Friday, October 26, 2012

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dear Internal Combustion Engine: Our romance is on the rocks

Dear Mr. Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) - did you really think our romance could last? Did you notice it's $1.36/L for gas in Toronto now? As if gas was ever a swell price to begin with. No, Mr. ICE, you’ll have to do better to win back our love.

And the thing is, you’ve got competition.  Last Sunday we attended the 2012 Electric Vehicle Fest at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks and our hearts were seriously swayed. 

We liked a dark red 2011 Nissan Leaf, nicknamed “BEV” for Battery Electric Vehicle. Owner Renny adores BEV’s generous tush and sang her praises like a love-struck schoolboy. She even talks to him as he drives, letting him know how efficiently he’s driving. Her dashboard sprouts trees to encourage him. When Renny turns BEV on, she welcomes him into the driver’s seat with his choice of sounds. Best of all, she only costs about $1/day to run. And even though BEV cost $49,000 (minus a government rebate of $8,500), Renny reckons he will have paid the difference between what he paid for BEV and a similar ICE vehicle in three short years. That’s great news, since he has a daily commute of 60k. Renny loves to advertise how much he’s saving on gas – BEV’s licence plate reads GAS LOL. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Renny doesn’t miss much about the Internal Combustion Engine. He says BEV rockets up to speed with no sweat, since electric vehicles all have torque at the low end. And he’s got a handy iPhone app that not only lets him know how much battery power is left, it allows him to cool or warm BEV’s interior remotely. Now THAT's magical.

Mitsubishi’s adorable 2011 i-MiEV (Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle) isn’t quite as fancy, but that’s the whole point. It gets the gasoline equivalent of 248 mpg, and owner Michael estimates it costs him about $1.25/150 k to operate. He had been crushing on the i-MiEV since he saw it at the Green Living show – it set him back some $30,000, after which he received an $8,200 government rebate. 

Another i-MiEV owner, David, points out that the Mitsu dash was deliberately designed to look more like you, Mr. ICE, with a speedo, fuel gauge and heater, so that we won’t miss you that much. (As if!) The i-MiEV has no touch screens or butterflies on the dash, just a gauge that shows if you’re driving in eco mode. The Mitsu’s range is about 155 k’s – its battery is only 16 kwh, compared to the Nissan’s 24 kwh, which makes it lighter. Note that Mitsu makes its own battery!

All of which makes us wonder, where are all the charging stations? After all, if we’re going to head out on the road in an EV, we’d like to know where we can fill up. Here’s where it gets a little confusing. There are some websites like which show charging stations everywhere from public stations to private residences in North America. But how up-to-date is it?

Apparently Hydro can’t develop their own charging stations – that’s been left to the private sector. But although the private sector can, and has been building these stations, they can’t charge for the hydro. And what about charging etiquette? Can I reserve a spot at the charging station of my choice? Or is it like the local wings‘n’ribs joint – first come, first serve?

Maybe things were different in 1916 – that’s when the Rauch and Lang electric carriage was built. Ladies and gents had separate doors, the engine started with a crank, and a tiller controlled the steering. Another lever controlled the speed. Brakes were a button on the floor, and a bell in the floor shooed horses off the roadway.

It’s practically civilized. Which – is more than I can say for you, Mr. Gas Guzzling ICE. Unless you clean up your act … our romance may be over.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mazda MX5 Miata follows La Contessa home

It was just after one of those steamy mid-summer downpours when La Contessa noticed something following her. A magnificent 2012 red Mazda Miata MX5 SV, raindrops still glistening on its black retractable hardtop roof, dogging my every step. It practically sat up and begged me to take it home. How could I resist? 

It was exciting just to behold -  this most current model of the classic Mazda roadster promised to be even more fun than its predecessors. The exterior was all hard muscular bulges, a far cry from its coyly rounded jellybean origins. Inside, the cockpit and leather seats were surprisingly roomy, and welcomed my tush like an old friend. I loved the sand coloured stitching on the black leather – it perfectly complemented my blonde colouring.

