We And Our Cars

April 6, 2014

Earlier last week, I was in the car, on my way to the airport. For those of you familiar with the route, you’ll recognize the drill. carsgarynumanWestbound on Lakeshore, heading for the Gardiner, stop at a red light. It’s four lanes, I believe. On the left, two continue along Lakeshore Boulevard, on the right one exits north to Jameson Ave. The one lane with all the cars takes you onto the Gardiner Expressway.

Now, I’m not saying the layout is badly designed. It was just intended to carry a lot fewer vehicles than use it currently. Inevitably, at almost any time of day, it seems that interchange is a mess. Traffic snarled, taking forever to get from Lakeshore onto the Gardiner.

Of course, such a frustrating scenario can’t help but lead to some conflict. Drivers frequently shoot up the less occupied lanes on the outside and push, sneak or dart their way into the on-ramp lineup ahead of the more patient ones. Which is what happened to us while we sat there, dutifully waiting our turn.

A car slowed down right beside us and just eased its way right in front of ours. No indicator. No wave of thanks from the driver as we let them in. gardinerlakeshorejamesonNo acknowledgement we were even there, in fact. Just eyes front, carrying on as if no big thing. That’s how we do.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so thin-skinned but it just seems to me that very few of us would behave that way outside of our vehicles. How many times are you waiting in line for, I don’t know, a coffee or at the post office (if it were 1996) and somebody just casually steps in front of you? Shoulders in without so much as a please or thank you and continues going about their day. This line starts wherever I put myself.

Our cars have made monsters of us. Entitled, self-absorbed sociopaths believing only our time to be worth anything. Aggressive assholes. Pushy pricks.

Allow me some hyperbole (more so than usual) for a moment here. If you want to point a finger at what ails us these days, the root of all our unhealthy lifestyle choices, the lack of civic and political engagement, there’s no better place than at our auto dependence. pushy“We can have a city that is very friendly to cars or we can have a city that is very friendly to people,” Enrique Peñalosa said. “We cannot have both.”

By prioritizing vehicular over human traffic, we’ve diminished our capacity to act in even the most basic of respectful ways. As we spend more and more time behind the wheel, we become more and more like drivers and less and less like people. Can I just get that at a drive-thru?

Whoa, whoa, whoa, I hear you saying. Extreme much? (I warned you about the hyperbole, didn’t I?) It wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops before the first Model T rolled off the assembly line. St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre wasn’t carried out by a bunch of minivan driving savages. Small town America could not be considered a model of tolerance and acceptance back in the days when trolleys and the horse and buggy reigned. Hell, even the rise of the Nazis occurred pre-suburbia sprawl.

Sure, but tell me those 30s vintage Maybach Pullmans didn’t foreshadow the evils and horrors to come.maybachpullman

Hmmm. I’m not sure but I think I may just’ve Godwinned myself.

Look. I guess what I’m trying to get at is not only do we scar our streetscapes and hamper our ability to move the most people the most efficiently when we buy into the car commercial pitch that the automobile is the key to our freedom, we promote an unhealthy and anti-social lifestyle. With a [insert favourite brand here], you can get anywhere, anytime, whenever you want. Just like that. There’s no one else on the road. Zoom, zoom.

Where I ended up when I was making my way to the airport last week was Orlando, Florida. From the airport there you can drive two hours west through the state to St. Petersburg to Tropicana Field, home of baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays, without leaving a freeway. You practically pull off into the parking lot of the stadium, a stadium surrounded by an asphalt moat.

Beware any sporting arena that boasts kick-ass tailgate parties. It usually means the primary way of getting there is to drive. tailgatepartyTropicana sits pretty much in downtown St. Petersburg but the area around it is fairly lifeless. We had time enough to park our car at the hotel and walk the 20 minutes to the stadium which would be great except for the fact it was an uninteresting walk along what seemed to be mostly retail although trying to grab a drink proved to be oddly difficult. Isn’t America the land of the big gulp?

