North America

On Politics and the Weather…and Bike Lanes, in Toronto

I tend to agree with those who say that the ideal city would have both right-of-way transit lines and separated bike lanes on every major street. But I also recognize that this is not politically viable. Too many suburban voters are against it. Urbanites have enough clout to get bike lanes or transit, but not necessarily both.

For this reason, I think it would be best to advocate for transit only, leaving the issue of bike lanes to the side until the transit fight is won. Bike lanes are great too of course, but not nearly as useful as transit can be.

However, I also recognize that even this is not politically viable. There are too many bike enthusiasts who will not delay their push for better bike lanes. For these bike enthusiasts and transit advocates to present a unified front in their negotiations with suburbanites, they must first reach a compromise among themselves.

The compromise could be this: a hybrid transit/bike lane, which changes functions depending on the weather.

It would work something like as follows. On days when the weather is expected to stay within a range of, say, 0-30 degrees celcius, and not rain too much, cyclists will get to have a separated bike lane that is so wide that it will actually have two bike lanes within it: a passing lane and a slower lane. On these days, Toronto would become ideally the most bike-friendly city in North America.

However on days when the weather is expected to be too cold, hot, or rainy, bicylists will not be allowed to bike on major roads at all. Instead, the bike lanes would be used as a right-of-way bus lane.

Of course, there would be winners and losers in this plan, as in any political solution. The losers would be ultraenthusiastic cyclists, the people who love to brag about how they bike to work even in January.

The winners would be everybody else.

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North America

Because 12 is a Magic Number (On Numerology and Public Transit)

The number 12 has played a key role in human culture, showing up in places as diverse as the hours of the day, the tribes of Israel, the disciples of Christ, the jury of your peers, the major gods of Olympus, the inches in a foot, the Chinese Zodiac, the Latin Zodiac, or the egg-carton.

One reason for this is that 12 is divisible in three different ways: by 12 and 1, by 6 and 2, and by 4 and 3. Not until 18 (another significant number, in both Hinduism and Judaism) is a number again divisible in three ways. This is also the root of 13’s bad luck: it’s a prime number, divisible only by itself and one. 13 throws off 12’s groove.

Numerology and Public Transit? 

As in the case of the clock, calendar, and egg-carton, 12’s divisibility could perhaps be put to practical use in public transit.

Imagine for a moment that a road were to have three different bus lanes in each direction. In one of the directions, busses on one of the lanes would make stops every 200 metres, on another lane every 400 metres, and on the third lane every 1200 metres.  In the other direction, busses on one lane would make stops every 300 metres, on the second lane every 600 metres, and on the third lane every 2400.

The result of this would be that busses on all six bus lanes would arrive at the same place every 2400 metres. In addition, busses on the 200 metre and 400 metre lanes would arrive at the same place every 400 metres, and busses on the 200,300, and 600 metre lanes would all arrive at the same place every 600 metres. Five of the six lanes — the 200, 300, 400, 600, and 1200 — would all arrive at the same place every 1200 metres. Lots of opportunities for passengers to transfer easily from one lane to another might therefore be created by such a transit system.  Ideally, this would make the system both efficient and useful.

Of course, you’ve probably already spotted the problem with this plan: roads aren’t wide enough for six transit lanes!

In order to have a transit-by-the-dozen plan like this, you would need either narrower vehicles or wider roads.

In the case of wider roads, the solution is obvious: use highways. The challenge then, however, would be how to get the passengers to and from those highways. This may not be viable today — or at least, not politically viable — but it could perhaps become so with the advent of autonomous or semi-autonomous cars.  Autonomous vehicles could take passengers to and from transit stops located in or adjacent to the highways.

The same might be said of narrower vehicles. Narrow, one-seater autonomous or semi-autonomous cars might allow main streets to create six narrow lanes — three in each direction — to be used for a transit system. Not only would the vehicles themselves be narrow, but they may also require less space between lanes.

But, if anywhere, it is probably on highways, not ordinary roads, where such a plan might actually have potential. Highways are so wide that, rather than have six transit lanes in total, it could be possible to have twelve: a 200, 300, 400, 600, 1200, and 2400 in each direction.  You could  even name the lanes after the Zodiac.  You could then give a tourist directions like “take the Taurus for three stops, then swich to the Gemini.”

Alternatively, you could use only one lane in each direction, but still have different busses using the lanes stop 200,300, 400, 600, 1200, or 2400 metres apart. This would make the system possible on normal roads, with normal sized vehicles, rather than only on wide highways or with narrow autonomous cars.

This is all enormously speculative of course. I don’t expect to see it happen, and am not sure it would even be desirable.

I guess we’ll have to consult an astrologer to find out.

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Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

Trump and the Turks

Evaluating American-Turkish relations in light of Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East and the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, a Turkish and American ally

As Donald Trump returns from his first international tour as US president, one thing that stands out is, as usual, the difference between his and Barack Obama’s approach to diplomacy. Whereas Obama’s first Mideast destinations were Turkey and Iraq, Trump’s were Saudi Arabia and Israel, a country Obama did not even visit until his second term in office.

Trump’s trip also included stops in Brussels, Sicily, and the Vatican in Rome. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, these represent four of the five most significant allies of the US within the Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean region: Italy, Israel, the Saudis, and the EU.

