Letting Go The Wheel

July 4, 2016

I spent the better part of 5 hours this holiday weekend behind the wheel of a Dodge Journey, apparently the auto aficionado’s choice of SUV or… dodgejourneyminivan or whatever thing this thing is called. How would I know the vehicle’s desirability? As soon as I returned it to the rental counter, it was summoned away to be washed and sent back out immediately upon request from another customer.

I did not sign up for a Dodge Journey, nor any other SUV or minivan. With just the 3 of us heading out of town for a couple days, figured a 4-door intermediate sized car would do the trick. But when I arrived at the rental place, there wasn’t a car on the lot. Just everything on steroids. My request for the smallest one they had delivered up the Journey. Yeah, the Journey. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to park it in our tiny garage. (Spoiler alert: Mission Accomplished, with room to spare.)

Once out on the highway, the Dodge Journey drove like in a car commercial. If you closed your eyes and pretended all those other cars weren’t there. dodgejourney1Only, not for too long. That’s kind of dangerous driving.

Seats as comfortable as any in my living room. Sound system better than mine at home. A/C keeping us cool on demand. Plenty of room for all the stuff we’ve packed in to make a summer long weekend complete.

Eventually, when traffic did thin out, after a couple hours, the Dodge Journey hit 140, 145 without me even really noticing. This, as the ad man’s copy reads, was a smooth ride. Enjoyable even, to a man who, at the best of times, hates being in a car.

It all got me to thinking about the not-too-distant future when we’d be handing over the task of driving fully to computers. Autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars and the like.openroad1

The visuals we’re presented, Jetson’s style, are tiny pods, moving us around efficiently, not careening here and there, zipping back and forth, but almost assembly line like. Everyone travelling in orderly fashion at the same speed, a speed conducive, one would assume, to street life. So, not at crazy breakneck speeds.

Even out on the highways where the private automobile and trucking of goods rule, at what speed will our self-driving cars be allowed to haul it? Around these parts with a posted speed limit of 100 km/h but in practice, more like 120 before anyone really starts to notice, how fast will be deemed too fast? Eliminating driver error through computer control would, presumably, notch it up somewhat. What number will be practical, feasible or desirable?

A bigger question might be: will drivers who are used to determining their driving speed for themselves, within the constraints of using our streets with fellow travellers, of course, be willing to hand over the controls to the machine? Are we really going to be content to stick with the posted limits along with everyone else? selfdrivingcarsIsn’t the appeal (at least theoretically) of driving yourself the individualism to it? We’ve known almost since the private vehicle made its first appearance that speed kills yet we’ve proven ourselves unwilling to regulate their speed in any short of resolute way outside of road sign limits. Why are we still allowing cars on our streets and roads that are capable of going well over 300km/h, and building the infrastructure to accommodate such speeds?

Are we really to believe that with the advent of autonomous vehicles, we’re simply going to take our collective foot off the gas? Not to mention, give up the luxury something like the Dodge Journey offers up now for the confined space of the prototypical self-driving car that we’re seeing on the news reels. I have my doubts. Being in traffic is being in traffic whether you’re driving or not. selfdrivingcars1It’s hard to imagine giving up all the mod cons that we’ve become accustomed to if we’re still spending an inordinate amount of time in our cars in return for someonething else assuming control of the wheel.

Our relationship with our cars has never been that kind of rational. You could argue that car dependence and the building of our environment for the primacy of private automobile use is the very definition of irrational. Yet the assumption now seems to be technology will bring a sense of order, logic and reason to our road use. The machines will save us!

Only if they rewire our thinking about how we move around our cities and places, changing our priorities, will they. Because if the easiest, most reliable and comfortable way to get to where you want to go is still from inside a car, nothing much is going to change. selfdrivingcars2Fewer collisions and fatalities, which is not to be sniffed at, but cars first, cars foremost.