To be fair, there are strips of the city that make for a pleasant stroll. Boutique shops and a couple restaurant rows. I get that St. Petersburg isn’t a mega-metropolis. But the space between the more pedestrian friendly areas are pockmarked by parking lots, a lot of parking lots, both open and covered structures. metrospeedwaysThe main streets are wide but built mainly for vehicles with plenty of, you guessed it, places for parking.

Bike lanes pop up here and there, some even fully protected, but I couldn’t get a grasp of any sort of network.
I might not have been seeing the place at its best since some of the area closer to the waterfront was still cordoned off for the — wait for it – Indy car race that had roared through town the previous weekend. Hey! We’ve got all this road space. We should definitely figure out ways to put more cars on it.

On the trolley trip we took around town, the driver/tour guide told us that the St. Petersburg area was known as God’s waiting room, in reference to all the retirees living there. It didn’t strike me as a place built for old people. The broad streets didn’t make for leisurely crossing. Not sure I came across a grocery store during my travels. carcommercial1There was that one mall I didn’t go into, so it was quite possible I missed a few of the amenities.

Come to St. Petes. The weather’s great. Don’t forget your car.

After the game and dinner and drinks, on the way back to the hotel, we came across a movie theatre. It was late-ish, for a Monday night, but we checked to see what was playing. Happily, we found a movie we wanted to see and our timing was perfect.

It’s those kind of pleasant accidents that occur when you’re not travelling at 25 miles an hour. They don’t happen in a place designed for cars, where speed and distance are what matters. I mean, you’re retired already. What’s the rush?

On the way back to Orlando, the clip was a little more leisurely, relatively speaking since we were still driving. I started to notice the massive amount of new road construction going on. Just what the area needed.cardestruction

This in a place where you have to pay exorbitant prices to get into a theme park in order to experience any sort of public transit aside from buses. Just more roads for more cars because, well, just because. That’s the way it’s always been. Since the 1950s.

There would be no turning back now. Cars were Florida’s future. Cars have always been Florida’s future. Everything else, merely a destination, a place to get to. See the Sunshine State from behind the wheel of a car just the way God intended.

unfriendlily submitted by Cityslikr


Olympic Ideals?

February 24, 2014

Can we move along now?

After more than 2 weeks I have tried, Lord knows I have tried, to keep quiet out here in public with my disinterest and disdain of the 2014 Winter Olympics. zipitIt’s only 17 days, I said. (Not counting the year long media blitz leading up to it). Head down, eyes averted. It’ll all be over quicker than a polar vortex cold snap.

I don’t remember always being this Grinch-like when it comes to the Olympics although, over dinner a couple nights ago, I was reminded otherwise. Maybe that’s true. All the chest-thumping nationalism makes me a little queasy. It’s something Americans did.

Of course, perhaps that had more to do with sour grapes. Americans always had something to thump their chests about. 1980. Lake Placid. A ragtag bunch of U.S. college level hockey players and NHL rejects stunned the mighty U.S.S.R. Red Army team. The team Canada stewed over since it was obvious they were clearly made up of professional players. And it was the Americans who beat them.

Canada, well. It always felt like moral victories, pride in unexpected 2nd place finishes. Greg Joy. Elizabeth Manley. Ben Johnson. corporatenationalismKudos for just showing up and doing your best. That was the Olympic spirit, right?

But I have to tell you, since we went and joined the elite, at least in terms of winter athletics, with the whole Own the Podium and We Are Winter, the nationalism is just as creepy. CA-NA-DA! CA-NA-DA! doesn’t sound a whole lot sweeter than U.S.A! U.S.A! A tribal chant is a tribal chant is a tribal chant.

National identity defined by the prowess of a select few athletes. Hey world. Bow down before us. We Are Winter, don’t you know.

Sure. But then again, we aren’t Sparta. And the outcome of the Peloponnesian War does not depend on the fitness of our warriors.