The fifth ally, which appears to have been snubbed, is Turkey. The Turks were not honoured with a stop during Trump’s first trip to the region, as they were during Obama’s.

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Turkey failing to make it onto Trump’s travel itinerary might seem to be of little  significance, if it were not for the flurry of unpleasant events involving the Turks and Americans that have occured this same month.

First, there was the meeting of Erdogan and Trump at the White House on May 16, which lasted a mere 22 minutes and was complicated by the announcement, less than a week before the meeting, that Trump would be approving a Pentagon plan to arm the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that the Turkish government views as a terrorist group.

That meeting was then marred also by a public brawl that occured in Washington on the  day it was held, which pitted Erdogan’s security detail against protestors who, according to the Turkish government, were supporters of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

Later in the week, Turkish military planes repeatedly violated Greek airspace—a point of friction between two NATO countries occurring directly ahead of the NATO summit that Erdogan and Trump attended in Brussels.

If this was not enough, the week also saw the Flynn/Trump/Comey affair dominate the news cycle — and the word “impeachment” bandied about in Congress for the first time —  which followed the admission by Michael Flynn a week earlier that he had previously been on a Turkish payroll.

Meanwhile, Trump has used his trip in the Arab world to endorse the idea of forming an “Arab NATO”; an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that, unlike the real NATO, would exclude the other, comparatively liberal and democratic Sunni power in the region: Turkey.

Now, just a week after Trump’s return home, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have led a move to politically isolate Qatar, the country which is Turkey’s primary ally within the Gulf region.

The Price of Oil

The root of all this unpleasantness is America’s growing concern that, if energy prices continue to stay low for a sustained period, and if Turkey’s oil-exporting neighbours like Russia, Iran, and the Gulf Arab states are weakened as a result, Turkey could become formidable enough within the region to risk cracking down on US allies — starting with the Kurds.

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Nominal GDP

Turkey has, thus far, been relatively happy to work in a cooperative fashion with the Iraqi Kurdish groups, who are America’s primary Kurdish allies in the region. Turkey imports Iraqi Kurdish oil, has fought on the same side as the Iraqi Kurds against ISIS, and uses its relationship with Iraqi Kurds to gain leverage over Iranian-allied Iraqi Shiite groups.

Regarding Kurds in Turkey and Syria, however, the US and Turkey are in disagreement. Though the US has already partially conceded the point on Kurds in Turkey — the US continues to list the PKK as a terror organization, just like Turkey does — it has nevertheless been alarmed by the Turkish government’s treatment of political parties in Turkey that are supported by many Kurds, notably the HDP.

In Syria the conflicting interests of America and Turkey are even more explicit: America is now working in conjunction with the YPG, a group Ankara views as terrorists.

At this point, because Erdogan seems to have consolidated his power domestically, with recent victories in the Turkish constitutional referendum in April, in the failed coup attempt in July 2016, and in the general election of November 2015, he may now increasingly turn his sights to areas beyond or adjacent to Turkish borders, in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey’s own Kurdish regions.

Thus, with Trump snubbing Turkey on his first foreign trip, and with the flurry of events involving Turkey and the US that have surrounded the trip, it appears that the US and Turkey may be in the process of aggressively haggling over the details of their alliance against shared rivals like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Assad, and Hezbollah. The twin issues they have to work out are how much of the burden against these Middle Eastern forces the Turks will bear, and how tough the Turks can be with Kurdish groups—notably those in Syria.

The Price of Loyalty 

Of course, we have no way of knowing how the details of these issues will be worked out, or even whether the US really will be willing to abandon the Kurdish militias to the Turks. But we can guess. Turkey seem more likely than not to accept the burden of fighting in Iraq and Syria, and the US more likely than not to abandon the Kurds in Syria and Turkey.

But (I will continue to guess) the US and its allies will extract two more conditions in return for their abandonment of the Kurds: Turkish cooperation within both Cyprus and Gaza.

In Gaza, although Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized for the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, Turkey has become a key ally of the Gazans almost by default. This has been the result of the Syrian Civil War (which alienated Hamas from Assad, leading Hamas’ formal leadership to move from Damascus to Qatar in 2012), the Egyptian coup in 2013 (in which Sisi overthrew and then outlawed Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood allies), and finally the crash in oil and gas prices in 2015 (which has hurt the economy of Hamas’ newest host and benefactor, the royal family of the tiny state of  Qatar).

The US and Israel want not only that Turkey prevent another incident like the Mavi Marmara, but also that they tie Turkish and regional investment in Gaza to the condition that Hamas work to prevent a resumption of violence in the Strip. An increase in fighting between Israelis and Gazans would, among other things, imperil the tacit Israeli-Arab alliance directed against Iran and ISIS; an alliance Trump’s current visit has intended to solidify.

Israeli-Palestinian violence would also draw a gigantic amount of the world’s media attention, and would inevitably be blamed on Trump, showing his portrayal of himself as an unparalleled dealmaker to be yet another con. Indeed, at the risk of being too cynical or conspiracy-minded, I would like to point out the possibly politicized pattern of the four main Israeli-Gaza battles that have occured since Hamas began to gain control of Gaza in 2006:

The first, Israel’s Operation Autumn Cloud, ended the day before mid-term elections in the US in 2006. The second, Operation Cast Lead, ended two days before Barack Obama’s inauguration. The third, Operation Pillar of Defence, began a week after the US general election in 2012. And the fourth, Operation Protective Edge, ended two months before the 2014 mid-terms.

