that “giving up on the American Dream has its benefits”. If this sounds shocking, read on: Whitehouse writes that even as the housing bust “tarnishes the near-sacred image of homeownership, it may be clearing the way for economic recovery.” This is mostly because of mortgages that by far exceed the value of homes and bargain-basement rents, which free up lots of money for struggling families. As the US sees is lowest homeownership rates in twenty years (currently 67.6%), homeowners are seeing major benefits from shedding their mortgage debts and starting over. In fact, even efforts by the Obama administration to get banks to lower mortgage rates to keep households from foreclosing have been criticized as influencing families to make decisions that are not in their best interests.

In many places, such as Palmdale Arizona, luxury homes are being converted to rental properties using the federal Making Homes Affordable program. Former homeowners note that some of the benefits of renting include: not paying property tax, homeowners’ insurance, or dealing with repairs or maintenance.

While foreclosure still carries a stigma, and many feel taxpayers are paying for those who foreclose and can afford to pay their mortgages, these new renters are transforming the real estate market in many areas. Rental managers are being more flexible about who they take on as tenants, knowing the majority are “good people who just got loans or bought at the wrong time,” to quote a rental agent in Palmdale. Since the Obama administration committed $4.5 billion in economic stimulus money to the creation of these types of rental units, renting has become more commonplace.

Housing prices are stabilizing in the US but experts say they will not reach their boom levels again for years, if not decades. In his New York Times blog, Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor, writes that the price of a house should be about the cost of building a home in most parts of the country where land is abundant and there’s less regulation. In the denser, larger cities, land is more restricted and regulations are stricter. Glaser writes that Americans should “stop thinking of your home as an investment that will yield comparable returns to the stock market. Housing is a form of consumption that yields benefits in the form of a more pleasant life, not a bigger balance sheet.” With so many houses glutting the market, it will be awhile before prices start to rise.

These are fascinating developments in the US, where homeownership has been the mantra for sixty years. It’s too early to predict if the changes in housing tenure will last, but they certainly give us food for thought. In Canada, the affordable housing bill (C304) has again been stalled by the Prime Minister’s proroguing government, but as a private member’s bill (Vancouver East MP Libby Davies introduced it) the committees will resume their discussions once Parliament restarts in March. We still have a long way to go, but breaking away from a one-size-fits-all model for housing is a good start.

A couple of years ago, when I presented the results of my Masters thesis on the social travel patterns of youth and young adults to TransLink, I got some mixed reactions. On one hand, the younger transit planners in the room nodded and understood the changing travel patterns, with more young people choosing to remain car-free. On the other hand, the older planners expressed surprise that young people were continuing to use transit, walking, and cycling well into their 30s: given my small sample size, they thought my study only reflected real transit junkies and that the trends did not reflect trends in the general population. I’m pleased to say there are now a number of other studies out there that confirm my results that young people really do have different transportation preferences, and not just because they can’t afford to own cars.

A recent article in the LA Times portrays the younger generation as increasingly anti-car. JD Power and Associates conducted a study of hundreds of thousands of “conversations” on car-related sites, personal blogs and sites like Twitter and Facebook in order to get a sense of teens’ (12-18) and young adults’ (22-28) perceptions of cars. According to the market research firm, the reasons are only partly economic. They also found that social networking sites may be relieving the need for young people to physically meet up with friends and socialize, decreasing the need to travel. They found that young people generally had negative perceptions about the auto industry (not surprising considering the fall of the Big Three automakers and the failure to address cleaner-burning engines).

This is no news to most of us in planning, but Elizabeth Caitlin Cooper’s recent study of SFU students is definitely food for thought. Cooper’s study found that young adults who had used a U-Pass during their time as students were much more likely to be regular transit riders after they had graduated. Her thesis, “Creating a Transit Generation”, was featured on the front page of the Georgia Straight in August. Yuri Kagema wrote about decreased car use among Japanese youth in the Oregon Business News earlier this year. Car manufacturers are naturally concerned at this turn of events (the LA Times article appeared in the “car” section of their newspaper) but the news from the US, Japan, and Canada seems to indicate changing trends.