Perspective, people.

It’s a bunch of games played in the snow and ice. Fun to watch for a bit but hardly worth pinning our national pride on.sparta

Wouldn’t it be great if we showed such enthusiasm, if governments and corporations showered the same kind of attention and cash on solving our looming environmental crisis, our homeless crisis or growing income inequality crisis. Infrastructure. African debt. Worldwide poverty.

Etc., etc.

I know. I know. I find it trite to even be writing this. Apples to oranges. Can’t something just exist, free from politics? Let us just enjoy this for what it is. Uncomplicated, easy-to-follow and pick sides, us-versus-them, root, root, root for the home team. Just for two weeks, every other year.

But…But…None of this is free from politics, is it. Nationalism never is. Especially this time around. If the Sochi Olympics weren’t driven by politics, then the word politics is meaningless.

We all know this by now.

The growing authoritarian regime in Russia. lookawayTheir anti-gay legislation and detaining of activist protesting against it. The suppression of dissent in general there.

And, of course, the Ukraine, and Russia’s indirect involvement in the chaos and killing going on there. While we are celebrating golden days at the Olympics, people are getting gunned down in the streets in Kiev. So shocking that it even managed to push Olympic news from the headlines or at the top of the TV news hour. For a couple minutes or paragraphs. Then it’s Back to Sochi for the ice dancing competition!

We have somehow miraculously separated one type of nationalism from another. You can root for Canada. You can root against Russia when they compete against Canada. But do not meddle in the politics between the two. Do not impose your non-sports opinion into this particular arena.

We’ve arrived at a point where people, influential people will state with a straight face that politics has no place in an international sporting event like the Olympics. With a straight face. It’s all about the athletes. It’s not about politics.blackpower

The Olympics have rarely been devoid of politics. Twenty-two African countries boycotted the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal to protest the inclusion of New Zealand in the games after their rugby team had toured apartheid-era South Africa earlier in the year. An apartheid-era South Africa that had been banned from participating in the Olympics because, well, apartheid. The U.S. led boycott of the 1980 summer games in Moscow to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. The so-called Black Power salute by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium in Mexico City, 1968. Jesse Owens in Munich, 1936.

Exactly, right! Jesse Owens goes over to Germany, wins a bunch of medals, giving the finger to the Nazis’ Aryan ideals of some master race. Up yours, Herr Hitler!

Yeah well, what the fuck did we just show Vladimir Putin by showing up in Sochi? (Check out Andrew Wheeler’s Hitler Had A Circus and You Bought A Balloon for a much more thorough analysis of that point.) jesseowensBy giving him an international stage to smooth out the jagged edges of his growing totalitarianism and return to Soviet-style repression. What notice did we just finish giving the world? Hey everybody! There are absolutely no repercussions to any of the actions you take, no matter how brutal or anti-democratic. At least as far as the IOC and medal loving people everywhere are concerned.

The Games must go on!

What about the athletes, often goes the argument. What of their tireless efforts and determination in becoming the best that they can be, and their desire to compete with the world? Why should they be punished because of our political differences?

That’s like attempts to paint critics of a war as somehow being against the troops. Direct the focus to only one aspect of a much bigger issue in order to shut down that larger, more divisive discussion.

We’re told the Olympics encompass more than just sports, aren’t we? Our drive to amass medals and stand atop the podium to hear our national anthem played stands for something greater and higher than simply being the best at hockey or going fastest down a hill, doesn’t it? brokenolympicringsOtherwise, it hardly seems worth the rah-rah we put into it. The glory fleeting and limited, the need to defend it the only lasting thing four years hence.

I thought Olympic athletes were supposed to represent all aspects of a country’s ideals and aspirations not just the fun, sports side. What’s that say about us that we simply shrug off any political implication of sending our delegates, our sports ambassadors to perform for tyrants, despots and thugs without so much as a word of dissent? Core values? What core values?