Whether or not this pattern was a coincidence, Trump and the Republicans obviously do not want to see a new outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence before the 2018 or 2020 elections.

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Source: The Economist

While Turkey can perhaps help to keep Gaza peaceful, it can certainly help to do so in Cyprus, where it wields decisive influence over the island’s North. Turkey is the only country to recognize Northern Cyprus, a Turkish-speaking political entity Turkey established almost single-handedly in the 1970s. Moreover, the island as a whole needs Turkish aid in facilitating both gas and water pipelines across the 80 km sea-channel that separates Cyprus from the Turkish mainland.

The Turks may feel that they can now afford to throw their historic Greek and Greek-Cypriot rivals a bone, given that the economic decimation both Greece and Cyprus have suffered in the past decade have rendered them less of a potential threat to Turkish interests. Thus they may not stop peace talks on the island from moving forward.

The US and its allies will also be happy to see reconciliation or even reunification in Cyprus, as it may help prevent another Mediterranean financial crisis or, even, help show off Trump’s deal-making.

Indeed, while a reconciliation or reunification deal in Cyprus would not directly benefit Trump very much, it could perhaps help to provide him with momentum and bona fides he will want in order to make a more exciting and significant “deal of the century”: a deal which — taking a cue from his Celebrity Apprentice co-star Dennis Rodman — will likely be in Korea.

And of course, as Trump said while in Jerusalem, about peace between Israel and Palestine: “I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all but I have a feeling we’re going to get there eventually…I hope”.

Winners and Losers 

In the end, in this scenario, the losers would be the Kurds in Syria, and perhaps also the Kurds in Turkey. The winners would be the Cypriots, and perhaps also the Israelis and Palestinians.

As for the US-Turkish relationship, more complicated years lie ahead. It may be that the relationship will ebb and flow along with expectations of the future price of oil, which will determine the perceived strength of Turkey relative to both Russia and Middle Eastern states. The US will want to deputize Turkey to contain forces like Russia, Iran, and Sunni jihadism, yet will also worry about Turkish intentions regarding smaller groups like the Kurds.

If oil prices stay low for long enough, it is likely that we will see the United States opt not just for the Trumpian move of bolstering relations between the Saudis and Israelis, but also for the more Obama-esque one of reaching out to Iran in order to win a new powerful ally for America in the region.

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North America

Geopolitics in Canada: Politics, Economics, and Future Technologies

Canada is often considered to be a haven from geopolitics, a country relatively free from economic want or political cant. But if by geopolitics we refer simply to the influence of geography upon politics, Canada may in fact be a prime place to study it, if only because the country posseses so much of the former when in comparison to the latter.

The basic fact of Canadian geopolitics is this: more Canadians live in the city of Toronto than live in the 2500 kilometer-wide expanse of land separating Toronto from Alberta. (Or, to put it in the most Canadian way possible, there are a heckuva lot more people who would like to see Auston Matthews win the Calder Trophy than Patrick Laine). Canada is in this way divided in two: between Alberta and BC on the one hand, in which around 25 percent of Canadians live and 30 percent of Canada’s GDP is generated, and Ontario and Quebec on the other, which account for roughly 60 percent of Canada’s population and GDP.

Source: Future Economics

These two halves, in turn, can also be divided into two parts. Alberta is separated from BC by the Rockies; Ontario from Quebec by the Anglo-French divide. (The debate is still open as to which of these two barriers is the more venerable). However, while the BC-Alberta split is pretty well balanced — Alberta’s GDP is a bit larger than BC’s, but BC’s population is a bit larger than Alberta’s — the Ontario-Quebec divide is tilted strongly in support of Ontario. By itself, Ontario accounts for an estimated 38.6 percent of Canada’s population and 38.4 percent of Canada’s GDP.

These are large figures not just in Canadian terms, but also in global ones. Few provinces or states within major countries represent such a bulk of their respective nations. Ontario’s provincial government has a budget that in recent years was larger than those of Quebec and Alberta combined, and also close to half that of Canada’s federal government (the capital of which, Ottawa, happens to be located in Ontario). The Ontario provincial budget is higher than those of any states in the US apart from California or New York. It is higher than the budgets of 15 EU nations.

Among other things, this makes the provincial election of Ontario that is scheduled to occur by 2018 a matter of some significance. According to current polls (yes, I know, polling cannot be trusted…), the Ontario Liberals likely will be thrown out of office for the first time since 2003, to be replaced with the Progressive Conservative party. This would be noteworthy given that, at present, only Manitoba is led by a Conservative government. The rest are governed by Liberal parties with majorities in provincial parliaments, or else by the New Democratic Party (in Alberta) or Saskatchewan Party (in Sasketchewan, of course), both of which enjoy majority governments too.

In Canada, due to the country’s vast size and diffuse population, provinces possess a high measure of capital and clout. The combined budgets of the ten provincial governments, for example, is larger than the federal budget. (In the US, by comparison, the 50 state budgets amount to less than half the US federal budget. And in Britain, the central government is far more prominent still). So, if provincial Liberals lose upcoming elections in provinces of considerable size—Quebec may have an election in 2018 too, and BC will likely have one this year— it might unsettle provincial relations with Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal majority; a federal majority likely to remain until at least 2020.