It’s definitely time to reconsider the notion that car ownership is a mark of adulthood, and that everyone automatically switches to driving when they turn 16 (particularly with graduated licensing these days!) I will be taking a deeper look at youth and young adults’ transportation trends in Canada’s 10 largest Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) in the December issue of Plan Canada, so stay tuned all you planners out there.

Most Canadians would deny that theirs is a racist country. Scholars refer to the White Paper (1976) on multiculturalism and the Multiculturalism Act (1988) as proof that Canadians “celebrate diversity.” But there are many sides to this story. While the idea of race has officially been dispelled since geneticists working on The Human Genome Project found as much genetic variation between members of the same ethnic group as between different groups, the idea of difference persists. The Multiculturalism Act encouraged people of every ethnic group to retain their own languages and cultures while integrating into their lives in Canada. Yet there are constant barriers to this in practice.

Structural and institutional racism

Canadian banks may no longer practice mortgage redlining, but there are plenty of other examples of structural and institutional racism in our society. Carlos Teixeira, an Associate Professor at UBC (Okanagan), did a study in 2006 comparing housing trajectories of Portuguese immigrants from Angola, Mozambique and the Azores. He found that black Portuguese immigrants faced significant racism in the housing market compared to white Portuguese immigrants. Robert Murdie, who has now retired from York University, found similar results in his comparison of Portuguese and Somali housing trajectories (2002). There are many studies documenting the difficulties immigrants to Canada face in the labour market: employers will not hire anyone without “Canadian experience.”

While most Canadians with anglo-sounding names would probably urge incoming immigrants to keep their names, in everyday life it is often just easier for Chinese immigrants to go by their English variants, like Josephine for Ji Ling. Indian immigrants often shorten their names to anglo-sounding equivalents: I recently met a Kal who had shortened the considerably lengthier Kalvinder, and a Dee whose full name was Deepali. Indeed, my adolescence and young adulthood was peppered with anglo-ethnic hybrid names. While we were often criticized for “wanting to become white” (by our co-ethnics) or “losing our roots” (by our white friends), in practice it is just annoying to have your name mispronounced and misspelled on a daily basis.

Philip Oreopolous’ study at the University of British Columbia suggests prejudice against ethnic names may be more than just an annoyance. A Professor of Economics at UBC, Oreopolous created 6,000 mock resumés to represent recent immigrants and Canadians with and without non-English names. They were tailored to job requirements and sent to 2,000 online job postings from employers across 20 occupational categories in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada’s largest and most multicultural city. Applicants with English-sounding names got almost 40% more callbacks from employers than those with Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani sounding names. All applicants had at least a Bachelor’s degree, plus any additional qualifications specified in the job ad, and each applicant listed three previous jobs. Changing only the location of the applicant’s job experience, from Canadian to foreign, lowered callbacks by 5-10%. Employers valued Canadian work experience far more than a Canadian education. Oreopolous concluded that there is considerable employer discrimination against ethnic Canadians and immigrants; even when the person evaluating resumes spoke with an accent or had an ethnic-sounding name, they still preferred English-sounding names by a factor of 1.42. Oreopolous points out that this type of discrimination is illegal under the Ontario Human Rights Act. In this case, both the employer and the potential employee lose; the employer has purposely overlooked a potential employee with the appropriate skills and education. Oreopolous’ results cannot help but highlight institutional racism, which is more than a little surprising in the GTA, which is 46% foreign-born; China, India, and Pakistan are the three top source countries for immigrants. In a city and region so multicultural, that has been an immigrant reception center for over a hundred years, there is no way for employers to tell whether a person is a first-, second-, or third-generation immigrant, solely by looking at their name.

