Skateboarding, Sprawl and Carbon Control

  • AuthorAndy Thomson
  • Date 3 March 2019
  • CategoryPlanning Policy Research Transportation

The neighbourhood I grew up in, Burlington, Canada was about 1km by 1km. It was a classic mix of 1970’s social housing towers with townhouses and townhouses with public hallways we called ‘maisonettes’. As a kid we used to play on the street.  Right in the middle of it. There were hockey nets, bicycles with skipping ropes tied to the back of banana seats pulling skateboarders, plywood BMX ramps, big-wheels,  soap-box derby cars, girls on steel roller skates pushing big discarded tires with sticks, games of skipping rope and hopscotch, street hockey and four-square. There were kool-aid stands, mobs of kids playing hide & go seek, you name it – activity everywhere outside – and ALL OVER THE STREET! After rush-hour or when the cars started to arrive home, the kids respectfully got out of the way but drivers tended to watch with patience and bemusement at these scenes of unfettered and joyful childhood.  I can scarcely believe the scene I just described above because it is practically absurd from today’s perspective. Fast forward to 2019 and on our local street corner cars hop the curb or collide with one another on about a monthly basis. Kids are seldom seen outdoors except in transit to or from school or activities, and most of them in cars or buses. Cars form endless lines in front of schools as kids are chauffeured everywhere.  If there were kids on our street – one would wonder ‘what the hell is wrong with them!?! Are they nuts?!!’ In fact the only people on our streets are well, …not well.

Burlington, Ontario is approximately 10km across by 17km from North to South, and has a population of 193,871

Burlington, Ontario is approximately 10km across by 17km from North to South, and has a population of 193,871. Population Density: 757ppl/km²

Stuttgart, Germany is half the width at 5km wide, but has three times the population at 612,441. Population Density: 153,000ppl/km²

As I grew older and taller, our neighbourhood games stretched their geographic bounds, and we spent more time traversing the city on bicycles, city buses, skateboards, and endless walking. Our 1km by 1km neighbourhood expanded to 10km by 10km. Only a privileged few were allowed to drive the family clunker. The distances for walking, and for skateboarding were palpably far. Too far. So far that I remember puzzling on a few scorching Summer days just who the hell planned all of this with my friend’s houses 5 to 10km away from mine, the maze-like suburbs, these highway-like 6-lane urban arteries, this really unfriendly and at this speed, frankly ugly infrastructure of strip malls, parking lots and bleak intersections. This experience of ‘too far’ and ‘too much pavement’ I believe, is why so many of us ended up eventually ditching the skateboards, bicycles and roller skates and just buying a damned car already. This is the classic Catch-22 of urban planning. Unless walkable, skateboard-able communities are intentionally designed, and pleasurable to navigate with slower modes of transport, reliance on the automobile is a foregone conclusion.

Burlington Sprawl, ca. 1970. For decades Burlington consisted of market-garden farms surrounded by residential enclaves and a few key retail hubs such as the Burlington Mall, at upper left.

In 1994 I moved to study architecture at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. I also wanted to learn about biodynamic gardening and off-grid living while I was there and so squatted, with permission, on a local dairy farm. To get from the farm where I lived to work, or to my classes, I had to ride my bike through six distinct villages. Distinct because they had an edge, residential quarters, and a centre. All of these villages surrounded by woods and farmland, with carefully planned recreational paths or multi-modal highways between them. It was always possible to travel just as easily by bicycle, car, or rail. This was my introduction to city and village planning that long pre-dated the car. Even after the 20th century, Planning restrictions maintained hard limits on edges and centres, preserving these development patterns for the enjoyment and livelihood of future generations. Here is what my bike ride looked like. 

My daily commute passed through six distinct towns in the space of 16km

What is CRAZY to me now is how close together everything in Stuttgart is! Downtown is 2km by 2km. Stuttgart has a population of 612,441 ppl. whereas Burlington is about 16km x 16km and has a population of 193,871. That represents a density of 153,000 ppl/km² vs. 757 ppl/km²

This network of dense villages and towns on the periphery of major cities is easily connected with mass transit on rails with affordable fares. Valuable farmland is rarely paved over for strip malls or big box stores. As our ecological land planning classes emphasized, “Backpacks are carried by the shoulders, not the earlobes”, which is to say, IKEA had to locate next to a highway on the outskirts of town on low-value soil that did not impact negatively on the regional watershed. But alas, even Germany has a car problem. Even with it’s low-carbon urban density and massive surge in renewable power, Germany struggles with the car, as reported here by Wired Magazine: https://www.wired.com/story/germany-proves-cars-must-die/

