Driving The Dream

July 16, 2015

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret. Just this one, though.

I love driving.

camaro1

That’s right. This car-hater loves the wide open roads, top down, wind blowing back your hair, car commercial driving. Zoom zoom, or whatever that weird kid in the ads says.

Problem is, to truly experience such movie moving images, you have to get off the beaten track, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, far from the madding crowd. Be dedicated to no timetable and prepared to detour at a moment’s notice when other freedom seekers clog up your automobile induced bliss. Who the hell wants to drive 55?

Alas, such fantasy is rarely achievable. Driving, for most of us, most of the time, amounts to little more than a daily slog, nothing more than a utility, a mobility utility. Getting from point A to point B in the least efficient, most expensive way possible. Zoom zoom, my ass.

Trouble begins when we demand the dream promised us in the incessant push of television commercials. Have car, must travel. Must travel fast, top down, wind blowing back my hair. Open the goddamned roads up.

As we’ve discovered, cities suffer in their attempts to cater to that. The car life requires lots of space. Such space devolves into sprawl. Sprawl means distance. Distance needs speed. Without speed, distance simply becomes, well, distance, a time suck.

carcommercial

The road trip, as we’ve come to think of it, dream of it, is an entirely different beast than the work trip or that quick trip around the corner to get some milk. We need to differentiate between the two, and stop building communities and cities around the illusory freedom of the open roads. Such a thing only exists on TV and on the rare occasions we are able to get away from it all, the traffic, the congestion, the HOV restrictions lanes, and truly put the pedal to the medal and fly as God and Madison Avenue intended us to do.

confessingly submitted by Cityslikr


Biking In Barcelona

May 8, 2015

Cycling in Barcelona is not perfect. If the yardstick used to measure that is, say, the Netherlands, and an afternoon two wheel jaunt from Noordwijk to The Hague. bikingbarcelonaThere are moments of perfection certainly on a bike in Barcelona. The ride back down toward the old town along the sequestered lanes running along the Avinguda Diagonal or the middle of the street separation providing a great run on Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes.

Shouldn’t we all have access to bike lanes on an ‘Avinguda’ or a ‘Gran Via’?

But there isn’t an obvious network of bike lanes in Barcelona, at least not to visitors lacking a full knowledge of the city (or maybe even a bike route map). I’m talking an effortless flow from one set of lanes to the other, made easy with robust signage. Bike signing in Barcelona goes from emphatic to non-existent within a matter of blocks, regularly leaving a cyclist directionless at a point in the ride when three different options suddenly become available. bikingbarcelona3(This doesn’t appear to be exclusively a Barcelona thing as I discovered an hour or so outside the city on a very gentle hillside ride where a path would abruptly end at an impassably rocky incline or a precipitous drop off the side of a cliff into a river some unhealthy kilometres below.)

Back in Barcelona this can mean finding yourself suddenly lurching from a blissful ride taking in the sights to merging into fairly heavy traffic, either motorized or on foot.

This is when you discover, however, just how bike friendly Barcelona is.

Space on both roads and sidewalks is immediately shared.

I’m not sure I heard an angry car horn or any violent ringing of bicycle bells when bikes found their way out of their lanes and onto roads or sidewalks. People simply adjusted. Cars made way for bikes. Bike riders adapted to the pace of the pedestrians they now rode amongst, oftentimes in very narrow, medieval sized street widths. Skateboarders weaved in and out of the crowds. There seemed to me to be a lot of skateboarders in Barcelona. An ancient mode of Catalonian transport, I guess.bikingbarcelona2

While, I’m sure, not the exact definition of complete streets, it certainly felt like it to these untrained, North American auto-centric eyes where we all jealously guard our designated territory. Roads are for cars, trucks and buses, maybe. Sidewalks given over to pedestrians. Cyclists carve out some in-between space, somewhere, preferably, out of sight and mind. Isn’t there a park or someplace you can do that? Higher order transit all goes underground. To each their own and seldom should there be any overlap.