Owning the podium doesn’t mean much if you can’t even claim to own a conscience.

self-righteously submitted by Cityslikr


Carless In LA

February 12, 2014

Don’t get the wrong idea. Los Angeles has not become a car-free mecca. There’s still a love affair going on there between humans and their driving machines. kardashiancarPublic displays of affection appear regularly in the form of Lamborghinis, sporty sport Lexi and monstrously big, military looking SUVs.

But there does seem to be something of a change in the air, at least to someone like myself who has not visited the city in nearly 20 years after having lived there for a brief portion of the early 90s. Ah, the early 90s… The early 90s… Nope. I got nothing. You know what they say. If you can remember the 90s…

Back then, you’d never even think of moving to Los Angeles without owning a car. Cycling was pure recreation, done far from the roads, by the sides of concrete rivers and very welcoming and expansive ocean side paths. Public transit? Oh my. Public transit in LA.

A personal example.partridgefamilybus

From where we lived, the morning commute to the school campus was, on average, about 20 minutes one way by car, barring any sort of natural disaster or riot that was prone to flare up along the way. That very same trip by bus? Usually more than double that time, clocking in at 45 minutes. And if I remember correctly, the bus route that got you there in the most direction fashion stopped running by 7pm.

So seriously. Who’s not going to drive over taking the bus? Pretty much nobody except for those who couldn’t afford the luxury of having a choice.

It’s been a slow grind over the course of the ensuing two decades. Change from such auto-orientation could not possibly happen any quicker. This is LA, after all. The land where dreams of unfettered car ownership, top down, wind in your hair, Beach Boys My Little Deuce Coup, are born.redlinebusLA

We’ve got all these freeways, man. Neighbourhoods were destroyed putting them up. We gotta use them.

Still, I have to say the transformation to a less car-dependent place is noticeable even if you’re not really looking for it, I think. For starters, there are buses everywhere, regularly spotted throughout the day even weekend days. Blue buses. Orange buses. Red buses. The occasional green bus.

According to Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker, it was the bolstering up of the bus networks throughout Los Angeles County, especially the MTA’s red beauties, all shiny, all articulated, that kick started LA’s public transit revolution. And I have to tell you, my bus trips on Monday’s Carless in LA outing were not under-used, both a mid-day trip downtown from Santa Monica and the “other” red rocket during rush hour back west along Wilshire Boulevard. Standing room only for a segment of the latter trip and by the time the morning bus ride hit the Santa Monica Freeway, it was hauling at near capacity.

Of course, by their very nature, the long denigrated, lowly buses don’t really grab the headlines when it comes to transit discussions. LA’s got subways, baby. Hey. What world class city doesn’t, am I right? metroLAmapTwo lines, running mostly through the downtown core — Yes, Virginia. There is a downtown Los Angeles. — with one extending right over and up into the San Fernando Valley to North Hollywood. It’s not an extensive network. Barely could be considered much of spine of the system. One gets the feeling it’s something of a Fordian-like sop to keeping transit from taking up precious road space but, hey, it’s not cars.

In actual fact, the real gem of the current transit build in Los Angeles (of course, I may be somewhat biased) is the series of LRT lines it’s put down and continues to extend.

Folks. For the record and despite what has been incorrectly stated again and again and again during Toronto’s ongoing, rage-y transit debate for the past 3 years or so, our city doesn’t have any sort of LRT operating within its system. LRTs are not glorified streetcars. The St. Clair disaster was not perpetrated by any sort of LRT. The Spadina bus was not replaced by an LRT.

Los Angeles has LRTs. Toronto does not.

