Event: Community planning workshop

The City of Kelowna is holding public consultations in an effort to re-imagine what the Capri-Landmark area will look like in the next few decades. This week I was invited to speak at one of the workshops about my perspective on active transportation. Essentially, I gave the same talk that I did at OnPoint last year when I argued that car ownership is merely cultural and that it can and should change (and of course I plugged OGO carshare, as always). But I did give it a little twist, focusing on the relationship between culture and infrastructure, and also tried to inject some urgency into the issue.
Continue reading “Event: Community planning workshop”

On stage at OnPoint: An argument from culture

Me providing (unpaid) plug of OGO Carshare on stage. Photo credit: Deon Nel Photography

Urban Systems rounded out their series of workshops on housing, the economy, and climate with their fourth and final workshop on Transportation. The evening focused on thinking about how transportation could enable vibrancy in the community.

I shared the panel with autonomous vehicle enthusiast Joseph Hlady and Lisa McIntosh, one of the founders of Urban Harvest Organic Delivery. You can read a bit of a roundup of each of points of view in the Kelowna Capital News.

As you can see, there was a bit of diversity on the stage. Lisa McIntosh was closer to my position of less car usage overall, but Joseph Hlady went a completely different direction. He painted a wondrous if ambiguous future of autonomous vehicles providing last-mile transportation support to the elderly and disabled. His vision had people using automated rideshare, rather than purchasing their own cars. Of course, he neglected to say what international venture-backed behemoth would inevitably own these vehicles.

He argued from the perspective of efficiency, how automated cars would mean less vehicles on the road, and from safety (less auto accidents) and accessibility. To me, this came off as just arguing for a more efficient version of the terrible system we already have, rather than a more radical vision of what we need.

Joseph argued against light rail and other forms mass transit, and actually argued that AVs would allow Kelowna to remain spread out. This floored me and many people in the audience. We just spent the last 3 sessions of OnPoint talking about YIMBYism, and the need to densify.

Me furious writing notes while Joseph talks.
Me furiously writing notes while Joseph talks. Photo credit: Deon Nel Photography

A future of every individual being whizzed around in little tin cans is exactly the opposite of what I argued for on stage. My position is that we need to abandon car culture, the real cause driving our current disastrous environmental, economic and social transportation system.
Continue reading “On stage at OnPoint: An argument from culture”

3 years of real-world OGO carshare usage data

ogo_car_usage_2014-16

It is end of year data time! Here is our 2016 data for OGO Carshare. The average we spend on our vehicle is about $3000 per year, well below the average Canadian who spends $10,456. Keep in mind that this year also included a round-trip to Vancouver (to take my family to the airport) and our trip to the Sunshine Coast when we used a partner carshare to explore the communities there.

C.R.E.A.M.

The War on Cash is an informative piece about the battle against the cashless society. I have been cash-only for a few years, mainly for two reasons: protecting my personal information and financial discipline.

In the old days, a transaction would involve two parties: a merchant and a customer. Nowadays, barely a transaction is processed where a third, invisible party benefits — and more than by simply providing a convenient transaction process. I became more sensitive to protecting my information leading up to and in the wake of the Snowden revelations. Having worked in the online ads industry for the last three years (today is my final day, in fact), I have become even more aware of all the tracking, repackaging and reselling of personal data that goes on. Therefore, I choose to opt out of the personal information industrial complex that powers so much of our world today. 

In 2010 I quit Facebook. In my browser I use prophylactic extensions like Privacy Badger. I use services that protect me and opt out of information-sharing and activity tracking wherever possible. I delete cookies.

In the real world, your credit card is your cookies.

I stopped using credit cards and refuse networked loyalty points cards. I even switched cellphone providers, once I learned how my old one was tracking me.

It is nearly impossible to live completely cash-only in this world. A few years ago reporter Janet Vertesi tried to hide her pregnancy from the “big data dragnet” and found out how difficult opting out really is.

Mine is not a perfect system, but I do what I can.

“Cash-centric” is probably a better descriptor, since I use non-cash options sometimes. Large payments (eg. rent) I pay through online debit. Online shopping can be done with anonymous, rechargeable credit cards. And sometimes I want the card companies to become aware of the services I buy or subscribe to. I want them to be aware of a specific customer segment, and I use my credit card to pay for those items. For example, every month I let Visa and all its data-sharing marketing and consumer intelligence partners know about Ogo Carshare Co-op. If they are market other co-ops to me or people like me… victory?