Unless, of course there are none remaining in the lot. Then we’ll all be moving around in Dodge Journeys. Riding in extreme comfort but still stuck in traffic despite the machine’s best efforts.

semi-autonomously submitted by Cityslikr


Orlando

June 13, 2016

rainbowflag

I’m not left speechless very often. I lose lots of things, words are seldom on that list. But then Orlando, and the Pulse nightclub mass shooting/murder.

Our urge to explain the unexplainable seems to be a defining trait of our species. Understandable, since it is much easier to do than actually trying to prevent the unexplainable. Hindsight being 20/20.

Apportioning blame is as simple as pointing your finger and raising your voice. As is the case in many of these kinds of situations, it’s just a matter of a hate pile-on. If only we had banned/killed/jailed X, then Y would never have happened, and we’d all be as happy and content as Z.

The one unspoken current running through all of that, of course, is an absolving ourselves of responsibility, the ‘othering’. It was Them not Us. We’re all good here.

This last thought struck me as I was watching on my TV, from my safe distance on my couch in Toronto, a panel discussion on The National about the Orlando tragedy. The CBC had gathered 3 voices from the national security and international politics arena. Not surprisingly, I heard ISIS mentioned significantly more often than either homophobia or gun control. This, after all, was what these 3 experts knew best.

On first glance, it makes sense. The shooter was a Muslim-American. The FBI had, apparently, investigated him for suspected Islamic extremism ties. He had, again apparently, phoned in to 911 before the assault, pledging allegiance to ISIS.

There’s your answer, easy answer, on a platter.

This isn’t about homophobia in a country where there’s plenty of it. This isn’t about gun control in a country where there’s virtually none of it. It can only be about one thing, and one thing only. Reality is complicated. Our perception of it doesn’t have to be.

But I wonder…

If I’m a damaged man, and it’s always about men when it comes to these mass killings, a damaged Muslim man looking to go out in a hail of gunfire, what do I want as my epitaph? I Pledge My Allegiance to ISIS or I Hate Faggots. There’s a certain ring of righteousness and nobility to fighting for a cause rather than murdering out of pure hatred.

I’ve got my opinions, of course. Some informed, others far more viscerally-based. The investigation is still in its early stages. What we think we know now will need to be later updated.

But the one truth I think cannot denied here?

When we vilify others, or enable the vilification of others through the words we say, the ideas we spread, the laws we pass or don’t pass, based on gender, race, sexual orientation, political views, we create and target vulnerable individuals and communities. Hide behind degrees of hatred as you might – In this country we don’t throw them off roofs! – it’s a self-congratulatory pat on the back that passes for plausible deniability. See? No blood is on these hands.

It’s them. It’s always them. If everyone else would just act, be, believe, think, pray like we do, we wouldn’t have these kinds of problems. What we need is capitulation to the norm, not more cooperation or accommodation.

Diversity has its place, as long as it doesn’t challenge established practices. People get agitated when their way of seeing the world comes under attack. Lashing out is to be expected. Shocked by the news we’re hearing? We shouldn’t even be surprised.

That’s simply how those people operate.

minaretandmoom

submitted by Cityslikr


The Death Of The Automobile — Part 5

December 13, 2015

deathoftheautomobile

(I know, I know. I said the last excerpt would be the final excerpt but as I finished up John Jerome’s 1972 book, The Death Of the Automobile, seemed like its last segment would be the best last excerpt here.

It’s fun to look back from your perch, 40+ years on, to assess how predictions worked out. No one’s going to get it exactly right. That’s not possible.

Jerome clearly underestimated just how stuck on cars we were. ‘Gadgets’ have continued to captivate us (Heated steering wheels anyone?). Car makers did eventually respond to safety concerns about their products. Road death numbers dropped significantly, certainly on a per capita basis. And, oh my, was he soft on our tax tolerance.

Ultimately, a pattern, once firmly in place, is incredibly difficult to change. Jerome, I think (and here’s my prediction) wasn’t incorrect in thinking our car dependence would be eventually broken. He just got the timeline wrong. Automobile use hasn’t yet become ‘unbearable’ although, in some places, it feels like the moment’s incredibly close.)

Enjoy!

