Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tyrannies of Distance

There's an old anecdote that in the United States a hundred years is a long time, and in the United Kingdom a hundred miles is a long way. It seems to me that North American society has forgotten the truth of it. A lot of bad habits can become so ingrained to seem unimpeachable in far less than a hundred years, and the road and highway networks of Canada and the United States make distances seem artificially compressed.

I realized this in my bones yesterday, during the tail end of my crazy bicycle adventure. I'd taken the GO train to Oshawa GO Station, and intended to cycle back to my home near Exhibition GO Station - a distance of 53.7 kilometers by the rails. Nothing, right? I'd done forty-two kilometers before, and the only killer chunk of that was a long, steep hill on Wilson Avenue in Downsview.

It wasn't until I crossed from Pickering to Scarborough, found myself forced to switch from comfortable lakeside bicycle trails to Lawrence Avenue East - which, though an official bike route, doesn't have anything to actually make it so - that I found I was still only halfway home. Scarborough, if you're unaware, is big. Much of it was rural up until the postwar housing boom, and Scarborough is where you will find the sort of suburban developments that could just as easily be in Scottsdale.

Even before then, my ride through Pickering wasn't stress-free either, once the trail so thoughtfully dumped me onto Liverpool Street and then Bayly Street, which parallels Highway 401 and struck me as its younger sibling - wide lanes, wide grassy shoulders, few opportunities to enter or exit, and aside from a single sidewalk on the south side of the lanes, no consideration given to road users not driving cars.

The extent to which this philosophy of rambling suburbs connected by wide, howling highways and mini-expressways dominates North American development makes it even more disturbing to realize that it's only in the last sixty years that it became the law of the land. What's worse, in my opinion, is that it's actually harder to destroy than to create in this context. We would have a far more difficult time adapting our existing infrastructure to new modes of living than our predecessors had building that infrastructure in the first place.

The phrase "tyranny of distance" originates from the sprawling decentralization of Australian civilization, with metropolitan centers in the southeast, northeast, and west cut off from each other by thousands of kilometers of hostile terrain. Canada, by contrast, is centralized in its own peripheries, with the vast majority of the population brushing up against the American border because that's where the best lands that we have can be found - until, of course, they're plowed under for more developments that prize wide lanes and sparse settlement.

We think that the world is smaller than it is because of how easy we can get from place to place, either physically or by online proxy. That's nothing but an illusion. Driving for pleasure from Oshawa to Toronto might mean a relaxing bop around back roads, not to mention even more kilograms of carbon dioxide chilling in the atmosphere, but what have you accomplished? Nothing, except reinforcement of the perspective you already had - that if traffic's good, Toronto's half an hour or forty-five minutes away.

In the end, I didn't even make it that far. After five hours on the saddle I'd gone way beyond the limits of my endurance, and I diverted to Guildwood GO Station and took the train the rest of the way home.

If we want to learn the lessons that will be necessary to solve our pressing problems, if we want to exit the twenty-first century in a better state than when we entered into it, we can't keep falling back on old perspectives. There are some things that can only be meaningfully experienced with no filters. Taking a hundred miles, or even ten, on a bicycle demonstrates just how long those distances can be when they're paid for not with gasoline, but with dripping sweat and aching muscles.

They say that cars bring freedom. Personally, I prefer the freedom of the grocery store being close enough for me to walk.


  1. This issue of planning based on a single mode of transportation seems particularly relevant this week, after the disturbing death in Toronto recently. Will this help or hinder the cause of bike lanes in the city? I'm getting sick of feeling like my life is on the line every time I get on my bike.

    But what will it take to change the way our cities are designed? The car was a transportation revolution. Will it take another revolution or just an evolution in thinking?

  2. Lawrence Avenue East is signed as a bike route even though there's no special allowance for bikes; which really irritates me. The street and shoulders, together, are more than sufficiently wide for a modest bike lane to be carved out. The same goes, in particular, for Bayly Street in Pickering and Thickson Street in Whitby/Oshawa.

    As for what it'll take - a truly staggering amount of money, for one.