“Getting to zero” is a lousy goal

Also published on Resilience

In an alternate reality, gradually moving toward a zero-carbon-emission economy and arriving there in two or three decades would be a laudable accomplishment.

In an alternate reality –   for example, the reality that might result from turning the clock back to 1975 – a twenty-five year process of eliminating all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions could avert a climate crisis.

But in our reality in 2022, with far too much carbon dioxide already flowing through the atmosphere and the climate crisis worsening every year, knowingly emitting more greenhouse gases for another two decades is a shockingly cavalier dance with destruction.

This understanding of the climate crisis guides the work of Bruce King and Chris Magwood. Their own field of construction, they write, can, and indeed must, become a net storer of carbon – and not by 2050 by rather by the early 2030’s.

Their new book Build Beyond Zero (Island Press, June 2022) puts the focus on so-called “embodied emissions”, also known more clearly as “upfront emissions”. The construction industry accounts for up to 15 percent of global warming emissions, and most of the emissions occur during manufacturing of building materials.

No matter how parsimonious new buildings might be with energy during their operating lifetimes, an upfront burst of carbon emissions has global warming impact when we can least afford it: right away. “A ton of emissions released today,” write King and Magwood, “has far more climate impact than a ton of emissions released a decade from now.”

Emissions released today, they emphasize, push us immediately closer to climate crisis tipping points, and emissions released today will continue to heat the globe throughout the life of a building.

Their goal, then, is to push the construction industry as a whole to grapple with the crucial issue of upfront emissions. The construction industry can, they believe, rapidly transform into a very significant net sequesterer of carbon emissions.

 That goal is expressed in their “15 x 50” graph.

By 2050, Bruce King and Chris Magwood say, the construction industry can and should sequester a net 15 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Graphic from Build Beyond Zero, Island Press, 2022, page 238.

A wide range of building materials are now or can become net storers of carbon – and those that can’t must be rapidly phased out of production or minimized.

The bulk of Build Beyond Zero consists of careful examination of major categories of building materials, plus consideration of different stages including construction, demolition, or disassembly and re-use.

Concrete – by far the largest category of building material by weight and by current emissions –is a major focus of research. King and Magwood outline many methods that are already available to reduce the carbon intensity of concrete production, as well as potential methods that could allow the net storage of carbon within concrete.

Equally important, though, are construction materials that can reduce and in some cases eliminate the use of concrete – for example, adobe and rammed earth walls and floors.

By far the largest share of carbon sequestration in buildings could come from biogenic sources ranging from timber to straw to new materials produced by fungal mycelia or algae.

Harvesting homes

“Tall timber” is a popular buzzphrase for building methods that can sequester carbon within building structures, but King and Magwood are more excited about much smaller plant materials such as wheat straw or rice hulls. Their discussion of the pros and cons of increased use of wood products is enlightening.

“Assessing the degree of carbon storage offered by timber products is not at all straightforward. Far from being the poster child for carbon-storing building, the use of timber in buildings requires a very nuanced understanding of supply chain issues and forest-level carbon stocks in order to be certain we’re not doing harm in the process of trying to do good.” (Build Beyond Zero, page 111)

First, when trees are cut down typically only half of the above-ground biomass makes it into building products; the rest decomposes and otherwise emits its stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Second, particularly where a large stand of trees is clear-cut and the ground is exposed to the elements, much of the below-ground stored carbon also returns to the atmosphere. Third, even once a replacement stand of trees has grown up, a monoculture stand seldom stores as much carbon as the original forest did, and the monoculture is also a big loss for biodiversity.

To the extent that we do harvest trees for construction, then, “We need to take responsibility for ensuring that we are growing forests at a rate that far exceeds our removals from them. Notice that we are talking about growing forests and not just planting trees.” (page 115)

This careful nuance is not always evident in their discussion of agricultural residues, in my opinion. The “15 X 50” goal includes the conversion of huge quantities of so-called “residues” – wheat straw, rice hulls, and sunflower stalk pith, to give a few examples – into long-lasting building materials. But what effects would this have on the long-term health of agricultural soils, if most of these so-called residues are routinely removed from the agricultural cycle rather than being returned to the soil? What level of such total-plant harvesting is truly sustainable?

Yet there is obvious appeal in the use of more fast-growing small plants as building material. Straw can sequester about twice as much carbon per hectare per year as forests do, while “the carbon sequestration and storage efficiency of hemp biomass is an order of magnitude higher than that of trees or straw.” (page 99)

There are many existing methods to turn small plants into building materials, ranging from structural supports to insulation to long-lasting, non-toxic finishes. It is reasonable to hope for the creation of many more such building materials, if industry can develop new carbon-emissions-free adhesives to help shape fibers and particles into a myriad of shapes. King and Magwood note that existing industrial practices are likely to act as hurdles in this quest:

“Nature provides plenty of examples and clues for making nontoxic bioadhesives in species such as mussels and spiders. However, the introduction and scaling of these potentially game-changing materials is so far hampered in the same way as bioplastics: by an extremely risk-averse construction industry and by a petrochemical industry keen to keep and expand market share ….” (page 162) 

Straw-bale construction project in Australia, 2012. Photo by Brett and Sue Coulstock, accessed via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

We don’t have 30 more years

Build Beyond Zero is a comprehensive and clear overview of construction practices and their potential climate impact in the near future. It does not, however, provide any “how-to” lessons for would-be builders or renovators to use in their own projects. For that purpose, both King and Magwood have already published extensively in books such as Essential Hempcrete Construction: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide; Essential Prefab Straw Bale Construction: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide; and Buildings of Earth and Straw: Structural Design for Rammed Earth and Straw Bale Architecture.