Productivity hack: Use notes to keep track of things

The second reason I went cash-only is related to our downsizing journey, and our attempt at financial freedom by ridding ourselves of debt. Not using credit cards is the first step, and you will find no budgeting tool works as well as a limited supply of cash in your wallet. Each payday I take out a specific budgeted amount of cash from the bank, turn most of it over to my wife to run the household with, and am left over with a very limited amount which much last me to the next payday. The scarcity is corporeal. Every time I open my wallet, I know how I am doing in regards to my budget.

It is actually a very Japanese thing to do. I remember being in Japan in the late nineties and early oughts, and agreeing with all the neoliberal riducule of Japan’s cash-centric society as being backwards and inefficient. Now I understand the value in such a system, and have adopted it here in Canada. Just like not having a Facebook account, always using cash confuses people, but it sparks some meaningful conversations.

These are the main reasons for my choice to be cash-centric. I have not touched at all upon the impact of a cashless society on minority communities and the poor, and all the other reasons to continue carrying cash until the morally right solution comes along. To learn more about these issues, there is no better place to start than the article: The War on Cash.

Minimalist wall-hangings

People who think I am a downsizing/minimalist fundamentalist, are surprised when they come into my livingroom and see a number of wall hangings. We don’t have many, but almost all of them are handpainted art (like the family portrait featured in this post). They are all gifts, and have a personal touch.

For example, the piece in the photo above was made for me by a calligrapher I met near Babolsar in northern Iran, on the coast of the Caspian Sea. It is the opening line from an Omar Khayyam poem, that translates into English as “Arise o gracious treasure!” I originally hung it up over my bed.

iran_farhangi_2

The artist, Farhangi, was knowledgeable about Japanese calligraphy, and wanted to show me how it was done without a brush. He wrote this out, signed it and gave it to me, joking about its potential worth. I put in a camel bone frame bought at a bazaar in Tehran and have had it hanging in every home I have lived in since receiving it in 2004. It is an important token to me, a good story-piece for when people come over, and the poem is pretty good too!

If I really wanted to, I guess I could get rid of it… . But it costs nothing to own, either in terms of space or environmental impact, and it spruces up the place a bit, making our living space interesting without any clutter. Besides this piece, we have our family portrait, a Japanese calligraphy piece, a painting of the Seven Lucky Gods, and this piece by a local artist and friend of my wife. None are mass produced, or kitschy, so I do not feel they impinge on our downsizing lifestyle, though admittedly they will have to go if we ever transition to a tiny house.

Danshari — thinking about “stuff”

When people find out about our efforts at minimalist living, bearing in mind our Japanese background, many ask us about Marie Kondo and her “life-changing magic of tidying up.” The KonMari Method is the latest in decluttering techniques. It seems pretty effective for many people, but we have not read any of her books.

We don’t subscribe to any one methodology. Our homebrew system is a mix of learnings, mostly informed by the Socratic method, based on the discussion of various principles. A key term of discussion is danshari. Continue reading “Danshari — thinking about “stuff””

Questioning “normal consumption” — find out what you actually need!

One of the first things we did when starting our downsizing program was stopped using our credit cards. We had to figure out what our real expenses were each month to get our spending under control, and the cards did not help. In fact, they were a hindrance. Take a look at some stats from a recent Neal Gabler piece in The Atlantic:

  • “only 38 percent of Americans would cover a $1,000 emergency-room visit or $500 car repair with money they’d saved”
  • “55 percent of households didn’t have enough liquid savings to replace a month’s worth of lost income”
  • “38 percent of households carried some debt, according to the analysis, and among those, the average was more than $15,000”
  • “Thirty-two percent of the survey respondents said they couldn’t afford to live a healthy lifestyle”
  • “21 percent said they were so financially strapped that they had forgone a doctor’s visit, or considered doing so, in the previous year”

The point of Gabler’s piece (entitled “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans“) is that it is not simply the poor that are being affected by this phenomenon (though they certainly are the hardest hit). Again, from the article:

“…in 2013, prime-working-age families in the bottom two income quintiles had no net worth at all and thus nothing to spend. A family in the middle quintile, with an average income of roughly $50,000, could continue its spending for … six days.”

We as North Americans have an addiction to debt, and an aversion to saving and living within our means. The reason for this is hidden in this one sentence:

“Even in the second-highest quintile, a family could maintain its normal consumption for only 5.3 months.”

Emphasis added.

Abnormal consumption

What is your “normal consumption”? One of the major points in downsizing is find the answer to that question. What is the baseline — what do you actually need — every month. You need to put your consumerism on a leash.