It is not however only Ontario’s size which tends to make it the fulcrum in Canadian politics. Ontario is also centrally positioned, both economically and politically, within the country. Economically, the four provinces west of Ontario have around one-third of Canada’s GDP, while the five provinces east of Ontario have around one-quarter of Canada’s GDP. The median line of longitude of the Canadian economy — the place where the GDP to the east equals the GDP to the west; the Prime Median, as it were — runs directly through the city of Toronto, Ontario’s capital.

Ontario trades nearly seven times more with Quebec than does any other province, and trades three times more with Alberta than does Quebec. Ontario also trades more with Canada’s four Atlantic Maritime provinces than Quebec does. Politically, moreover, Ontario shares a long border with French-speaking Quebec — a border Ottawa abuts and Montreal is just 60 km from — yet shares a language with most of the rest of Canada.

We’ve left out any mention of Canada’s three Territories, Yukon, the Northwest, and Nunavut, for the sake of simplicity. Combined, they have a population of 113,000; smaller than the smallest province, PEI, and just 0.32 percent of the overall Canadian population. (By comparison, Alaska accounts for 0.23 percent of the population of the United States)

This is where we get to the real bacon of Canadian geopolitics: the somewhat uncanny reflection of geographical realities within Canada’s electoral outcomes; specifically, in the ability of Ontario to “swing” between either Quebec or western Canada during federal elections, or else for Ontarians to vote for a party supported in neither Quebec nor in western Canada and yet still manage to have that party win (or at least, manage to avoid having any rival party acheive a majority government).

The four most recent elections, which saw Trudeau emerge with a majority government in 2015, Stephen Harper win his first-ever majority in 2011, and Harper gain only minority governments in 2008 and 2006, are ideal examples of this:

The three major candidates in the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper, and Thomas Mulcair

In 2011, Harper’s Conservatives won a majority by uniting Ontario and western Canada — including receiving 27 out of 28 seats in Alberta — even as they won only 5 out of 75 seats in Quebec. In that election Ontario and every province west of Ontario gave a large majority of their seats to Harper’s Conservatives, while, with the exception of New Brunswick (the westernmost Atlantic province), none of the provinces east of Ontario came even close to giving a majority to the Conservatives.

Quebec, in contrast, gave 59 seats to the NDP, allowing that party to become one of the two largest in Parliament for the first time in its history. 2011 was a good example of Ontario swinging to the west. (Harper, not incidentally, was born in Toronto, attended university in Edmonton, and represented a Calgary riding in Parliament).

In 2015, on the other hand, Trudeau’s Liberals won an even larger federal majority by winning most of the seats in both Ontario and Quebec, even as they were crushed in both Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Liberals won a large majority of seats in Ontario and in every province east of Ontario—except Quebec, where they won only a narrow majority—and also won exactly half the seats in Manitoba, the easternmost Prairie province. But the Liberals did not come even close to winning a majority in any other province west of Ontario.

The large victory of Trudeau (who, by the way, was born in Ottawa, went to university in Montreal, and represents a Montreal electoral district in Parliament) is a good example of Ontario swinging east. While BC did give a plurality of its votes to the Liberals in 2015 too, it only amounted to 17 out of the 42 seats in that province; in contrast, in the Atlantic Maritimes the Liberals swept all 32 seats in the four provinces of the region, and in Ontario the Liberals won 80 out of 121 seats.

In 2008 and in 2006, Ontario did not give a majority of its seats to any party. Moreover, in neither of those elections did Ontario and Quebec give a plurality or majority of their seats to the same party. This resulted in both cases in federal minority governments.

In 2008, Ontario gave a plurality of seats to Harper’s Conservatives, who won big majorities in every province west of Ontario but who lost in every province east of Ontario except New Brunswick. Quebec meanwhile gave a large majority to the Bloc Quebecois that year. In 2006, when Harper’s minority victory was much narrower than in 2008, Quebec also gave a large majority to the Bloc Quebecois, but Ontario gave a plurality to the Liberals rather than to Harper.

In 2006 the Alberta-BC divide was also larger than in 2008 or 2011: the Conservatives swept Alberta but won only a plurality in BC. (New Brunswick however did fall in line with its fellow Maritimers in 2006: all four gave a majority of seats to Liberals). In both the 2006 and 2008 elections, every province west of Ontario gave majorities or pluralities to the Conservatives, while none to Ontario’s east (except, again, New Brunswick in 2008) did so.

While geopolitical patterns such as these vary over time and so are not certain to endure, still it is clear they run deep. Quebec’s political leanings in particular may deserve special attention in this regard, given that province’s size and unique identity. For over ninety years, from 1891 to 1984, Quebec gave a plurality of its parliamentary seats to the Liberals in 25 out of 26 elections. This long era ended only when Pierre Elliot Trudeau resigned in 1984, leading later that year to the victory of Brian Mulroney, the only Quebec-born Prime Minister ever to have led a Conservative Party.

Mulroney not only triumphed over Trudeau’s successor John Turner, but did so by winning 211 seats in Parliament, the most in Canadian history. In all eight elections since then — until the most recent election in which the new, younger Trudeau emerged and secured 51 percent of Quebec’s parliamentary seats — the Liberals were unable to recapture the province. Before Justin, they fell behind the Bloc Quebecois there during six out of seven elections, and fell behind the NDP in the seventh.