*  *  *

deathrace2000

The Death of the Trip

The force that will finally finish off the automobile as the basis of our transportation system still lies unrevealed in the future, of course, and I have few clues to its identity, although some educated guesses are possible. It could well be a ponderous technological overcomplexity that will drive prices totally out of reach, forcing the private citizen, already staggered by the Nader Tax, to reevaluate his own transportation needs in new terms. More conventional taxation is due to increase markedly in the immediate future. We will surely recognize, shortly, that the automobile was responsible for the total decline of public transportation, and represents one of the few remaining sources of revenue substantial enough to pay for bringing that institution back to functioning life. European gasoline prices are boosted by taxation to circa sixty cents a gallon (and public transit is uniformly excellent). Japan taxes engine size so severely that over-180-cubic-inch engines add 40 percent to the cost of a car in taxes alone.

The automobile seems to represent an endless source of revenue generation, a role that could contribute to its own demise. The foreign nations are behind us in automobile-centered problems because they taxed early, limiting the growth of private automobiles. It seems likely that we will soon find it necessary to attempt to tax ourselves back away from the problem. The solution sounds a bit elitist for our democratic blood, but it fits our style better than anything so drastic as the outright ban that probably represents a more desirable solution. Use-taxes for city streets sound unreasonable? The parking bandits in New York City are already getting seventy-five dollars a month and up, which is exactly the same mechanism except for where the money goes, what it accomplishes.

Changing consumer habits may be enough to revise radically our patterns of automobile ownership and use, if not to wipe out the machine entirely. One such change Alvin Toffler calls “rentalism.” Many city residents are finding they can avoid car ownership entirely, simply renting when the extended need arises. The savings in out-of-pocket expense, on a long-term basis, is immense. An interesting side effect of the rental phenomenon, originally surfacing in the computer industry, is that it dumps squarely back on the manufacturer the problem of product longevity and serviceability. There is absolutely no need for the customer to put up with any kind of unsatisfactory original condition or service when he can simply turn in the product and rent another for the same cost. Rental-car owners will be less inclined to sucker for psychological trimming, keenly interested in reliability, and absolutely immune to the emotionality of product loyalty. The effect could even bring back product engineering.

For the foreseeable future, the likelihood that the automobile will simply be replaced by some other new transportation technology seems dim indeed. We’ve had our fingers burned on not a few new technologies in the past, and can be expected to move slowly and suspiciously toward a commitment to a new gadget on a scale that will represent a total replacement of our hundred million vehicles.

We already have, however, the technology to supplant most of the automobile’s function – and have it manufactured, distributed, installed, paid for. Personal communication can and perhaps will supplant the automobile eventually, not by superior performance of the automobile’s function, but by diverting us away from that function. In the face of the clearly insurmountable problems that an ever-expanding automobile population presents, our futurists are beginning to see that it is mobility itself – that simple original notion that we so quickly mastered and then went on to other things – that is the enemy. The range of spokesmen who are mulling over the idea in public print is remarkably wide. Sociologist Paul Goodman perhaps represents the reputable anti-establishment extreme: “The first question about transportation is not private cars and highways versus public transportation, but why the trip altogether. I have not heard this question asked either in Congress or in City Hall. Why must the workman live so far from his job? Could that be remedied? Why do I travel 2,000 miles to give a lecture for an hour…?

For the other side of the abyss between anti- and pro-establishment forces, nobody could be a better spokesman than the director of research for General Motors, Paul Chenea: “When you stop to think of how much traveling you do which you wouldn’t really do if you could accomplish the job some other way. Just think of how much travel you could avoid if you could look at a guy when you talk to him on the telephone. I’m not really convinced that everybody’s got to go everywhere all the time. There must be a better way than this…”

When the director of research for the largest transportation company in the world says perhaps we shouldn’t move around so much, it is mobility itself that is clearly identified as the culprit. Dr. Chenea will be joined in the near future by what will amount to a world-wide chorus – the same kind of swelling organ tones of piousness and moral exhortation that have unfortunately characterized a great deal of the environmental protection movement. Don’t go, the voices will say. Stop. Consider alternatives. Stay home. Phone instead of going. (The phone service shows signs of collapsing already. We have yet to discover the communication equivalent of exhaust emissions, but it is hardly cynical to suggest that we probably will.) Okay, we are a buzzing, jittery, flighty human race; maybe we can spin off some portion of those jitters in increased – dare we hope for improved? – communication. Talk, don’t drive.

