Democracy By The Square Foot

August 28, 2015

As summer cools and fall looms, the options report for Toronto’s ward boundary review begins to sink into focus. (I’ve written – dare I say it? – voluminously about it . Most recently here.) wardboundaryreviewoptionsreportJust now, I am struck by a thought.

Should city council be the ultimate decider on this? How wards get reconfigured may have, will have, a direct impact on more than a few sitting councillors. It’s difficult not to see something of a conflict of interest inherent in this process.

It’s a horse that’s already left the barn, obviously, but you can see the optics of even the most well-meaning councillor being called into question, read it in the comments section of any news story about the issue. No politician will decide to get rid of their own job! Less pigs at the trough not more! The Jays are going to fold just like they usually do! Oh, yeah. And I hate politicians!!

Such a specter of negative public perception will most definitely hang over the proceedings. The consulting group responsible for conducting the public meetings, writing the reports and making the recommendations have taken the two most contentious and illusorily logical options off the table. Simply cutting the ward numbers in half elicited little, if loud, public support. thumbthescaleAligning ward boundaries with the new federal ridings failed to address the voter disparity, the democratic deficit that served as the ultimate reason for reworking our ward boundaries.

This doesn’t mean city council can’t revive them. Staff and expert reports are rarely treated as sacrosanct especially if they get in the way of politics. It would be naïve of anyone to think politics won’t play a part, a significant part, in this when all is said and done.

One political angle has already emerged. It emerged early on in the first round of public consultations and popped back up in a CBC article a couple days ago. “Residents of towers [high rise apartments and condo buildings, I guess] rarely interact with their councillor,” Ward 4 Etobicoke Centre councillor John Campbell said. apartmenttower“Most interaction we have I would say are residents calling about property issues. They are homeowners.”

Homeowners. Property issues.

In response on the Twitter, John McGrath made a very interesting and telling point. “Almost everywhere, municipal government is about and for single-family homeowners, with everyone else shoehorned in where necessary.” Councillor Campell’s mistake was just saying out loud what is true but nobody wants to talk about.

Homeowners. Taxpayers. Hardworking taxpayers.

In response to my rather pointed, shall we say, social media queries at the councillor about his comment, he informed me that in Ward 4 there are 14,000 homes versus 6,000 apartments, roughly a 70:30 ratio. densityandsprawlYet his office only gets 5% of calls from apartment/condo residents requiring work of some sort from him. Thus, to his mind, “equal distribution [of residents/ward] will not provide equitable representation.”

Setting aside the fact that on the city’s website, the Ward 4 profile (according to the 2011 census) has it that just under 47% of households are technically considered “apartment buildings”, a significantly different ratio than the councillor stated, Councillor Campbell seems to be equating representation at City Hall with how much work he is called upon to do for a resident. Homeowners demand more. So homeowners’ votes should count for more.

Or something.

Perhaps a more generous interpretation would be that, in Councillor Campbell’s view, an uneven distribution of residents per ward is warranted since different built forms demand different levels of work for councillors. If your ward is dominated by apartment towers, full of residents making fewer demands because, apparently,towers apartment dwellers are more content than those forced to mow their own lawns and shovel their own sidewalks, that councillor can not serve more of them.

“Capacity to represent” is certainly one of the considerations being factored in to the ward boundary equation but should hardly be the sole determinant in calculating full “effective representation” the report is striving toward. It’s the customer service aspect of serving as a city councillor, the crowd pleaser. Surely, there’s more to the job of being a city councillor than completing work orders, isn’t there?

If some of Toronto’s residents aren’t engaged with City Hall, maybe it’s because they haven’t figured out they can or why they should even bother. Shouldn’t at least one aspect of this “capacity to represent” be about proactive engagement by our local representatives? suburbs50sIf Councillor Campbell is only hearing from a very small section of Ward 4 residents living in apartment buildings, maybe he ought to wonder why rather than conclude, It’s all good.

As difficult as it might be to believe, given the last 5 years or so around these parts, civic engagement isn’t only about airing out our grievances. There should be a much more positive exchange. Of ideas and opinions rather than just complaints.

There’s also a bigger political question at play here. While certainly Toronto’s population and development growth isn’t concentrated just in the older legacy part of the city, people are moving in and moving on up in the southern part of Etobicoke, along the lake just under Ward 4, as well us up north in Willowdale and the northeastern part of Scarborough, there can be little denying that a critical mass are heading to a few wards right smack dab downtown. More people could translate into more wards in that area. shutthedoorIt would stand to reason and only be fair if we have even a passing interest in “voter parity” or the old rep-by-pop saw.

Such a demographic and democratic shift could well threaten to upset the ruling coalition of suburban council votes that has been a mainstay in Toronto since amalgamation, and even under the previous Metro form of governance when the population had migrated from the core of the city. Power shifts to where the people are, and I’m not just talking geographically. The reign of traditional ‘homeowners’, as Councillor Campbell defines them, detached, single-family houses, living the Cleaver lifestyle, is under threat. There’s no room anymore in Toronto. What there is now is all there will ever be.