This feat alone displays the unique mantle that Trudeau now wears. Quebec will probably remain very much on his mind in the years ahead, especially if the Conservatives or the NDP nominate a leader from the province, like Maxime Bernier or Guy Caron, to take over their parties this year and face down Trudeau in the 2019 election. Indeed, in spite of of all the noise I’ve made here about Ontario being a decisive force in Canadian politics, Quebec has been nearly as successful in getting its preferred candidates elected PM. It has done so in 28 out of 42 Canadian elections; Ontario in 30.

In Part 2 of this 3-Part essay, we will attempt to analyze the modern Canadian economy, and in Part 3 we will discuss how technological changes may impact the country. 

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North America

Waterworld: 10 Cities To Watch On Lake Ontario’s Southern Shore

Living next to a river, lake, or sea can have both benefits and drawbacks. Some of the benefits include access to shipping, the ability to relax on a beach or a boat, and the fact that large bodies of water tend to have a temperate effect on their local climates, keeping their cities cool in summer and warm in winter. Some of the drawbacks include being an impediment to road travel (you usually can’t drive a car on water), flooding, and Snowbelts.

While most US cities continue be located next to major rivers or bodies of water, these cities have tended to sprawl away from their bodies of water in recent decades, forming suburban areas further inland, such as Akron, Ohio or Warren, Michigan. In addition, many of the fastest-growing American cities have been in inland areas, like Phoenix, Atlanta, Las Vegas, or Austin. Water has taken a backseat.

In this article we will look briefly at ten places — 4 in Canada, 6 in the US — near Lake Ontario that have been shaped by water, and that might soon experience a revival because of water.

1. Hamilton 

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The city of Hamilton has the only significant natural harbour in the western half of Lake Ontario. Back in 1870, when water transportation was still more important than it is today, Hamilton’s population was half as large as Toronto’s. Hamilton’s land transportation, however, has been limited by its harbour, as well as by the Niagara Escarpment. Thus Hamilton has not been able to expand (or sprawl) in the way Toronto has. Hamilton’s population today is only 10-15 percent as large as Toronto’s.

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The Niagara Escarpment

 

2. Niagara-on-the-Lake 

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Niagara is shaped by water — and not just because of the nearby Falls. It is an example of what we will call a “crow-flies city”: it is far closer to Toronto as the crow flies than it is via land. In fact it is only 48 km from downtown Toronto via Lake Ontario. To put that it perspective, Barrie is 85 km away from downtown Toronto, and Hamilton is 60 km from downtown Toronto. Via land, however, Niagara-on-the-Lake is roughly 25 km from downtown Toronto. As such, if crossing Lake Ontario were to become easier, Niagara-on-the-Lake may benefit. In a forthcoming article we will discuss whether or not this is likely to happen.

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The Niagara River meets Lake Ontario

3. Fort Erie  

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While the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (population 18,000) and its neighbouring cities St Catharines (population 130,000) and Niagara Falls (pop. 80,000, plus 50,000 more who live on the US side of the city) are crow-flies cities vis-a-vis Toronto, via Lake Ontario, the small city of Fort Erie (population 31,000) is a crow-flies city vis-a-vis Buffalo, via the Niagara River. Although the Peace Bridge crosses the river, it tends to be crowded with border traffic, and it is an out-of-the-way route for the southern areas of Fort Erie. So, if it becomes easier to cross the 3 km-wide river border between Fort Erie and Buffalo’s harbour, Fort Erie may benefit.

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The Peace Bridge


4. Youngstown  

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Niagara is a crow-flies city via lake, and Fort Erie via river, but the village of Youngstown (population 2000) in upstate New York is both.

Like Niagara-on-the-Lake, Youngstown is less than 50 km from downtown Toronto via Lake Ontario, but more than 125 km from Toronto via land. In addition, the Niagara River blocks Youngstown from the nearby town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and city of St Catharines. As the crow files, Youngstown is only 1 km from Niagara-on-the-Lake and 18 km from downtown St Catharines. However because theres is no bridge over the Niagara River north of Lewiston, Youngstown is 23 km from Niagara-on-the-Lake by car and 28 km from St Catharines. Youngstown would benefit from easier crossings of the river, the lake, and the US-Canada border.

The nearest US city east of Youngstown, meanwhile, is Lockport (population 21,000), 30 km away next to what was once America’s most important canal, the Erie Canal.

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The Erie Canal


5. Buffalo 

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Buffalo too owes its significance to the Erie Canal. Indeed, prior the modern era of plentiful railways and highways, the canal allowed Buffalo to become America’s 10th largest city in the 1860s — and the fourth largest among cities without an ocean port. Buffalo remained the fourth largest city in the US without an ocean port until the 1900s. Today, however, the canal is used mainly by pleasure craft, and Buffalo’s location within the Great Lakes’ Snowbelt has made the city languish. Buffalo is now thought to be just the US’ 76th most populous city and 46th most populous “urban area”. It is the snowiest in the top 100.