Visual phones, access to data banks and computers, transmission via phone of graphic materials – these will increase slightly the effectiveness of electronic rather than mechanical travel. As we have created a new class of the technologically unemployable in the recent past, we might well profit by creating a class of professionally unmobile in the future. It is unlikely that such a sea change in American custom will spring lightly from the public-spiritedness of the citizenry. During one of New York’s subway strikes, Mayor Lindsay issued a public plea that all Manhattan workers not “absolutely essential” please stay home; the result was an historic traffic jam, as every citizen rushed to the office by car to prove his indispensability.

Neither new gadgets nor new social economic classes are sufficient, really, to break the pattern. Nor will we give up our cars for moralistic reasons, no matter who or what would thereby be saved. It has been suggested that the automobile must be abandoned if we are to survive. Yes, of course – just as we must stop having wars in order to avoid killing so many people. We will not exhort ourselves out of the automotive trap any more successfully than we stopped highway crashes with moral imperatives. No appeal to our reasonableness or our humanity will finally demobilize us.

The automobile will die when its use becomes unbearable. It would be comforting to end on a positive note, to suggest some new attraction that will pull us from our cars by increasing human possibilities, but we’ve run out of room – and, perhaps, time – for that. When the moment comes – as it will, as surely as tomorrow’s polluted dawn – when movement threatens, when to go carries a greater psychic cost than to stay, then we will stop. The automobile has made a powerful beginning in the creation of an environment in which such a threat is integral. Every day new elements click into place: the risk, the cost, the delay, the bother, the crowding and congestion. The rage. When the destination diminishes as the task of getting there grows, when the endless prospect of unrelieved blight conquers the remaining vistas, when no conceivable place holds any hope of being different from any other – when all of America becomes Woodward Avenue – then we will stay home. What new toys – surrogate sports cars – will fill our time is beyond imagining. But there will be time to fill, a great deal of it, when none of it is spent in automobiles.

One possibility lies waiting in the wings for our discovery, if we have the wit to seek it out. When Alan S. Boyd became the first Secretary of Transportation, one of his first official acts was to decorate his new chambers. On one wall, he hung a large photomural: it showed a pair of well-shod feet. It’s a transportation solution that hasn’t had a great deal of technological support in recent years, but it might be the salvation of us yet.

Franconia, N.H., January, 1972.

futuremobility

excerptly submitted by Cityslikr


A Leap Of Faith In Ourselves

September 26, 2015

If you want to see the hollow, corrupted shell that modern conservatism has become, check out its reaction to the leap manifesto.hysterical (The what? I know, I know. So like, 10 days ago.) “Naomi Klein’s Great Leap Backward,” wailed the Financial Post’s Peter Foster, “…issued on Tuesday by an asylum full of celebrity victims of Harper Derangement Syndrome…is certainly a thought-provoking platform. The main thoughts it provokes are: Does achieving celebrity cause a sharp drop in IQ and increase in hypocrisy, or does all-consuming artistic ego and/or power-hungry socialist inclination prevent all logical thought?”

Celebrities and eggheads. What do they know about the real world, am I right? Marxists and Maoists, the lot them, trumpeting long-refuted Keynesian economics, strangled as it was by the Invisible Hand of the free market. The FREE market.

Only moderately less hysterical, the Globe and Mail editorial board similarly dismissed the presence of ‘movie stars and pop musicians’ (and public-service unions — *spit*) signing on to this “…revolutionary (but not in the good sense of the word) critique of capitalism.” angrypartisanWhat might be a good sense of the word ‘revolutionary’? The G&M doesn’t really take the time to explain such details, too busy ripping apart the document’s contents for that.

