North America

North Side, South Side: Real Estate in the Greater Golden Horseshoe 

The horseshoe-shaped region that includes Toronto and Buffalo is one of North America’s most populous, with more than 10 million inhabitants.The Horseshoe’s northern half extends roughly 100 km from Oshawa in the east to Burlington in the west, and 50 km from downtown Toronto north to Newmarket. The Horseshoe’s southern half is also close to 100 km in length, from Hamilton in the west to Lockport in the east. It is 50 km from the St Catharines-Niagara area south to Buffalo.

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In order for us to analyze real estate in this region, we first need to discuss three basic differences between the Horsehoe’s northern and southern halves: political, geographical, and historical differences.

Political 

The political distinction is the most obvious of these. Whereas the northern half is entirely within Canada, the southern half is split between a Canadian side and an American side. The Canadian side of the southern half is home to roughly 1 million people, of whom 550,000 live in Hamilton. The American side is home to 1.2 million people, most of whom live in the suburbs of Buffalo. The international border runs directly through the Niagara-Buffalo urban area, making it by far the most populous urban area shared by the two countries with the exception of Detroit-Windsor:

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US-Canada Border Cities

 

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Geographical

There is also a geographic difference between the Horseshoe’s northern and southern halves. Specifically, the Horseshoe’s southern cities are characterized by their relationship to water and to wind:

-Hamilton’s significance comes historically from the city’s harbour, which is by far the largest in the western half of Lake Ontario. The harbour facilitated shipments of bulk goods, helping Hamilton to become Canada’s Steeltown. It continues to host Canada’s largest Great Lakes port.

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-The St Catharines-Niagara urban region, which is the 12th most populous in Canada, derives its significance from two water features. One is Niagara Falls, which draws both tourists and hydropower. The other is the Welland Canal, which connects Lake Ontario to the other Great Lakes via a series of locks, bypassing the Falls. Niagara Falls was the site of the world’s first major hydroelectric station, built in 1895. It continues to generate more power than any single dam in the United States. The Welland Canal was first built in the 1820’s, and is a key link in the St Lawrence Seaway shipping route that was opened in the mid-twentieth century.

Welland Canal.png

Upstate New York was shaped by a canal too: the Erie Canal. The canal is the main reason why Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse were able to grow as cities despite the heavy snowfall they receive (they are, by some estimates,  the three snowiest major cities in the world, outside of cities in Quebec, Newfoundland, or Japan). In the present day the canal is used primarily (but not entirely) by pleasure-craft. However during its heydey in the nineteenth century it was one of the most economically significant waterways in North America.

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Average Snowfall; Source: Current Results

Snow in upstate New York comes mainly from winter winds blowing atop the relatively warm water of the Great Lakes. Because of these wind patterns, Buffalo actually receives twice as much snow per year on average than does Toronto. Indeed Buffalo gets more snow than any of Canada’s 18 most populous cities (a lot more snow, in most cases), with the exception of Quebec City.

Buffalo and Rochester are located in the middle of a “snowbelt”, which extends from Cleveland’s eastern suburbs all the way to the Adirondack Mountains east of Lake Ontario. The only other snowbelt cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants are Sudbury, Barrie, Syracuse, and Grand Rapids.

Great_Lakes_Snowbelt_EPA_fr

While Hamilton lies outside of any snowbelts (it gets the same amount of snow as Toronto, on average), it too is impacted by wind, being hit by among the most windstorms of any Canadian city:

windiest cities

Historical 

Today, the Greater Toronto Area has an estimated 6.4 million inhabitants. The southern side of the Horseshoe (Hamilton + the Niagara Region + the Greater Buffalo Area) has just half that, 3.2 million.

A little over a century ago these positions were reversed. Back in the late nineteenth century Buffalo’s population was more than twice as large as Toronto’s. In 1900 Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the US, and the fourth largest without an ocean port. Even Hamilton was not much smaller than Toronto in those days:

Toronto-Hamilton-Buffalo Populations.png

Relative population sizes; Toronto = 100

There are a number of reasons for this historic reversal, but they all have to do with the price of energy:

  1. Oil
  2. Automobiles
  3. Air Conditioning

oil prices historical.png

Cheap oil in the twentieth and late nineteenth centuries, and the technological advances of automobiles and air conditioning that cheap energy helped to make feasible, resulted in the decline of Buffalo and Hamilton relative to Toronto.

-Home air conditioning began to become widespread in the middle of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, it led many Americans to move from cities like Buffalo to the Sunbelt. An estimated 28 percent of Americans lived in the Sunbelt in 1950; 40 percent did in 2000.

-For Sunbelt cities in the arid American Southwest, cheap energy was also necessary to ensure freshwater supplies, given the energy-water nexus. And for cities in the western half of the United States in general, cheap energy was needed to facilitate long-distance intercity transportation.