In order to resist such change councillors like John Campbell, and Scarborough throwback, Jim Karygiannis who voiced similar flippant disregard during the first round of public meetings for those deemed not to be real homeowners, will have to work to diminish non-homeowners’ status as residents of this city. viewPeople living in apartments and condo towers have their own building management at their beck and call, the local councillor from Ward 39 Scarborough-Agincourt opined. Granting them equal representation at City Hall would be just unfair.

Democracy by the square foot, in other words. Nothing new, of course. But we need to call it what it is.

size mattersly submitted by Cityslikr


Now We’ve Got Options!

August 17, 2015

unreadableHave you ever found yourself thinking: Man I would just love to get my hands around the throat of a public policy issue and throttle it into submission but all those official reports and papers are so dry and dense and full of inscrutable bureaucratese that’s it’s impossible to figure out what to think almost as if nobody wants you to know what’s going on…

Yeah?

Well, first. You need a little punctuation in your thought process. I mean, come on. Run on sentences lead only to disorderly logic and a fundamental inability to think critically. Use (but never over-use) commas.

That said, and after deciphering your brain gibberish, I highly recommend you sit down and read the Ward Boundary Review Options Report. pageturnerIt is a beautifully written document. Clear, to the point, no messing about. Official and essential beach reading.

What is the Ward Boundary Review? We wrote about it, first back in November. (And then again, here and here, and talked about it a couple times too, here and here).

What exactly is a Ward Boundary Review? (From an earlier report):

As a result of significant growth in the City over the past several years there are some wards that have considerably higher populations, and some lower, than the average ward population. This means that the equity of representative democracy across wards has been compromised. The Toronto Ward Boundary Review is looking at the size and shape of Toronto’s wards in order to address this inequity and ensure that all Toronto residents are fairly represented at City Council.

The City of Toronto Act (2006) gives City Council the authority to make changes to its ward boundaries. It does not, however, provide specific instructions for how the ward boundary review should be undertaken or the parameters that should be followed. Municipalities in Ontario look to past Supreme Court cases and Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) decisions for guidance. The historic Carter Case, which was one of the first electoral boundary cases to be taken to the Supreme Court, set the precedent for ward boundary reviews in Canada by establishing the principle of “effective representation” as the basis for making ward boundary adjustments.

Why is a ward boundary review and subsequent changes to ward boundaries necessary now?

Toronto’s current ward structure, developed approximately 15 years ago, has become unbalanced. This impacts voter parity (similar but not identical population numbers among wards) not just at election time, but every time City Council votes.

Not to mention that it probably doesn’t hurt to assess the state of your local governance structure at least every 15 years or so.

So after one round of consultations with the public, politicians and other various civic “stakeholders”, we’ve been presented with 5 options for ward realignment. wardboundaryreviewBigger, smaller, more, fewer, in a nutshell. I’m not going to break the options down much more than that right now, mostly because I really want you to read the report for yourself. Did I tell you it’s really fantastic and completely worth your while?

I will say this in terms of my immediate impression of the options, mostly having to do with what was left off the table. Both the idea of cutting the number of wards in half and keeping them aligned with federal/provincial ridings were deemed lacking in support and non-workable, respectively. Hoo-rah for that, I say.

“Since the idea of having 25 very large wards [aligned with the new federal ridings in Toronto, effectively cutting council size in half] gained virtually no support during the public process,” the report states, “it has not been pursued as an option.” intothebinThat may come as a surprise to all those chanting along with the former mayor and organizations such as the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition about reducing the number of councillors at City Hall but there it is. Despite the volume and repetition, there was ‘virtually no support’ to go down that reductionist rode. Good riddance.

While it seems to make sense to far more people to keep doing what we’re doing and design our wards along federal riding lines and then simply cut them in half, the report sense a problem with that too.

This option does not resolve the issue of very large wards in the Downtown and southern Etobicoke and the numerous small wards. It merely continues most of the inequities of the current situation that led to the TWBR. An option based on using the federal riding boundaries and then dividing them in two will not achieve effective representation and has, therefore, not been pursued.

And as I’ve said all along, why would the city want to design its electoral structure based on that of the level of government that has the least amount to do with our daily lives?

Shouldn’t we take this opportunity to come up with an actual made in Toronto formula? allergictochangeSince amalgamation, we’ve complained about the dysfunction at City Hall. Might part of that be the way in which we elect our local officials? Let’s try and figure out how why might be able to do that better.

I am not, however, hopeful of that occurring. Early signs are not encouraging. “The last thing we need is more politicians,” Mayor Tory said, summoning up his radio talk show, drive time persona, in response to one of the options for more wards with fewer residents in them. It’s a sentiment hardly more thoughtful than the cut-`em-half crowd but what passes for reasonable and rational these days.