In doing so, the Globe showed itself as willing as the Financial Post not to engage candidly with the leap manifesto. Misrepresentation was more to their liking. Not coincidentally both publications claimed that the manifesto called for an end to all trade deals with a big ripping noise. Problem is, they both cut and copied the first part of that particular sentence.

“We call for an end to all trade deals that interfere with our attempts to rebuild local economies, regulate corporations and stop damaging extractive projects. [Bolding mine.]

That’s a huge gulf of difference between what is written and what these newspapers claimed was on the page.

At least these papers made the pretense of having a serious (but not in the good sense of the word) discussion. Over on social media, all critique and flack began and ended on the word ‘manifesto’. In a nutshell: You know who else wrote a manifesto? Karl Marx. joemccarthyIt was called The Communist Manifesto. Therefore, all manifestos are communist. You support this manifesto? You’re a communist. You know who supports this manifesto? The NDP. They’re communists. Their leader, Tom Mulcair, is a communist. A Tommunist. Get it? Tom-Comm, Tommunist. Tommunist Manifesto. hashtag#tommunistmanifesto

A ‘50s-era line of attack smear intending, I guess, to provide cover for those still in desperate need for a reason to vote Conservative in the upcoming federal election. Well, Harper’s not perfect but at least he’s not a communist. hashtag#tommunistmanifesto.

Mock and ridicule. The current state of our conservative politics, folks.

*  *  *

(The three dots to denote a change of what will hopefully turn out to be a related narrative direction that I couldn’t masterfully do using just words. I’m fessing up to that up front.)

Along with the leap manifesto, I also spent some time reading Joshua Zeitz’s August Atlantic article, Born to Run and the Decline of the American Dream, commemorating (if that’s the right word) the 40th anniversary of the album’s release. “I don’t think the American Dream was that everyone was going to make it or that everyone was going to make a billion dollars,” Springsteen said in a later interview. borntorun“But it was that everyone was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and a chance for some self-respect.”

That, in two sentences, summed up the rationale of the western post-war consensus. A mixed-use economy with the government playing an integral in both smoothing out the regular kinks the market suffered, as well as ensuring a level playing field in providing equal access to opportunity. Not, as Springsteen pointed out, equal access to a billion dollars but at `the chance to live a life with some decency and a chance for some self-respect.’

Born To Run became something of an anthem to the breakdown of that consensus occurring in the mid-70s. Conventional economic thought had not seen the economic shocks that rattled the boom time belief in never-ending growth and prosperity coming, and it wasn’t quick enough to offer up possible solutions to the malaise which set in. In its place, up popped a seductively simple alternative. Free up the markets from the death grip of government intervention. borntorun1Unleash the wealth creators and let the good times roll. Money will trickle down to everyone. A rising tide will raise all boats.

Remove the human element from the free market, the FREE market, and let it run perfectly, like Newton’s well-oiled cosmic clock, keeping exact time according to the immutable laws of the universe. Keynes was dead. Long live the Chicago school!

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” H.L. Mencken wrote decades earlier, predicting, I’m sure, economic theorists.

The upheaval wasn’t simply economic. The social consensus also fractured. In this everybody for themselves environment promoted by the new economic model we were told would solve our problems, oppositional forces turned on each other. Union leaders were now seen as fat cats and leeches. Racial divisions hardened. And what were the damn girls screeching about now?

As Zeitz points out in his article, the protest politics of the 60s didn’t disappear in the 70s. They changed. Gone were the hippies marching against an unjust war, in favour of peace and love. 1970sIn their place, the taxpayers’ revolt and the moral majority. The counter-revolution, reactionism.

Like many Canadians of my demographic, I was buffered from the tumult, by and large. I had discovered Bruce Springsteen post-Born To Run with Darkness on the Edge of Town. He spoke to the mild youthful rebellion I was experiencing. Springsteen and the punks. But I was far from one of the working class figures he depicted in his songs.