As I fondled the six-speed gearshift, I thought back to my days in Devon, England and dear Cousin Pip (yes, as in Great Expectations). She was the one who taught this pup all about the stick shift, as we streaked along the twisty British cliffside roads in a racing green MGB. The joy of the wind in our fur, as we peeled up the slopes and down into the valleys, and then finally, always, triumphantly, to the beach … our natural habitat in those heady summer days. 

Before speeding off to the beach, we slipped down the top on the MX5. A cinch! One flip of a lever here, a push of a button there, and the sky was unfurled above. Away we went, rowing happily through the six gears, revelling in the engine's throaty snarl - almost as gorgeous as my own. It was intoxicating to drive, like a good roll in the hot sand. Like an eager puppy, the roadster leapt forward and around curves, responding to the slightest whisper of a command.

And oh how it made us want to misbehave, redlining at the traffic light, nipping in and around clumsy sedans, speeding into turns, just because - we could. With the wind blasting through our furry nape, snug in our cockpit, the spirited roadster took us further and faster into an exuberant ride - without even leaving the confines of the stuffy old GTA.

Finally, we arrived at our beach destination, and I took a few moments to explore the MX5's crevices and crannies - space was at a premium, and I wanted to know where to hide my stashables. Well! A good sized bin behind the seats provided enough room for a travelling bag of dog food, as well as holding the gas cap release. Treats to the Mazda engineers who dreamed up the hiding cup holders in the centre console! But the trunk, alas, was barely big enough for my overnight satchel.

Then again, who needs practicality? Like myself, the MX5 is designed for sport and show. You can keep your clunky wagons and trucks, when it's time to snake down the road in pure fun and exhilaration, this spunky little machine easily takes best of show ... just like me.

Friday, July 27, 2012

La Contessa says, "Fiat accompli!"

Who would have dreamed that the car company responsible for such machismo metal as the Challenger and the Barracuda would one day be rescued by a little Italian? These days, FIAT definitely doesn’t stand for Fix It Again Tony!

But La Contessa knows that life – vita mia - is full of irony, and relishes it. Almost as much as I adore the new Fiat 500, which in the old days we called Cinquecento. Ti adoro! My tail wags just to think of that August I spent with Cousin Giuseppe in Cassino, Frosinone. Giuseppe was the love child of a liaison between his maman and the local firehall’s Dalmation, and he has the lovely spots to prove it! A proud member of Italy’s Vigili del Fuco (The Firewatchers),  he lives with a fireman who collects the Cinquecento in all its charming derivatives. Our favourite is the Ferves Ranger, a 4WD Fiat used – yes - in fighting fires.

Enough reminiscing! Back to our new Fiat 500, which pays homage to its cherished ancestor in many styling cues, from the wide-eyed headlights to the friendly silhouette. Inside, everything is compact and thoughtfully placed – although it took us a bit to get used to the centre dial, where speedometer, gas gauge, temperature gauge, clock, speed, odometer, tachometer, radio station, gear and the outside temperature are contained in a six-inch diameter readout. Anima mia, a model of efficiency.

Where Fiat plans to install the espresso machine, we can’t imagine. Not the trunk, which is too tiny to fit more than a weekend’s luggage for a single pup like myself. Was that perhaps the inspiration for JLo’s commercial? Was there a hidden message equating JLo’s ample booty to the teeny Fiat trunk? Oh wait, that whole commercial was a fake, right ...

As we cruised along Little Italy, we slid back the sunroof to breathe in the summer breeze, loving the screen that kept our fur in place. We stopped for a gelato, and took a few minutes to check out our little tesoro. Red is our favourite colour, and it sprang up in devilish little details, from the FIAT badge to the calipers in the natty 15-inch wheels, and even inside the engine. Tootling along busy College Street, we loved squeezing between the 506 College streetcar and a silly Purolator truck, nipping in and out of traffic, and pulling u-turns in front of Escalades. Che divertimento!

And we loved the 101 HP engine – how those Italian engineers must have sweated out that one extra HP. Perfecto for city traffic and the urban lifestyle – that’s how La Contessa rolls. Call us a chick, call us a girly girl, but don’t call before noon because we’re busy being fabulous.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

La Contessa gets bitten by a Bug

There were certain members of La Contessa’s family who swore never to ride in a Volkswagen because they considered it Hitler’s little car. But from Hitler to the hippies who made it a counter-culture icon, the Beetle has always been one of the more controversial and therefore beloved of my vehicles.