Given the chill of maintaining the status quo that’s descended upon City Hall since our current mayor took office, it’s hard to see things going much further than Option #1, Minimal Change, “Change, if necessary, but not necessarily change,” as the report refers to it although even this one would guarantee an increase in the council size while “minimizing change”.haveyoursay

Still, there are now lines on a map, options for change to be considered and debated. Round 2 of public consultations happen in the fall before this gets decided next spring. Now is the time to read up and inform yourself about a decision that will affect this city through the next 4 election cycles. People will be listening.

excitedly submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club XIII

August 16, 2015

I am not a woodsman. I do not commune easily with the great outdoors. The deep, dark forest unsettles rather than edifies me. scarywoodsI am like Socrates, as portrayed by Plato in Phaedrus, and quoted by Frédéric Gros in his book, A Philosophy of Walking. “Nature had not enough to say to him.”

Wilderness walks reveal to me a bigger, wider world of indifference. Where some see bounty and accord, I sense a cosmic m’eh. For every sprig of new life, there’s death and decay from every vantage.

Let me ask you this, mother earth lovers. Would you really like a parent as disinterestedly neglectful as nature is with us? Sure, there’s plenty of food and sustenance on offer. You just have to figure out what stuff’s good for you and what’ll kill you. No. Don’t look at the bird eating that berry. Well fine for the bird, the berry could be poisonous to you. That river bringing you life-giving fresh water and delicious fish (depending on the fish and how you cook it, of course – always with the qualifiers), also rises up on occasion and floods your village for no discernible reason whatsoever!

Even as we sit here now, willfully pumping the air, the waters, the soil with life-threatening toxicity, earth responds with biblical vengeance, beginning with everything least responsible for inflicting the damage on it. It’s like killing the hostages. aphilosophyofwalkingStop doing what you’re doing, humans, or the beautiful, endangered, blue… billed… flying thing from the Amazon gets it.

Son A takes the family car out for a joyride and wraps it around a tree. Son B gets spanked for not telling his parents what his brother was up to. Doctor Spock might have some issues with that style of parenting, is all I’m saying.

I don’t see harmony out there in the hills and dales, the trees and poison ivy, the streams and alligator filled swamps. I see competition to the death, a contest we currently have the upper hand with but nothing we should be complacent about. Our demise lurks down any benign seeming path.

So, you’ll excuse me if I don’t share Monsieur Gros’ exhilarating and restorative view of mountain treks and fern strewn glen hikes.

That’s not to say I don’t like walking. I love walking.  If time is of no consequence, it is my preferred travel mode, with distance seldom factoring into the plans.

Nor should you take from any of this a dislike of the A Philosophy of Walking on my part. I liked the book a lot. It’s a nice easy read, with very little clunkiness of translation (by John Howe). Any philosophical pretensions – and how could there not be? nietzschewalkingFrédéric Gros is French, for god’s sake! – are ever so slight and very accessible. The man actually humanizes super-walker Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Strode Zarathustra.

No, my one quibble with the book is its whiff of anti-urban sensibilities, let’s call them. Gros is all about the humanity-affirming sojourn into and through the wilds of nature. “Walking means being out of doors, outside, ‘in the fresh air’, as they say,” Gros writes in Chapter 4 titled, well, Outside. “Walking causes the inversion of town-dweller’s logic, and even of our most widespread condition.”

In Chapter 7, Solitudes, Gros encourages the solitary walk, away from other people.

So it’s best to walk alone, except that one is never entirely alone. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.’ To be buried in nature is perpetually distracting. Everything talks to you, greets you, demand your attention: trees, flowers, the colour of the roads. The sigh of the wind, the buzzing of insects, the babble of streams , the impact of your feet on the ground: a whole rustling murmur that responds to your presence…

Fresh air. Flowers. Trees. The babble of streams.

The only 3 chapters in A Philosophy of Walking really dedicated to city walking are fraught with friction, jostling and preening. French poet Gérard de Nerval (Chapter 17, Melancholy Wandering) wound up hanging himself from a ‘window grille’ along a ‘narrow, slimy, sinister’ staircase leading to the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne in Paris. Chapter 20, Public Gardens talks about the strict social construct of the Grand Allée “to show off a beautiful fabric and reap the fruits of their toilette.” Even The Urban Flâneur (chapter 21) is little more than a ‘walker…fulfilled in an abyss of fusion, the stroller in a firework-like explosion of successive flashes.” As opposed to the ‘great romantic walker’ like Rousseau or Wordworth who ‘communed with the Essence.”walking

I walk a lot in cities. I can easily get lost in their ‘Essence’, the ‘Essence’ of, I don’t know, 50% of the world’s humanity? In fact, I discovered A Philosophy of Walking during a stroll through the streets of San Francisco and a stop at the world famous City Lights bookstore. Like Rousseau, I too “like to walk at my ease, and to stop when I like. A wandering life is what I want…without being obliged to hurry, and with a pleasant prospect at the end, is of all kinds of life the one most suited to my taste.” I just feel little compunction to head out to the woods to find it.