My parents certainly were but they had seized the opportunity offered up by the post-war consensus Springsteen spoke of, to live a life of decency and self-respect, and ensure I never had to toil as hard as they did. The irony is, the only time I spent on the factory floor was in a summer job between 1st and 2nd year of university, in a union shop, making a shitload of money. A shitload of money.

But that was during the early-80s, and things were different back then. Me and my generation (probably grammatically incorrect but sounds appropriately gritty) kicked away the ladder behind us as we climbed into the comfortable positions our parents created for us. Sorry, kids. Didn’t you hear? The rules have all changed.

*  *  *

(Act 3, or the Final Act, a variation on the Hegelian thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Fingers crossed!)

Just as the post-war consensus era ran its course, collapsing after 30, 35 years, its successor, what do we call it, The Great Unravelling, is walking wounded on its last legs. breadlineHidebound ideological adherents refuse to admit it but it all came crashing down in 2008, and now limps toward its demise, unable to staunch the bleeding.

We call it the Great Recession because, apparently, it wasn’t as bad as the Great Depression which, along with World War II, was an important element in the subsequent creation of the post-war consensus. We’ve been through some tough times recently, sure. But not that tough, not Dust Bowl, bread line tough. Everybody’s got a cell phone and hi-def TV. How hard can it be?

2008 was just blip, a bad downturn, a correction, if you will. Nothing that 7 years of sluggish growth wide spread economic insecurity won’t help fix. Pay no attention to any dark clouds that pop up on the horizon, it’ll be blue skies and smooth sailing ahead if we just keep doing what we’ve been doing, adamsmithkeeping taxes low, governments small and our ears to the ground for any sort of threat to our way of doing business life.

Friend of this site, former city councillor and proud Progressive Conservative, John Parker, in reaction to the news that the pay of the average U.S. CEO in 2014 was almost 400 times that of the average employee, “multiples of what it was a few decades ago,” Mr. Parker tweeted, asked how many had read Adam Smith’s book, Wealth of Nations. Smith was an 18th-century philosopher, hero of the neo-conservative/liberal set, who penned the idea of the Invisible Hand, the magic of the free market, the FREE market, summoned by our rational pursuit of self-interest.

“And hands up everyone who knows that Adam Smith also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Parker continued. “The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith, redux: An economic system must have a moral foundation in order to be sustainable.”

Markets don’t have morals. They just determine winners and losers. jacobmarleyPeople are moral (or should be). Government should reflect people, moral people, not markets.

While it would be simplistic to chalk up the cause of the crash of 2008 to just one thing, I do not think it outrageous to believe that the key to understanding such a massive economic failure (and its ongoing lingering malaise – there’s that word again) is that the system had absolutely no moral foundation. It wasn’t sustainable, a spectacular flameout was inevitable because it lacked morality, fairness or any sense of responsibility beyond me, mine and my own.

I would postulate that it is this lack of morality the leap manifesto seeks to address.

Or sought to address, I guess it’s fair to conclude. Ten days is a long time, especially in a 70+ day campaign. The leap manifesto seems to have become something of a relic, a tic. Big news for a day or two, then vapour. Almost as if it didn’t happen. A new shoe tried on but ill-fitting. It didn’t stick to the NDP like conservatives hoped it would. It didn’t stick to the NDP because the NDP wanted nothing to do with it.

Clearly, an election campaign is no time to talk about root causes, big ideas or actual change from a rotten status quo. Carry on, gentlemen. jmkeynesIt’s business as usual.

Now we’re on to niqabs and the conservative rallying cry of Can Governments Really Do Anything About The Economy? Really?

A couple weeks back, Doug Saunders, certainly no avid proponent of government interventionism and writing for the same Globe and Mail newspaper that had haughtily dismissed the leap manifesto, suggested that maybe, just maybe, the government does have role to play in economic affairs.

Many economists came to realize not only that government intervention bailed many countries out of the post-2008 recession and restored growth and employment, but that the crisis itself may have been caused, in good part, by the disappearance of active government support in the economy – the sort of direct investment and partnership that had existed in earlier decades.