When we heard the new 2012 Beetle redesign was out, ach du lieber! we were thrilled. We loved the original reincarnation, especially since it was immediately dubbed a “chick car.” Why this is a marketing kiss of death, we’ll never understand. The 2012 version is truer to the original Beetle, with a less rounded, flatter silhouette and sitting much lower. In fact, it’s more butch and sporty than the first reincarnation, although the original Beetle never was. Our model was aptly named Tornado Red, and indeed, with 170 hp - yes, I checked under the hood! it tornadoed rather than beetled down the highway.

We decided to take a jaunt to Kitchener, which as you know was once named Berlin, with a hefty number of Germanic people and influences. As soon as we arrived at the Concordia Club and saw the German flag waving at us, we thought of  Cousin Ute, who was born in the German town of Wolfsberg, home to the massive Volkswagen plant. She lived with the groundskeeper of the castle that was appropriated from the Earl of Schulenberg by Hitler to create this town. It’s rumoured that the groundskeeper is a distant relative of the Earl, but who knows?

Schätzchen Ute is a font of knowledge about all things VW, and despite being a glamorous and modern Berliner now, always rides in a Beetle. She told me that it wasn’t necessarily Ferdinand Porsche who designed the Beetle, but possibly a Czech designer named Hans Ludwinka with whom Porsche apprenticed – or even a Jewish engineer named Josef Ganz. Really, Hitler wasn’t much of a car guy – he didn’t even have a driver’s licence.

Furthermore, plans for the Beetle to go into mass production were somewhat sidetracked by Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The Beetle as we came to know it owes much to to a little known British solider, Major Ivan Hirst, who stumbled across a couple of prototypes in the Wolfsberg factory – which was due to be scrapped by the victorious Allies and used for war reparations. Hirst realized the factory could be better utilized for producing cars for the British army and the assembly lines started beetling along.

Isn’t Ute a clever girl? I thought of her as I examined the lovely red Beetle, with its black interior and snazzy red accents. The dash was smaller, and can no longer accommodate a game of solitaire, gott sei dank! But we missed the bud vase, a fun, playful touch so absent in today’s car designs. The tiny glove compartment must have been lifted out of an original Beetle, so teeny it could barely accommodate my muzzle. Yet, the trunk was roomy enough to fit several cases of beer and wurst.

We had a glorious time with the 2012 Beetle, and hope people realize the monicker “chick car” is actually a lofty compliment – one that translates into style, affordability, and all the power you need. And that truly is wunderbar!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Share and share alike

Is it any coincidence that a few days after car2go launched its carsharing service in Toronto, the T-Dot was named as the world’s eighth most livable city? Toronto was the only city in North America to make the list – by no less an authority than The Economist.

Tipping the scale in Hogtown’s favour was its greenery and clean air – not so much, the urban sprawl and lack of cultural assets. 

Providing a plethora of transportation alternatives is one way that Toronto has been working on its status as a livable city – this keeps pollution down and parks from becoming parking lots. And with car2go, there is now an ingenious way to carshare, only paying for the time you use the car – even if it’s as little as 5 minutes. Their blue and white smart fortwo cars are easily found through a free smartphone app, with no reservation necessary. All a subscriber needs is a membership card and a reason to drive. It’s just ingenious.

Other carsharing programs in Toronto include the pioneering all-Canadian AutoShare, which launched waaay back in 1998, and the U.S.-based Zipcar. The differences between the organizations are less important than the fact that they offer individuals an affordable way to drive a car. As in other urban centres, it’s increasingly expensive to own a car in Toronto – in 2010, Toronto was the second most expensive place to park in Canada, with an annual rate of $336.26.

But there’s more good news. The Montreal-based bike-sharing Bixi program, proudly marked its first anniversary in Toronto in May, and proclaimed its membership of 1,000 had taken over 550,000 rides. That’s a lot of people riding through rain, sleet and snow as well as sunshine.