In Build Beyond Zero, King and Magwood offer an essential manifesto for anyone involved in commissioning or carrying out construction or renovation, anyone involved in the production of building materials, anyone involved in the establishment or modification of building codes, anyone involved in construction education.

It’s time for everyone involved with construction to become climate-literate, and to realize that upfront carbon emissions from buildings are as important if not more important than operating emissions during the buildings’ lifetimes. It’s time to realize that construction, perhaps more than most industries, has the capability of going beyond zero to become a significant net storer of carbon.

That opportunity represents an urgent task:

“It has taken more than 30 years for energy efficiency to approach a central role in building sector education …. We can’t wait that long to teach people how to make carbon-storing buildings. If we follow the usual path, the climate will be long past repair by the time enough designers and builders have learned how to fix it.” (page 173)

With global greenhouse gases already at catastrophic levels, we have dug ourselves into a deep hole and it’s nowhere near enough to gradually slow down and then stop digging deeper – we also need to fill that hole, ASAP.

As Build Beyond Zero puts it, “‘Getting to zero,” to repeat one more time, is a lousy goal, or anyway incomplete. You make a mess, you clean it up, as my mother would say. You don’t just stop messing, you also start cleaning.”


Photo at top of page: Limestone quarry and cement kiln, Bowmanville Ontario, winter 2016.

attention to scale

PHOTO POST

It’s a great idea – but does it scale? 

“Warm-blooded flying dinosaur” is not only a time-tested concept, but one that works at a wide range of scales. This post stars the tiniest bird in our neighbourhood – but a distant relative a thousand times as big also makes an appearance.

If we expand the view beyond birds to include the smallest insects one can see clearly with the naked eye, I guess we would need two or three more zeroes to express the scale range.

But enough of arithmetic.

At the foot of a hummingbird

We leave plenty of room in our garden for Bergamot, not only because the long-lasting flowers are gorgeous, but because we can expect Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds to drop by many times a day to sip the nectar.

When there are no hummingbirds to be seen, we might spot equally beautiful, though much smaller, flying insects.

Dragonfly on Bergamot

Angel Dance (Hoverfly on Bergamot)

This year the Hummingbirds have become quite accustomed to our presence, and now that the fledglings are also feeding we can watch from a distance of just a couple of meters.

Totally tubular

Face-on

A clothes-line proves a perfect resting place with a great view across the gardens.

Clothes-line with Hummingbird

Due to the nearby marsh we see many damselflies and dragonflies in the garden, including this male Long-Tailed Skimmer.

Long-Tailed Skimmer

It can be difficult to get away from the gardens at this time of year but there was a special show in the marsh one recent evening.

Gathering of Swallows

Scores of Northern Rough-Winged Swallows were chattering up a storm, with many swooping low over the water in pursuit of insects, then suddenly switching places with others to sit on slender reed perches while they groomed themselves.

Judging by the vivid highlights on their wings I’m thinking some of these were juveniles, said to have cinnamon streaks which the adults lack.

Sitting Swallow

As the sun sank low that evening a Great Blue Heron flew by.

Blue Streak

And as the sun rose over the garden in the morning, a hummingbird was waiting in a cherry tree.

Morning’s glow

as big as life

PHOTO POST

On a bright day in July it’s hard to go a more than a few fathoms in any direction without coming across some arresting sight.

Just off the front step, a web of spider silk has caught the rain over a cluster of sedums.

Suspended Rain

At the end of the lawn, Black Mud-Dauber Wasps favour a flowering Rue.

Mud-Dauber Wasp on Rue

Scattered throughout the marsh are floating yellow pond lilies.

Pond Lily by Setting Sun

It’s a safe bet that Sora have raised their young in this marsh every year, but I had never seen a juvenile Sora until a few nights ago. Then, just an hour before sunset, a bright shaft of light chanced across a young Sora and there it was, big as life.

Shaft of Light

The next night, same time, same place, I drifted by again and saw not one but two young Sora.

Sora on quiet evening

Portrait of a Young Sora

On a bright July morning, the nearby savannah is alive with Cedar Waxwing, Goldfinch, Savannah Sparrow and Willow Flycatcher*.

Outlook is Bright

A short rest

Savannah Sparrow

Flycatcher on a very green morning

In meadows, gardens and orchards another flashy creature has made its appearance. As beautiful as Popillia japonica may be, it is not a welcome sight as it does a lot of damage to fruit and vegetable crops.