A hierarchical dynamic, anointing levels of importance, designed to create inevitable conflict.

At a cava stop at a streetside café owned by a former associate of some sort of Moses Znaimer (“He’s so rock’n’roll! Toronto’s so rock’n’roll!!”), I settled in to watch this sense of complete streets. It wasn’t necessarily a wide sidewalk. Parked cars had taken a chunk from some of it. The café had about 6 tables occupying some of the space. Metal balustrades divided the remaining portion of the sidewalk into two lanes as much as they kept larger, motorized vehicles from using it.bikingbarcelona3

A glass or two in, two mothers sat down at the table next to me. One had a wee little baby in a stroller beside her while they split two other children, both in the upper single digits in age. Eight? Nine? My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be.

While the two women conversed over a beer and coffee, the two older kids essentially were left to play in the traffic, the pedestrian traffic. There was some hide-and-go seek, some other game of back-and-forth, up-and-down the street following rules I couldn’t fully grasp. A discarded stick got incorporated at some point of time. When a dad of one of the kids arrived on his non-motorized scooter that immediately became the centre of attention.

The kids went about their business, nobody paying much attention to anything going in and around them. And there was a lot of street action going on around them. No cars, granted, although at one point of time things moved to a driveway directly off the street to some unseen parking spots which brought dad out of his seat to instruct the kids back down away from that area. Still, the sidewalk was hardly a dead zone.bikingbarcelona1

People, big people, strode back and forth. People, families on bikes, a dude taking his dog out for a walk-ride. Skateboarders, of course. Bar staff came in and out of the bar, sometimes with trays of food and drink. Still, the kids played on, not oblivious to what was going on around them but not intimidated by it either.

Just as importantly, the parents seemed to barely take notice, outside of the parameters that parents always notice, are always aware of what their kids are up to at any given moment when there’s even a possibility of harm in the vicinity. There was nothing resembling hyper-vigilance or helicoptering, to slightly paraphrase the term of the moment. The kids were left to their own devices on this little section of busy urban sidewalk.

While there was a big park on the other side of the street across 6 lanes of automobile traffic and a couple officially designated bike lanes, this part of the street was also considered public space, a safe spot for kids to go about the business of being kids while their parents took some time to catch up, chat about this and that, over drinks. It doesn’t have to be green space to be public space. bikingbarcelona4Not all the time. Not exclusively.

But we aren’t Barcelona, you’ll counter, or Paris or Amsterdam. That’s there. We’re here.

Sure. I won’t argue with that, only to say let’s stop pretending it’s some accident of history that created our separate built forms, our different approaches to how we use our cities, allocate functions to where we do what. It’s a matter of choice not fate, very purposeful decisions that have been made and just as equally can be unmade depending on what we deem to be of importance in how our cities run.

cavaly submitted by Cityslikr


To Live And Drive In L.A.

April 10, 2015

(First time posting from our new Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, a friend of ours from back in the days of fire, earthquakes, riots and O.J. We fled to our northern safety. He remained behind.)

*  *  *

guestcommentary

Recently, Zocalo Public Square, the not-for-profit ideas exchange, hosted a discussion at MOCA in Los Angeles that asked, “Is Car Culture Dead?” The question set off an internal alarm. After all, I lived in L.A., the city known more than any other for its love affair with the car. If car culture were dead, that would mean the end of the affair. And nobody wanted that. Or did we?

I took my seat in the auditorium and tried to remember how it had all started. It was after World War II, and we’d been promised that the car would liberate us from such quaint notions as public transit and a single, central business district. We’d been promised that it would bring all the advantages of the city right up to the white picket fence that surrounded our single-family homes, our pools and our patios with the outside barbecues. All these promises were fulfilled, spectacularly so, and a deep, abiding trust developed. lovemycar6And what is trust but the bedrock of a healthy, loving relationship?