It’s all part of the collaborative economy, which is based on sharing. That’s a welcome trend away from conspicuous consumption, and takes an altruistic bent towards business. Naturally, its most enthusiastic participants are young folk, who are concerned about the environment, rabid social media users, and perhaps a little less than flush.

Possibly they are also not so quietly rebelling against the excess and waste that they grew up with – one study found that the average household in the U.S. has $3,000 worth of items lying around unused.

Do we need to define ourselves by our possessions? Maybe -  it’s better to define ourselves by who we share with...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Microcar North lights up La Contessa

Nothing puts a happy grin on La Contessa’s snout faster than a microcar, and when you have a lush green lawn full of micros, well! I am in microcar ecstasy. This is exactly what happened last weekend at Ralph and Wendy Hough’s MicroNorth, where the micros came from near and far.  Every year, Ralph and Wendy graciously open up their beautiful home in Coldwater, Ontario, to microcar enthusiasts from all over North America. The tiny cars dotted the expansive lawn like bright shiny gems on wheels – che belle!

Most of these were vintage vehicles, highly prized collector’s items, and their owners have coddled them like pedigreed pups. A micro, as you know, is any vehicle with an engine under 500 cc. They were wildly popular in the 1950s, when gas was scarce. Many of the little cars had only three wheels, which in England and Germany, meant their owners paid half the road tax. Ingenious, mais non?

Here in North America, we must wait for invitations to events like MicroNorth to enjoy these diminutive darlings. Ralph Hough himself, a strapping six-foot former policeman, has a collection of Messerschmitts, many of which were displayed on the lawn. He got his extremely rare 1955 KR175 red Schmitt in Montreal, where its original owner had brought it from England – the poor car was literally a basket case! Only 10,000 of the KR175 were built between 1953 and 1955, so parts were scarce. Of course Ralph sleuthed out the necessary parts, including the factory original option “suitcase,” custom built to fit in the tiny luggage space.

We loved the pale yellow 1957 Isetta, so much like dear cousin Rosalia’s, who keeps company with the town doctor in the southern Italian town of Campobasso. Oh, the hot summers we enjoyed, travelling along the Biferno river in the mountains. This Isetta even had a wicker basket on the back like Rosalia’s, perfect for picnics. What that clever girl, or cucciune as the doctor would say, could do with a little prosciutto and provolone! Like all Isettas, this one had a one cylinder 300 cc Hemi engine – yes, that’s right, a Hemi. Raise your hand if you know that any engine with a hemispherical cylinder head is called a Hemi. The Isetta story is one of my favourites – they were originally manufactured by an Italian company called Iso, which made refrigerators. Isetta simply means “little Iso.” Sitting in the little car, my nose thrilled to the scent of vintage leather and two-stroke – and I could almost smell the prosciutto

Then it was on to a smart red 1957 Berkeley convertible, one of only 1,281 made in Biggleswade, Bedforshire. Owner Jeff had been working on it for over 13 years, with astounding results. The fibreglass shell had held up remarkably well! Who knows, perhaps La Contessa was sitting in the same model that famed racecar driver Stirling Moss had once championed at Goodwood?

And then, complete shock. A real, live beige 1981 Syrena from Poland. Owner Slawek had brought it over five years ago. With its 850 cc engine, it perhaps exceeded the microcar standards, but I didn’t care. I have not seen a Syrena since the days in Krakow, visiting with cousin Agnieszka. We would smuggle contraband onto the black market and then feast on forbidden delicacies like Baltic caviar? Smacznego! Who would suspect two pretty tail-wagging blondes? 

But it was Kate and her thoroughly gorgeous red 1980 MGB that won our hearts. She graciously invited us to tour the scenic roads around Coldwater in the microcar convoy, and pointed out sights like an osprey nest. Long, lean and tanned, Kate was a force of nature, getting ready to visit family in Scotland and Ireland, in the midst of renovating her house on Bass Lake, and dealing with her late husband’s estate. We laughed and talked, ate walnut pecan ice cream, visited a chocolate store, stopped by a wildlife sanctuary and marvelled at the peacocks and swans. What a splendid afternoon, driving in the open air – feeling the balmy wind through my long fur was a delight, as was listening to Kate's stories.  She was quite a gal, and made our whirlwind tour of Coldwater an absolute joy. Bravissima, Kate!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Smile when you say "chick car"

Salut Amis 6!
Chick cars have been around ever since car manufacturers decided that women were some kind of niche market. It didn’t take consumers long to decide that if a car was marketed to women, there had to be something wrong with it. And voila, a stigma was born.