Popillia japonica

Bees moving between Geranium flowers, on the other hand, are a sight for sore eyes.

I can’t stay long

Roadsides are festooned with blue Chicory, which attract pollinators including the Eastern Calligrapher fly.

Calligrapher on Chicory

Back home in the vegetable garden, the blossoms of sugar-snap peas would be beautiful even without the promise of the delicious green pods just a week away.

Real Sweet


* Flycatchers are reputed to be extremely difficult to identify unless you hear the bird’s song, and this one didn’t sing for me. Based on the pictures I consulted, a Willow Flycatcher was the closest match – but I’m no ornithologist.

Segregation, block by block

Also published on Resilience

Is the purpose of zoning to ensure that towns and cities develop according to a rational plan? Does zoning protect the natural environment? Does zoning help promote affordable housing? Does zoning protect residents from the air pollution, noise pollution  and dangers from industrial complexes or busy highways?

To begin to answer these questions, consider this example from M. Nolan Gray’s new book Arbitrary Lines:

“It remains zoning ‘best practice’ that single-family residential districts should be ‘buffered’ from bothersome industrial and commercial districts by multifamily residential districts. This reflects zoning’s modus operandi of protecting single-family houses at all costs, but it makes no sense from a land-use compatibility perspective. While a handful of generally more affluent homeowners may be better off, it comes at the cost of many hundreds more less affluent residents suffering a lower quality of life.” (M. Nolan Gray, page 138)

Arbitrary Lines by M. Nolan Gray is published by Island Press, June 2022.

The intensification of inequality, Gray argues, is not an inadvertent side-effect of zoning, but its central purpose.

If you are interested in affordable housing, housing equity,  environmental justice, reduction of carbon emissions, adequate public transit, or streets that are safe for walking and cycling, Arbitrary Lines is an excellent resource in understanding how American cities got the way they are and how they might be changed for the better. (The book doesn’t discuss Canada, but much of Gray’s argument seems readily applicable to Canadian cities and suburbs.)

In part one and part two of this series, we looked at the complex matrix of causes that explain why “accidents”, far from being randomly distributed, happen disproportionately to disadvantaged people. In There Are No Accidents Jessie Singer writes, “Accidents are the predictable result of unequal power in every form – physical and systemic. Across the United States, all the places where a person is most likely to die by accident are poor. America’s safest corners are all wealthy.” (Singer, page 13)

Gray does not deal directly with traffic accidents, or mortality due in whole or part to contaminants from pollution sources close to poor neighbourhoods. His lucid explanation of zoning, however, helps us understand one key mechanism by which disadvantaged people are confined to unhealthy, dangerous, unpleasant places to live.

‘Technocratic apartheid’

Zoning codes in the US today make no mention of race, but Gray traces the history of zoning back to explicitly racist goals. In the early 20th century, he says, zoning laws were adopted most commonly in southern cities for the express purposes of enforcing racial segregation. As courts became less tolerant of open racism, they nonetheless put a stamp of approval on economic segregation. Given the skewed distribution of wealth, economic segregation usually resulted in or preserved de facto racial segregation as well.

The central feature and overriding purpose of zoning was to restrict the best housing districts to affluent people. Zoning accomplishes this in two ways. First, in large areas of cities and especially of suburbs the only housing allowed is single-family housing, one house per lot. Second, minimum lot sizes and minimum floor space sizes ensure that homes are larger and more expensive than they would be if left to the “free market”.

The result, across vast swaths of urban America, is that low-density residential areas have been mandated to remain low-density. People who can’t afford to buy a house, but have the means to rent an apartment, are unsubtly told to look in other parts of town.

Gray terms this segregation “a kind of technocratic apartheid,” and notes that “Combined with other planning initiatives, zoning largely succeeded in preserving segregation where it existed and instituting segregation where it didn’t.” (Gray, page 81) He cites one study that found “over 80 percent of all large metropolitan areas in the US were more racially segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990. Today, racial segregation is most acute not in the South but in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions.” (Gray, page 169)

Public transit? The numbers don’t add up.

From an environmental and transportation equity point of view, a major effect of zoning is that it makes good public transit unfeasible in most urban areas. Gray explains:

“There is a reasonable consensus among transportation planners that a city needs densities of at least seven dwelling units per acre to support the absolute baseline of transit: a bus that stops every thirty minutes. To get more reliable service, like bus rapid transit or light-rail service, a city needs … approximately fifteen units per acre. The standard detached single-family residential district—which forms the basis of zoning and remains mapped in the vast majority of most cities—supports a maximum density of approximately five dwelling units per acre. That is to say, zoning makes efficient transit effectively illegal in large swaths of our cities, to say nothing of our suburbs.” (Gray, page 101)