And hey. I’m not alone in that. Lots of people like to be able to walk in their cities, neighbourhoods. They don’t need the great outdoors to keep themselves happy or sane or grounded. Perhaps it’s not about where you walk but just the fact that you can walk, sometimes with no real purpose other than to be walking. Simply ambulant.

That is the great thing about A Philosophy of Walking, Gros’ exuberance in laying out the humanizing effects of walking.

Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found. To walk, you need to start with two legs. The rest is optional. If you want to go faster, then don’t walk, do something else: drive, slide or fly. Don’t walk. And when you are walking, there is only one sort of performance that counts: the brilliance of the sky, the splendour of the landscape. Walking is not a sport.

Once on his feet, though, man does not stay where he is.

The key here is the slowness. What we’ve lost, according to Gros, in this hepped-up world of ours, is the ability to saunter and absorb our humanness through walking.

The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time. It looks simple at first sight: finish something in two hours instead of three, gain an hour. It’s an abstract calculation though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal.

Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone. This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar. Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship.

We walk because we’re human. Humans walk. Walking, without any particular purpose, keeps us being human.

walking2

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


The Strange Power Of Wishful Thinking

August 4, 2015

Apparently, our regular daily travel times haven’t changed all that much over the years. According to a recent article in Nature, Six research routes to steer transport policy, “On average, people around the world spend an hour a day travelling, a pattern that has held for centuries and across cultures.”lovemycar7

By that calculation, many of us here in the GTA are pitching in to bring up that average time, especially commuters in the outer areas of the region, places like Oshawa and up in Barrie, who clock in at 45 minutes, one-way. Kind of confounding, when you think about it. Living in an age of speedy trains and automobiles, yet here we are, some of us, lagging behind the horse-and-trolley era.

How can that possibly be?

Well, as it turns out, according to the article’s authors, Eric Bruun and Moshe Givoni, commuting and simply getting around are not simply all about the advanced technology. In fact, they warn that a simple reliance on new technologies like the all hailed driverless cars to untangle our congested mess of traffic woes could just as easily make matters worse.

Although the excitement associated with a new product, service or tool is often justified, the negative, unintended impacts must be anticipated.

Take the driverless cars. Depending on whom one asks, such cars will be in wide use in some countries by 2025 or 2050. They are framed as a technology that offers cheap mobility while saving time and energy. But it was exactly this thinking that brought us the ‘with-driver’ private car and its unsustainable consequences.

The driverless car promises to be even more successful. Getting people out of their driverless cars will be even harder.

By making driving easier and, more fun or, at least, tolerable, and better improving traffic flow, driverless cars will attract more drivers. futuristicAt which point of time, new technology runs smack dab into old rules of the road like induced demand. Better driving = more driving. No one’s yet figured out how to design or build around that one absolute constant in the congestion equation. Bruun and Givoni suggest that driverless vehicles may be a much more valuable technological advance in terms of public transit.

Even something like Uber, the self-vaunted, self-dubbed car-sharing disruptive technology may possibly entice more cars onto our roads. “Like any innovation they are a great opportunity but also carry risks.” Freed of expensive driving headaches like parking, more people may opt for the cheaper alternative, Uber, which is still a car. More people using Uber instead of their own cars merely mean swapping cars. In terms of congestion, a car’s a car. “Even with shared cars, it is physically impossible for large cities to meet everyone’s travel needs with what is essentially a variation of single-occupant vehicles.”shinyobject

We can’t simply cross our fingers, close our eyes and pray that some magical technological innovation will sweep our roads and highways free of congestion, improve our lives or clean our dishes for us. OK. That, we have. But changing how we get around the places we live and increase our quality of life in the process is a more complex problem.

This includes the touchy subject of built form. “Total expenditure (public and private) on passenger transport decrease as urban density increases,” the authors write. “Yet zoning and infrastructure investment decisions are not based on broader scientific analyses of the impacts.”

Y’think?

Gentlemen, let me introduce you to Toronto’s Scarborough subway debate where built form has zero connection to ‘passenger transport’ decisions and ‘broader scientific analyses’ consists of nothing more than wishful incantations. silverbulletSubways, subways, subways.

Given that experience here, it’s difficult not to see Bruun and Givoni’s call for more scientific and date-driven decision making as hopelessly naïve and ivory tower locked. “Researchers must come up with new evaluation methods that are robust and scientifically defensible,” they write. Uh huh. “The outputs must be comprehensible to elected officials and to the public.” Absolutely. “Such methods must include both quantitative and qualitative benefits and costs, and capture a much larger array of them.” Hear, hear!