One of the most cockeyed examples of the chick car was the Dodge La Femme, manufactured in 1955 and 1956. It was based on a Chrysler Newport body, but came in two-tone pink and white, with pink gold-flecked cloth inside, and was marketed to “Her Royal Highness, the American Woman.” In all fairness, Dodge DID provide an item that is sadly lacking in automobiles today – a special compartment for a purse. They even provided the purse itself. Although about 1,500 of these cars were built, women somehow managed not to scoop them up.

Then, there was the Citroen Ami 6, launched in 1961 as a vehicle for women: “Pour vous Madame.” Partially because it was based on the venerable 2CV platform, and perhaps the French really are smarter than the rest of us, the Ami 6 became the best selling car in the French market at the time, with over a million sold in 1966. The reverse-raked rear window was quite chic, and the Ami’s seats were - bonus - easily removable. Early sales pitches showed them being used for picnic chairs.
Meanwhile, over in England, a debonair car designer named Alec Issigonis was charged with the task of creating a small, inexpensive vehicle for the British housewife. The diminutive gem he whipped up was called a Mini, and it certainly was. The wheels were a petite eight inches, and the engine was mounted sideways to allow maximum passenger room. One thing led to another, and the British Mini became an icon of the 1960s – no longer just a housewife’s car, but a fashion accessory, a rally car and even a movie star.

These days, the term chick car is bestowed upon cars like the Mazda Miata, pretty much any Volkswagen convertible (the Beetle qualifies with or without a ragtop), the Fiat 500, the erstwhile Saturn, Toyota Yaris – anything that’s small and stylish. Or, perceived to be underpowered. And usually, it’s a guy who’s making the decision about the monicker. In other words, if you’re a manly man, you wouldn’t be caught dead in this car.

And that’s a shame. Because most so-called chick cars are good-looking, fuel-efficient and affordable vehicles. Isn’t that what today’s consumer is all about? Shouldn’t the term “chick car” be a badge of honour instead of a slur? It should be as highly prized as a Consumers Reports “best buy.”

Perhaps our society will one day be evolved enough to appreciate that cars don’t come with a gender bias. After all, a chick car can’t tell whether it’s a macho man or a girly woman driving, can it? 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Another day, another Ford Focus

When Ford invited us to be among the first to drive an electric Ford Focus, how could we resist? Especially when it was so hot on the heels of our adventures with a gas-powered Focus. We arrived a little late, having experienced spectacle problems – the famous cat’s eye specs were cobbled together with a safety pin.

These ride ‘n’ drives are always a lovely way to spend an afternoon, even if there were no dogs allowed – even La Contessa. As expected, the conference room at the Allstream Centre was full of green products and cues, like the soy foam and recyclables used in making hybrid and electric vehicles. Lunch was saladicious and healthy, with some decadent brownies to keep us from feeling too smug.

But it was the guests at the event that demonstrated how the auto world is changing. Instead of just a gang of auto writers talking about gear ratios, chain drives and paddle shifters, there were mommy bloggers, social media mavens, and digital dynamos. There was more discussion about tweeting than there was about torque. And - there were even a couple of incredibly well-behaved babies bundled into knapsacks!

Following a power point presentation about Ford’s green philosophy, we were escorted down to the cars. Each car came with a driving instructor, to explain the controls and functions. And good heavens, there was lots of ‘splaining necessary!

My charming instructor was named Jeff, and we took along two passengers. To begin with, the electric Focus was darn quiet. When you press the ignition, you can’t even tell it’s on – the ignition light signals that the car is indeed powered up and ready to go. Great for spying on people and sneaking up on them, and maybe even reducing some noise pollution.  Bicyclists, however, may not appreciate this.