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Buffalo

6. Welland 

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While the Erie Canal was America’s most important, the Welland Canal was and continues to be Canada’s. Whereas the Erie Canal is nearly 600 km long, the Welland Canal is only 43 km. But in order to bypass the Niagara Escarpment between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, it covers almost as much elevation as Erie’s does. The city of Welland (population 52,000) sits on an oval-shaped island formed by two branches of the canal, one in use (approximately 3000 ships use it each year) and the other branch not.

Because it is still used for shipping, the eastern branch of the canal in Welland is crossed only by two lift-bridges and two tunnels. Most of Welland remains next to the canal’s western, recreational branch (which was used from 1932, when it was built, until 1973, when the eastern branch was added). The western branch is less of an impediment to road traffic than is the eastern branch, since the western branch is crossed by seven bridges that do not ever need to be raised in order to let ships pass beneath them.

Welland is the largest island city in Ontario, and the largest one in Canada (I think) apart from Montreal, St John’s, Victoria, or Nanaimo. The city is 70 km from Toronto by air, 110 km by land. Downstream from Welland is St Catharines, upstream is Port Colborne (population 18,000).

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Welland Canal

 

7. Grand Island 

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20 km east of Welland, back on the US side of the border, is another small island city, Grand Island (population 20,000). It is located on a circularly-shaped island roughly 10 km in diameter, which is linked, by two bridges, to Buffalo in the south and to Niagara Falls in the north. Yet no bridges link Grand Island to either Canada in the west or to Tonawanda (population 100,000) in the east. While Grand Island is only around the 140th largest island in the United States terms of area, it is in the top ten in terms of island populations.

The circular shape of the island might perhaps also prove significant — circles are, at least in theory, the most efficient shapes to build cities within. Grand Island also gets less snow per year on average (82 inches) than nearby Buffalo (95 inches), but more than nearby Niagara Falls (76 inches). Finally, Grand Island is next to the large hydroelectric dams at Niagara Falls. These have made New York the largest hydro producer in the country behind only Washington state and Oregon —without even counting the 45 percent of Niagara hydropower produced in Ontario.

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The Falls

 

8. Rochester 

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Much like Buffalo, Rochester (population 210,000) is an Erie Canal city in the Snowbelt. It gets 100 inches of snow per year on average, more than any city in the US with a population of 100,000 with the exception of Syracuse (124 inches of snow; population 140,000), 120 km to Rochester’s east. The only other US city which comes even close to Rochester in terms of both size and snow is Erie, Pennsylvania (101 inches of snow; population 99,000). The future of all these Snowbelt cities may be tied to questions such as: “will smarter cars and trucks allow driving on country roads during a snow squall to become less dangerous?”, or “will aging Baby Boomers take up cross-country skiing en masse?”

Rochester, unlike Syracuse or Buffalo, is a middle-of-the-lake city: Lake Ontario stretches approximately 150 km to Rochester’s east and 175 km to its east. It is a bit of a crow-flies city vis-a-vis Toronto (150 km vs 250 km). But across the lake from Rochester there are no major Canadian cities. There are only smaller cities, such as Cobourg, Belleville, Oshawa, and Peterborough. Rochester is not the biggest middle-of-the-lake city on the Great Lakes; it is second to Milwaukee (population 600,000). However Rochester is the biggest mid-lake city within the Snowbelt, ahead of others like Sudbury, Erie, and Grand Rapids.

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Rochester

 

 

9. Ovid

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Many of the cities in upstate New York were given Classical names. Of the 20 most populous cities in the state, five fit this bill—Syracuse, Utica, Troy, Rome, and Ithaca. The tiny town Ovid (population 600), which along with Romulus (4,000) is one of the two seats of Seneca County, fit the pattern too. Though it is very small, and located 62 km from Lake Ontario, Ovid arguably deserves our attention here anyway. This is because of Ovid’s position between New York’s largest “Finger” Lakes: Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake.

With the exception of Lake Michigan, Cayuga and Seneca are by far the two lengthiest, and most voluminous, lakes that lie entirely within the northeastern United States. Ovid sits at an elevation roughly 100-150 metres above the surface of the lakes, roughly five km from shores of the two lakes and 30 km from both the northern and southern tips of the lakes.

Ovid is different from all of the larger cities in the Finger Lakes region, such as Ithaca (where Cornell is located), Auburn (population 28,000), Geneva (13,000), Seneca Falls (located on the canal that links both lakes to the Erie Canal), or Canandaigua (11,000). Unlike Ovid, all of these cities are located by the tips of the lakes, rather than by their middles.

The reason for this is partly because the tips of glacial lakes like the Fingers tend to be where lowlands are located: unlike Ovid, none of these cities sit at elevations that are tens of metres above lake-level. Mostly, however, these cities are located at the tips of the lakes for the same reason that Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland are located at or near the tips of the Great Lakes. Cities in the middle of lakes have fewer directions available for roads.

Thus Ovid faces a similar question to that faced by most of the other cities we have discussed thus far: can crossing its adjacent lakes become easier? Cayuga and Seneca lake are both only around 5 km wide in most areas, and in many places are far narrower than that. Were Cayuga, Seneca, and the other Finger Lakes to become easier to cross, a place like Ovid might become one of the more unique and interesting locations in the US.

Ovid is also a minor crow-flies city, vis-a-vis both Toronto (235 km vs 325 km) and Syracuse (65 km vs 90 km). And in addition to being a middle-of-the-lake town in relation to both Cayuga and Seneca, it is also, in a sense, a middle-of-the-lake town for Lake Ontario. It is only about 80 km away from Rochester, and 135 km south of areas in Ontario.