And when all that work falls on deaf ears, ears plugged by political machinations and parochial resentment? What we really should be working on is some sort of gene therapy that creates leadership willing to be honest and forthright about the need to confront our prevailing transportation status quo. Leadership willing to argue it’ll take more than a few tweaks here and there, that there’s no one miracle innovation to turn this thing around. labworkDiscover a switch to turn on the political courage gene.

While we’re at it, maybe we can also try and rediscover that seemingly atavistic trait in all of us to see beyond our own self-interested short term point of view.

Echoing Jan Gehl, Eric Bruun and Moshe Giovani insist that “Our transport systems’, as well as our cities must be planned for people – not for a particular mode of transport or by a handful of companies with vast lobbying power.” The tools to do so are at our disposal. It’s our will that is lacking.

scientifically submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club XII

July 22, 2015

After reading Lewis M. Schneider’s 1965 book, Marketing Urban Mass Transit, the good news is, Toronto is not a special snowflake when it comes to the politicization of public transit planning. marketingurbanmasstransitThat seems to be a factor transcending time and place. The bad news is, the politicization of public transit planning transcends time and place.

In many ways, fifty years on, it’s something of a miracle that in our car-obsessive manner of building and servicing cities, public transit survived at all. Schneider wrote the book (a ‘shortened version’ of his Ph.D. thesis, Management Policy in a Distressed Industry: A Study of Urban Mass Transit) at the height of the automobile’s ascendancy, almost a decade into the interstate expressway explosion that helped create our suburban sprawl. He was a transit advocate facing a very strong school of thought that believed the notion of public transit was a relic of the past. It was an era of vigorous optimism for the future. Median family incomes were booming upward. Lower income families had more than halved in number during the previous decade.

America was Going Places, to paraphrase a 1962 book, and it wasn’t taking the bus to get there.

In the face of this onslaught of onward and outward, the general acceptance of the “a homogeneity of land use” in suburban development where the private automobile would luxuriously move people between home and work, home and the mall, and back again, vintagecarcommercial2Schneider and his ilk believed a more balanced approach to moving people around the city and region to be necessary. Even as early as the 1960s, he noted an insatiable need for road capacity. Urban expressways alone had grown from 2875 miles in 1960 to 9200 miles just a few years later. Estimates suggested more than 13000 more miles would be needed.

The selling of public transit faced the steepest part of its uphill battles. With an unsurprisingly precipitous decline in ridership, a plunge to Depression level ridership in 1953 after its peak just 7 years earlier, service suffered, creating a vicious circle of declining ridership and antipathy to public transit providers. Such a weakened constituency made public transit a tough political sell. In fact, as Schneider suggested, “a politician gets far more ‘political mileage’ out of attacking a transit company than of supporting it.”

Sound familiar?

This helped feed the biggest obstacle public transit faced, in Schneider’s opinion. commutingThat of a bad public perception of it, bad P.R. Advocates and management needed to “make transit attractive and desirable to the public, and thereby remove the stigma of unpleasantness which has haunted the industry almost since its inception.”

How to do that?

First, build a better product. For Schneider that meant exploiting ‘technological advances’, from “Jet Age” modes of transit that involved almost exclusively rapid heavy rail subways and commuter trains to basic modern conveniences like the new-fangled air conditioning. Like many people of that age, he saw no place for olde time transport like streetcars and trolleys, going as far as to predict that the future of public transit depended on cities converting their feeder system entirely to buses.

Schneider was no Pollyanna about the realities the public transit industry faced. Whether public or private, profits for companies were always razor thin, government support grudging and whimsical. There was little margin for big capital investments or research and development or marketing the product.vintagecarcommercial

This was the second aspect, and the crux of the book really. Even with a sellable product, Schneider felt that the industry didn’t concentrate nearly enough time, money or energy, out there pitching it to the public, politicians, planners. Public transit was an operations-oriented industry, focusing on getting things right. Marketing and P.R. consisted mostly of ‘putting out fires’, according to Schneider.

While there’s certainly some truth to that but how do you justify spending marketing money and energy, let’s call it, when making the product appealing through providing better service takes up so much of your funds? The automobile industry thrives on the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends annually on advertising, creating dreamy brand loyalty and a belief system in the freedom and individuality of the driver. How do public transit advocates compete with that?

“The basic marketing problem of mass transit is to provide a service which is more attractive to the consumer than his automobile,” Schneider writes. Fifty years on, and I have to ask is that even possible? badbusrideIt seems every year, while driving around the city might not be getting better, certainly the ride is much more comfortable. Air conditioning? Ha! I’ll chill your seats for you, heat them up in the winter. Better sound systems than in many homes.