-Cheap oil also allowed land transportation — trains and automobiles — to supplant water transportation. Water transportation is far more energy-efficient than any other type of transportation, but it is also slow and inconvenient. With land transportation becoming dominant during the twentieth century, the importance of cities which were based around water transportation declined. Buffalo and Hamilton were two such cities.

-Buffalo and Hamilton were also not ideally suited to land transportation. For the Niagara peninsula, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie serve as transportation barriers for cars, trucks, and trains; so too does the Niagara Escarpment, which divides the peninsula (and Hamilton) into upper and lower segments. For Buffalo, lake-effect snow also frequently serves as a severe transportation barrier.

Toronto, in contrast, has been able to use automobiles and low energy prices to expand  approximately 50 km deep into its GTA suburbs to the east, west, and north. Because it is a Canadian city, Toronto has also not had to worry as much about people moving south to the Sunbelt, as Buffalo has.

 

Speculating About The Future

Since we do not know what future energy prices will be, prudence suggests that we should prepare for the worst: high prices. Indeed, it seems far from implausible that high prices will become a reality, whether because of carbon pricing or because of a diminishing supply of “conventional” oil. Even in spite of the current shale oil boom in the US, few people have predicted a repeat of the low prices of the 1990s or the 1880-1970 era.

If energy prices do become high, the Golden Horseshoe may look more like it did in the late nineteenth century. Just like how cheap energy allowed the Greater Toronto Area to grow relative to Buffalo and Hamilton, so might expensive energy allow Buffalo and Hamilton to grow relative to the GTA. Similarly, what growth the GTA does experience in an energy-expensive world would be likelier to occur mainly within the City of Toronto, rather than in the GTA’s sprawling suburbs as has occured in recent decades.

At the same time, we can also expect technology to have an effect on the region. In the last century new technologies like automobiles and air conditioners had the largest impact. But how will today’s new technologies – digital technologies – impact the Golden Horseshoe?

One impact of digital technology is likely to be that computers and machines will allow more work to be outsourced or automated. As such, people’s leisure time will increase faster than will their disposable income. From a transportation perspective, this will probably benefit water transportation, which is the cheapest but also the slowest form of transportation. Only someone with a limited budget and a lot of free time would find travelling by water useful; especially if they are trying to avoid carbon emissions.

In particular, water-based shortcuts could become popular. It is just 47 km from St Catharines to downtown Toronto by water, but 113 km by road. Given that ferries are already more energy-efficient than automobiles or even trains on a km-by-km basis, having such a significant shortcut could be highly useful. Buffalo is in a somewhat similar position: it is 93 km from Buffalo to downtown Toronto as the crow flies, but 161 km by road.

Greater Golden Horseshoe

Technology could also make intermodal transportation more convenient. For example, one lesson of the failed Toronto-Rochester ferry was the importance of the “first-mile/last-mile” challenge. Because downtown Rochester is over a dozen kilometres inland from its ferry port, and because downtown Toronto did not have good transit ties to its own ferry port in the Portlands, the ferry was not very useful. The ferry had to reserve most of its space for cars rather than for passengers, so that passengers could drive to and from its ports. The cars also accounted for most of the weight on the ferry, reducing the ferry’s energy efficiency.

With new technologies, however, such as car-sharing services or even self-driving cars, the challenge of getting to and from the ferry port could be eliminated. The ferry would no longer need to be a car-ferry.

More leisure time could also help cities like St Catharines, Welland, Niagara Falls, and Buffalo. It is difficult for cars to cross the Welland Canal because, given the large ships that use the canal on a frequent basis, the only bridges allowed over the canal are lift-bridges. Traffic backups frequently ensue when the lift-bridges are raised. This is why urban development in St Catharines, Welland, and Port Colborne has been mostly limited to only the western side of the canal.
Welland Canal

If people have more free time, however, they may not mind waiting as long — particularly if their car is driving autonomously while they are waiting. A similar thing is true for waiting in a long line of vehicles to cross the US-Canada border.

Autonomous vehicles could be useful in other ways as well.  In areas where human drivers face difficulty or delay, such robots could be highly useful. For example in upstate New York’s snowbelt, cars and trucks with high-tech safety features could be a game-changer for transportation during the winter.

So too could autonomous snowplows. Snowplow drivers are expensive to employ, given that it takes a long time to plow snow and given that they are often hired to work in the wee hours of the night. Autonomous snow cleaners could also help a lot in hard-to-reach places where snow can be very damaging: on rooftops.

Autonomous trucks could also help Buffalo and the Niagara Region by making it cheaper to cross the US-Canada border, where currently it is often expensive to pay truck drivers to wait in long, slow border lines.

Autonomous cargo ships could benefit this region too. They could allow for smaller vessels to be used on the Great Lakes at times when they would otherwise not be employed, such as at night during the winter. They could help save on labour costs for ships traversing the Welland Canal, which because of its locks takes around 10 hours to cross despite being just 43 km in length. They could also save on labour costs on the Erie Canal, which takes over a week from Buffalo to New York City and cannot be used by very large ships.