Modern racism

While Oreopolous points out the obvious legal implications of this discrimination, many scholars would call this modern racism rather than institutional or structural racism. Modern racism is a slippery concept: the Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a policy in 2005 stressing the subtler forms of discrimination. Examples of modern racism in the workplace are:

  • Exclusion from formal or informal networks
  • Denial of mentoring or developmental opportunities such as secondments and training that was made available to others
  • Differential management practices such as excessive monitoring and documentation or deviation from written policies or standard practices
  • Disproportionate blame for an incident
  • Assignment to less desirable positions or job duties
  • Treating normal differences of opinion as confrontational or insubordinate
  • Characterizing normal communication as rude or aggressive
  • Penalizing a person for failing to get along with someone else, e.g. a co-worker or manager, when one of the reasons for the tension is racially discriminatory attitudes or behaviour of the co-worker or manager

Differences in name, accent or manner of speech, clothing and grooming, diet, beliefs and practices, and leisure preferences can bring out subtle acts of racism. Because of language differences, member of various ethnic groups communicate in different ways. For example, in some cultures it is normal to wait several seconds after a person is finished speaking before responding; in anglo-North American culture the pause time is under one second. Those with the longer pause time would think they were being constantly interrupted by those with the shorter pause time. Underlining, or repeating the last few words of a person’s sentence at the same time as they are speaking, is common in some cultures but considered rude by North Americans.

Another common form of subtle racism is co-opting part of an ethnic culture: it is considered fashionable for a white person to wear a sari or practice yoga, but not an Indian person. I would add that in Canada we have the practice of “celebrating diversity” by having silly cultural festivals, yet we do not tolerate difference on a daily basis. A few years ago, a friend of mine told me his daughter was asked to return one day from school because she had henna tattoos on her hands. My friend, a Canadian of Indian ethnicity who is married to a white Canadian, said the school official told him the school did not allow tattoos at school. A few months later, the same official asked if his daughter could bring some sort of Indian food to a school multicultural festival.

Assuming that members of the same ethnicity are all the same is another example of subtle racism. Most of my Indian friends fend off questions about where the good Indian restaurants are, if we like Bollywood movies, and whether we have been to India; yet in most cases, we would have been teased mercilessly for liking Indian food, movies, or culture during our childhood and adolescence. In Outliers (2008), Malcolm Gladwell addresses the assumption that Asians are better at math. We even find examples of racism in terminology: what groups fall under the heading of “Asian”, and can they be grouped together as if they are all similar?

Joe Darden, a Professor of Geography at Michigan State, argues that denial of subtle and institutional racism allows Canadians to avoid changing legislation or monitor practices that discriminate against non-whites. Along with most other scholars, Darden points out that Canada has a long history of racism in immigration policy (The Significance of White Supremacy in the Canadian Metropolis of Toronto, 2004). He suggests that changes in the economy, and not changes in attitudes among white policy makers, were responsible for the removal of discrimination in immigration policy. In the post-war era, the need for skilled workers opened up immigration to non-European countries, while racist attitudes have remained. Like many African American scholars, Darden believes that there has been a transition from overt and institutional racism to subtle racism. Although significant Aboriginal populations have lived in Canada for thousands of years and British Columbia had small Chinese and Sikh populations around the turn of the century, Canada’s racist immigration policies only began to change in 1952. Most non-Europeans in Canada entered the country after 1967 changes to the Immigration Act. Fifty years is not a lot of time to eliminate racist ideologies.

The idea of racism in Canadian society may seem impossible, but various studies have proven there are subtle forms of racism in the housing market, labour market, and in social interactions. Oreopolous’ study shows that racism is present in the most multicultural city in Canada, therefore it must exist in cities with less cultural diversity. Many believe that cross-cultural education is the key to breaking down preconceptions about other cultures, understanding how different communication styles and values. In a multicultural society, cross-cultural training should be offered for all ages, from kindergarten to university, in schools and in the workplace. But Oreopolous’ study, as well as the earlier studies by Murdie and Teixeira, indicate there is also some legislative work to be done, as well as monitoring of employers, housing agencies, real estate agents, and landlords to ensure discrimination is not a factor in hiring, promotion, renting or buying a home in Canadian cities.

This post is now closed to comments.