Did we have, ahem, bumps in the road? Of course. What relationship doesn’t have a few? But we dealt with them, because that’s what you do in a committed relationship. Like the time we started choking on something called SMOG. Did we give up? Heck, no. We slapped catalytic converters on our tailpipes and changed the formula of our gas. Or the riots, remember those? Some would say they were brought about by social and economic inequities engendered by the use of our cars. But did we throw up our hands and give up like a bunch of East Coast metropolitans? Double heck no! We cracked down, giving our police more guns, more helicopters and more surveillance capabilities. Why? Because I’ll repeat: That-is-what-you-do-in-a-committed-relationship.

And the relationship has only deepened through the years, because what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Right? lovemycar3So who the hell were these Zocalo Public Square types to come in here and try to pull us apart? What nerve!

If William Shakespeare had been sitting next to me, he might have leaned over and told me, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Good ol’ Bard of Avon. He’s always there when I find myself starting to become unhinged. Why he calls me a lady is another matter that I won’t go into right now.

But alas, the great explainer of human nature had a point. The city had come to be known more for its dystopian commutes than its white picket fences, putting our relationships under a new kind of strain, one we’d never seen before, and one for which we have as yet to come up with a solution.

This new strain comes from two different though related developments. On the one hand, we can point to the five separate rail lines being built or extended that will connect such disparate and distant hubs of activity as Santa Monica (the beach), Long Beach (the port), Pasadena (the foothills) and North Hollywood (the Valley) to the resurgent Downtown (down by the river). lovemycar8By early next year, a traveler will be able to traverse the 5,000 square-mile (more or less) urban cluster from any of these points with just one transfer. And without a car.

On the other hand, there just seems to be no traffic relief no matter what we do. Emblematic of this is the just-completed widening of the 405. After five years of blasting through the Santa Monica Mountains, commutes are about a minute longer now than they were before the $1 billion undertaking was undertaken. And told-you-so’s of induced demand only make car commuters that much angrier.

Even I, a devoted road warrior, have to admit: While I still loved my car, I am no longer sure I am in love with it.

Relationships, as the Bard well knows, are never easy, even when there are no Capulets or Montagues around to mess things up. And as Neil Sedaka reminded us many years ago, breaking up is hard to do. But the Bard (the Elizabethan one) provided a ray of hope.

“Hast thou considered opening up thine relationship?” lovemycar1He asked this casually, not even looking up as he texted his broker in New York.

I blushed so deep that any one of the new generation of Downtown chefs could have sliced up my head and put it in a salad. Of course I’d thought about it. I mean, who hadn’t, right? Like everyone else, I’d heard the talk. About how an open transit relationship would be better for the environment, how it would lower my car insurance, how it could extend the lifetime of my car. I’d even heard that it could spice things up in the garage, if you know what I mean.

Then one night, I found myself planning it out in my head. First, I’d leave the car at home, discreetly of course. I’d take the train or the bus, or even walk, if I could remember how. But no, the Bard shook his head. That would amount to cheating. Apparently, the way these things go, you have to be open and honest with your partner. lovemycar4Yeah, I thought, and take all the damned fun out of it!

But the Bard patiently walked me through it. I’d have to be loving and honest, and communicate clearly with my partner that the new arrangement was for the commute and for the commute only. There would have to be rules: There’d be no riding of the train to the end of the line just to see what was there; no overly chatty conversations with strangers asking you how to get to Union Station, and definitely no weekend passes! Maybe down the road, there could be a discussion about taking transit to an occasional Dodger game, so I wouldn’t have to leave in the 7th inning to beat the traffic. But that could wait. Still I wasn’t convinced. The Bard reassured me that the greater trust that would develop could even strengthen our bond. I looked at him quizzically. Strengthen our bond? Really? Where did he get this stuff? Nevertheless, I quickly jotted it down so I wouldn’t forget. lovemycarIf I could convince my partner about this bond strengthening stuff, I could have my cake and eat it too!