Finally, cargo shipping on the Great Lakes and their canal systems could be used more because of autonomous machines loading and unloading containers, thereby saving on labour costs and so perhaps allowing intermodal transportation to become competitive even for relatively short-distance water shipping.

Horseshoe

Conclusion

If a world of high energy prices and even higher technology does come into being, it might have three major effects on the Golden Horseshoe. First, it would be likely to cause the Horseshoe’s southern half to grow more quickly than its northern half. Second, it would be likely to cause the City of Toronto to grow more quickly than its surrounding suburbs. And third, it would be likely to cause Toronto to become more connected to the Niagara-Buffalo region, via Lake Ontario’s shortcuts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Africa, Europe, Middle East, North America

Secession Procession

A century ago, a British Member of Parliament and geographer, Halford Mackinder, wrote one of the famous books of geopolitics, “Democratic Ideals and Reality”. The book discussed the tension between what nations want (“Democratic Ideals”) and what they often get (geographic “Reality”).

That tension seems especially topical this week. It is not everyday that the president of the United States tries to give his viewers a geography lesson, but that occured in the past few days as President Trump repeatedly told Americans that aiding Puerto Rico would be difficult because of “the big ocean” — the Atlantic — that blocks it from the rest of the country.

Puerto Rico’s ocean barrier is more than just a logistical barrier. It is also an emotional, political one. It is the main reason why many Americans do not care about the plight of Puerto Ricans in the same way as they did for the hurricane victims of Texas or Florida. It is also one of the main reasons why the US has not offered Puerto Rico statehood, despite 97 percent (of the 23 percent of its voters who participated in the referendum this past June) voting in favour of its becoming a state.

An opposite situation exists for Catalonia and for Iraqi Kurdistan, where referendums were held in the past two weeks. No big oceans separate regional capitals Barcelona or Erbil from national ones Madrid or Baghdad; the latter two of which have taken steps to prevent secession by the former.

Rather, Catalonia lies south of the high, steep Pyrenees Mountains, making it part of the Iberian peninsula along with the rest of Spain. Ditto for Iraqi Kurdistan, which lies on the Mesopotamian side of the high peaks that divide Iraq from neighbouring Kurdish regions east and north. The tensions between Democratic Ideals — over 90 percent of Catalans and Iraqi Kurds voted in favour of independence (with 43 and 73 percent voter turnout)—and geographic Realities are high.

Of course, geographic realities are not necessarily or directly decisive. Hawaii is an example of this; its Big Island is surrounded by an even Bigger Ocean than is Puerto Rico’s. Portugal is another example, Iberian but not Spanish. So too is Kuwait, which is Mesopotamian but not Iraqi.

Still, it is hard to know how much to lean toward realism or idealism in any given case. The three examples given above came about less because of ideals trumping geographic reality, but instead because of geographic reality being crushed by an even greater reality; namely, the decisions of superpowers. The US chose Hawaii in spite of its remoteness. The British Empire chose to protect Portugal from the Spanish and French in order to pursue its own political aims. And both the British and the Americans have worked, on separate occasions, to carve Kuwait out of the Mesopotamian plains to which, geographically, it belongs.

This brings us to the other, more neglected secession attempt this week, which occured in Cameroon. Historically Cameroon was a compromise between two imperial powers, Britain and France, which took it from Germany in WW1 (the same year Mackinder was writing his book). It is located in a region, West Africa, that was also split between Britain and France. An estimated 50-60 percent of people in Cameroon speak French and 20-30 percent English. Last week, arguably 17 people were killed during protests being held by some of the country’s English-speaking minority, some of whom have called for secession from Cameroon.

This is especially notable given that West Africa is the region of the world in which geographic realities were most readily ignored by the imperial powers which drew the maps of the region’s states. While today it has become popular to chastize past British and French governments for misdrawing Middle Eastern borders, the truth is that in most cases it is actually not easy to figure out alternative Middle Eastern borders that would have clearly been much better. (And some of the ones that are most obviously wrong, such as—arguably—the existence of Kuwait, are not the ones usually criticized). In West Africa, in contrast, most of the borders that were drawn are obviously wrong.

West Africa is full of states or autonomous regions that, like Kuwait, seem to be enclaves carved out from larger regions willy-nilly (examples include Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Angolan region of Cabinda, and, arguably, Sierra Leone). It also has states that either have or consist entirely of narrow strips of land that were created solely to make them accessable to the Europeans from the sea (examples include Gambia again, plus Togo, Benin, and both of the Congos). And it has five different large, landlocked countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and the Central African Republic).