To get there you need to do the simple things:

  • track your expenses
  • cut back to just essentials for a period of time
  • have a dedicated savings account where you put a small amount no matter what
  • keep things simple, for example:

Every payday I take out $100 in cash and put it in my wallet. That is my budget. I pay for everything (I can) in cash. Any day of the week I can take stock on where I am at in my budget by simply looking in my wallet. Every penny is tracked in Toshl. Any day I can get a sense of the bigger picture.

Taking stock of what you spend money on helps. For example, here is a week’s worth of groceries in our house:

grocs_for_a_week

Just seeing it as tangible goods on the table — not abstract future derivatives — makes it a lot easier to deal with mentally.

There is a great pull quote from the Atlantic piece:

In the 1950s and ’60s, American economic growth democratized prosperity. In the 2010s, we have managed to democratize financial insecurity.

Consumer debt is out of control in North America. If you want a (funny) taste of how messed up the system is, check out John Oliver’s segment from last week on Debt Buyers:

In our house, we have removed ourselves from the system and gained back a measure of financial security. Two years ago I could not answer “Yes” to any of the “surprise expense” questions posed above. Now I can, and I live in a single-income household of four, carrying over $40K (down from $60K jsut a few years ago) in student loans. We are not totally free yet, but in just a year or two of minimalist thinking, we have gained back a measure of economic freedom, and gotten rid of a whole lot more financial distress. I recommend it.

The superficiality of living small

Downsizing (or minimalism) is often portrayed as anti-consumerist and eco-friendly. Living small means you buy less stuff, produce less trash, and have a smaller environmental footprint in terms of heating/cooling your home. Plus, if you position your home close to amenities, you walk/bike more and drive less. Secondly, living small is about removing oneself from the current trend of financialization — getting off the mortgage hamster wheel, removing debt dependance, and not participating in surveillance capitalism by using credit cards and the like.

These are all good reasons for downsizing, but is the tactic wrong? It depends on what you are trying to solve for.
Continue reading “The superficiality of living small”

2 years of real-world OGO Carshare usage data

OGO carshare data

We don’t own a car and we live in an ostensibly small Canadian city (about 150K) and have two small children (6 and 4). Needless to say, we are pretty heavy users of our local OGO Carshare. We use it pretty much every weekend for outings and shopping, and once or twice a month we will drive to Armstrong (about 150kms roundtrip) to visit my parents, sometimes staying over night. Since we use it so much we pay the monthly $25 member fee which halves the hourly rate. The costs of gas and maintenance are included, and I pay the annual $39 fee for the extra insurance (most people use the car insurance included in their credit card). I don’t know how this compares to other carshare users, but as you can see from the annual totals it is considerably less than the average annual cost of owning a car in 2015, which is $10,465 →. Plus, it is better for the environment. See why OGO helped drive me to downsize?

Teaching our children minimalism

Obviously we do not force an austere, monkish existence on our children. Yet, we still think it is important to instill in them certain values: a wariness of consumerism, sustainable thinking, recognizing joy in objects. I can give you three examples of how we have been teaching these lessons:

1. The Rock Collection

3 year olds are very curious little bipeds, just learning to exercise their ingrained skills of gathering. While taking walks to the park or beach, our littlest hominin would stop every few steps to inspect the surrounding geology and select a sample. She would bring all sorts of rocks home, with no discernible rhyme nor reason — just whatever struck her fancy in the moment. We decided to introduce some regulatory measures: she is allowed to have a maximum of 20 items in her rock collection; to get a new one, you have to get rid of an old one. The key is to have her take stock of her collection before going on a rockhounding excursion, to make space before getting a new sample, rather than just bringing home any old rock from any old walk and making a decision to keep later. Prioritization and planning for the future are some nice lessons here.

2. The Paper Tray

Paper tray

From rocks to trees. My older daughter is in school and brings home reams and reams of paper creations. She is a budding artist with some impressive Star Wars portraiture skills. Digital photography makes it a lot easier to capture the memories without having to deal with physical storage, but we instituted a limit on what she could keep by giving her a 2 inch high paper tray. Periodically she goes through the contents in an act of “life editing.” We leave the decision of what to keep and what to cull entirely up to her. The key question of course is: what sparks joy?

3. The Christmas Cull

Stuffies

Make room. That is a concept little ones easily understand. Last year, before Xmas, my wife sat the kids down and told them that before Santa brings any new toys we have to make room. The girls had to take stock, determine which were their favourites, and give some of their unused toys to other kids. It was pretty successful and not painful at all.

These three stories are examples of how to teach little ones that more isn’t better, how to identify valuable possessions, and how to say “good-bye” and “thank you for your service” to other possessions. A pretty good basis for full-on minimalism in the future, if they so choose.