Coupled with the nearly ubiquitous adoption of rules mandating more parking space than would otherwise be built, the single-family housing and minimum lot size provisions of zoning are a disaster both for affordable housing and for environmentally-friendly housing. Typical American zoning, Gray says, “assumes universal car ownership and prohibits efficient apartment living. But it also just plain wastes space: if you didn’t know any better, you might be forgiven for thinking that your local zoning ordinance was carefully calibrated to use up as much land as possible.” (Gray, page 96)

Zoning regimes came into wide use in the mid-twentieth century and became notably stricter in the 1970s. In Gray’s view the current housing affordability crisis is the result of cities spending “the past fifty years using zoning to prevent new housing supply from meeting demand.” This succeeded in boosting values of properties owned by the already affluent, but eventually housing affordability became a problem not only for those at the bottom of the housing market but for most Americans. That is one impetus, Gray explains, for a recent movement to curb the worst features of zoning. While this movement is a welcome development, Gray argues zoning should be abolished, not merely reformed. Near the end of Arbitrary Lines, he explains many other planning and regulatory frameworks that can do much more good and much less harm than zoning.

There is one part of his argument that I found shaky. He believes that the abolition of zoning will restore economic growth by promoting movement to the “most productive” cities, and that “there is no reason to believe that there is an upper bound to the potential innovation that could come from growing cities.” (Gray, page 72) At root the argument is based on his acceptance that income is “a useful proxy for productivity” – a dubious proposition in my view. That issue aside, Arbitrary Lines is well researched, well illustrated, well reasoned and well written.

The book is detailed and wide-ranging, but unlike a typical big-city zoning document it is never boring or obscure. For environmentalists and urban justice activists Arbitrary Lines is highly recommended.


Image at top of page: detail from Winnipeg zoning map, 1947, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

bright lights of june

PHOTO POST

In the first week of June, the last of the far-north migratory birds were still passing through. By the end of the month some local nesters were ushering fledglings out into the world.

Ruddy Turnstones and Red Knots at Port Darlington breakwater, June 5, 2022

In the meantime a wide variety of flowering plants made up for a chilly spring by growing inches a day – aided by lots of sunshine and frequent rains.

Primrose rays

But bees of all sorts have been noticeably, worryingly scarce this year. I was glad to see this bumblebee shake off the water and resume flying after a drenching shower.

Bumblebee shower

Some of the beautiful insects I first mistook for solitary bee species turned out to be flies of the hover fly family (aka “flower flies”, aka “Syrphid flies”). They make their way from flower to flower harvesting pollen, so they are important pollinators.

Fleabane after rain

Daisy fleabane is one of the first meadow flowers in our yard each spring, and the hover flies are busy.

Fleabane and Syrphid

Daisy dew

A spread of white daisies also beckons pollinators to unmown areas of the yard.

Daisy flower fly 1

Daisy flower fly 2

Virginia spiderwort blossoms, each only the size of a twenty-five cent piece, look a deep blue in shade and purple-lavender in full sun.

Virginia Spiderwort

Though I spotted what appeared to be a single small grey bumblebee visiting the spiderwort, it didn’t stick around for a photo. There was a much smaller creature grasping the spiderwort’s yellow anther – not a bee as I first thought, but likely a hover fly known as the Eastern Calligrapher.

Eastern Calligrapher

Meanwhile, overhead, the Baltimore Orioles have filled the air with chatter and song – especially as the fledglings were coaxed out of the nest.

It’s time to go

It’s such a nice nest

Perhaps the most ancient beginning-of-summer ritual, in these parts, is the march of turtles to lay their eggs. This Painted Turtle came out of the marsh and made her way across the lawn to the sand. She dug a hole for a nest just a few meters away from last year’s chosen spot, she deposited her eggs, she carefully covered them, and she tamped down the sand. We looked away for a moment, and she was gone.

Turtle procession

The high cost of speed

Also published on Resilience

Imagine that we used a really crazy method to establish speed limits. We could start by recording the speeds of all drivers on a given stretch of roadway. Then, without any clear evidence of what a safe speed might be, we might argue that the great majority of people drive too fast, and therefore the maximum legal speed will be set as that speed exceeded by 85 percent of drivers. Only the slowest 15 percent of drivers, in this scenario, would be considered to be driving within the legal limit.

If you have a passing familiarity with the legal framework of car culture, you will recognize the above as a simple inversion of the common 85th percentile rule used by traffic engineers throughout North America. Following this guideline, driver speeds are recorded, engineers determine the speed exceeded by only 15 per cent of the drivers, and that speed is deemed an appropriate speed limit for the given roadway. All the other drivers – 85 per cent – will then be driving within the speed limit.