From this we come to the final and perhaps most important aspect of the secession issue: transnational regionalism. It is regionalism that has, arguably, helped to keep Puerto Rico from becoming an Atlantic Hawaii: Puerto Rico is a part of a large region, Latin America, which the US in general is not a part of. Regionalism also plays a role in Spain, where the existence of the EU has helped to bolster independence movements like that of the Catalans, while the weakness of the EU limits those movements’ success. And regionalism plays a role in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has served as a leading force in the fight against ISIS’ transnational attempt at a Caliphate; ISIS recently having its largest city, Mosul, just 85 km away from Iraqi Kurdistan’s, Erbil.

If and when transnational regionalism is ever a success anywhere, it is likely to be in a region in which nationalism is itself most problematic. Given its terribly-drawn borders, that may turn out to be West Africa.

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North America

Upstairs, Downstairs

With the US being a 17 trillion dollar economy, it can sometimes be easy to forget that both of its neighbours, Canada and Mexico, are in the trillion dollar club as well. Canada is the 10th largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and 17th by purchasing power parity (PPP)-adjusted GDP; Mexico is the 15th in the world by nominal GDP and 11th when adjusted for purchasing power parity. Outside of the US or EU, Canada and Mexico are already the two largest economies in the world within the same trade bloc. With continued decent GDP growth—both are expected to grow 2-3 percent in 2017—they may soon overtake more EU economies in size too:

trade bloc pairing comparisons

And yet, as the NAFTA renegotitation begins its second round of formal talks this week, the trade bloc shared by Canada and Mexico may to some extent now be on the chopping block. Not surprisingly, the two countries are now attemtping, diplomaticaly, to stand shoulder to shoulder with one another; to present a unified front to the US. But this can be hard to do, especially when those shoulders are separated by a few thousand km of US territory. It may be,  then, that the US will divide and conquer them (economically speaking) and get the best deal for itself.

Read the full article: Upstairs, Downstairs

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North America

Autonomous Cars, Semi-Autonomous Cars, and Toronto’s Railways to Nowhere

The City of Toronto has two “railways to nowhere”: the Sheppard subway and the Richmond Hill GO train.

The Sheppard Subway 

The Sheppard subway is 5.5 km long, has five stations, and connects to only one other rail line, the Yonge line. By comparison, the Yonge-University subway will soon be 38.8 km long (when the Vaughn extension begins operation), will have 38 stations, and will connect to many other rail lines, including the Bloor-Danforth subway, the Sheppard subway, 7 GO train lines (all at Union), and eventually also the Eglinton Crosstown.

The Bloor-Danforth subway is 26.2 km long, has 31 stations, and has connections with other rail lines at stations like Dundas West (the Union-Pearson Express train and the Kitchener GO train), Main Street (the Stoufville GO train and Lakeshore East GO train) and Kennedy (the Scarborough RT*, Stoufville GO train, Eglinton, and, if the City’s current transit plans are realized, the Scarborough subway tunnel).

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The Richmond Hill GO Train

Before the start of this year, the Richmond Hill GO train line was 34 km long and had five stations, three of which were located within the City of Toronto. With an extension to a new station, Gormley Station, having been opened in 2017, the line is now 42 km long, with six stations—but still only three in the City of Toronto. In contrast, the other six GO lines are between 50-103 km long (for an average of 69.6), have between 9-13 stations (for an average of 11.2), and have between 2-6 stations within Toronto (an average of 4).

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Read more: Toronto Crow’s Advantage   (…apologies for some of the pictures being blurry and links being broken, I’ll try to fix them soon)

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North America

Demographics, Drivers, and Dreams

On The Future of the Canadian Auto Sector 

There is a profound difference between Canadians, Americans, and Chinese, both in their demographics and in their dreams.

In the US, the largest population group is 20-35 year olds. Many of these Americans will, in the years ahead, be looking to pursue the American Dream: to buy a home and start a family. Indeed, just like the Baby Boomers before them, many of these Millennial Americans have been moving to suburbs and buying SUVs. 

In Canada, in contrast, the largest group is 50-60 year olds. In the years ahead, many of these Canadians will be looking to cut back their work hours, or retire, or transition from manual labour to less physically strenuous jobs. Many will also pursue the Canadian Dream: having a cottage to host one’s grandchildren at.

In China, the largest group is 40-55 year olds. Most of this group works in physically demanding industrial or agricultural jobs. Most of them, particularly in China’s rural areas and inland provinces, still earn between 2-10 dollars a day. The Chinese Dream is to let these aging manual labourers transition to less strenuous work, while also bringing the country’s impoverished rural areas and inland provinces out of poverty.

Ontario’s Position

These demographic trends are not alien to the auto sector in Ontario. A city like Windsor is, in a certain sense, situated in a delicate borderland, between the vast American consumer market on the one hand, and the smaller domestic market of Canada but larger global market on the other hand. This is a risky, though often rewarding, position to be in. When successful, it has allowed Ontario to attract investment from global firms seeking a way to access to the American market without investing too much in the US directly. In the wake of the recent Valiant deal, such investment is increasingly expected to come from China.