I watched the different people file into the auditorium. They chatted and smiled and shook hands with each other. They were, in sum, just a bunch of normal commuters, and they all seemed so satisfied with their lives that it brought me back down to earth. Who was I kidding? An open transit relationship was what they did in places like Vancouver or Portland. Or even Toronto. [Clearly our correspondent hasn’t visited us lately. – ed.] But I wasn’t in those cities. I was in L.A., a city that embraced a multitude of kinky lifestyles, but where taking the bus up Western was the ultimate taboo.

To avoid eye contact, I picked up the Metro pamphlet that was sitting in my lap. And then I saw it, a photograph of the first of the sleek, new Kinkisharyo LRTs that had recently started issuing from the Japanese company’s Palmdale assembly line. It was exactly like the one I had seen that morning on my way into work. I was stopped at a light, listening to Rush Limbaugh, when she appeared. I watched her slide gracefully through the intersection behind the lowered yellow-and-white, candy-cane striped traffic arms. A real slinky, if you ask me, she was quiet and cool as she carried her Expo Line passengers in air-conditioned comfort on the way to Culver City. kinkisharyoAnd as the last car went through, I don’t think I’d ever been so revved up. The light must have changed, because suddenly people were honking and yelling at me to move. A silly, stupid smile spread across my face like I was a frat boy getting his first lap dance at Jumbo’s Clown Room. But no, this was better. This was 50 Shades of Kinkisharyo.

The panel participants came out onto the stage, and I folded up the pamphlet and placed it safely in my backpack for later research. The moderator, an ex-Detroiter named Mike Floyd, Editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine, introduced everyone and asked each of the panelists how he had traveled to the event. Predictably, the car people drove. They were Terry Karges, Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, and Myles Kovacs, Founder and Editor of DUB Magazine. The transit people, you guessed it, took transit. Or walked. They were Deborah Murphy, an architect and Founder of Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group, and Mimi Sheler, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Mobilities Research and Policy in Philadelphia. lovemycar2Presumably, this latter participant flew then walked. Show offs, I thought.

The tension between pro-car and pro-transit people was so thick you could cut it with a wiper blade. Ms. Sheler got things rolling with her assertion that a national and global transition is taking place, with fewer people driving and getting licenses. Mr. Karges promptly disputed this assessment, putting forth that people still like to drive, and pointed out that the Forza Motorsport driving game currently has 43 million Xbox subscribers. To which Ms. Murphy responded that those 43 million subscribers need to get out of the house, go for a walk, maybe meet a nice girl who will make them forget all about their Xboxes. Mr. Kovacs, the urban custom car enthusiast, smiled knowingly and said that in L.A., you drive to impress, and what impresses is a fast, low-slung car with poor visibility. And so it went for about 40 minutes or so.

But then the audience got into it. Somebody asked about the self-driving car, and it was off to the races. In fact, that was the only thing anybody in the audience wanted to talk about. Clearly, the autono-mobile had captured the imagination of Angelenos. The self-driving car was seen as a panacea. lovemycar7Not only would it allow us to get more work done while stuck in traffic, but the traffic itself would be cured, because as everyone knows, traffic is caused by a-hole drivers constantly accelerating and braking for no reason. If not for these jerks on the road (and I admit, I’m one of them), our commutes would once again be smooth sailing. And there wouldn’t be any accidents either because these computers on wheels, as some are calling them, are much smarter than us. And if a pedestrian decided to throw himself in front of my car as part of some misguided protest about the 99%, well, manufacturers have thought of that too. Just out is a pillow-soft bumper so that when pedestrian and car collide, the pedestrian won’t feel a thing. Rather, he’ll think he’s at a pajama party and be grateful for the playful interruption to his daily routine.

I sat in wonderment. People were so enthusiastic about the autonomous car that nobody wanted to hear about the kinks that needed to be worked out. Things like liability insurance and computer hacking. And what about driving my own damned car? The whole thing, I’ll admit, seemed to be a big step backward to me. lovemycar5I mean, I hadn’t been driven around since I was a kid, and then it was because my bike had a flat and it was my mother doing the driving. I suppose I could derive some recompense in that I would dang-sure have a mini-bar in my self-driving car, and I’d toast and make faces at the other drivers who were stuck in traffic. But wouldn’t I be stuck too, you ask? Heck no, I wouldn’t be stuck. I’d have a mini-bar!