I only had the opportunity during my ever so brief transit foray to take one of the LRT lines, the Gold Line, running from one terminus in downtown’s East LA and the other, up to the north and back east, in Pasadena. goldlineTwo other LRT lines connect to Union Station via subway, one running south down to Long Beach, a second, the Expo line, heads west toward the Pacific, now ending in Culver City but a much needed extension to Santa Monica is slowing inching its way to a 2015/2016 completion date. A 4th light rail line, the very first one built, runs south for about 35 kilometres from downtown-ish to Long Beach, connecting to both the Blue Line LRT and the Silver Line BRT along the way.

You may ask why, if I’m such a big fan of LRTs, I wasn’t all over that map, giving each and every one of those lines a serious test run. Here’s the thing. One, there was only so much time in one day. Secondly, what the LRTs offered to someone such as myself, armed with a $5 day pass and curiosity bordering on obsessiveness, was the ability to hop on and off the train wherever it caught my fancy. With much of it being above ground, you looked out the window and seeing something interesting, off you got.

Which is how we ended up in South Pasadena. Mission Station was situated in what looked to be the main intersection of some quaint little town lifted right out of Frank Capra movie. missionstationSteps off the train, you walked along a street of refurbished buildings now housing bars, coffee and artisanal shops. Or what they used to refer to as Mom & Pops. Huh, I thought. I might’ve missed this had I been travelling underground, heading hell bent to my destination further on.

Of course, transit isn’t built for demanding tourists who want the luxury of sightseeing without the hassle of driving to get there. You build transit in order to efficiently move as many people as possible around a region. Places like Los Angeles have realized relying on the private automobile is not the most effective or healthy way of doing that.

My guide for the day, Ned let’s call him because that’s his name, is a long time Angelino now looking to live a less car-dependent life in LA. 90sWhen we first met, back over 20 years ago, such a thing was nothing but a pipe dream. You don’t want to get around by car in Los Angeles? Move to San Francisco.

Now? Not a pipe dream. It isn’t easy, certainly not everywhere, trying to navigate the city without your own four wheels. Parts of Los Angeles remain severely under-serviced by public transit including the affluent west side where recalcitrance to share the roads (both at grade and below) on the part of municipalities like Beverly Hills have left places like UCLA in Westwood isolated from the rest of the city.

Still, this is not the laughably public transit stunted city I remember. While the state as a hole has suffered severe economic blows over the past decade or so. Los Angeles has managed to fund their public transit renaissance. TOtrafficcongestionFormer mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped convince a normally tax-averse population to accept a half-cent sales tax increase to fund a 30 year transit expansion. He then took this Measure R to Washington to secure federal loans in order to shrink the 30 year timeline down to the 10. 12 proposed major transit projects in 10 years.

If such a feat can be accomplished in a car-centric city like Los Angeles, what exactly is holding us back here in Toronto?

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr


Christmas Every Day

December 30, 2013

My goal was to have a City Hall-free holiday. A politics purge. Turn a blind eye. Ignore the show for a bit. Recalibrate. Regain my balance. 2014 was going to be a big year.oblivious

All things considered, I did a pretty good job.

The ice storm and its continuing fall out made it difficult to entirely look away. Serious questions arose about the city and region’s preparedness for what we should now assume will be more regular occurrences of freakish and destructive turns in the weather. Equally as serious are questions of governance. Who’s actually in charge of what? Can ‘politics’ ever be divorced completely from decision making?

Despite the importance of such matters, I remained largely disengaged and above the fray. Easy to do, of course, when you never lost power and were able to concentrate exclusively on your own personal circle of friends and acquaintances. Complaints? None from me. Aside from some slight modifications to travel plans, things remained pretty much as they were. For some of us, it’s almost as if the storm didn’t happen.

michaelstipeSummoning my best Michael Stipe, and I feel fine.

Not paying much attention to how the city gets run is remarkably relaxing. You only really notice anything when it doesn’t happen or happens badly. The default position for civic disengagement is seething boredom. 90% of the time it’s nothing more than a quick shrug at the nuts and bolts details of municipal issues and policies. The rest? Why didn’t my garbage get picked up? Where is that stupid bus? Why are my taxes so high?