Obviously, however, global firms cannot rely for certain on continued favourable access to the American market, regardless of whether or not these firms have investments just across the US-Canada border within Ontario. It is up to Ontario to determine to what extent it wants to orient its production around markets in the United States, and to what it extent it wants to focus on Canadian or global consumers instead.

Motor Vehicle Production

A Possible Divergence

This is where trends such as demographics become relevant. As a result of such trends, it may be the case that consumer demand in the United States will diverge sharply from that of countries like Canada and China in the years ahead. While Americans continue to buy cars and SUVs, in Canada and in global markets it may be instead that auto sector demand will become increasingly dominated by busses and by trucks:

1. The Supply of Drivers 

The global Baby Boomer bulge, of 50 and 60 year olds in the West and of 40 and 50 year olds in China, is likely to create the largest labour shift in human history: manual labourers transitioning to less strenuous work. In spite of what some politicians may claim, these labourers will not often be retrained to become software engineers. Nor will they all move into retail jobs at companies like Walmart, as out-of-work labourers have often done during the past generation. Too many of these retail jobs are being automated out of existence. Rather, the single biggest job these labourers are likely to switch to is driving a motor vehicle.

Not only is driving a bus, truck, or taxi something that can be done by a person who has, say, a bad back, it is also becoming far less strenuous than ever before, as a result of technological additions to modern vehicles. Driving large busses and trucks has been somewhat difficult in the past, particularly in tasks such as parking, turning, or driving on country roads during challenging weather conditions or in the dark of night. Modern vehicles, on the other hand, equipped with cameras, sensors, and high-tech safety features, are in the process of making the job of driving relatively comfortable and safe even for 60 or 70 year olds.

If the Baby Boomers create a glut of drivers globally, the costs of using trucks, busses, mini-busses, etc., will fall.

2.  The Night Moves

Of course, there has also been plenty of discussion in the media about the possibility of self-driving vehicles. If such vehicle actually do become commonplace anytime soon, they will have the largest impact on places and at times in which there is today a scarcity of human drivers. Namely, they will the largest impact on late-night driving (when human drivers are mostly asleep) and on areas such as, for example, Canada’s far northern regions, where — particularly during long, cold winter nights, or in snow storms, or on dangerous ice roads that require almost constant maintenence  — there are few human drivers around.

Autonomous capabilities would have a much greater impact on trucks than on cars, then; and in particular, on short trucks, where labour costs per unit of cargo are much higher than for heavy trucks or transporters. They would also have a greater impact on places with challenging geographies, such as Canada. And they would be especially useful for slow-moving overnight vehicles, like plows, de-icers, and pavers.

Trucks, finally, may experience the benefits of autonomous driving earlier or more than other vehicles  will as a result of government regulation. While governments may be hesitant to allow autonomous cars in general at first, they are far more likely to allow a truck driver to turn on an autonomous cruise control system late at night, when relatively few cars are on the road, so that he or she can get some sleep.

3. More Time, Less Money 

These two trends we have discussed thus far — demographics and automation — may also lead to a phenomenon in which Canadians’ free time will increase at a much faster pace than will their income levels. This could occur because of an aging Canadian worker entering into full or partial retirement, or it could occur because of a Canadian worker losing his or her job to a software system or machine. Either way, Canadians are likely to have more time to fill up their schedules with leisure activities — say, spending more time in cottage country — but will also have to economize on costs in order to afford them.

One way to economize on leisure spending would be to forgo car ownership (or at least, to share a car with a spouse instead of owning two cars per couple) and using transit more. Busses, for example, are slower than cars — as they often make stops to pick up and drop off passengers along their routes —  but also cheaper than cars, particularly once you factor in the cost of car ownership. If the cost of bus drivers declines (which, as we have discussed above, we think it will), busses would become cheaper still. As Canadians’ free time increases faster than Canadians’ incomes, busses might therefore see greater use.

4. The Transit Revolution 

Apart from their sometimes being slow compared to cars, another major reason many people do not use transit regularly is because of the “last-mile” problem: how to get from a transit station to one’s destination, without a car. Also problematic is the “first-mile” problem: how to get to the transit station if the station’s parking lot is full, or if you do not own a car.  Yet these “first-mile/last-mile” problems are likely to be solved—or at least, made far less problematic—in the near future, as a result of technological changes.

One technology to overcome the first-mile/last-mile challenge is that of services like UberPool, wherein passengers and drivers easily co-ordinate door-to-door carpools through their smartphones. This same system could be used by busses or mini-busses too, which would make the rides cheaper but also longer—see the More Time, Less Money section above. Systems like UberPool work best in markets that are “liquid”; i.e. big-city markets, where there lots of passengers and drivers around. The US, being highly suburban, may be less suited to this than Canada (where more people live in large cities) or most global markets.