“The crisis itself” — a crisis of 21st-century capitalism – “may have been caused, in good part, by the disappearance of active government support in the economy.” Active government support “that had existed in earlier decades.”

How’s that for your great leap backward? To a time when government didn’t simply get out of the way and let the magic of the mythical invisible hand do its thing. freemarketTo a time when it was expected that a government would do all it could to ensure that, how did Bruce Springsteen put it? “…everyone was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and a chance for some self-respect.”

That doesn’t seem overly ambitious or too unachievably utopian. It just doesn’t square with the self-made man image of the economic right where worth is measured solely by wealth regardless of the manner in which it was amassed. If you haven’t made it, bucko, look no further than the mirror. The blame lies squarely there, nowhere else.

It’s everybody for themselves and everything else will fall into place.

Except it doesn’t. It never has, and the façade of that political and economic belief system shattered in 2008. Having spent the past 7 years trying to piece it back together, to tweak and tinker it as if only minor adjustments were all that was needed, we’re simply denying the reality our current situation. Only a transformation, another great transformation, if you will, is in order.headinthesand

That’s what the leap manifesto is all about.

That it’s already yesterday’s news suggests we’re not ready to make any sort of transformative leap. We agonize over almost rounding error deficits and accept the faulty premise that only balanced budgets will cure the economic ills that ail us. We’ll elect our next federal government based on minor differences, all revolving around a discredited economic model and an abused sense of governance. And then we’ll wonder why nothing much has changed.

ever hopefully 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


Here’s To You, Councillor Robinson

June 15, 2015

Last weekend, the weekend before last weekend actually, Councillor Jaye Robinson, the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair, mrsrobinsonreached out over social media to ask to meet up ahead of the Gardiner east debate at city council to discuss the issue. I’d been jabbing at her, in the virtual sense, over the pro-“hybrid” stance she’d taken during a press conference a few days earlier. I wondered aloud how she could have rushed to the defence of waterfront development when Doug Ford had concocted his ferris wheels-and-monorail plan a few years back but was perfectly willing to plop a newly rebuilt expressway down to inflict similar damage on the area. She also, to my mind, was brushing aside well-researched evidence that suggested the traffic chaos “hybrid” supporters predicted would happen if the Gardiner came down wouldn’t happen.

So we met on Tuesday, the day before the city council meeting began for a very amiable 15 minutes. Councillor Robinson came across as deeply conflicted on the issue, trying to figure out a better solution than was on the table in front of her and colleagues to decide on. scratchmyheadWhy she had chosen to spend time chatting it out with me – whose tear the fucker down preference was up front and centre – remains something of a mystery. While my arrogance might suggest otherwise, I am fully aware of my limited reach and ever so slight standing in the local political scene. It struck me as strange the councillor would waste her time talking to some asshole with a blog.

Despite unhealthy outbursts of political naïvete that catch me by surprise, I had no illusions about the meeting. There was no way Councillor Robinson was going to change her mind, having so publicly come out in favour of Mayor Tory’s “hybrid” stance. Still, I thought, maybe, some compromise might be in the works, an attempt to perform a tactical retreat.

You can only imagine my disappointment, let’s call it, over the course of the following few days, watching as Councillor Robinson displayed little propensity toward any sort of compromise on the Gardiner east. When she spoke, she varied little from the “hybrid” hymnbook the mayor was preaching from, the one he used in a speech to the Empire Club, the speech the Torontoist referred to as “full Ford”, full of “at least 36 falsehoods or misleading statements”. whipWhen she wasn’t speaking, Councillor Robinson could be seen with a clipboard, conversing with the mayor’s staff and other councillors, presumably helping out to get the vote count right in favour of the “hybrid” option.

She did. The Gardiner east “hybrid” won out, narrowly, setting in motion a period of uncertainty that often times follows bad decisions. Are we really going to do this? Really? (I remain sceptical. But again, what the fuck do I know?)