It was hard to believe the seats were made of recycled water bottles – while we have sat on water bottles before, it was mostly by accident and quite uncomfortable. But this time, our tush was quite happy. Jeff showed us where a butterfly would appear on the dash if we drove economically – that is, no sudden acceleration or braking. Try as we might, no butterfly appeared. Oh, well. Still, we like this trend with green cars – why not incorporate it into gas-powered vehicles? Getting drivers to operate more fuel-efficiently shouldn’t be limited to electric vehicles.

And at the end of our drive, we were tickled to be interviewed by CHCH TV. And they didn’t seem to care that our glasses were being held together with a safety pin.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

La Contessa gets her Citroen on

At dusk, the last glimpse of day before nightfall, life truly begins for bon vivants such as La Contessa. For it is then that the Citroens come out to play.

How delighted we were to come across an impromptu meeting of the Citroen Autoclub Canada and their remarkable cars. Ah, the memories! Has there ever been a car as enchanting and practical as the Deux Chevaux? As a young pup in Montmartre, it was my daily driver. If cars could talk, that set of wheels could spill volumes.

Peering out of the flip-up window, my whiskers quivered at the marvel of design and engineering at my paws. From the outside, the Bauhaus-inspired curves appear at once utilitarian and stylish. Yet, they conceal an interior which can accommodate a French farmer with a top hat, on his way to market with a dozen eggs on his lap, driving across a freshly ploughed field. Oh, and it can also accommodate a Princess Johanna's Court Dog and her entourage after a wicked afternoon on the Champs d'Elysee ...

The 2CV is minimalism at its most chic, with a thousand other innovations to make it affordable, fuel efficient and easy to maintain. What else would you expect from the country that gave us moving pictures, the little black dress and the bikini?!

Later, we hung out with the Citroen Autoclub, who own a fleet of the French lovelies between them. These fellows know their vehicles, and we swapped stories late into the night. The adventures we have had with our beloved Citroens! Then there is Cousin Madeleine, who makes her deliveries in a pastel blue Fourgonette in Aix en Provence. I have been sworn to secrecy about her precious cargo and what goes on after the drop-offs. Mon dieux, others might think her quite bohemian but Madeleine is simply an artiste, mais oui?

Of course Citroen is a beloved French brand, and no less than General Charles de Gaulle himself credited a DS 19  for saving his life - when would-be assassins killed two bodyguards and shot out the tires, the chauffeur was able to drive to safety, thanks to the ingenious DS hydropneumatic suspension system. These cars were even able to drive on three wheels! 

And so I was not surprised that the latest French president, Francoise Holland, recently chose the Citroen DS5 Hybrid 4 to launch his term. He follows in the footsteps of predecessors Georges Pompidou, who rode in the marvellous Citroen SM, which was also used in parades by Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterand and Chirac. In 1995, Chirac opted for the CX Prestige and then later, the C6.

For centuries, the French have led the way in living and loving with style and grace. Let others be subverted and seduced by noisy engines that can devour distance in minutes... and for what? How bourgeois and arriviste. La Contessa knows that time is precious, but a grand entrance is worth its weight in horsepower.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

La Contessa and the Ford Focus

Mon dieu, the things they expect from a simple chien. Just because I have a pedigree as lofty as the tour Eiffel, I am an expert in all things mechanical?

Let me introduce myself. I am La Contessa, a very rare Princess Johanna's Court Dog. In the old country, I am indulged and flattered for my blue-blooded link to the crowned heads of yore. But on this common continent, I must work like, well, a dog, to earn my keep.

And so it is that I have been dubbed the Designated Dog, and schlepped around in a 2012 Ford Focus SEL for a full week. As I was thrust into the comfy leather seat, I was mesmerized by the centre control panel – it could rival the cockpit of La Concorde, where my cousin Olga often criss-crossed the pond.

Such a luxe European ride, it took me back to the old days in Gstaad. I was almost lulled into a sleep, when – ach du lieber! Such bumps! Was I in the backlanes of the Red District? No, it was merely Dufferin Street, which was recently voted by the CAA as one of the worst roads in Canada. We slalomed our way around the potholes, rather than schussing through.

