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


Sage Counsel From A Former Councillor

August 2, 2015

garyowens

We sit down for a chat with our favourite ex-city councillor, John Parker. A reasonable, thoughtful conservative we could use a lot more of around these parts. A reasonable, thoughtful conservative our current mayor campaigned against.

audibly submitted by Cityslikr


Just Another NDP Candidate?

July 30, 2015

So, some sixteen months after resigning office to run for mayor of Toronto, Olivia Chow is seeking a return to federal politics, announcing last week her intention to run in her old but re-jigged riding of Trinity-Spadina.

oliviachowI’m not at all sure how I feel about that but mostly it just doesn’t feel right.

This coming from someone who has voted for Olivia Chow at every given opportunity. As city councillor when I lived in her ward. As a member of parliament in 1997, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011. As mayor in last year’s unsuccessful mayoral bid. I think it’s safe to say I’ve voted for Olivia Chow more than any other politician.

And I’m not sure that would be the case this time around.

It’s not like I’ve got any problems with this concept of ‘career politicians’ either. If someone dedicates their lives to public service, and does so with the best of intentions of contributing to a wider public good, my hat’s off to them. Do it as long as you’re able, you’re dutiful and have the confidence of a majority of your constituents.

That’s not what this is about.

I just wish if Olivia wanted to stay and work in Ottawa, she would’ve stayed and worked in Ottawa. Thanking those supporters pushing her to run for mayor of Toronto, she’d decline their exhortations, insisting that the federal level was where she felt she could be most effective. All humble and grateful for their belief in her but holding firm in taking a pass.

Olivia Chow’s entry into the race for mayor last year (not to mention the months and months of speculation beforehand) drastically altered the landscape. crashandburnIt pushed at least two other very capable candidacies to the sidelines in an effort to keep the left of centre side united. In essence, Chow was anointed, seen as the saviour to move Toronto on from the tumultuous Ford years.

And then she went and dropped the ball, doing a terrible, terrible job. Why? I can offer nothing but pure speculation. Bad advice? Unable to maintain a strong city-wide campaign? No compelling narrative beyond We Can Do Better? A combination of a bunch of weaknesses?

Her quick jump back into federal politics suggests another possible reason for her mayoral crash and burn. Maybe her heart just wasn’t in it. It was nothing more than an opportunity, an opportunity with a fallback position of returning to Ottawa if things didn’t work out. Maybe John Tory’s team was right. Maybe Olivia Chow was just another NDP candidate. Mayor. M.P. Whatevs.

I wish Olivia would’ve stuck around after her municipal defeat last October to help rebuild the progressive side of the political equation her campaign helped splinter. To assist in figuring out how enough self-proclaimed progressive voters concluded someone like John Tory was moderate enough for them. To be a part of a different team that puts the city and not a party first.

Perhaps she still will. It’s hardly guaranteed she can defeat the Liberal incumbent, Adam Vaughan, who took the riding after Chow resigned her seat. sad1With the re-drawing of Trinity-Spadina, the demographics may skew less in her favour than it once did. Still, it’s hard to see the election battle between the two playing out as anything less than a titanic struggle.

All I do know is that, because of the new riding configurations, I’ll be spared the tough decision of whether or not to vote against Olivia Chow. It wasn’t something I ever had to think much about doing before. That’s a little bit sad.

frowningly submitted by Cityslikr


Racist?! Who, Us?

July 26, 2015

garyowens

Pretending institutional racism doesn’t exist is part of the problem.

audibly 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


To Serve And Protect What Exactly?

July 19, 2015

garyowens

5 years after the G20 fiasco in Toronto, we sit down and talk with reluctant police activist Sherry B. Good.

audibly submitted by Cityslikr


Old New Is Still Bad News

July 18, 2015

For anybody following along with the surreal and torturous Scarborough subway debate for the past 5 years, none of this comes as any sort of surprise. The ridership numbers, the cost estimates were all highly suspect, right from the outset.hardofhearing Then mayor Rob Ford was the prime pusher behind the idea for a new Scarborough subway. How could the numbers be anything but questionable?

“Should there have been an extensive due-diligence process before those numbers were quoted and used publicly? Yes,” Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat told the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro. “Was there? No.”

In the post-Gary Webster era at City Hall, it’s not hard to comprehend how staff did their upmost to tell their political masters what they wanted to hear especially when it came to public transit. The former TTC General Manager was forced to walk the plank when he publically expressed an opinion in support of building LRTs instead of subways. It clearly wasn’t safe for staff to be laying their cards on the table.

With the provincial transportation body, Metrolinx, demanding an almost immediate decision from city council on how to proceed with the extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line (a decision the province itself had its own vested opinion about), city staff had been given a couple weeks to come up with a report, a report that many councillors were going to use by any means necessary to justify their support for a subway extension into Scarborough.

If the objective here is to parse the planning analysis that was on the floor of council as being problematic, I would like to suggest: Yes. We didn’t go through a fulsome process. We were not given the opportunity to go through a fulsome process. We were not expected to go through a fulsome process because it was a politically driven process.

“A politically driven process,” according to the chief planner, that wound up inflating ridership numbers to within the acceptable range for building a subway, 14,000 at peak hours. Where that number came from, nobody quite knows. Somewhere from within the planning department, it seems. fingerscrossedbehindbackA number not “necessarily documented”, according to the city director of transportation planning, Tim Laspa, but a number “discussed in meetings.”

Not that the numbers matter now. “Irrelevant” today, says Keesmaat. Not that they ever mattered during the debate. This story’s prime villain, Scarborough councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, says he supported the subway regardless of ridership numbers simply on a matter of “fairness”. “Scarborough should have equal access to transit with other areas.”

That’s nonsense, of course.

Scarborough would be better served, more fairly served by implementing the full LRT plan that was part of Transit City. That’s just a plain fact.

But as we’re learning more explicitly now, as many of us have known since 2010, facts have very little to do with this debate. City staff found the environment for reporting facts toxic to their careers. Facts proved to be inconvenient to mayoral ambitions and other political opportunism. notlisteningHell, facts didn’t even have to be factual.

Who knows if this news is coming in too late. Shovels are not yet in the ground but it still feels like the fix is in. What is obvious at this point, though, is it’s going to cost us a lot of money, a lot, a shit tonne of money, stretching out for decades, to go on ignoring the facts as they continue to come to light. An expensive ignoring of facts that won’t, in the end, make much more than a dent in our already woefully under-performing public transit system.

still angrily submitted by Cityslikr


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