Category Archives: By Izzy

Blogging Real Estate for BlogTO

While I’ve been slacking over here, I’ve been talking real estate over at the Toronto based blog – BlogTO.  I’ll be back soon, but in the mean time here you are, if you’re interested.

Tudor Style home near the lake

Classic Toronto semi-detached in a trendy neighbourhood

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How do you see the world?

If you ask a collection of strangers to draw a world map from memory what do you get?  With an understanding of map projections, we know there is no one “correct” depiction of the globe on a flat piece of paper.  But do people even get close?

Zak Ziebell undertook such a project and asked 30 people on the University of Michigan campus to draw the world map from memory.  He then combined the layers in Photoshop to produce one map as seen below.  One vision of the world from the University of Michigan.


The resulting map, in my eyes, is not bad.  New Zealand and England are forgotten, Greenland becomes part of North America, and the Middle East and India smush together to form some sort of African/Asian hybrid.  So it’s not great either.  Is this a sign of American Geographic Illiteracy as some of the online overseas community has suggested?  Or is it a sign of hurried impatience as a stranger approached a map drawer en route to more pressing matters?

I would love to see a similar project undertaken by people at all corners of the world; or even all corners of America.  I would love to see it undertaken without a political bent.  If somehow time of drawing could be controlled.  Would it result in an illustration of American incompetence or American impatience? Or both? Or Neither?

I probably would forget New Zealand too.  But would they forget the Great Lakes?

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Shuttle Challenge

The Shuttle Challenge is a reward-based initiative that challenges commuters to drive 10% less.  Once every two weeks, it encourages you to take a non-car method of transportation – public transit, walking, or biking.  It highlights how small changes in transit patterns could make a huge difference in green house gas emissions.

Just by participating you are offered a reward.  When I heard this, I thought “Great! Encourage people to participate!”  Then I read that the rewards were gas cards.  GAS CARDS?  Seems a little counter intuitive.

It must be to them as well – because front and centre on the front page of the website is this Q&A.

Q – Why is an environmental organization giving away free gas?

A – To motivate you to take action.  Summerhill impact challenges you to drive better and  drive less.

That doesn’t seem like a clear answer to me.  They go on to elaborate here.  The further explanation boils down to 3 points –

  1. Canadians are going to drive a lot anyway
  2. Canadians love cheap gas
  3.  We may as well try something new because what we have tried thus far to get people to drive less hasn’t worked.

I’m not sold. Not yet at least.  

Check out the website and make your own opinion at  



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Re-examining Bike Share Safety

Bike share systems are exploding around the globe as an alternative means of sustainable transportation.  According to Wikipedia, there are currently 180 functioning systems around the world, with 6 more planned.  Among the planned systems, is New York City’s – set to launch in 2013 with 600 stations and 10,000 bikes.

But as popularity for these systems grows, so do concerns over safety.  Studies have found bike share users much less likely to use helmets than cyclists using their own bikes.  A Georgetown study found that Capital Bike Share users wear helmets only 30% of the time, as opposed to 70% of people using their own bikes.  A study of the Bixi system in Toronto found similar results – only 20.9% of Bixi users wear helmets , as opposed to 51.7% of riders with their own bicycles.

Rates of helmet use may be lower do to the fact that bike share trips are sometimes unplanned, and people do not carry helmets around with them at all times.  It could be do to the fact that these bicycle users are inexperienced, and perhaps do not own their own helmets.  Franny talked about some of her own struggles with helmet use, as well as some proposed solutions in her post about Boris Bikes.

However, I hypothesize that the lower helmet use is innate in how people view and use the system.

Bike share is essentially a bike taxi system, designed for short trips in one direction.  And in taxis, people display a similar disregard for safety precautions as they do when using bike share.  A majority of private vehicle occupants use seat belts.  In Canada, 95.5% of front seat occupants and 89.2% of back seat occupants wear seatbelts, according to a 2010 study completed by Census Canada.  According to a 2011 study, 84% of private vehicle occupants in the United States use seatbelts.  In New York City, this number is closer to 90%.  However, passengers in taxis do not exhibit the same rates of seat belt use.

According to a PSA put out by the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, only 40% of passengers of cabs wear their seatbelts.  Though I could not find studies for other cities, we can assume from this (and perhaps our own experiences) that seatbelt use is much lower in taxis than in private vehicles.