Two recent books argue that the 85th percentile guideline is as arbitrary and misguided as it sounds. In There Are No Accidents, (Simon & Schuster, 2022; reviewed here last week), Jessie Singer summarizes the 85th percentile rule this way:

“Most speed limits are not based on physics or crash test expertise but simply the upper limit of what most amateur drivers feel is safe. A speed limit is the perceived safe speed of a road, not the actual risk of traveling that speed on that road.” (Singer, page 95)

Singer draws on the work of Eric Dumbaugh, who has a PhD in civil engineering and teaches urban planning at Florida Atlantic University. Dumbaugh has analyzed tens of thousands of traffic crashes in urban environments in the US. He concluded that the traffic engineering guidelines used for decades are based on false information, are often misapplied, and result in dangerous conditions on urban roadways. Absent physical evidence of what constitutes a safe driving speed, engineers simply assume that most drivers drive at a safe speed. Dumbaugh doesn’t mince words:

“Traffic engineering is a fraud discipline. It presumes knowledge on road safety that it doesn’t have and it educates people generation after generation on information that is incorrect.” (quoted by Singer, page 96)

The dangerous conditions on roadways have contributed to thirty thousand or more deaths in the US every year since 1946. But the engineers who design the roadways cannot be faulted, so long as they have applied the rules passed down to them in standard traffic engineering manuals.

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer was published by Wiley in 2021.

Similar themes are also a major focus in an excellent book by Charles Marohn Jr., Confessions of a Recovering Engineer (Wiley, 2021). Marohn was trained as a civil engineer, and for the first part of his career he worked as a traffic engineer designing what he saw at the time as “improvements” to roadways in small cities. Over time he began to question the ideas he had absorbed in his education and the guidelines that he followed in his engineering practice.

Marohn is now founder and president of Strong Towns. He has emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of the planning principles underlying American suburbia, and the design guidelines used to justify the arterial roads in those suburbs. He writes,

“The injuries and deaths, the destruction of wealth and stagnating of neighborhoods, the unfathomable backlog of maintenance costs with which most American cities struggle, are all a byproduct of the values at the heart of traffic engineering.” (Marohn, page 5)

These values are held so widely and deeply, Marohn says, that they are seldom questioned or even acknowledged. These values include :

“• Faster speeds are better than slower speeds..
• Access to distant locations by automobile is more important than access to local destinations by walking or biking. …
• At intersections, minimizing delay for automobile traffic is more important than minimizing delay for people walking or biking.” (Marohn, page 12)

Working from his own experience as a traffic engineer, Marohn explains the order in which issues are considered when designing a new or “improved” roadway. First the engineer decides on a “design speed” – a driving speed which the road should facilitate. Next to be established is the traffic volume – all the traffic typically traveling the route at present, plus all the additional traffic the engineer anticipates in the future. At that point the engineer will choose a design based on official guidelines for that design speed and that traffic volume; so long as the guidelines are followed, the design will be deemed “safe”. Finally, the engineer will estimate how much it will cost.

Marohn argues that the questions of whether traffic should move slow or fast, and whether all existing traffic should be accommodated or instead should be restricted, are not technical issues – they are questions of values, questions of public policy. Therefore, he says, issues of the desired traffic speed and desired traffic volume should be dealt with through the democratic process, with public input and with the decisions made by elected officials, not by engineering staff.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Some sins are forgiven

In the early days of car culture, traffic casualties happened at a far higher rate per passenger mile than they do in recent decades. Part of the improvement is due to changes in vehicle design – padded surfaces, seat belts, air bags. Part of the improvement can be attributed to what is called “forgiving design”, at least as applied on rural highways. Examples of forgiving design are gradually sloped embankments, which reduce the likelihood of rollovers if a driver veers off the road; wider lanes which lessen the chance of sideswiping; centre barriers which prevent head-on collisions; straightening of curves to improve sightlines; and removal of roadside obstacles such as large trees which an errant driver might hit.

On highways these forgiving design principles make sense, Marohn believes, but on urban arterial roads they are disastrous. He coined the word “stroad” for urban routes that combine the traffic complexity of streets with the high design speeds of inter-city roads. Stroads feature the wide lanes, cleared sightlines and levelized topography of highways, giving drivers the impression that higher speeds are safe. But stroads also have many intersections, turning vehicles, and access points for pedestrians. This means that the higher speeds are not safe, even for the drivers. And vulnerable road users – pedestrians and cyclists – often pay with their lives.

Most stroads should be converted into streets, Marohn says. “Instead of providing drivers with an illusion of safety, designers should ensure the drivers on a street feel uncomfortable when traveling at speeds that are unsafe.” (Marohn, page 43) To ensure that the mistakes of pedestrians and cyclists, and not just drivers, are forgiven, he advocates these guidelines: “Instead of widening lanes, we narrow them. Instead of smoothing curves, we tighten them. Instead of providing clear zones, we create edge friction. Instead of a design speed, we establish a target maximum travel speed.” (Marohn, page 41)

On a typical urban street, with stores, offices, schools, restaurants, and many people moving around outside of cars, that target maximum speed should be low: “Traffic needs to flow at a neighborhood speed (15 mph [24 kph] or less is optimum) to make a human habitat that is safe and productive.” (Marohn, page 56)

In recent years there has been a substantial rise in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, even as motorist fatalities have continued a long downward trend. The rising death toll among vulnerable road users was particularly noticeable during and following the pandemic. In Marohn’s words we find a good explanation:

“Most [traffic fatalities] happen at nonpeak times and in noncongested areas. … the traffic fatality rate is much higher during periods of low congestion. This is … because the transportation system is designed to be really dangerous, and traffic congestion, along with the slow speeds that result, is masking just how dangerous it is.” (Marohn, 117)

With many businesses closed and many people working from home, there was much less traffic congestion. And without congestion acting as a brake, people drove faster and more pedestrians were killed. That wasn’t intentional, but it was predictable – it was no accident.