I wrote recently about the end of GM, and noted that many advocates of sustainable transportation were looking forward to a new era of cycling, walking, transit, and reduced car use. While I count myself among these, I also acknowledge the difficulty of this transition for most North Americans considering our economic dependence on oil and the car-dominated spatial patterns of our cities. But when Margaret Wente says the love affair is over (“Object of desire or necessary evil?”, Globe and Mail, Saturday, June 6, 2009), the times they are a-changin’.

Let me explain. Wente is conservative, irreverent, controversial. She’s stirred up so much anger the Globe won’t even allow her column to be read online anymore. She writes from a white, upper middle-class perspective, and often comments on current affairs, politics, social issues, and lifestyles. Her attitude towards people of different cultures came under fire last October when she agreed with IOC Dick Pound’s controversial comment that Canada was a country of “savages” a few hundred years ago. Many of her columns show an insensitivity to the variety of ethnic cultures and religions that make up mainstream Canadian cities. An American and naturalized Canadian, Wente once called Newfoundland “the most vast and scenic welfare ghetto in the world.” As far as social trends go, Wente is regularly surprised by lifesyles of younger people, including Facebook addiction and commitment to environmentalism. She became a climate change convert at the same time as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in September of 2006: very late in the game, when it became a sign of insanity to deny it any longer. Most environmentalists, democrats, and transportation advocates consider her laughable, a symbol of the type of conservative boomer culture that keeps Canada from achieving any real success in enviromental protection, alternative transportation, race relations or tolerance.

Today’s column is a case in point. Wente begins her article profiling people she finds truly unusual: young 20- and 30-somethings who live and work in the city and do not own cars. While this is news to none of us living in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and a growing number of other cities, Wente still finds the lifestyle surprising decades after the terms yuppie (young upwardly-mobile professionals) and dink (double income no kids) were coined. She then moves on to profiling several of these other oddball car-free types closer to her own age: “Fifteen years ago, it was almost unimaginable for a middle-aged, middle-class family man not to own a car. Such a person would have been regarded as mildly eccentric. Now I seem to be surrounded by them.” She writes about the average $8,000 it costs to run an average car each year (the Toronto Transit Commission has been advertising this info on posters for over a decade), the growing popularity of cycling and car sharing (which she feels the need to define) and of course the death of the automotive companies. But halfway through her article, there is a change in tone: Wente, that conservative bastion of right-wing ideology, concedes that “Maybe our love affair with cars is over.” In response to a man who confesses there is freedom in being car-free, she asks, “Isn’t freedom the very thing that cars used to stand for?” Halfway through the article she writes “For most of us, cars aren’t much of a status marker anymore…It’s really just a very big, very costly appliance with cup-holder.” She characterizes cars as shifting from “the wheeled embodiment of outsize ego and swattering masculinity…the product of the American empire at its peak” to representing “arrogance, deliberate disregard for the enviroment, and wretched excess.” While she confesses she still believes cars have the potential for personal liberation, progress and opportunity, “these days there are fewer and fewer who agree with me.”

Perhaps most advocates of alternative transportation would not see much hope in Wente’s article: she’ll probably continue driving until the steering wheel is pried out of her cold dead hands. But considering her personality, socio-economic profile, and personal beliefs, just admitting the times are changing indicates that, indeed, they are. They’d have to be for her to notice.

General Motors, the world’s largest car manufacturer from 1931 to 2008, filed for bankruptcy today. In consequence of its receiving more than $20 billion US in federal aid, 60% of the company will now be owned by the US Treasury. It is truly the end of an era. As Michael Moore writes, “It is with sad irony that the company which invented “planned obsolescence” — the decision to build cars that would fall apart after a few years so that the customer would then have to buy a new one — has now made itself obsolete.”