Is there a mental connection between users of taxi cabs and “bike taxis”?  Do people feel differently about safety measures when in a private vehicle as opposed to a public one?  Or perhaps this correlation is just chance. However, if we want to encourage helmet use – we should broaden our thinking to WHY helmet usage is so much lower in bike share than on personal bicycles.  Only then can we start to think about how to fix it.

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City Snapshot: Lethbridge, Alberta

Back in June, on a cross-country trip across Canada, I passed through Lethbridge – a town of 84,000 located in Southern Alberta.  Lethbridge is the largest city in southern Alberta, and acts as an agricultural and financial hub for the region.  With the University of Lethbridge (enrolment hovering around 9000) located in town, it is also somewhat of a college/university town.

Lethbridge doesn’t have the cutest down town, the best architecture, the most lively night-life.  But it does have two unique characteristics that set it apart from other cities and towns I visited across Canada.

1) Japanese Culture

When we rolled into town, I was confused by the large number of sushi and Japanese restaurants in town.  I would have thought southern Alberta was one of the last places I would dine on sashimi.  However, due to the location of an internment camp (Camp 133) located nearby during WWII, the city has a thriving (if not large) Japanese-Canadian community to this day.  Not the most happy start, but there you go.

The city is now home to the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden.  I didn’t get a chance to visit, but my friend did and had nothing but positives to say.  A pretty unexpected and cool thing for this Alberta city.

2) Access to the Coulees

Lethbridge has an extensive trail system that winds in and around the city.  The morning after my arrival in the city, I checked out a map online and hopped on one of the trails.  I thought it was pretty – a huge wide boulevard separiting rows of ranch-style homes, but it wasn’t anything spectacular.  But then, I ran under an overpass and out onto something amazing – The Coulees.

I had no idea it was coming, and it kind of blew my mind.  The morraines run down through the Oldman River Valley, and several paths and stairways run through it filling with runners, walkers, and cyclists.  The paths are well maintained and well used ; they present an easy way to access the enivornment that you might not know existed on a visit to Lethbridge.

It’s easy to visit a town and only concentrate on the main strip, the architecture, the nightlife.  Lethbridge proved to me, though, that if you look a little further you might be surprised.  Hidden gems exist in the most surprisng places.

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Walkability in our Home Town

Yesterday, I absent-mindedly clicked on a link leading me to a list of 9 communities named “Walk Friendly Communities” by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC).  I was pleasantly surprised to find our own small home town suburb making the cut!  The designation is given to communities that have actively demonstrated their devotion to walkability through policies, plans, and programs.

Shorewood in part makes the cut due to their snow removal enforcement.  Growing up, I always thought this policy was universal – Don’t shovel your side walk and receive a fine.  Though many cities have this bylaw, Shorewood seems to be a rarity in that it is committed to enforcing it.

Three cheers for Shorewood!  And if you’re in the area, be sure to check out Doors Open Milwaukee Sept 22 and 23rd.


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Making use of Highway Dead Space

In  many cities, highways cut the city up, acting as barriers between neighbourhoods.  They block off parkland and waterfront from easy pedestrian access.  Urban highways aren’t going away any time soon, but cities are making strides to work around overpasses (or below, in this case).

Toronto just opened Underpass Park as part of an overall revitalization of Toronto’s Waterfront, and in preparation for Toronto’s hosting of the 2015 PanAm games.  It includes a playground for children, basketball courts, and (I think best of all) a skate park.  Development has yet to be completed around the park, leaving it sort of isolated for now.  But it’s great to see the city taking innovative steps forward, and thinking about what will get people into this park – what will get people using this park.  And I think the skate park is a great way to do that – and it’s a great sign we’ve stopped be so scared of skateboards in the city.

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A Year with Bike Share

Last June, a few months after its official launch, I signed up for Bixi – Toronto’s Bike Share program.  I wasn’t a full believer, wasn’t sure how useful Bixi would really be, but with a $100 price tag for the year it seemed like a worthwhile experiment.  Now that I’ve been a year with the program, I thought I’d do a quick round up review to share my thoughts on the program.

Bikes (4 / 5)


Bixi bikes are a 3 gear model that works well for urban cycling.  Though I’m used to riding a road bike around, I actually quite like the heavier, stockier bixi bikes.  I like the black colour choice that makes for a sleek ride, and I love that there’s a little “basket” area on the front that is the perfect size for carrying six beers.