* * *

As Jessie Singer explains, we find an extensive matrix of causes that contributes to “accidents” when we look beyond the individual making a mistake. That matrix very often includes racial and economic inequality, which is why poor people suffer more in nearly every accident category than rich people do.

Both racial and economic factors come into play in the current wave of pedestrian deaths. In the major city closest to me, Toronto, pedestrian deaths occur disproportionately among racialized, poor, and elderly people. These deaths also occur most often on wide arterial roads – stroads – in older suburbs.

Marohn’s words again are enlightening: “as auto-oriented suburbs age and decline … they are becoming home to an increasing number of poor families, including many who do not own automobiles.” (Marohn, page 43) When these residents need to walk across four, five or six lane high-speed arterial roads, the predictable result is pedestrian deaths among the most vulnerable. An obvious, though politically difficult, solution is to redesign these roads to bring speeds down to a safe level.

The inequality that contributes to “accidents” is buttressed in most North American cities by an elaborate legal framework telling people where they are allowed to live and work. That legal framework is zoning. In the next installment of this discussion we’ll look at the history and consequences of zoning.


Image at top of page is in public domain under Creative Commons CC0, from pxhere.

Dangerous roads are no accident

Also published on Resilience

If you watch network television you can see auto companies spending a lot of money making our roads more dangerous. One slick ad after another glorifies massive cars and trucks as they careen around curves, bounce over bumps and potholes, and send up clouds of dust on always-open roads. The message is clear: it’s really cool to buy the biggest, most menacing vehicle you can afford, and drive it as aggressively as you can get away with.

It’s not that the car companies want to cause more serious injuries, but a simple logic is at work. The outsized profits from sales of big SUVs and trucks go to the bank accounts of car companies, while the hospital and funeral expenses of crash victims are charged to someone else.

There Are No Accidents, by Jessie Singer, is published by Simon & Schuster, February 2022

The way to reduce the horrific human cost of crashes, Jessie Singer explains, is simple: make the companies who produce dangerous vehicles accountable for their damages.

Singer’s book There Are No Accidents was spurred by the killing of one pedestrian by  motor vehicle, and traffic violence is one major subject she covers. Yet the book covers so many related subjects, and covers them so well, that one review cannot do the book justice.

What we call “accidents,” Singer says, usually result from a non-intentional act – a mistake – in a dangerous context. When we focus only on the person closest to the accident, who is often the person making the mistake, it’s easy to find one person to blame. But in so doing we typically overlook the more powerful people responsible for the dangerous conditions. These powerful people might be manufacturers of dangerous products, regulators who permit dangerous products or practices, or legislators who set up rules that make it difficult for accident victims to win redress. 

With this basic framework Singer looks at the history of workers’ compensation in the United States:

“By the end of the First World War, in most of the United States, when a worker had an accident, employers were legally required to provide compensation for medical care and lost work. For employers, this was a massive shift in their economic calculus. … The decline in work accidents was dramatic. Over the next two decades, deaths per hour worked would fall by two-thirds.” (all quotes in this article are from There Are No Accidents)

She also examinations the rise and fall in prescription and street drug overdoses, and the peculiar laws that conveniently overlook accidental discharge of firearms.

In all these disparate cases, a person making a mistake might pay with their life. But many social actors together set up the dangerous conditions. Economic inequality, racial prejudice and social stigmas act as multipliers of these conditions.

“Accidents are the predictable result of unequal power in every form – physical and systemic,” Singer writes. “Across the United States, all the places where a person is most likely to die by accident are poor. America’s safest corners are all wealthy.”

She also examines why “black people die in accidental fires at more than twice the rate of white people.” And why “Indigenous people are nearly three times as likely as white people to be accidentally killed by a driver while crossing the street.”

A sudden epidemic of traffic violence

About a century ago, a new and very dangerous condition began to kill people in rapidly growing numbers. “While the accidental deaths and injuries of workers generally declined from 1920 onward,” Singer writes, “accidental death in general rose – driven by huge numbers of deaths of car drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.”

Majority opinion did not, at the time, blame the children who played in streets, or “distracted walkers” who dared to stroll while engrossed in conversation. Outraged observers would occasionally pull a driver out of a car and beat him following the killing of a pedestrian, but there was also a clear recognition that the problem went beyond the actions of any individual driver. Thus citizens, editorialists, and city councils responded to the epidemic of traffic violence by calling for mandatory speed regulators in all cars to keep streets safe for people.