Eventually, though, I think all the non-driving would get to me. Because without the sheer pleasure and excitement of driving, what was the point of having a car at all? And that would truly mean the end of the relationship.

I was so upset, I went home and hugged my Prius.

toliveanddieinLA

drive byly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum


Selling Us Short

March 17, 2015

Frankly, I’m beginning to suspect Mayor John Tory’s business smarts as much as I’ve become dubious of his approach to 21st-century urban issues.suspect

According to the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat, on some morning talk show today, the mayor expressed the notion that, what Toronto needs are ‘big events’ to get people to come to the city. You see, he’s heading down to Austin in a couple days to attend the South By Southwest Festival and wants to sell Toronto as a place that could do that kind of business. Forget for the moment that Toronto regularly does do that kind of business. Why, in fact, the city’s home to more than just one music (or “pop culture”, as the mayor refers to it) event a year. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve how you do it, learn from other places.

It’s just… these “big event” mayors and their circuses.

What does it say about their view of the city they represent? In order to draw people here, we need to lure them with big ticket events. Musical and film festivals. Sporting events. Casino and ferris wheels.circus

How many destinations, cities especially, do you visit for one thing? I mean, you go to Atlanta because it’s hosting the Olympics. Is that what really draws you to London? Yeah, yeah. I hear you. Toronto’s no London. Fair enough but, how about Chicago as a comparison. If you go to Chicago, do you go for just one reason?

Cities attract tourists for a combination of reasons. Places to see. Things to do. Ease of getting there and getting around. And an unquantifiable quality of delivering something, a vibe let’s call it, visitors don’t get at home.

Does Toronto possess that vibe? I don’t know. It’s tough to judge from the inside but I’d say in fits and starts. But I’m pretty sure some ‘big event’ isn’t going to be the tipping point that secures us that ever so elusive label of ‘world class’.liveablecity

I’d be much more enthusiastic about the mayor’s push for attracting more tourists if, instead, he was out advocating for the city’s ability to implement a hotel tax. Use that money directly to help pay for our desperate infrastructure needs that would go a long way to improving the city’s ability to attract visitors. Maybe while Mayor Tory is down in Austin, he can ask the mayor there about that city’s Hotel Occupany Tax.

And maybe on his way back home from Austin, our mayor should do a quick layover in Minneapolis. Set up some meetings there with company mucky mucks, ask them if they keep their businesses in the Twin Cities because it’s – How did he say it on the radio today? ‘Technology jobs come because it is a cool, hip place to be’?

Really? Is that businessman John Tory’s read on things? austinCompanies with their 21st-century technology jobs set up shop where it’s groovy to do so? Somebody needs to take that Richard Florida book from the mayor or, at least, try explaining it a little deeper for him. (That isn’t what Florida meant by the ‘creative class’, is it? I haven’t read it.)

“No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well,” the Atlantic says of Minneapolis-St. Paul in its article, The Miracle of Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area is richer by median household income than Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City (or New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles). Among residents under 35, the Twin Cities place in the top 10 for highest college-graduation rate, highest median earnings, and lowest poverty rate, according to the most recent census figures. And yet, according to the Center for Housing Policy, low-income families can rent a home and commute to work more affordably in Minneapolis–St. Paul than in all but one other major metro area (Washington, D.C.). Perhaps most impressive, the Twin Cities have the highest employment rate for 18-to-34-year-olds in the country.

The top 10 ‘for highest college-graduation rate, highest median earnings, and lowest poverty’ among under 35 residents. ‘The highest employment rate for 18-to-34-year-olds in the country’.minneapolis

That hip and cool enough for you, Mr. Mayor?

It seems no one festival or big event has done the trick for Minneapolis. Apparently it has more to do with a history of equitable sharing of resources and tax dollars that has built affordability into the equation. People stay, and work and live and raise families, because they can afford to. Rather than depending on attracting business to it, the Twin Cities have a history of developing their own businesses, maintaining a critical mass of management level workers who deliver a smooth continuity.

Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. Minneapolis didn’t create such a scenario itself. The state bought into the concept as well. And I’m sure there’ll be plenty of huffing and puffing about Toronto not being Minneapolis, bigger and more diverse, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie.barker

My point being, it’ll take far more than some one-off shazzam big event to deliver the economic impact the mayor is hoping to score in his search for Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. Being hip, I don’t think, is really much of a substantive business plan. Mayor Tory seems to be mixing up cause and effect.

Transforming an economy takes a lot more than simply ‘selling the city’. It requires some boldness in thinking based on frank discussions about the realities you face. So far, our businessman mayor has opted merely to be a showman, relying on cheap optics and empty rhetoric to give the impression of doing something.

wonderingly submitted by Cityslikr


A Mess Of Our Own Making

November 18, 2014

It’s hardly novel on my part to return from nearly 3 weeks in the developing world, let’s call it, to announce that we here in these parts of the developed world might have gone a little soft. alfredenewmanThat’s not to suggest it’s all good here, everything’s fine and dandy, What Me Worry? Eat your peas, young man. Don’t you know there are children starving in India? (Yes, I was in India.)

There’s probably very little distinction between poverty and grinding poverty to those contending with the former.

When I suggest we might be a little soft, it’s more to do with our approach to problem solving. Yes, we have problems. Some serious problems. But by comparison, in a relative sense, the solutions to our problems, even the seemingly intractable ones like inequality, affordability, are simple or, at least, simpler. They are, in fact, not intractable.

While away, I was amazed at how quickly you adapt or adjust to the wildly unfamiliar. The traffic chaos, the incredible shrinking sense of personal space, the urban livestock. indiagarbageBut the one thing I could not get my head around was the garbage. Now, I’m not talking litter, empty take away coffee cups strewn here and there. I’m talking piles of garbage on street corners in almost every village we passed, in major urban centres even.

India has less than one-third of the landmass of Canada but over 30 times the population. Factor in the jarring transition from a rural based, farming society to a high tech urban go-getterism and waste disposal is a significant, monumental social and infrastructure issue. Ditto the delivery of clean, potable water.

And that’s just for starters, off the top of my head, after a 10 day drive by visit.entitled

So when some here in Toronto talk about ‘deserving’ a subway instead of some rinky dink LRT, it takes on something of a grotesque stature if measured by global standards. You deserve a subway. Really?

I think it was Bill Maher who said, in the wake of September 11th 2001 when everyone was trying to figure out why the west had come under attack, that people hated us because we don’t know why they hate us. We argue bitterly over higher order of public transit while much of the world struggles with even the most basic of waste management.

So, yeah. It’s fair to say we’ve gone a little soft. obliviousOur problems, hundreds and hundreds of millions of people around the world would love to have. Yet, we seem deliberately frozen and resolute in erecting reasons why we shouldn’t/can’t robustly address matters that need addressing.

We live in a wealthy city in a wealthy country, full of educated and intelligent people with innovative and thought provoking ideas to make Toronto an even better place (although few have come up with ways to improve the weather here). We draw people from around the world because of the quality of life we have on offer. Improving that quality of life, and extending it to more of the population, isn’t, in fact, rocket science. Toronto isn’t starting from square one in terms of delivering the simple basics like water and waste disposal.

What problems we do have as a city stem from an unwillingness to deal with our problems. noworlaterOur infrastructure deficit exists because we’ve simply neglected to maintain and upgrade our infrastructure needs as the city grew and objects aged not because we don’t have the money to do so. Poverty exists because we’ve failed to address the root causes of poverty not because it’s somehow endemic and unavoidable. It’s not a question of possessing the capacity to deal with the problems but simply an indisposition to do so. No can’t. Just won’t.

