PHYSICISTS recently confirmed that the sub-atomic particle, the muon, doesn’t behave the way the theory accepted for the last 50 years predicts. It reminded me to be wary of thinking in boxes. "Thinking outside the box" isn’t easy. Often, we don’t even know what the box is.
Formerly a scientist, I now deal with infill housing in Winnipeg. I support the objectives of infill: decreased greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), decreased traffic, increased public transit usage, more active transportation and lower infrastructure costs. But new information about muons has caused me concern about the infill box.
Transportation is the single biggest contributor of GHGs from Manitoba. Infill is touted as a way to decrease this, by reducing the use of autos and increasing transit ridership. Using the existing logic, that certainly seems correct. However, changes achieved by infill strategies will be slow.
Even with the current dismal pace of electrification of vehicles in Manitoba, it is likely vehicle electrification will reduce GHG production, along with air and noise pollution, faster than infill will. Once there is substantial electrification of transport, no additional decreases in GHGs, pollution and noise will be achieved due to infill.
COVID-19 has shown us that less traffic leads to fewer accidents, shorter travel times and should lead to lower infrastructure costs. Reorganizing the city with infill development will give us the technical tool to achieve these objectives. However, as we have also learned from COVID-19, it is not just technology, but also alteration of behaviour patterns, that are required for success.
Masks reduce viral transmission, but only if we wear them. They also work much better if we increase our personal distance, shop less frequently and meet outside rather than indoors. The technical achievements in vaccine development have been stunning, but will offer limited protection if we can’t get more than 70 per cent of the population to accept them.
When I used to walk our dog in Steven Juba Park, I would sometimes count the number of occupants in rush-hour vehicles on Waterfront Drive. The average worked out to about 1.2. I used to think (dream) about how the traffic, and all of its negative effects, could be reduced if the city could move that number to 2.4. I imagined how many ugly surface parking lots could be replaced by housing, commercial or recreational space.
Many other cities in the world reward carpooling; modern apps should make it easy to team up with neighbours for shared commuting — it’s cheaper for everyone, and results in faster trips and lower stress (as long as you get along with your riders).
Without the required social commitment, I’m not sure that infill development will lead to significant changes in vehicle use. Many studies have shown that infrastructure improvements to ease traffic and decrease travel time quickly lead to an increase, not decrease, in vehicle use.
Improvement in public transit speeds is certainly possible, but even then, it is unlikely those speeds will compete with those of private vehicles. Even with infill and improved transit, auto densities will likely go back up.
My third concern is with the energy sources and efficiency of infill homes. Media reports suggest Manitoba will have to migrate to electric heating to make the necessary GHG reductions. At present, electric heating is more expensive than natural gas, although innovations such as geothermal heating can be competitive.
The change to electric heating requires improved insulation in dwellings. If the city and province recognize this, why are we building new infill housing heated by natural gas? And why don’t building codes require more energy-efficient infill housing?
In Glenwood, new infill development proceeds by splitting 50-foot lots to two 25-foot lots and building two homes. The homes are six feet apart, and three feet from neighbouring properties. A side-by-side duplex could be built instead, eliminating two exterior walls and creating great energy savings, with the saved space also providing some breathing room to the neighbours.
European cities are often cited as examples of the benefits of good city planning, denser and more energy-efficient housing, and active transportation. They may have better technical layouts than Winnipeg but, more importantly, they have developed cultures in which energy efficiency and active transportation are embraced as part of city living.
If we are going to be successful at fostering a better future for Winnipeg, we need to make the right technical decisions. But we also need to promote and incentivize the cultural behaviour that will allow those technical solutions to succeed.
Ray Hesslein is a retired scientist who worked for the Experimental Lakes Area. He is chair of the Glenwood Neighbourhood Association Planning Committee.