Is it any wonder why so many of our local elected representatives choose to keep their heads low and shy away from any sort of decision that might cause a fuss? Don’t draw attention to what we’re doing. Don’t get people riled up. Unless you can get them riled up at someone else. Deflect don’t decide.

Having done my level best to tune out for the past couple weeks or so, I really see the easy appeal of not paying much attention. overthefenceIt’s only ever a problem when it’s your problem. Anything other than that is just added responsibility, one more thing to be concerned about, to have to put some thought into.

It’s a great approach to have in order to keep your own sanity and anger in check. It doesn’t do a thing, however, for the well being of the city you live in. We all need to shift the balance, I think, a little more toward the direction of the greater public good. Everybody will be better for it in the long run.

serenely submitted by Cityslikr


Death By Carcentricity

December 12, 2013

There’s a building at the top of the street. It’s a nice building, mostly office, I think. I’ve never been inside. thumbsup2My guess is, it’s a converted warehouse or maybe light industrial something something.

It gives off a good vibe as a place I’d be happy going to and working in everyday. Easy to get to too. A couple streetcar route stops within a two minute walk, another maybe four minutes. There’s a subway stop about fifteen minutes by foot in one direction and a second, I don’t know, twenty minutes the other way?

A downtown elitist’s dream location.

Earlier this fall, the tiny front piece of land underwent what I assumed to be some landscaping work. The yard was dug up, a pile of bricky flagstone material brought in. Gussying up the curb appeal, I imagined.

Well, wouldn’t you know it. Instead what the place got was a parking pad. A parking pad where a Range Rover now sits, no less. Pushed aside, now unusable in its current position is a 6 bike parking stand that used to be where the car’s now parked. uponblocksMaybe there’s another spot planned for it but it certainly isn’t going to be sharing the space with an SUV.

I don’t know why this bugs me as much as it does – Oh! Did I tell you? There are also two pay parking lots, one outside and the other underground, just steps from the building? No wait. I do know why it bugs me.

Who the fuck would do this, aside from some jag off Range Rover driver. Oh yeah. I forgot. There’s another street level parking lot a minute’s walk behind the building.

But no. Somebody’s got to have parking right in front of the building. Just hillybillying up the streetscape. Why? Because car. If you own one, drive one, it is an inalienable right to park it as close to where you’re going as possible. Otherwise, you might as well be taking public transit.

It all just comes on the heels of the news that the city’s at a 10 year high for pedestrian fatalities, currently sitting at 38, I think it still is. deathrace2000(42 if you throw in the 4 dead cyclists.) And according to Christopher Hume, 70% of the pedestrians were in the right when they were run over and killed.

The first impulse always, of course, is to blame the weather, the change of seasons, not enough brightly coloured apparel. As our mayor once said back in his councillor days when talking about cyclists being killed, at the end of day, well, swimming with sharks, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie. The roads were meant for cars.

This overweening sense of entitlement continues, I’d hazard a guess, at least in part because of this administration’s victimization of car drivers and its embrace of the fanciful notion of some War on the Car. Yeah! We’re tired of being told we have to share the roads! You heard the mayor. As a matter of fact, we do own the road.

A walk along College Street yesterday, at 3 intersections, I’m finding myself either having to stop or speed up my pace because cars turning right or left have just pushed aggressively into my space at a perfectly legal crossing. asamatteroffactMove it! Move it! Move it! I’ve got places to go!

“The lights are just not adjusted for seniors,” says 92 year old Howard Cable. “They’re adjusted for traffic.”

Sorry, Mr. Cable. Our roads (and front yards), our entire transportation system is adjusted for vehicular traffic. Until we change that priority, we all just have to accept the risks of venturing outside if you’re not behind the wheel of a car. Sometimes you’ll make it safely across the street. Sometimes you won’t.

But remember, even the hardest of hearts will bleed for you if you don’t.

mournfully submitted by Cityslikr


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