My only complaint is the seemingly huge gap between Gears 2 and 3.  First gear is so light its basically useless in flat down town Toronto and 2 isn’t much better unless you’re riding straight up hill.  3rd gear marks a huge shift up from second that often leads me switching back and forth, not finding a good place to be.

Docks (4.5 / 5)


Though others have reported the irritation of showing up at a station that either has no bikes or no empty docks, this has happened to me only several times, and always when i was nearby another available station.  Of course, this could always be better, but certain docks will always be tricky.  Union Station during rush hours.  St Lawrence Market on Saturdays with people biking down, buying groceries, and taking another method of transit back.

In terms of usability, after 1 initial failure, I’ve had no trouble docking or undocking the bikes.  There is a bit of a learning curve, but I recommend a method of lifting the back wheel off the ground and pushing the bike into the dock as the most effective method.

Coverage (3 /5)

Coverage is probably the number 1 complaint I’ve heard for Bixi, and probably my number 1 complaint as well.  Starting off, the coverage area was quite small, and living on Sherbourne I was at the far eastern edge.  At the beginning of the year (I think), the coverage area was expanded, moving several underused stations from the inner zone, and expanding the system one major block in either direction (east and west).  I think this expansion came with mixed results.  The expanded coverage area is great, but leaves some areas without overflow docks.  In addition, the docks on the edge are sparser than I would hope for.  For example, there are two docks on Parliament street at Gerrard and Dundas, but nothing to the north.  This leaves Cabbagetown basically unserved – that makes little sense to me. 

Check out the full map on the website here

Customer Service (2 / 5)

Customer service is where Bixi really drops the ball.  In several cases where Bixi has moved docks, they have only notified people through their Facebook and Twitter pages, leaving the non-followers out of the loop.  Bixi needs to learn to better communicate with their customers and PUT SIGNS UP!  People who use the docks will see the moving signs in advance.  

In addition, Bixi is really slow in getting keys out to people.  My key took nearly a month to arrive – weeks after they said they mailed it.  This lead to me having to call several times and talk to surly employees who kept insisting the key had been sent.  I think Bixi straight up lies to its customers about when it sends out the keys.  I know Canada Post isn’t always great, but from the number of instances reported on the fb page and elsewhere, this seems like a widespread problem most likely to do with Bixi itself.  A lack of communication on this leads to anger and frustration in customers before they even start riding!  This could most certainly be improved upon.    

That all being said, the last time I called support because my bike didn’t dock properly, the guy who helped me out was very friendly and competent and my issue was resolved within minutes, so maybe they are improving.  

Overall (4 / 5)

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed my experience with Bixi and I would highly recommend it to anyone who both lives and works downtown.  More popularity will lead to a wider coverage area, so that just leaves customer service to improve upon.  

Unfortunately, these days I’m working in an area of Toronto that will never get Bixi, nor would I recommend it to.  This makes Bixi less useful for me and leaves me unsure if I will sign up again.  That being said, it’s still really useful for visiting friends, running errands, and days when I am too lazy to walk.  

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Economic Mobility –

How feasible is economic mobility, actually?  Can you move up the ladder?

This new study by Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project examines this question, on a state-by-state basis.  The geographic pattern that emerges is pretty staggering.  Though most states do not differ in any statistically significant way, you may want to stay out of the south if you want to go from rags to riches.  Check out the interactive version of the below map at the


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Urban America’s Renaissance?

Nothing makes a geographer more excited than the release of new census data.  If you’re a nerd like me, you’ve most likely read by now about the resurgence of urban america from the latest US Census:

The Census Bureau also recently reported that America’s urban population increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, faster than the nation’s overall growth rate of 9.7 percent. The exurban tide may be receding.

Outer suburbs (or the exurbs) have ground to a standstill, with only 0.4% growth.(NY Times).  Cool.  Good stuff.

Of course, this has more to do with the mortgage crisis and financial woes of the US of A than any sort of dramatic shift in thinking.  In my opinion, those heralding this as some sort of end of an era/beginning of a new era of “smart growth” are deluding themselves.  I hope I’m wrong,  but I don’t see whats to start the exurban building once the economy picks back up.  Maybe this is a trigger that will start a shift.

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