It took a concerted publicity campaign by the auto industry to shift the blame to “jaywalkers” or the occasional “nut behind the wheel”, and away from dangerous vehicles and dangerous traffic laws. Within a generation streets had become the precinct of drivers, with the ultimate price often paid by individual victims who still had to walk, because they couldn’t afford to drive dangerous vehicles themselves.

Eventually public demand and legislative requirements resulted in automakers introducing a wide variety of safety improvements to their cars. Notably, though, these improvements were focused almost solely on the safety of the people inside the cars.

And in the past twenty-five years there has been a large increase in the number of pedestrians killed by motorists: “Between 2009 and 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reported a massive 51 percent rise in the number of pedestrians killed in the United States, from a little over 4,000 a year to more than 6,000.”

The increasing carnage was abetted by simple of facts of physics which both automakers and regulators had understood for decades:

“As long ago as 1975, the U.S. DOT itself figured out that three factors most determined whether or not a person was injured in a car accident: how much the vehicle weighed, how high it was off the ground, and how much higher its front end was compared to a pedestrian. By 1997, the department demonstrated that large vehicles such as SUVs and pickup trucks were significantly more likely to kill a pedestrian in a crash than smaller cars.” 

The automakers knew this, but they also knew they could make bigger profits by marketing bigger vehicles while escaping accountability for the greater numbers of pedestrians killed.

It didn’t have to be this way. Some countries took a different course. “Since 1997 in Europe and 2003 in Japan, vehicles have also been tested and rated for how safe they are for pedestrians, too, should the driver hit someone,” Singer writes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed similar rules in the US but General Motors objected and the matter was dropped.

During the same period that US pedestrian fatalities were climbing steeply, “Pedestrian fatalities fell by more than a third in a decade in Europe and by more than half since 2000 in Japan.”

Love and rage

Eric James Ng was a middle-school math teacher, a fan of punk music, an activist, and he rode his bike everywhere, every day, through New York City.

Jessie Singer writes, “Eric was sixteen when I met him working at a summer camp. … Eric was magnetic, and I fell in love, right away. I still feel proud to say he loved me, too.

“Eric was killed at age twenty-two.”

He was killed while riding his bike on one of the busiest bike routes in the US, when a drunk driver mistook the paved bike lane for a car route and drove down that lane at high speed. The same type of “accidents” had happened before and would happen again, in spite of safety advocates urging that concrete bollards be installed at potential motor vehicle access points. But those life-saving bollards would not be installed until 2017, after a driver intentionally turned down onto the bike lane and intentionally hit people, killing eight people and injuring eleven others. Then, within a few days, new barricades were installed at dozens of intersections between the bicycle lane and motor vehicle driveways – exactly the type of barricades that would have saved Eric James Ng’s life.

Anger is a natural reaction to lives cut short and deaths that came far too soon, caused in significant part by dangerous conditions that were clearly known but tolerated due to lack of political will. Jessie Singer’s book would be a powerful and enlightening read even if it were a pure expression of anger, but it is so much more than that.

Eric James Ng, she writes, signed his emails with the phrase “love and rage.” That signature would make a fitting tag for her book too.

“In making recommendations after an accident,” she writes, “two goals are central: that we are guided by empathy and that we aim to repair harm.”

That empathy shines through every chapter of There Are No Accidents. Singer wants us to “Remember that the people who die most often by accident are often the most vulnerable – the youngest and the oldest, the most discriminated against and least wealthy – and start there. Start by concerning yourself with vulnerability.”

And if we truly want to change the dangerous conditions that make mistakes deadly, we need to look beyond the individual making a mistake or the individual victim. “Blame is a food chain. Always look to the top. Who has the most power? Who can have the greatest effect? The answer is very rarely the person closest to the accident ….”


In motor vehicle crashes, speed kills and higher speeds kill more. In the next installment we’ll consider how speed limits are set on roads and streets.

a whistling of whimbrels

PHOTO POST

It’s always fun to gaze across the water looking for our usual residents. But in springtime you never know when a beautiful stranger might drop by for a few hours or a few days.

On a warm evening in the marsh, you might spot an ancient snapping turtle looming large at the surface, ready for any meal that might come within striking distance.

Swim a little closer please

Looking through clouds of midges in the calm of early morning, you spot Cormorants and Ring-Billed Gulls looking for breakfast.

Sparkling Shadow

Splashing Gulls

Red-breasted Mergansers are usually here for just a few months. When they come close to shore they make great entertainment, disappearing for long dives, skittering around the surface in boisterous play, and then suddenly, simultaneously, rising up and away in flight.

Fish is the Point

Skitterskatter

We’re outta here

But one quiet afternoon this week I could hear that something different was going on, somewhere near the breakwater. A chorus of peeps – or was it squeaks, or tweets, or whistles?  It wasn’t a familiar sound so I set out to investigate.

What should I find but a few dozen Whimbrels (or Hudsonian Curlews, as some older references call them).

Over the ridge

They mingled with the Gulls, sang their songs, stretched their wings, and then departed in smaller groups until, shortly before sundown, they were all on their way to the far north.