As luck would have it, the torture test continued. There are cobblestone streets in Amsterdam that are smoother than Lawrence Avenue, another title-holder in the CAA worst roads listing. I feared we would disappear into one of the potholes, but our luck held. Actually, it was not so much luck as the well-heeled chassis and suspension on the Focus, which has been tested for its durability on a Lommel Proving Ground in Belgium and Michigan Proving Ground in the U.S. Anyone who has driven in Brussels (dear cousin Sasha and I romped there regularly) can attest to the brutality of the roads.

Then it was on to my favourite park at Cherry Beach. Here I could examine the Focus from every angle, as was my job. A clever set of wheels, it was, stylish and roomy – I could accommodate a whole litter of puppies in the hatch! But mamma mia, the beeping back-up system hurt my sensitive ears – they really must change the tonality to something less aurally invasive.

And then - какого хренаWhere was the gas cap? I sniffed high and low but couldn’t find a knob or switch for the life of me. But my aristocratic snout (which can discern a fine merlot from 100 metres) led me to success! There it was, cunningly hidden behind a rear quarter panel.  Bravo, Ford engineers, you almost had La Contessa.

A light rain fell on our way home, but the rain sensing wipers – moving inwardly – kept our windscreen clean. It made me misty for cousin Manuel’s Benz, which featured the same wiper pas de deux.

It’s late now. The Focus is gone and I need to count my names. I remember there being 16, but I’m not sure about the last one. Now that I’m in America, perhaps I should cut down?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Commuting kills

Even a wheezy old beater can be fun to drive on the open road, under a gorgeous blue sunshiney day. But when driving becomes commuting, life behind the wheel becomes hellish and downright deadly.

Oh, not because you’re going to ram another car or mow down a pedestrian (or be the mowee), but because of the stress and strain of too many drivers behind you, beside you and especially in front of you. This charming infographic which takes nine pages to print out, claims that if you commute, your risk of a heart attack triples and in fact, 96,000 heart attacks in the U.S. are attributed to traffic.

This Gallup poll shows that the longer your commute, the more you suffer back pain, high cholesterol and obesity. If you spend 90 to 120 minutes commuting, you’ve got a 30 percent chance of being obese. Nice to know you can’t blame it all on Sara Lee, unless that’s what you’re snacking on in the car.

According to Statistics Canada, the average Toronto driver has a time-sucking commute of 27 minutes. And - apparently 82 percent of Canadians drive to work.

This state of affairs is likely to get worse before it gets better. It has less to do with infrastructure, the price of housing or the price of eggs than it does with human nature. We think we’re invincible. We’ll keep going until we keel over.

Perhaps the best solution is to have pop-up medical units along our highways and biways. Sort of like the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) popularized in the film and tv series of the same name. That way, there’s no need to call an ambulance when drivers inevitably collapse in their cars. We could call them M.E.S.H. – Mobile Expressway Surgical Hospitals, or M.U.S.H. if they’re located by an Underpass.

Doctors could make a killing. All those medical students that have been vamoosing to the U.S. would be flocking to sign up for front-line duty at a pop-up unit which of course, would be privately billed. OHIP would be loath to endorse this manner of facility – and what government wants to encourage deadly traffic?  

Some of us would finally be able to get a family doctor. We’d just have to learn to drive.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

To speed or not to speed

In less than a week, the local transportation community has spawned two proposals for a change in speed limits.

The first, from Ontario-based, wants the provincial highway speed limit RAISED to 120 - 140 km/h. And the other – from Toronto chief medical officer, Dr. David McKeown, is to CUT Toronto municipal speed limits to 30 km/h.

Ironically, both are citing safety as a factor. says that drivers travelling under 130 km/h, which they claim is the average highway flow of traffic, are a hazard. The reason is, this causes “other motorists to brake rapidly, tailgate or frantically attempt to pass.”

McKeown cites in his report “Road to Health: Improving Walking and Cycling in Toronto”, that pedestrians were less likely to be killed for every 10 km/h reduction below 60 km/h. Standard Toronto speed limits are 40 to 50 km/h.

This drew guffaws from Toronto’s venerable Sun newspaper, which plastered a photo of a horse and buggy on its cover with the headline “Slow and Stupid.”  