Yeah. It feels like a lazy trope to go visit places like Sri Lanka and India only to return with the sentiment, So you think we’ve got problems… ? But coming as my trip did right on the heels of an election campaign that was defined as it was by limitations and very few demands made of voters, the two realities felt particularly jarring. flabbyNever has so little been asked of so many for so few… or something to that affect.

Our To Do list is extensive in its breadth. A little daunting at times owing almost exclusively to having been put off for so long. It’s hardly insurmountable, however, since we’re not exactly starting from scratch. We simply have to stiffen our resolve a little bit, accept some responsibility for building on what was already here when we came along, and get rid of the flabbiness that’s come from the inattention and disregard we’ve displayed over the last three decades or so.

sightseeingly submitted by Cityslikr


We Got A Lot Of Problems But Detroit’s Are None Of Them

September 1, 2014

So we took in a game at Comerica Park last week, and I can safely say this without fear of any serious rebuttal. Detroit has a far better baseball stadium than Toronto does. Comerica 1It’s the kind of park where you don’t even need a good team playing at it to want to go see every game. Just sit there, admiring your surroundings, soaking up baseball.

As for the rest of Detroit?

Well, we’ve all heard the stories. A city in decline. A city in distress. A city in a death spiral. “Detroit bankruptcy judge angrily tosses hold-out creditor’s charges,” screams one latest headline.

One thing did surprise me during our brief stay. The amount of work and restoration being done, at least in the downtown core. Sure, there were a number of eerily abandoned buildings, some old beauties from a more prosperous time. But it didn’t feel like any sort of impending collapse, certainly not in the small areas we made it to.

They were even digging up Woodward Avenue, the All-American Road, Automotive Heritage Trail, detroitpicrunning through the middle of downtown, to lay down the track for an LRT. How’s that for some symbolism, eh? In the Motor City, cars give way to trains.

Hopefully, it’s a sign that Detroit isn’t dying, it’s just changing, adapting. The city that was built by cars, built for cars, was nearly killed by cars. Wounded, but not mortally so.

Of course, cars are hardly the sole factor in the city’s woes, just like cars weren’t the only factor in the city’s rise. Detroit was an established transportation and manufacturing hub before Henry Ford set up shop there. But arguably, Detroit’s golden age mirrored the rise of the automobile.detroitpic1

I am hardly equipped to talk about the factors which coalesced to reverse the city’s fortunes over the past half-century or so, only it was a combination ultimately unique to Detroit. There were certainly overlaps with other rust belt cities situated in and around the Great Lakes but few places have suffered exactly the way Detroit has. No one set rules for revitalization or rejuvenation can apply to two separate places.

So I view dimly any politician evoking the civic dissolution spectre of Detroit when they invariably are trying to roll back public sector spending or the wages and benefits of city workers. We have to reduce our reliance on debt or else, Detroit. We must contract out public services or else, Detroit. Stand up to lazy union fat cats or else, Detroit.

Toronto can learn valuable lessons from Detroit but probably not the ones Detroit fear-mongerers try to push on us.detroitpopulation

Race and class.

While we here in Canada proudly imagine ourselves, I don’t know, post-racial or, at least, not paralyzed by racial tensions and class war, we really need to check the reality of that stance. No, we have not experienced the kind of open fissure the United States has, manifest in what we’re witnessing in Ferguson, Missouri at the moment. A major cause of Detroit’s current troubles is the white flight that picked up steam during the 1960s riots, drawing stark lines, racially and economically.

Toronto is far from immune from those dynamics. It’s true, the city was never hollowed out like we see in many major American cities. detroitriotsHowever, almost the reverse has occurred here. Our core is vibrant, gentrified, well-serviced and expensive. Our older suburbs, however, in the former municipalities like Scarborough, York, Etobicoke, have not kept pace. Here is where you’ll find the not so hidden face of Toronto’s racial and economic divide. New Canadians, many visible minorities, put down roots in these places where it’s less expensive and, unsurprisingly, less served with things like reliable public transit and public amenities such as libraries and community centres.