So how do we connect the idea of electric skateboards  with global trends in planning, architecture, and a low carbon future? As I see it, micro-electric vehicles, also known as ‘last mile’ vehicles may hold the key to viable inner-city transportation. If cars are moving primarily people, 99% of the time, what does the car look like without the body, frame, and even without the roads? Look at the picture at the top of this post. This is my new ride, it’s called a onewheel and it rides like a skateboard, feels like a snowboard, has a 750 Watt motor and integral headlights and tail-lights, and goes 22km on a single charge. What’s more I can pick it up and walk into stores, and I can even ride it with a coffee in one hand, it’s self-balancing algorithm is that precise. Am I proposing that my mother ride one of these to grab a bag of milk? Maybe not but there are electric scooters, trikes and bikes with the same kind of power and range. In fact these mini-EV’s can easily whisk anyone across the 10km of Burlington, or between villages and towns, or anywhere inside a city on a combination of bike paths, streets, sidewalks and parklands as needed. They are quiet, speed limited, and most of all FUN! Now don’t get me wrong, a reader of this article rightly pointed out that we have an obesity epidemic in North America, and that I need to be very clear to include bicycles and bicycle infrastructure in this conversation. I hope I can make it clear that the same infrastructure that is developed for bicycles can and should be multi-modal. Micro-EV’s won’t make anyone fit, but the one very interesting aspect of them is how tiny they can be, and so they don’t pose space burdens on private or public spaces, and one can wear a three piece suit and ride a onewheel to a meeting without breaking a sweat. It’s not an alternative to a proper fitness regime but it beats the heck out of getting somewhere nearby in a car, no time wasted searching for parking or even locking up a bike, and as such it’s one of the fastest ways to just get out the door, no spandex, no locks, no delays.

A heroic solution is needed in North America, Germany and everywhere. Enter the Hero: Electrified mini-vehicles.

In a TED talk I just watched, British architect Norman Foster explained how planning and density play a critical role in the transportation component of the typical pie chart of urban energy consumption, where typically a 40% slice is Buildings, 30% Transportation, and 20% Industry. I prefer to see this data as flows because it is not a pie, it’s more metabolic and constant and linear than that, like a tailpipe. Foster’s point was more than half of the Transport sector emissions are from just mindless commuting to and from work. And so really, if commuting can be eliminated or ‘collapsed’ by better planning with specific density targets, then walking, bicycling and mass transit become effective. But even without increased density, If I had a better way to get from a transit hub to my destination, I’d never need a car – and this is the point.

Per the latest IPCC Report, the New York Times summarizes thus: “The next 10 years are absolutely crucial: Emissions will have to be on a sharp downward path by 2030 for any hope of success. Greenhouse gases must be cut nearly in half from 2010 levels. Renewable energy sources must increase from about 20 percent of the electricity mix today to as much as 67 percent. The use of coal would need to be phased out, vanishing almost entirely by midcentury.”

In conclusion, I would state that as in Europe, North American planners really need to seriously re-evaluate the function of farmland. If transportation-related carbon emissions are to be radically cut, we need to rely on more local food production. No salad from California, but from my local greenhouse or market garden instead, boosting the local economy and local livelihoods. We need to reconsider the quality of life that has been lost for generations of children in towns and cities because of the priority and dominance of the automobile in planning decisions. Alternatives to car-centric thinking cannot emerge if they are not planned for. We need better multi-modal transportation arterials that consider everything else that is not a car. Greenways, beltways, bike paths and parklands need to be planned to include the rapid and convenient connection of urban amenities, shops and social hubs and not result in the limited, orphaned and fragmented mess that we typically see. We need to embrace alternative ‘last-mile’ solutions such as micro-EV’s and not consider them a nuisance as they are integral to the development of safer, quieter and more enjoyable transportation options. In Germany, there is always a rail car dedicated for bicycles on Inter-City trains. The same thinking needs to be considered in our rail and subway systems – I’m looking at you Metrolinx. Politicians and police need help to understand that micro-EV’s aren’t dangerous toys (the danger is mostly due to the interface with cars) but the green vehicles of the future. Properly considered, the transportation CO2 emissions related to architecture and planning can effectively be zeroed-out by 2050 if we think about how we can connect kids, teens, adults and seniors with the places they need to be, and provide work opportunities where they live. Micro-EV’s have closed this gap already by early adopters. What’s more, the future should be fun, and judging from the comments below, euphoric even!

Just to confirm my hunch, I asked a group of Onewheel owners on Facebook if the Onewheel has replaced their car for short trips. Within minutes dozens replied, the responses are worth sharing here:

  1. Onewheel replaced my daily Lyft rides and moped rides that’s how I justified the pricetag also got an xr coming and that’s justified because it’s still replacing Lyft rides for me and in generally the same amount of time cause of traffic
  2. Every trip
  3. Every week I try to commute at least twice. The freedom of the float really is just so cathartic.
  4. Sold my van to buy it
  5. I’m willing to by tampons now.
  6. I do. There’s a dollar general a few blocks away
  7. I ride to work as much as I can when it’s dry. My HS students and coworkers think I should grow up 🤣 #jellymuch?
  8. Also for local errands, of course. It’s nuts to drive your hummer few blocks for a gallon of milkI ride to the local coffee shop daily to avoid driving around for 10-15 min trying to find parking. I ride to drop off packages at the UPS store and to pick up food for the same reason.
  9. I sold my car and my OW is my only transportation.
  10. Everyday. I ride mine 3.5 miles to the train, take the train downtown, then ride another 3/4 of a mile to work… then the same trip in reverse after work. Aside from that, I use it to get lunch when I want to go eat something that’s far from me.
  11. I honestly just try to use it as much as possible because it’s just that enjoyable. I love this thing.
  12. I call my onewheel my short range transportation I drive my truck to a location and if I have to go anywhere during the day within about 2 miles I’m on my onewheel. It’s the same way at my house it’s actually faster by 2 minutes to run to the local store on my onewheel then driving my truck due to the one way streets.
  13. I use it for short trips and errands all the time in the summer, like going to the gym or grabbing a few things from the store. Even visiting people in the city. I used my car way less last year because of the one wheel. And we plan to use them for the same thing when we move into the Skoolie, it will be our primary short-range transport.
  14. I have been since I got it. About 8-10 miles daily. I’m actually getting ready to go now even thought it’s cold AF.
  15. I always use my board
  16. Good story. It reminded me of better times
  17. I tried riding 1.2 miles to replenish my 5 gallon jug of water… Don’t think I’ll do that again in the near future haha
  18. Our city is seeming to take the route of this is the future, and embracing these types of vehicles. They even went so far as asking for community survey to anticipate infrastructure to support.
  19. No more car, only one wheel for me
  20. I drive so much less nowadays. I ride my XR from my house to the train, and all around London to clients and meetings. My car is for long journeys and for taking my Onewheel to places where I can ride around.
  21. Short rides like 5 miles and under, like post office, grocery, lottery tickets.
  22. I’m moving my office into town and will be joining Fire department and will be using it to go on calls it will take me two minutes to get to firehouse going through park , it would take me 5 in the car.
  23. All the time. There’s a grocery store and post office a little more than 1km away from me. Easily short enough for a walk, but the kicker is in that 1km there is around a 300’ elevation rise. In other words, one tiring ass hill. 
    I have to make very regular trips there and using my OW has seriously cut back on my gas usage for that and other short trip errands.
  24. All the time if not raining… I even invent th8ngs to do
  25. Sold my moped, using only the OW now for any movement
  26. I’m actually bummed out when it’s raining here in Miami, because I have to drive to the train station instead of riding my board. Also, I forgot to mention earlier that the Onewheel is an amazing stress reliever after a long day at work. It definitely gets you in a good mood, pretty much instantly.
  27. I’m sure I’ve got at least 700 miles logged that would’ve been by car.

References:

  1. Onewheel Owner’s Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/onewheelownersgroup
  2. Onewheel Legal Freedoms: https://www.facebook.com/groups/270423860123092/
  3. A good example of a progressive legalistic description from Washington State: (https://app.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=46.04.1695
  4. Alternative to Onewheel for non-skaters: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/urmo/urmo-your-ultra-light-foldable-urban-electric-vehi#
  5. Canada: https://www.macleans.ca/society/but-its-not-a-skateboard/
  6. Canada: https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/ontario-e-bike-rider-wins-court-battle-after-police-officer-gave-him-11000-in-fines-over-broken-pedal
  7. Ontario – MTO: http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/driver/electric-bicycles-faq.shtml
  8. Ontario – MTO: Ebike defined: handlebars: http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/driver/electric-bicycles.shtml
  9. Ontario – 2017 LSV Ontario: http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/vehicles/low-speed-vehicles.shtml
  10. Ontario – Belleville: https://globalnews.ca/news/4370580/belleville-modified-e-bikes/
  11. Ontario – Brantford: http://www.brantford.ca/pdfs/bylaws/616.pdf
  12. Ontario – Barrie: https://www.barriepolice.ca/newsroom/2018/03/news-release-march-22-2018
  13. Ontario – Barrie: https://barrie.ctvnews.ca/e-bike-issues-have-police-reminding-riders-to-know-the-rules-1.1463833
  14. Ontario – Barrie: https://barrie.ctvnews.ca/rules-of-the-road-for-scooters-and-ebikes-1.2331126
  15. Ontario – Burlington: https://www.burlington.ca/uploads/20677/doc_636035612212864895.pdf
  16. Ontario – Toronto: https://scooteretti.com/electric-bike-electric-scooter-laws-regulations-canada/
  17. Ontario – Toronto: no red path, bike lanes only: https://www.toronto.ca/311/knowledgebase/kb/docs/articles/transportation-services/transportation-infrastructure-management/cycling-infrastructure-and-programs/electric-bicycles-e-bikes-power-assisted-bicycles-city-streets-parks-bike-lanes.html
  18. Vancouver: https://council.vancouver.ca/20151210/documents/ptec7.pdf
  19. Phys-ed guidelines: http://safety.ophea.net/safety-plan/168/1832
  20. California Scooter Issues: https://nationalpost.com/pmn/news-pmn/san-francisco-to-require-permits-for-rental-scooters

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  • Paula Louise Salvador 2 weeks ago

    Great solutions, Andy. Keep up your advocacy as well as your green design and architecture work. Paula Louise Salvador