As long as car travel remains more convenient and ultimately quicker to get around places, all other things being equal, mass public transit will never be ‘more attractive to the consumer than his automobile’. Aside from maybe cost, it’s hard to see how you entice people to use public transit approaching them as consumers. Until you decide to level the playing field, and make public transit as convenient and quick to use as a car, it will remain an uphill struggle, regardless of how good your transit system is.

That’s not a criticism of Schneider. Fifty years ago when he wrote this book, it wasn’t as obvious the social and financial costs automobile dependence would exact on cities as it is (or should be) to us. They and the lifestyle they promised presented a rosy looking future, a future public transit could help augment but never supplant. Jet packs and teleporting were on the horizon. vintagecarcommercial1What possible need would we have then of public transit?

That’s not to say there’s nothing to learn from Marketing Urban Mass Transit. With the advantage of half a century of hindsight, we now know cities will not thrive without moving past auto dependency. To help do that, we need to pursue the public transit goals Schneider proposed, provide a better service and convince people that it is a better service. The details of doing that have changed slightly although I marvelled at Toronto’s deathly slow roll out of the Presto card while reading Schneider’s excitement about the prospect of automated fare collection in the form of “a credit or validation card” of some sort. Fifty years ago!

Marketing Urban Mass Transit concludes:

“The challenge to management to make changes in its existing practices seems critical at the present time. For it appears that its marketing strategies will largely determine whether the industry enjoys a renaissance marked by modernization and growth, or whether it takes a final plunge to the status of an unpleasant tax-supported public service, providing spartan, cheap transportation (primarily for those who cannot drive) in urban communities designed for and dominated by the private automobile.”

Depending on your perspective and the day you’re asked, it’s difficult not to admit that we blew it, and Lewis Schneider’s dire second prediction has come to pass. Public transit as second-rate transport and public transit users as second-class citizens. The dream of a better non-car future is not dead yet, and the dreamers are multitude but it remains an uphill battle.

packedpublictransit

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


A Terrible Plan Made Even Worse

July 17, 2015

Adding insult to injury that is the oozing sore of transit plans, the Scarborough subway, the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro reported today that, according city council rules, the vote to revert from the already underway LRT eastern extension of the Bloor-Danforth line to a subway never should have occurred in the first place.

In the end, [Speaker] Nunziata ignored advice from city staff and ruled the motion [to re-open the LRT/subway debate] was properly before council. It passed with a 35-9 vote — opening the door for Ford and others to ultimately cancel plans for the LRT in favour of the more expensive subway option.

This, after a 24 hour scramble that had seen the speaker first stop the motion’s mover, Councillor Glenn DeBaeremaeker, from moving the motion on procedural grounds, then agreeing to rule on it later and seeking help from the mayor’s office in wording the ruling she would subsequently give that ultimately re-opened the debate.

But city clerk Watkiss told the Star the speaker is only permitted to give rulings she herself or the clerk has written. She also said the city’s procedural bylaws set out that the Speaker must give procedural reasons for her ruling.

“The [then mayor Rob Ford’s then chief of staff] Towhey ruling was not a proper procedural ruling, but a policy ruling, and the Speaker needs to give procedural rulings,” Watkiss wrote in an email. “She should not be ruling on the basis of policy as she needs to maintain a measure of independence.”

Still Speaker Nunziata’s response to that?

“Council procedures dictate that while the speaker may consult with the Clerk prior to ruling on a matter, it is ultimately the speaker who decides the way in which he/she will rule.”

Rules? M’eh. Whatever.

While it should not be overlooked that, despite the very questionable manner in which it came about, city council could’ve voted to keep the Scarborough subway debate closed, and chose instead to re-open it , overwhelmingly so, we should perhaps be even more alarmed at how easily rules and procedures at city council can be discarded and ignored.

Is that simply the price that gets paid living in a free-wheeling democracy? gavelOur elected officials are the ultimate decision-makers and the civil service, the bureaucracy, sits in place merely to advise not instruct? When the chips are down, a true democracy cannot be hamstrung by the rules and procedures — not put in place but adjudicated by – unelected officials?

I don’t have an answer to any of these questions. It seems to me that if rules and procedures are being contravened, those in charge of upholding them, in this case the city clerk staff, should be in a position to, at the very least, make loud noises that the rules and procedures are being violated, if not stop the violations dead in their tracks. You can’t do that, Madam/Mister Speaker.

Does that overstep unspoken boundaries, undercutting the democratic process?

More clear, perhaps, is that the position of Speaker (and Deputy Speaker, natch) at city council ought not to be left in the hands of the mayor’s office to appoint. As it stands now, like chairs of standing committees, the Speaker of city council is put forward by the mayor and pretty much rubber-stamped by a city council vote. It is extremely difficult to remove them once they’re in place.