Our inequality starts here. If there’s one lesson we should learn from Detroit, it’s that no city can truly prosper or achieve its full potential when it’s hobbled by inequality. detroitarmCities with no-go zones bred from discrimination and poverty aren’t really cities. They’re fiefdoms. Little parochial outposts of self-interest.

Auto dependence is not sustainable.

While the city of Detroit’s population has shrunk dramatically, down over 50% since 1970, the region itself has remained relatively stable at around the 5 million mark. It is, essentially, a small downtown core surrounded by sprawl. Such reliance on private vehicle use has scarred significant portions of the core streetscapes with freeways, both elevated and at grade, carving up the urban space. Surface parking lots, many of them sitting largely empty even mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, take up big tracts of the downtown area, oftentimes, located right beside elegantly designed parking garages.detroitparkinglot

You don’t get a sense of much street life besides on game nights. Detroit has been dubbed Hockeytown (among other things) and its hockey arena is mostly car accessible. The stunted People Mover monorail that stops across the street isn’t much of a feeder system. It’s hard to imagine many people lingering around the area either before or after games.

Detroit cannot rebuild being what it once was, the Motor City.

Detroit also cannot rebuild if it’s sacrificed in the endgame of neoliberal politics intent on diminishing what remains of the public good. detroitinstituteofartsFor every corrupt politician making out like a bandit at the trough (and Detroit has had its share of those), there’s their counterpart determined to make the city a private playground for those who can afford it. Sell off public utilities. Pick off public sector pensions. De-unionize and privatize it all. Public transit? We don’t need no stinkin’ public transit.

Marvelling at the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, I was informed by a staff member that it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, referencing the estimated $1 billion value of the art works now being circled by vultures looking to pick the bones clean.

Beware the politicians who fail to see the good in the public good. They will starve it and then auction off what’s left to the highest bidder.Comerica 2

They will, these types of politicians, use Detroit as an example of why residents should lower their expectations of what a city can offer them, the opportunities available. We can’t afford that. Look at Detroit. We can’t raise taxes. People will leave. Look at Detroit. Take on debt to invest in the city? Look at Detroit.

Toronto has its problems, there’s no denying that. Few of them, however, bear much similarity to those facing Detroit. Learn from the ones that do and ignore anyone touting the ones that don’t.

non-nugently submitted by Cityslikr


Capital Report III

May 29, 2014

washingtondc

Clearly Pierre L’Enfant set about designing the layout of this nation’s capital in the late 18th-century with cyclists in mind. Take it from someone who has made his way around Washington by all sorts of modes, biking in D.C. is the way to go.

When the city introduced its bike share program back in the fall of 2010, it did so with a certain degree of gusto. It now has more than 300 stations and 2500+ bikes in use. Compare that with Toronto’s BIXI or whatever it’s called now and its 80 stations and a 1000 bikes. While a far cry for the Velib in Paris (1230 stations, 14,000+ bikes), finding a place to grab and drop off a ride is relatively easy. Even during a busy Memorial Day long weekend, we found ourselves bikeless only on a couple of occasions and not for very long.

capitalbikeshare

And, oh the places I have seen by bike this week! Neighbourhoods and off the beaten track sites that might have otherwise remained unseen. Would I have hopped onto the Metro to go see the grave of John Philip Sousa buried in the Congressional Cemetery? No. But by bike? Why not. Who knows the places we might discover along the way? The ‘Historic Capital Hill’ neighbourhood, in fact.

The city is still catching up in terms of bike lanes. There are a fair amount but you get no sense of a network yet. Yet. The big difference between riding here and in Toronto is the politeness of the drivers. Maybe it’s all that southern hospitality but drivers don’t really seem to mind sharing the road with cyclists.

Washington on foot is an undertaking. Pleasant to walk but there are significant distances between monuments and museums. Travelling by Metro is fast but you can miss some of the more quiet asides.

jpsousa

Biking in D.C. is the way to go. You might almost call it, capital! (But you wouldn’t because that’s British and people are still touchy about having their White House burned down.)

pip-piply submitted Cityslikr


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 299 other followers