Another way to overcome the “last-mile” challenge is via car-sharing services, such as Car2Go or Zipcar. These allow people to take a car from the transit station to reach their destination. Use of car-sharing services in Canada is growing. It may eventually make it easier for some people to forego car ownership entirely.

As services like car-sharing and ride-sharing advance, then, transit’s “first-mile/last-mile” problems may be overcome.

5. The Canadian Shield 

If transit really does become more common relative to car usage, it will in many places be dominated by rail transit. Similarly, railways will continue to transport more freight than trucks. Trains are, after all, more efficient than trucks and busses. They will remain more efficient even if the cost of hiring a bus or truck driver falls.

Where trucks and busses will be utilized most, then, is in locations where it is difficult for railways to function. We have already mentioned one location where railways are difficult: Canada’s far north, where permafrost impedes rail construction and maintenance, and ice roads are sometimes the only economical option.

Another region where railway construction is expensive is the Canadian Shield, the result of the Shield’s enormous size, exposed rock shelves and over-abundance of lake (the latter being proble  matic given that trains cannot easily make sharp turns to bypass them, as trucks can). If Canadians, armed with more free time than ever before, seek the Canadian Dream in the lakeside cottages of the Shield, they will have to rely on trucks to transport bulk necessities like food (as the Shield is not suitable for agriculture) and fuel.

Canadian Shield .png

Railways networks are also under-built in mountainous areas, as trains cannot handle either sharp turns or steep inclines well. Three of Canada’s four major cities — Vancouver, Montreal, and Calgary — are located a very short distance from mountains, in contrast to US population centres which tend to be located in spatious coastal plains or the even larger Midwestern/Central Plains. It might be expected that, as a result of having more free time to spare, Canadians will spend more time pursuing leisure activities in mountains.

Meanwhile, countries like China are now actively trying to develop their impoverished inland regions, many of which are mountainous and have relatively little access to either railways or to coastal shipping—and will therefore have to rely on trucks and busses for their transportation. Many other developing economies, in South Asia, Latin America, and Africa, are also mountainous and landlocked. The largest city in NAFTA, Mexico City, is the highest-elevation in the world among cities with at least four million residents. Still, it is China which is the king of highlands. China’s Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan region occupies roughly one-fifth of China’s landmass, and is similar to the Arctic in its permafrost risks, sparse population (it has less than one half of one percent of China’s population), low rail access, and resource wealh.

Conclusion — Canada and the World 

Canada typically has one foot in the American market and one foot in the Canadian and global markets. Canadians companies often wonder what trade regulations or barriers the Americans will insist upon, either for Canadian firms or for foreign-owned firms invested in industrial facilities within Canada. But if, also, markets diverge — if Americans continue to use conventional four-seater cars and SUVs and trains, while Canadians and global market players like China increasingly look to buy busses and trucks — then Canada’s auto sector could also have to answer a more basic Canadian question: just how American are we?

As usual, there are no easy answers here, only risks and rewards.

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North America

Like Night and Day

The e-commerce vs bricks-and-mortar debate never stays out of the headlines for long, it seems. It has surfaced again this past week, prompted by the discussion of whether or not Calgary can compete to host Amazon’s planned second headquarters. This has left Canadian investors to mull yet again what the state of retailing will become in the near future.

One of the crucial questions is what the extent of retailing and e-retailing’s convergence will be. Will the line between retailers and e-retailers blur, such that there will remain few differences between them? Or, will they stay distinct?

Lately the argument for convergence has never looked stronger. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, the eighth largest grocery chain in the US by market share, will give it 470 new brick and mortar locations in North America and Britain. Walmart, meanwhile, bought Jet.com for $3.3 billion in cash and stock at the end of 2016, in what was at the time the largest ever acquisition of an e-commerce firm.

“They’re meeting in the middle right now,” says Chieh Huang, chief executive of Boxed, an e-commerce start-up. “If you think of a mountaintop, on one side you have the tech folks trying to figure out retail, while the retailers are trying to figure out technology. Amazon said screw this: we’re going to figure out physical retail faster by paying $13bn [for Whole Foods].”

Interpreting Valuations

This question of convergence can inform even how market valuations may be perceived. If, hypothetically, we knew for certain that retailing and e-retailing will converge fully, then Amazon’s position would appear dominant: its market capitilization is twice as large as Walmart’s.

If, on the other hand, we knew for certain that retailing and e-retailing will remain more distinct than they become similar, then it may instead be Walmart that seems the better positioned of the two. Walmart, after all, is the dominant retailer; it towers over the next largest retailer (Costco), grocer (Kroger) and brick and mortar outlet (Home Depot) in terms of market capitalization. Amazon, in contrast, lags behind four of its fellow tech giants—and is barely ahead of Alibaba—in market cap.

If, in other words, we consider Amazon a retailer, then it is the leading retailer in the world (at least, in terms of market capitalization; Amazon trades at a notoriously high price-to-earnings ratio, so its earnings trail its valuation). Yet if we consider Amazon to be “only” a tech firm, not a retailer, then Walmart would continue to be viewed as the world’s leading retailer, whereas Amazon would still not be its leading tech firm.