Sitting here, a few days on, and I still can’t figure Jaye Robinson out. The cranks and the kooks you get. Vainglorious, idiotic and imbecilic. Dummies gonna be dum, am I right? You can only hope to minimize the damage they try to inflict.

But Councillor Robinson is different. She seems like she wants to do the right thing, to leap toward a more enlightened kind of governance, a better city. ignorefactsYet she can regularly be counted on to come down on the wrong side of important issues like the Gardiner.

And by the ‘wrong’ side, I don’t necessarily mean the ones I disagree with her on. I’m talking about the one like the Gardiner that defy facts, evidence and the future, settling for easy, mindless catch phrases like common sense. “Why have experts if politicians care little for their expertise?” Matt Elliott asks today. There was a deliberate attempt by the pro-“hybrid” council gang to muddy the waters of debate by disparaging and disbelieving city staff and other expert opinion, elevating lone voices of dissent to positions of authority far beyond the reality of the situation, to put opinion before thoughtful reasoning.

Gut feeling prevailed once again at City Hall. Councillor Jon Burnside revealed the height of the “hybrid” hypocrisy when he rose to speak in defence of it, saying that his heart wanted the boulevard but his head told him the “hybrid” was the way to go. thetruthThe fact is, very little thinking went into the “hybrid” argument. It was pure obedience to a mayor who had made his decision known well before the debate had truly begun. Again.

Life’s too short, I concluded over the weekend. Having been at this now for over 5 years, I find myself tired and bored covering the ins-and-outs of a city council that seems determined to work against the best interests of the city. This isn’t one mayor’s problem. It’s endemic to the institution itself, the people constantly returned to office to govern.

I don’t get paid to do what I do. (Most days I don’t think I deserve to be.) There are far better people doing a far better job than I could ever do. I’m contributing largely noise.

I’m not a city councillor. I don’t have to figure out how to deal with such monumental nonsense and duplicity on a daily basis. whyamidoingthisWhy keep inflicting it on myself?

The city works pretty well despite its ill-governance. Not everywhere certainly and not for everyone obviously. We could be, should be doing a whole lot better. It’s not for a lack of tools at our disposal. Just a lack of political will. The DenzilMinnanWongization of City Hall.

Where things work, how they work is an area I’d like to further examine. How do we build a better sense of public good, the public common? One of the aspects I’ve learned about municipal politics is the potential for affecting change is right there not somewhere in the vague distance. Although it doesn’t seem like it at times, your voice can be heard. todolist1We saw it just recently with Desmond Cole and the issue of police carding.

I’ve got a stack of books about yay-high, scattered in piles around the house. Books about cities, how they work, how they don’t work, how to fix those that don’t work, great cities, bad cities, cities on the move, cities bogged down in the past. I want to read those books, learn from them, write about them. I just keep letting myself get interrupted by the terrible goings-on at City Hall.

We also need to figure out a way to elect better local politicians. If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be now. It doesn’t happen magically as we learned last October. Deadweight is lying heavily on this city, crushing the breath of life out of it. This is something that can wait until 2018. Organizing must start now.

These are the things I want to explore and write about. The basic nuts and bolts of civic life. I’ve focused far too much on the… a-hem, a-hem… the nuts and dolts. (Thank you. Try the veal.)

Near the end of the Gardiner debate last Thursday, Councillor Robinson, in her role as chair of Public Works and Infrastructure, spoke last on the issue. Using that time, she introduced a series of motions that might offer some workable alternatives to the “hybrid” option as it currently stands. closingdoorWhy this didn’t happen at the beginning of the meeting, or days, weeks before the debate even went to council is the disheartening thing about all this for me.

It was about crass fucking politics, winning optics for the mayor. The exact opposite of good governance, of practical, sensible, common sense governance Mayor Tory is always trying to assure us he’s all about. It’s bullshit and, ultimately, impossible to continue watching without hollowing out your core a little.

Councillor Robinson could’ve taken a different path. She chose instead to play along with the game and diminish the process just a little bit more. I’m tired. I don’t want to write about Councillor Jaye Robinson anymore.

resignedly submitted by Cityslikr