A Singular Bird

Don’t Cross Me

Whimbrel Wings

Come morning, a bright sun rose on another group of visitors, the Dunlins, likewise stopping for a short rest during a long journey.

Merry Company of Adventurers

Down to the Waterline 2

Rise and Shine

Different Strokes

By mid-morning they too had departed for parts north.

But back to the title of this post – do whimbrels whistle, or is that wordplay just whimsy? You can listen and decide for yourself:

an eye on the sparrow

PHOTO POST

One morning last week two of the less-seen sparrows visited our front yard together.

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Crowned Sparrow

These two sparrows, plus the Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, and the Dark-Eyed Junco, often search for food in the lawn and gardens. The Savannah Sparrow and the Swamp Sparrow occasionally allow themselves to be seen in a nearby meadow and marsh.

Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to do a post just on the various sparrows in this neighbourhood?

Well, it probably was fun … for the sparrows. I frantically tried to be everywhere at once, searching all the right habitats, while of course also moving as slowly and as close to soundlessly as I could manage. All while scanning the ground and thickets with great care, and equal futility – since I never saw the tiny bundles of camouflage until the second they darted for deeper cover.

Keeping an eye on the sparrow is easier said than done.

Was the exercise a waste of time? Not at all. When you go outside and you pay attention to what’s right around you, you’re likely to see and hear things you didn’t expect.

Stairway to Heaven

A Grackle showed off its colours, and I got glimpses of a Brown-Headed Cowbird, a Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and a Yellow Warbler. And one evening a soft squawk caused me to look a long way up, where I spotted a larger bird shape.

It was a Northern Flicker hollowing out a nest near the top of a dead tree. The nest was on the east side of the trunk and the sun was setting in the west – but at least I knew where to focus in better light.

The next morning I was back, lying on the forest floor with a convenient tree root serving as my pillow, watching a drama unfolding close to the sky.

Flicker Builds Nest (larger views – top section here; bottom section here)

Based on what happened next, I’m guessing the nest was nearly ready for eggs.

Flicker Duet for Spring

The embrace was brief, but brought on spectacular fireworks.

Northern Flash

When I returned my gaze to earthly matters I saw that a few fiddleheads were unfurling.

Soon, Ferns

In the very shallow water at the outside edges of the marsh, where it’s almost impossible for wind or waves to disturb the placid surface, I puzzled over tiny floating seedlings. This is one effect, I think, of the gentle rise and fall of the marsh as it equalizes with every slight fluctuation in the level of Lake Ontario.

Sprout

Even occasional tufts of moss had detached from land and were sinking down to become part of the rich muck –  but not before creating some beautiful ripples.

Moss Makes Waves

And just when I thought I’d see everything except sparrows, one ventured out on a rotting log along the creek bank.

Swamp Sparrow by Evening Light


Composite at top of page, clockwise from top left: Swamp Sparrow, White-Crowned Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrow. (Click here for full-screen view)

in and around the woods

PHOTO POST

The forest floor is still cold and in many places soggy. But the flowers that live there are in a hurry to bloom before the canopy fills in and blocks the sunlight.

That means there is a lot of beautiful change happening every day – and a lot of delicate growth that might be crushed by a hasty, careless or disrespectful step.

The first blooms of Trillium are just now emerging.

Leaf Over Leaf

Skunk Cabbage is a common Ontario woodland plant but I haven’t seen any within walking distance of home. The one photographed below is along the Seaton Hiking Trail in north Pickering. I saw scores of them popping out of the mud in particularly wet areas. Botanists use the word “spathe” for what most of us would call “that purple and gold pointy-curvy thing that sticks up beside the leaves.”

Let’s call a spathe a spathe

American Goldfinches are singing their songs throughout the neighbourhood, including from the branches of small trees at the edge of the woods.

Sunny As Spring

The tiny perfect flowers of Coltsfoot light up muddy creek banks.

Coltsfoot on Creekbank

Within the woods are many species of mosses. I found that by holding a reading magnifier in front of my camera lens I can get slightly improved pictures of the delicate features. The trick is to get down low enough on the ground so I can look up through the moss. The more detail I see, the more I think “I’d really like to get a more powerful lens.” (If I do get one, obviously, I’ll think “I should get an even more powerful lens.”)

Floor to Ceiling

Periscope

In the marsh next to the woods I was lucky enough to come across this female Common Merganser. (Not a fair name for such a splendid bird, I agree.)

Merganser Watch

This male Wood Duck may live nearby; Wood Ducks nest in trees although much of their diet comes from the marsh.

Marsh Moiré

Tree Swallows spend many hours swooping gracefully over the waters of the marsh while dining on insects. This pair was checking out a prefab house now available in the savannah just between the marsh and the woods. Location, location, location.

Sheltering Swallows 1

Sheltering Swallows 2

Sheltering Swallows 3

Skittering from tree to tree are the squirrels, keeping the forest lively throughout the seasons.

Upon Closer Inspection


For full-screen view of composite at top of page, click here.