Strategies and Imperatives

It is extremely difficult to predict the future level of convergence between retailing and e-retailing. While it is obvious that brick and mortar retailers will continue to make their products more easily available online, the more significant and difficult to predict question is how many of their brick and mortar outlets they will get rid of—and, conversely, how many brick and mortar outlets e-retailers like Amazon will purchase. Without knowing this, we cannot answer the convergence question.

Still, we can make two statements with relative confidence. First, the recent trend towards convergence is by no means a definitive one. For one thing, they were not actually such significant purchases, once you take into account the gigantic size of Amazon and Walmart. This was particularly true in Walmart’s case, where the acquisition of Jet.com accounted for just 1.4 percent of the retailer’s current market cap. But it was also true for Amazon’s Whole Foods purchase, which, though more than four times larger than the Jet deal in absolute terms, still represented only 2.9 percent of Amazon’s current market cap of $474 billion.

The Whole Foods deal, moreover, does not even necessarily signal a strategy shift towards brick and mortar retailing. Rather, because grocery deliveries are bulky and frequent compared to deliveries of other categories of goods, groceries act in effect as “liquidity” in the goods-delivery market. In other words, the acquisition of a grocery chain does not have to indicate a desire to gain brick and mortar market share, but instead can be intended mainly to buttress e-commerce services in areas that would otherwise have low liquidity in the delivery market; i.e. in low-density suburbs where most Americans live.

Second, we can state that, if convergence does not occur, then the business imperatives of retailers and e-retailers will not merely be opposing, but opposite. The imperative of e-commerce retailers is to deliver cargo to consumers. The imperative of brick and mortar retailers, in contrast, is to deliver consumers to cargo:

Bricks, Mortar, and Pavement

The one asset that brick and mortar retailers have which their nimbler, higher-valuation e-commerce rivals lack is real estate—buildings and parking lots—located in urban and suburban areas where most people live. Walmart alone has 3522 supercentres within the US. Most, when combined with their parking lots, occupy roughly 17 acres (larger than twelve football fields). Over 90 percent of Americans live within 16 km of a Walmart-owned store.

Absent convergence, brick and mortar retailers will have to find new ways of enticing people to their stores. This will be a difficult task, given consumers will have the option of ordering from e-commerce firms instead.

One method of enticement brick and mortar retailers will attempt is likely to be via an involvement in the transportation industry. They might, in effect, use their large buildings and enormous parking lots to become modern, “liquid” transportation marketplaces, by offering bus, ride-sharing, or even autonomous parking services at their stores. In other words, to remain competitive with e-commerce, the retailers may also have to compete (or collaborate) with transportation services like Uber, Car2Go, Greyhound, or even Tesla. Only by becoming transport hubs could they continue to compete as commercial hubs.

Logical (read: Extreme) Conclusions

The goal of e-retailers, on the other hand, would remain the cheap, efficient, quick, and plentiful delivery of goods. As Amazon is not shy of saying, this will involve the automation of delivery vehicles, intended not just to save on labour costs but also to utilize all 24 hours of the day. Overnight deliveries benefit from there being little road traffic, and they are crucial if e-commerce firms are to be able to deliver goods as quickly as possible.

As a result, if retailers and e-retailers do not converge fully in the years ahead, their differing business imperatives will be likely to lead them down divergent paths. The retailers, to remain competitive, will attempt to control consumers’ transportation patterns during the daytime. But the e-retailers, to become even more efficient, will focus on dominating the transportation of goods at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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North America

Robots & Ontario’s Minimum Wage

Economists have long tried to identify “goldilocks wages”: ideal compromises in the tradeoff between higher minimum wages and higher rates of un(der)employment. This is, of course, far more than merely a theoretical pursuit. With an election coming up in Ontario next year, it is also one of the main issues likely to spill over from economics into politics. The province plans on raising its minimum wage, from $11.40 today to $14 in 2018 and $15 in 2019. Inevitably, this has raised questions as to whether or not it will lead to more jobs being outsourced or automated, if employers decide they cannot afford to pay the higher wages.

Thus far, most of the minimum wage studies that have been conducted have tended to ask questions such as:

  • How many jobs within the jurisdiction that is planning on raising its minimum wage are susceptible to outsourcing or automation?
  • How many workers within the jurisdiction that is planning on raising its minimum wage earn less than what the minimum wage will become?
  • How does the planned minimum wage compare to that of other nearby jurisdictions?
  • How migration-elastic are the jurisdiction’s labour markets (in other words, how likely is there to be an exodus of workers to other jurisdictions, if domestic minimum wages are not raised)?