While most seem to credit GM’s lack of innovation during the 1980s as the beginning of the end, the company’s stubborn commitment to gas guzzlers was probably the culprit. Soon after gas prices reached new highs in 2007, GM was “surprised by auto buyers’ dramatic shift toward the smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and away from the pickups and sport utility vehicles that had served as its mainstay,” to quote the NY Times article cited above. Yet GM had a chance to develop cleaner-burning cars over a decade ago. Chris Paine, the writer and director of Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) documented the creation, limited commercialization, and subsequent destruction of the battery electric car in the US, in particular the GM EV1 in the 1990s. The film is particularly vicious in its portrayal of the bizarre plot by GM to convince California, the only state that had passed zero emissions regulations, that there was no demand for their product. The company’s subsequent decision to take back every single Ev1 and destroy it, as the cars were available only by lease, seems suicidal in hindsight. Just a couple of weeks ago, Katherine Mieszkowski reported on electric cars for Salon.com (“Electric cars are coming!”), saying, “We’re sorry to be buzz kills. But we’ve heard this one before. Like in 1990. And 1910. Do the automakers have the juice this time?”

Trying desperately to save its skin after two years of sharp declines in sales by the fall of 2008, GM asked for federal funding to make the switch to more efficient cars. Too little, too late. Just a few weeks ago, GM announced it would close over 2600 of its dealerships in the US, 40% of the total. In order to survive, US taxpayers would have to invest an additional $30 billion in the company; this leaves the government as “reluctant shareholders” in this little drama. Moore understandably shies away from propping the company up with taxpayer dollars: “The only way to save GM is to kill GM.”

While most are sensible of the tens of thousands of jobs lost, the fall of GM (and Chrysler a month ago) has raised hopes for alternative transportation supporters, many of whom were enraged by the US government bailouts of the Big Three Automakers in November, one of George W. Bush’s last actions in office. Moore writes, “we must immediately convert our auto factories to factories that build mass transit vehicles and alternative energy devices.” He envisions a future similar to AASHTO’s recommended plan, with high-speed rail and local LRT connecting US cities, noting that the demise of the car giant was predictable…twenty years ago, in fact. In Roger & Me (1989) Moore chronicled the negative economic impacts of GM plant closures on his hometown of Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of GM. His exposure of GM CEO Roger Smith’s actions was an early look at corporate downsizing and outsourcing to other countries (in this case, Mexico), which proved to be prescient. Smart Growth, transit-oriented development, and complete communities advocates have always said that more efficient cars are only part of the solution, which includes changing travel behaviour: increased walking, cycling, and public transit use. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has released a new report calling for a national rail policy in the US covering both passenger and freight rail and the creation of an intercity passenger rail account, funded at $35 billion over six years. The Federal Government plans to distribute $8 billion in economic recovery grant funds for intercity passenger rail, and AASHTO Board of Directors wasted no time in presenting its policy recommendations, which include high-speed rail corridors, regional corridors, and long-distance rail service. Even developers are excited, as they see prime sites opening up with the closure of GM and Chrysler dealerships.

In addition to the federal economic recovery grant, the US may well see their first national regulation on greenhouse gases. If the proposed regulation passes, cars would have to be 40% more fuel efficient than they are now. As Mieszkowski reports, Ford recently declared it would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convert an SUV plant near Detroit to churn out the Ford Focus. By 2011, the plant would be producing battery-electric versions of the diminutive car. Nissan recently claimed that 10 percent of its new cars will be electric by 2016. Mitsubishi plans to unleash its i-MiEV in Japan this year and bring it to the U.S. in 2012. Toyota, which has dominated the hybrid market with its Prius, plans to launch an electric Prius by 2012. And Chevrolet has launched the Volt, which promises to go 40 miles on its electric battery before switching to gas. The Mini Cooper’s Mini E has been released to 450 test drivers in three states. Mieskowski’s sources tell her that the only reason car companies are going electric is to get at those federal subsidies; at any rate, companies will be forced to kill off their gas-guzzling models and improve fuel efficiency on all their combustion engines while supporting electric technology.

All told, the death of GM is probably the best thing for America. Let’s watch those VMT plummet while walking, cycling, and transit become as attractive as they once were before the onset of the Oil and Gas Era. And hopefully, let’s see the thousands of newly-unemployed auto workers and retailers back at work in alternative transportation production and infrastructure development.