The real reason for the Chief Medical Officer’s report is to encourage walking and bicycling, which would generate health benefits and reduce health care spending in Toronto by $110 to $160 million. Additionally, costs associated with pedestrian-vehicle collisions cost Toronto over $53 million, and cyclist-vehicle collisions over $9 million.

Could our police department keep up with any of it? When to ticket, when not to ticket? Would we lose revenue or gain it? Which war is being fought here – the war on the car or the war on the cyclist and pedestrian?

Neither proposal has a snowman’s chance in Hades to get the green light. But we need to hear about them, if only to keep the conversation going. Road safety belongs not only in the headlines but in our heads. Let’s keep talking. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The trouble with young people today

Remember counting down the days to your 16th birthday? Some of us even skipped school to run down to the government office to sweat through the test that would bestow upon us that coveted, sacred rite of passage into adulthood – the driver’s licence. It was a heady symbol of freedom ... autonomy ... and independence.

But these days, that sacred rite could be on the threatened species list.  It’s true. Young people are shunning the driver’s licence for – shudder – a SIM card.

A study by the University of Michigan Research Institute shows a steady decline in the number of licensed drivers in the United States under the age of 30. There has been 22 percent drop in the number of licensed drivers since 1983. Furthermore, that decline is echoed across countries such as Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Norway, South Korea and – yes – Canada.

Used to be, young folks needed a car to go to the mall and hang out with friends. Now all they have to do is visit their Facebook page or text them. You get to meet more people with an iPhone than you do with a Corvette. Sad but true. You may even get to impress some chicks if you have an iPhone 4S with Siri and some waycool apps.

The U of M’s study found that those countries where folks like to spend lots of time surfing the internet, young people had fewer driver’s licences rates. Could that translate into virtual contact being more important than actual contact? That's more than a little bit disturbing.

Maybe it's be the money. It does cost a lot to buy and maintain a car, and the insurance for a 16-year old male driver is stratospheric. There are much more reasonable – and green – alternatives, like car sharing, taking transit, walking or bicycling.

Possibly. But as Advertising Age noted, just as the automobile shaped a generation like the Baby Boomers, the internet seems to be shaping the Millennials. Perhaps they’re just smarter than we are – texting while driving is deadly. There are no WIFI highways.

Perhaps that’s a lesson that Baby Boomers could take to heart. We might live longer.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A woman walks into a bicycle shop ...

… and asks for a bicycle made for a woman. The kind of bike, she says, that would be good for riding around her neighbourhood, maybe some local trails, something that’s affordable and oh yes, very light. She doesn’t need 76 gears or heavy-duty suspension, won’t be participating in any triathlons or mountain climbing.

So the salesguy checks her out, and brings her a white ladies’ touring bicycle. The cables and fenders are white. It’s whiter than the china at Buckingham Palace. It’s so white, it hurts my eyes.

Yes, I’m the woman in question. Taking the white-on-white bicycle for a spin, I was  nervous – not so much about the belligerent cab driver behind me but getting grease on the pretty white cables. Nah.

Next bike shop, same story. This time I know to ask for a step-through bicycle, and explain that I need something functional, affordable, built for a woman like me. This salesguy nods and brings me a pastel blue bicycle with a wicker basket on the handlebars, which by the way, have curlicues on them. I point at a low-slung grey number which is more my style, and take it out for a spin. Alas, the price point is a bit too high and I trudge on.

At last I find a bike shop with women selling bicyclesUnfortunately, they didn’t have anything in my price range. I tried – I really wanted to buy a bike from them. But I’m a freelance writer and as such, on a permanent austerity plan. It doesn’t help when they tell me I need a lock that would cost exactly a third of what their cheapest bike is selling for!

Finally, I did find the bicycle of my dreams. It’s a pale metallic blue Genesis with seven gears that takes me back to my childhood in a good way. It’s not too girly, not too technical, nice and light and drives like a dream. Bonus – it was on sale! And the cats approve. The straight-talking salesguy reminded me of my veterinarian, who has a somewhat abrupt bedside manner and shoots from the hip. Like my vet, whose main concern is the animal, this guy was focused on the bicycle. “Solid aluminum frame, lightweight, good value for the price,” he said in heavily accented English. I’m not sure where he was from, but the bicycle is from heaven.

It’s going to be a great summer.