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Ithaca, NY

 

10. Watertown

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The final city on our list is the aptly named Watertown (population 28,000), which is a sort of mirror image of Hamilton (population 537,000), only a lot smaller, snowier, and not Canadian. Like Hamilton, it is located at the tip of Lake Ontario (though the eastern tip, not the western tip), has an excellent natural harbour, and is sandwiched between its harbour on one side and highlands on the other. But whereas Hamilton’s highland is  the top of the Niagara Escarpment, Watertown sits in the shadow of the much more formidable Adirondack Mountains.

Watertown’s nearest significant neighbours are the cities of Oswego (population 18,000) and the Canadian city Kingston (population 160,000). Watertown is a bit of a crow-flies town vis-a-vis Kingston: it is 50 km as the crow flies across Wolfe Island, but 90 km via  bridge.

More notably though, Watertown is an extreme Snowbelt city. The Watertown-Oswego-Adirondack region is the snowiest in the United States apart from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, parts of the Rockies, and parts of Alaska. Watertown gets about a third more  snow than Buffalo or Rochester do, and nearly double the amount of snow that Toronto does. Areas in the western foothills of the nearby Adirondacks get even more: the town of Boonville (population 2,000), for example, 70 km southeast of Watertown, gets more than 200 inches of snow per year on average, making it perhaps the snowiest place in the US among towns or cities with at least 1,000 residents, excepting only Valdez, Alaska (population 4,000), Crested Butte, Colorado (pop. 1,500) or Hancock, Michigan (4,500).

Watertown is also just 200 km away, across the Adirondacks, from Lake Champlain, which is by far the largest lake in the United States east of the Great Lakes and north of Florida.

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Lake Placid, NY, in the Adirondacks

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East Asia

Deep State vs Deep South?

There is a recent pattern in American politics, in which Democratic politicians who succeeded in presidential elections were not born in northern states (e.g. Obama, Clinton, Carter, Johnson, Truman, and, if you must, Al Gore), while Republicans who won presidential elections — so, not counting Ford, who inherited Nixon’s presidency post-impeachment — have had very close ties to either Texas (the Bush’s, Eisenhower), California (Reagan, Nixon), or Florida (Bush, Trump).

To some degree, this pattern presumably reflects the old divide between the country’s Northeast and Southeast. The Democrats, who have their base of support in the Northeast, have had trouble in elections when they do not reach out to the South by selecting one of its native sons as their candidate. The Republicans, who have support in the Southeast, have had trouble winning when they do not secure the support of at least one of the country’s three largest states—California, Texas, or Florida.

Looking at the home regions of China’s leading politicans, it is fairly easy to discern a similar north-south divide. A large share of Chinese leaders were born in northern China. These include Beijing-born Xi Jinping (who’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was from Shaanxi) and Shandong-born Wang Qishan (a former mayor of Beijing, now Xi’s anti-corruption chief). At present, out of China’s seven Standing Comittee top leaders, only seventh-ranked Zhang Gaoli was born in southern China. Five of the seven were born in the north and one, Premier Li Keqiang, was born in in central China. Many politicians of the past, such as Zhao Zhiyang or Hua Gaofeng, have also hailed from the north.

Indeed, as far as I can tell, Zhang Gaoli may in fact be the first person in thirty years to be born outside of northern or central China and have made it to the Standing Committee. He is also the only person currently serving in the Party’s 25-member Politburo born outside north or central China.

Central China — which, somewhat confusingly, is sometimes considered to be part of Southern China, though it is located far north of the ‘deep south’ regions like Guangdong or Yunnan — has also produced its fair share of notable figures, such as Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, Li Keqiang, Zhou Yongkang, and Wu Bangguo, all of whom were born in Jiangsu or Anhui. There seems, in fact, to be a very recent trend in which, when the General Secretary is from northern China, then the Premier is from central China, and vice versa. So, for example, there is now the pairing of Xi and Li (born in Beijing and Anhui, respectively), and before them the pair Hu and Wen (Jiangsu and Tianjin).

 

Some may interpret this as an implicit power-sharing arrangement between central China and northern China. While at present most leaders come from northern China, this was not the case a generation ago. Jiang Zemin (born in southern Jiangsu), Zhu Rongji (northern Hunan), Li Peng (Shanghai), Hu Yaobang (northern Hunan), Li Xiannian (Hubei), and Yang Shangkun (Chongqing) were not from the north. Of the “Eight Elders” of the 1990s and 1980s, six were born in central or south-central China; the other two in Shanxi. Even Xi Jinping, a northerner, spent his political career in central China or south-central China, in Hebei, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai.

All this, of course, could be meaningless; birthplace is hardly always a determining factor in any leader’s politics. What is interesting, however, is that such a regional pattern arguably exists in spite of the fact that most of China’s most prominent political figures and revolutionaries in the first half of the twentieth century — including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Sun Yat Sen, Chang Kai-Shek, Zhu De, Liu Shaoqi, Hong Xiuquan, Ye Jianying, Zhang Guotao, or even the writer Lu Xun — hailed from southern China or from south-central China. Perhaps this shows that China’s establishment tends to be more northern, whereas China’s anti-establishment tends to be more southern?