If, as the current speaker believes, it is the role of the speaker to ultimately decide “the way in which he/she will rule”, maybe their allegiance shouldn’t be owed to the one person who put them in place, the mayor, but to the wider body, city council itself. “In order to maintain a measure of independence,” as city clerk Ulli Watkiss suggested, the speaker needs to answer directly to city council not via the mayor’s office. youcantdothatWhy not have city council truly elect a speaker (and deputy speaker, natch) rather than simply sign off on the mayor’s recommendation?

It’s hard to imagine how anyone in the position of speaker could ‘maintain a measure of independence’ while looking over their shoulder at the mayor who put them in the job, a mayor who can assume the speaker’s chair whenever the fancy strikes them. So it should come as no surprise that, in this particular case, the speaker actually went to the mayor’s office for help in writing a ruling. If your view of the job you’re doing is to act as a mouthpiece, why not get your instructions directly from the horse’s mouth?

Whose interest does the speaker of city council represent, the mayor’s office or city council itself? The answer to that will determine who you think should really be running the city.

searchingly submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club XI

June 19, 2015

There are times while reading Alan Redway’s Governing Toronto where it’s difficult to dismiss that niggling voice chirping away in your head. Alright already, Mr. Crankypants! governingtorontoMr. Back In My Day Everything Was Better! We need to get back to the garden of Metro Council.

Yes, our current form of government in Toronto is not functioning properly. Yes, we need an overhaul. Yes, amalgamation, as implemented, has failed us by almost every measure. Yes, yes, yes.

But simply turning back the clock is rarely the solution to circumstances going forward. So called Golden Ages seldom shone as brightly as supporters remember. The idea that returning to an earlier form of government – Metro council, perhaps not directly elected, as part of a wider set of separate municipalities – would restore our lost luster strikes me as hopeful rather than practical. It suggests that many of the intractable problems the city faces now, affordable housing and transit to name two, came packaged up with amalgamation. They didn’t. A restoration of a form of pre-amalgamated governance in Toronto alone ignores the other variables at play the city’s faced since the mid-90s or so. The sharp decrease in funding by both the provincial and federal governments for many of the services we provide for one, funding which was integral to our earlier Golden Age.

This is not to dismiss Governing Toronto. It is a good read for at least 3 reasons. One is the history it provides especially for a non-native Torontonian like myself, toting around all my ignorance. fredgardinerAlan Redway served for 6 years as mayor of the pre-amalgamated borough of East York, which put him also as a member of the Executive Committee on Metro Council. He later became Member of Parliament as part of the Mulroney Progressive Conservative government.

So the city’s politics run deep with Mr. Redway. He tells the history of Toronto governance with the passion of someone who lived it. Governing Toronto is full of the personal partiality you would expect from a participant in the proceedings. Rather than off-putting, it brings the story to life.

The book serves up two other very important points that are definitely worth exploring.

The Ontario government used to study and tinker with governance models of Toronto and the region on a very regular and, quite possibly, intrusive basis. “When the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto was established on January 1, 1954,” Redway writes, “the provincial government of then Premier Leslie Frost promised to review its experience within five years.” lesliefrostIn fact, it was back at it 3 years later. And then again 5 years after that. And again in 1975. And in 1986. 1995 brought us the Greater Toronto Area Task Force. In 1996, Mike Harris commissioned his own report plus a study, ‘Who Does What’ with David Crombie at the helm.

Since amalagamation? Nada, unless you count the reduction of councillor numbers from 56 to 44 in 2000. So this unwieldy and, at times, dysfunctional form of government gets imposed on Toronto in 1997, and there’s not so much as an official follow-up to see what’s working, what’s not, how we might iron out the kinks?

Just simple neglect or is there something more at work here?

The cynic in me looks askance and says, Of course there’s something at work here. A divided, squabbling Toronto is like a circular firing squad. Too busy shooting itself rather than aiming their fire at Queen’s Park. Whether or not we’re talking just 416 or on a wider, GTA regional level, the idea of a united Toronto area, “an emergent political jurisdiction” as the 1995 Golden report called it, has to be an uncomfortable scenario for a provincial government. johnrobartsAs far back as the mid-60s, when the exploration of establishing a borough system for Toronto was entertained, it was sent back for further study because it “would stir up too much opposition to the government which would not be desirable at this time.”

Bringing us to Redway’s third and (arguably) most important point. Regional governance. Hey, Queen’s Park! You’re not the boss of me!

Well, yes they are. Creatures of the province and all that. In the absence of any other organized body, as it stands right now the provincial government represents is the GTA regional government. And there’s lots to be concerned with about that. This, from the Golden Report in 1996:

The Task Force believes that, regardless of how the government of Ontario is structured, it is inherently unable to meet Greater Toronto’s co-ordination needs effectively. The region must develop its own identity and focus as a city-region if it is to compete with other city-regions internationally. The provincial government, by definition, cannot achieve this focus because it defines its constituency Ontario-wide. It also lacks the capacity to advocate freely and effectively on behalf of the city-region, a function that is essential to the GTA’s ability to influence federal and provincial policies affecting the region.