One of the complicating factors these studies generally reveal is that conditions vary from place to place even within the same jurisdiction. In Ontario, for instance, there are obvious differences between Toronto and most of the other smaller cities and towns in the province. A smaller share of Toronto’s labour force earns less than $14 dollars per hour. A smaller share of Toronto’s labour force may have jobs susceptible to automation. Toronto’s labour force might also be more migration-elastic, given that the population of Toronto is relatively young. Young workers may be somewhat more willing to move to faraway markets like Western Canada or foreign markets like the US (or, linguistically, Quebec) if wages at home are too low.

The Night Moves 

There are many other variables that one could analyze as well when attempting to determine whether a given minimum wage is suitable. Due to current technological trends, two in particular may be worth discussing:

— the disparity between an economy’s manual labour costs and energy prices
— the disparity between an economy’s daytime energy prices and overnight energy prices

The former variable will help decide how likely an economy is to employ sophisticated machines—robots—to substitute for human labour. Robots tend to be energy-intensive, so an economy in which energy is cheap but labour is expensive will, generally speaking, be ripe for roboticization. Arguably, an example of such an economy is Quebec. Its manual labour costs are high because its population is older than the Canadian average, and much older than the US or global averages. Yet its electricity prices are among the lowest in North America. Ontario’s other neighbour, Manitoba, also has some of the cheapest electricity in North America.

The latter variable has the same implications. Because robots which replace manual labour generally consume a lot of energy, and because one of the main advantages of robots relative to human workers is that machines do not need to rest or sleep overnight, an economy in which the cost of energy overnight is cheap compared to the cost of daytime energy might be one in which roboticization will be likelier to occur.

Obviously this conversation remains a speculative one at the moment, since widespread roboticization has not yet occured. Still, it may be important to have it anyway, as it appears to have a special relevance for Ontario:

1) Energy/Labour

Ontario’s energy prices are very high by Canadian standards. They are more than double those of Quebec and Manitoba, for example. Yet Ontario’s energy remains roughly middle-of-the-pack when compared to prices in US states, and is even extremely cheap when compared to many wealthy countries in Europe and East Asia. Electricity in Ontario is only about half as expensive as in Europe’s largest economy, Germany. These lower energy costs, when combined with Canada’s relatively high labour costs, is why some have predicted that Canadian firms will experience among the highest savings from roboticization (see graph below).

For Ontario, there is therefore a risk that jobs will be lost not merely to robots working within Ontario, but also to those working within other nearby Canadian markets where energy prices are far lower than in Ontario.

Labour Cost Savings

Source: Boston Consulting Group 

2) Daytime/Overnight

While Canada in general has a high disparity between energy costs (which are relatively cheap) and labour costs (which are relatively expensive), it is Ontario in particular that has a high disparity between daytime energy costs (which are relatively expensive) and overnight energy costs (which are relatively cheap). This is because Ontario is a world leader in nuclear power generation (see graph below). Nuclear power plants, unlike natural gas or hydroelectric plants, cannot be shut off at night without wasting fuel. Ontario has such a large surplus of overnight electricity that it often has to pay its producers to turn off their power plants at night, and often sells overnight power at prices that are well below the cost of production.

Nuclear Generation

Source: US Energy Information Administration 

At the moment, this is not a situation that is unique to Ontario. Like nuclear plants, coal power plants also cannot easily be shut off at night. Economies which rely on coal therefore often have surplus overnight power as well. In recent years, however, there has begun a major shift from coal-based power to gas or renewables. The Dow Jones U.S. Coal Index has lost more than 95 percent of its value since 2011, for example.

As economies rely less on coal and more on gas plants (which can be shut off at night) and solar power (which cannot help but be shut off at night), nuclear economies like Ontario are becoming far more unique in their disparity between daytime and overnight energy prices. This is true also of Ontario’s wider region: in the US, the two largest nuclear producers by far are Pennsylvania and Illinois, both fellow Great Lake states. Ontario’s immediate neighbours, New York and Michigan, are the fourth and tenth largest producers, respectively.

Moreover, because of its geographic size, Ontario is a burgeoning player in the wind-power industry. Yet  because of its geographic location, Ontario does not produce much solar power. Wind turbines cannot be shut off overnight either without wasting “fuel” (i.e. without wasting wind), whereas solar plants only produce power in the daytime. This too is driving Ontario’s disparity between its daytime and overnight costs.

Because humans rest at night, but robots do not have to, the disparity between an economy’s daytime and overnight power costs could become a major determinant in the susceptibility of its labour force to automation.

Conclusion

These inquiries into the question of roboticization, though preliminary (and perhaps still quite premature), suggest that Ontario should be especially careful when carrying out minimum wage increases. Given the disparity between daytime and overnight energy costs in Ontario, as well as the disparity between energy and labour costs within Canada in general, it may be that employment in the region will face a high level of competition from robots. If Ontario wants to improve the standard of living of its minimum wage workers, it might be wiser to pursue alternative policies, such as reducing income taxes on its lowest tax brackets.

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