The pattern, if it does actually exist, does not appear to be unique to civilian political leaders. Among today’s 11-man Central Military Commission, seven were born within northern China, while two were born in north-central China and two in south-central China. None are from the deep south.

Meanwhile, out of the 205 active members of the Party Central Committee, fewer than 15 were born in the deep south*. (*Here, please correct me if I am wrong. I do not speak Mandarin, and finding this information was difficult. Bo Zhiyue’s work was useful and worth reading, but has a different emphasis. In the end I had to sift through biographies of the Committee members one by one…). No person born in the vast southeast province Guangdong, or the vast south/centre- west province Sichuan, holds one of the 43 positions in either the Communist Party’s Politburo, Secretariat, or Central Military Commission, at or around the highest levels of China’s political hierarchy.

The Sichuan basin has also witnessed a spate of high-profile political take-downs in recent years, notably of Chongqing’ party leader Bo Xilai and, later, of Sichuan province’s former chief Zhou Yongkang. Now Chongqing’s party chief is Sun Zhengcai, who is the youngest member of the current 18th Politburo and formerly served as party chief of Jilin. Guangdong’s party chief, Hu Chunhua, is the second youngest member of the Politburo and formerly served as party chief of Inner Mongolia, after having spent most of his career working in Tibet.

This may be significant, in both cases. Southern China, as well as other areas that might perhaps also be considered to be ‘peripheral’ (including Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and even Jilin), appear often to have been used as something of a stepping-stone to power by young, up-and-coming leaders like Hu and Sun. The idea is—presumably—that they will do whatever it takes to secure the Party’s interests in those regions, given they have such bright future careers to lose if they fail to do so. Past instances may include Hu Jintao serving in Guizhou and Tibet, Zhao Zhiyang in Guangdong, or maybe even Xi in Fujian. In the case of Hu and Sun in Guangdong and the Sichuan basin, they might be there simply because of those regions’ large sizes and significance—but perhaps they are also there to preempt dissent.

…And yet. Much of China’s economic output is generated in areas from around Shanghai south to Guangdong; particularly if you include Taiwan as being part of the country. Guangdong alone accounts for an estimated 10% of mainland China’s GDP and more than 25% of its exports. This creates, perhaps, an unbalanced dynamic: China’s political periphery is also its top commercial engine.

Americans might be tempted to call this state of affairs “taxation without representation”. While I will not stoop to doing so, I would however be very interested in hearing feedback about these patterns from any of the billion or so people who are more knowledgable on Chinese affairs than I am.

So please, comment below.
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North America

Cable-Cars: The Third Way

So imagine it’s the wonderful future, and everyone has the option of being ferried everywhere by autonomous cars.

The places that were once parking lots have been converted into parks, shops, or homes; the places that were once useless archipelagos of land trapped within highway cloverleafs have been converted into vertical parking lots for autonomous cars, which are capable of holding far more cars within a given space than any traditional parking lot ever could.

Getting Around

Upon entering a car at the front door of one’s home, and perhaps after deciding whether or not to drive the car or let the car drive itself instead, passengers will be confronted with a choice of three basic transportation options:

The most expensive, but also simplest and most private, option is to travel directly by car to one’s destination.

The second most expensive, but generally fastest, option will be to travel by car to a train station, then travel by train to another train station and, if necessary, travel by another car from the station to a destination.  In this future, the middle lanes of many urban highways will be converted into surface rail lines, making trains more widely available. (Also, subway systems will likely continue to expand over time). After dropping off passengers at these highway train stations, cars will be able to drive on to the nearby vertical parking lots.

Finally, the cheapest but slowest option will be to travel by car to a cable-car station. Cable-car stations will often be located within highway vertical parking lots, and also directly above highway train stations. After travelling by car to the nearest one, passengers will ride a cable-car to the train station.

In some places, cable-cars will also diverge from the highway, in order to link the highway to nearby areas that would otherwise be hard to reach as a result of barriers like rivers, escarpments, or valleys.

These cable-cars will not be eyesores — as are some current urban cable-cars, such as London’s Thames River cable-car; and as a monorail would be — as they will travel low to the ground in the middle of wide highways, rising higher only on occasion, mainly to pass over bridges that cross over highways.

Cable-cars will be the third option, for those not in a rush who are looking for a cheap way to travel. Their main purpose will be to link highway parking lots with highway train stations. This will be useful given that highway train stations will be spaced quite far apart from one another (since building train platforms in the middle of wide highways will be relatively expensive), and given that many parking lots will be located within the otherwise difficult-to-reach archipelagos of highway cloverleaf intersections.

As a bonus, cable-cars will increase the overall transportation capacity of a highway by roughly 2-4 thousand people per direction per hour, as well as overcome any topographic barriers adjacent to the highway. They will be particularly useful for highways that run along the floors of valleys, as many urban highways do.

What About Without Autonomous Cars?

This future arrangement does not even necessarily require fully autonomous cars. Semi-autonomous cars would be sufficient:

So long as cars could function autonomously from, say, 4am-5am, and so long as cars could function autonomously within vertical parking lots (which, unlike traditional parking lots, would be able to fill almost every last cubic metre of their volume with cars), the system could work. Passengers could order a car,  and it would be delivered directly to their home overnight.

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