You might even argue that the province as a regional government has a fundamental conflict at its core. Whether or not it’s playing off the 905 against the 416 or meddling with the plans of its own regional transit body – Metrolinx — like it did with the Scarborough subway for its naked political interests, there is a perception of not being an honest broker. nathanphillipsWhat’s more, regardless of party stripe, any government at Queen’s Park has to maintain a credible anti-Toronto bias to keep some semblance of support in other parts of the province. That’s an unhealthy dynamic to have as a governance model.

If you want to see that funky relationship in all its fraught action, just follow along with the proceedings of the Ontario Municipal Board [OMB] in the politics of Toronto. It is very much a can’t-live-with-it-can’t-live-without-it state of affairs. Imagine this city without any sort of OMB oversight. You came up with a quick, pleasing picture? You probably weren’t looking closely enough.

Aaron A. Moore’s Planning Politics in Toronto examines the influence the provincial body plays on urban planning in very, very dry, academic detail. It is a policy wonk’s book, for sure, but accessible enough for the likes of me to establish some thought-provoking ideas. Covering a handful of cases between 2000-2006, Moore lays out how the presence of the OMB affects developers, city politicians and staff, residents’ associations positioning around development.

Some of the conclusions he draws may surprise a few of you.

Moore’s research suggests that the OMB is not the land of Mordor ruled by developer Saurons (I hope I have that right. I really don’t now Tolkien at all.) planningpoliticsinTO“The OMB significantly contributes to a politics in the city that simultaneously pushes actors towards compromise while fanning conflict,” he writes. Often times, the mere threat of an OMB appeal will compel those involved in a development process toward an acceptable compromise.

Undoubtedly, this will favour those with the deepest pockets. OMB appeals don’t come cheap. Yet, Moore suggests that isn’t the usual outcome in. Conflict looms. Peaceable resolutions tend to prevail.

One of the reasons Moore suggests this may happen is that the OMB seems inclined to favour expert opinion in making its decisions. Advice, a thumbs-up or thumbs down from city planning staff is crucial in building an appealable case for or against a development in front of the OMB. Which is why it’s ludicrous for a city, any city, but especially a city like Toronto under extreme development pressure, to leave a planning department understaffed. Any developer or city councillor worth their salt will do the utmost to figure out how to bring city planning staff on board. A city can really strengthen its hand when it comes to development by having a top-notch, non-desiccated planning department.

The emphasis on expert opinion at the OMB also takes away what could be the petty power of a local politician which is both bad and good, I guess. Should planning a city be left exclusively in unpredictable, political hands? stopspadinaWe can’t build sensible, proper public transit because of that. Can you imagine trying to build an entire city that way? Moore points out that Ontario municipalities have a greater freedom than many jurisdictions to regularly change and amend official plans and zoning bylaws. The OMB’s presence helps to insure there’s some “rhyme or reason to planning decisions…beyond municipal councillors’ political calculations.”

So our local politicians will tend to use the OMB as either a shield to protect themselves from their constituents when unpopular developments arise, punt blame over onto the OMB, or a gentle cudgel to tap away at their residents’ resistance to said development. Let’s take what we can now or we might get nothing at an OMB hearing. If you aren’t given ultimate authority over planning and development decisions, why assume the responsibility when they get made?

Still, beware the city councillor decrying the undemocratic nature of the OMB and demanding its abolition. mordorIf you think developers have undue influence over city council now, imagine if final decisions lay in their hands? On the other side, we all know about the density creeps and the village atmosphere maintainers amongst us. City councillors bound to the demands of their local residents and neighbourhood associations – “agents against change” in Moore’s words — in terms of city planning are not city builders.

“The neighbourhoods most involved with City Council [on planning and development issues] are those with the most to protect; that is those in areas with higher median incomes… higher home values… and higher proportions of professionals,” Moore writes. This winds up “enforcing a conservative stance towards neighbourhood change.” NIMBYs, in other words, attempting to keep the future at bay.

Ridding cities of the OMB would leave city planning to the tug of war between developers and the more affluent residents and neighbourhoods, attempting to keep their communities exactly as they found them. That would make for an uneven future, let’s call it, an unhealthy check and balance between unfettered greed and reactionary time stoppers. nimbyNo city could prosper under those conditions.

Reform the OMB? Sure. Moore questions the “vagueness and ambiguity of [its] powers.” That might be a place to start but, like Alan Redway’s demand to de-amalgamate in his book Governing Toronto, a call to get rid of the OMB is an easy and annoyingly populist reaction that ignores the complexity of how Toronto really functions. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater and all that. Let’s sit down and figure out how to make it better, how to govern ourselves better. That’s a conversation we need to have.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


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