Werner's Blog — Opinion, Analysis, Commentary
Canada's incomplete metrication

Canadian Metric MovementI have to admit to a pet peeve: Canada's mish-mash of metric and imperial measures. As someone who has grown up in Europe, I was raised in the metric system—as is virtually all of the developed world bar the United States. Officially, Canada is a metric country since the 1970s. However, the 1970 Weights and Measures Act (WMA) was revised in 1985 and allows for "Canadian units of measurement" in section 4(5), itemized in Schedule II. As Canada is bilingual, the lawmakers in Ottawa saw it fitting to make Canada also bimensuric. (The word "bimensuric" is from the Latin root "mensura" for measure.) Even though Canada has embraced the SI measurement system as the root sytem, in trade anyone is free to use both. However, the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act requires that all prepackaged products must show a metric unit (those on Schedule I of the WMA). Thus, US manufacturers must by law report metric units on the goods they export to Canada, although virtually always they report both types of measures.

Canada's metrication has stopped halfway. Distances and speed are usually metric; they are reported in metres and kilometres, or meters per second and kilometres per hour. But when it comes to construction, measurements in feet and inches remain dominanta, in part driven by the dominance of US manufacturers in construction supplies and architectural firms. And a person's height is more often reported in feet and inches than in centimetres. Temperatures are virtually all in Celsius as well, although many devices (e.g., thermostats) that are sold in Canada are preset to Fahrenheit by their US manufacturers. Volume measurement is rather split. Canadian buy gasoline by the litre rather than the gallon, as they do for milk. But beverages in general is a different story. Coffees are sold by fluid ounces, and aluminum cans sometimes show the metric equivalent of what originally is a fluid ounce measure. Thus, a 355 milliliter can is actually a US 12 fluid ounces can. Where the metric system really hasn't made much inroads is when it comes to weights. Virtually all grocery stores report weights and related prices in pounds, and a person's weight is also more often reported in pounds than kilograms. One of the few areas where industry has embraced metrication in Canada but not in the United States is the energy sector. Natural gas is sold by the megajoule and gigajoule rather than british thermal units or cubic feets.

It has been argued that Canada will only fully metricate if and when the United States gives up on their antiquated system of measurements. What are the chances of that? In the United States, only some government agencies have embraced metric measures, such as NASA. Two stories illustrate the cost of measurement confustion.

In 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter went off course and burned up in the Martian atmosphere after controllers sent commands to the spacecraft that used incorrect thrust measures. The manufacturer of the thrusters, Lockheed Martin, provided the numbers to NASA using their preferred imperial measure (in pounds per square inch) rather than the correct metric unit (Newton). Loss of the orbiter came at a steep price: $125 million US.

The second story happened a few years earlier in Canada. In July 1983, Air Canada flilght 143 ran out of fuel halfway through its flight from Montreal to Edmonton after pilots miscalculated the fuel requirements. The plane had to make a powerless emergency landing on an abandoned runway of a former miltary base in Gimli, Manitoba. The pilot had erroneously used an incorrect conversion factor for the specific gravity of fuel, using the imperial rather than matric value. The fuel tank that was supposed to get topped up only received 4,916 litres of fuel rather than the required 20,088 litres.

‘Continue metrication, Canada! Don't be afraid of kilograms and gigajoules.’

There seems to be little enthusiasm in Canada to complete the country's metrication. Politically, it would upset people who just can't be bothered to learn a new system of measurement. Economically, the cost of changing is not insignificant but from past experience of metrication is not overwhelming. We are already halfway done. Of course, the United States is unlikely to metricate any time soon—the advantage of being a big country is that they can more easily adopt standards separate from the rest of the world. Our own federal government remains thoroughly disinterested in promoting metrication. Why invest political capital into an issue if there are few if any near-term gains?

That leaves the task to schools, universities, and other educational institutions to carry the torch. Refrain from using imperial units in textbooks and classrooms—and our kids may grow up to embrace the metric system. Let us make a New-Year's resolution to say goodbye to the foot and the gallon and the pound. You have served us well but now it is time to move on. Scrap that old bulky cathode-ray television and get a new HD LED 3D television. Let us introduce the new generation of students to the beauty of the système international d'unités. In the long-run, I conjecture that the benefits of converting to the SI standard in North America outweigh the costs of transition. So continue metrication, Canada! Don't be afraid of kilograms and gigajoules.

To my economist colleagues I put forward the question: will the benefits of metrication outweigh the costs of transition, in particular when implemented gradually? And what are the benefits and costs, specifically? How can the costs of transition be minimized? There is remarkably little research on this topic from the academic community. Perhaps someone will take up the idea and turn it into a research paper. Economists know much about technical standards, network effects, and switching costs; good points to start. We know about examples where countries have switched standards. Other than metrication, we also had currency decimalization in the United Kingdom an Ireland in 1971, and a switch from left-hand traffic to right-hand traffic in Sweden and Iceland in 1967 and 1968. Even British Columbia made that switch in 1922.

Before I close, let me point to a related lack-of-standardization problem: paper sizes. Most of the world has standardized internationally on ISO 216. The common international paper format is an A4 sheet that measures 210 by 297 millimeters. This sounds like odd numbers, but there is logic in this. The height to width has a ratio that is the square root of 2 (which is 1.4142). The base A0 series has an area of exactly one square meter, and each following version (A1 through A10) is exactly one half that size. So A4 is exactly one 16th of a square meter in size. By comparison, a letter-sized sheet of paper measures 8.5 by 11 inches (or 215.9 by 279.4 millimeters). Other North American formats (legal, ledger, or tabloid) are also rooted in tradition and do not follow a particular system. Again, North America displays a strong case of "international standard aversion", just as with metrication.

A happy and healthy and productive 2015 to all of you!

Further readings:

Posted on Thursday, January 1, 2015 at 12:00 — #General
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