Scenes From A Life With Cars

May 25, 2012

Three car themed vignettes today, all crashing to one inevitable conclusion which I won’t spell out directly, leaving it up to the reader to arrive at on their own. Hopefully, it will give the post an art house film feel.

Yesterday the McGuinty government announced a $1 billion eastward extension of the 407 highway, sounding as if it were some revolutionary act of patriotism. “Our intention is to ensure that this is a people’s highway, owned by the people, tolls are set by the people, service standards set by the people and the revenues that are generated are returned to the people.” And this road, this getter of the people from point A to point B, shall be known from this time forth as the Volksroute!

I don’t have the information at hand to judge if this is a good use of money or not. At least they’re tolling it, so drivers will be paying more for the pleasure of using it. As to a new highway ‘tackling congestion’ as the CBC site claims? There’s little evidence to prove such a case. Google the question do more roads reduce question and judge for yourself. What jumped out at me was this point in link #3 from a U of T study: For interstate highways in the densest parts of metropolitan areas we find that vkt [Vehicle Kilometers Traveled] increases in exact proportion to highways.

I only wish that our premier would embrace the building of public transit with the same kind of grassroots gusto he has for the 407. His support of Metrolinx and its Big Move has been what we might call mercurial. An initial enthusiasm perpetually dampened by an eye on the bottom line. One could argue that, along with the David Miller administration’s failure to really get out and sell the idea of Transit City to the people who would benefit from it most, the Liberal’s quick trigger finger in reducing funding for it in the face of the economic crisis of 2009 made the plan seem, if not expendable, at least elastic to those intent on doing it harm.

Public transit, it seems, is for downtown elites. Highways are for the real meat-and-potatoes, drive-through Tim Horton’s salt-of-the-earthers.

[Cue awkward segue.. A traffic jam as far as the eye can see, under a menacing sun cutting through a smog filled sky. The sound of blaring horns slowly fades into those of hockey sticks on pavement; angry shouts of drivers are replaced by the gleeful peels of joy from kids playing road hockey. The scene of traffic congestion dissolves to a leafy neighbourhood street, curiously devoid of any cars. Only children, boys and girls, all races and creeds, together playing road hockey.]

It seems Councillor Josh Matlow’s quixotic quest to end the city’s ban on ball hockey has come to a stultifyingly bureaucratic end. Too much red tape for many of his colleagues although the idea and its demise provided plenty of opportunity for hockey related puns. So there’s that.

I got no particular dog in this hunt nor do I blame the councillor for pulling the plug in the face of what seemed to be certain defeat certainly at the committee level. Is this an issue you’d waste political capital on? It’s the source of the alleged bureaucracy that grates.

As explained on the councillor’s site, the determination for allowable road hockey would be based on the level of car use. “The street would have to have a speed limit of 40 km/h or less, 1,000 or fewer vehicles passing per day, an average gap between vehicles of one minute or more, and sightlines sufficient to allow vehicles to stop before crashing into the goalie.” In other words, kids, streets are for cars. Sharing is entirely up to them. Maybe if you ask nicely and there’s not too much red tape involved…

Think I’m just being petulant? Read Confession of a former engineer. It seems road/street design runs contrary to how many of us think a proper neighbourhood/community should flow. 1) Traffic speed 2) Traffic volume 3) Safety 4) Cost versus 1) Safety 2) Cost 3) Traffic volume 4) Traffic speed. It’s a car’s world, man. We’re just allowed to live in. Unless we get in their way, of course.

This sense of entitlement defines our 3rd car tale. (Oooo. Seamless transition. Well done.) And it’s a story that actually happened to me. So it has a more gritty, hand held, verité feel.

Earlier this week I picked up an Autoshare car for a couple hours. Yes, as a matter of fact, I do drive occasionally. As a reminder why I fucking hate it so much. And to pick up items that are too big to fit in my bike baskets.

Chores and loathing finished, I returned the vehicle only to find someone parked in the spot. Right in front of a sign clearly indicating it was reserved 24 hours a day, each and every day. No parking. Yes, that includes you, dickhead.

This ought to be interesting I thought, never having encountered such a problem before. With no other place in sight to leave the car, I honked the horn a couple times, thinking that the driver might be within earshot, knowing they were illegally parked. Nothing.

So I called Autoshare, hoping that the solution would be to throw the anchors out right behind the motherfucker and force him to call Autoshare and explain why he thought it OK to park his car wherever the hell he wanted. Unfortunately, no. I was advised to find a place wherever I could in the area, leave it there and let them know the location.

“You’re going to call and have the jagoff towed though?” I asked. “Right?”

Apparently, no. That’s not a thing Autoshare does. It’s more live and let live. Inconvenience rather than enforcement.

I did find a place not far away. But as I finished up I caught a glimpse of a meter guy, walking along a street, writing out tickets. So I raced to find him and point out a certain transgression.

“Excuse me, sir. If you’re looking to fill your quota, some asshole” — yes I do swear this much in real life especially when a car’s involved – “just parked his car in my Autoshare spot. Come on. Follow me. I’ll show you.”

But what do you know? Apparently, this was not an infraction he could ticket. “It’s sort of like private property,” he tried to explain. Unless someone working for Autoshare showed up to complain, his hands were tied.

Shaking my head, I headed home. Unless Autoshare came and moved the car I’d parked from the street in a couple hours or so, it would get ticketed. Ultimately I’d bear the cost in some indirect form or another, as a member of the organization. Some piece of shit would walk away, his wallet none the lighter. Just another freeloading car driver.

THE END

[An addendum: after showing this to a couple test audiences, I was informed that 71% didn’t get it, didn’t see how the three stories were related, failed to understand the point. Some voice-over narration was needed. Don’t worry. It’ll be removed for the director’s cut edition.]

OK, SO NOT THE END

Cars kill cities. Cars kill communities.

NOW, IT’S THE END

auterly submitted by Cityslikr


Bald Man Out

May 26, 2010

According to the Toronto Star this past Saturday, the city’s mayoral race has become a 3-way, conveniently split along clear, easy-to-follow ideological lines. Rob Ford on the right, Joe Pantalone on the left and George Smitherman smack dab in the middle. So perfect is the alignment that one might think it was hand made to fit an orderly narrative. Unlike the real world, no nuances here, folks, at the Toronto Star.

How did such clean lines come about? Well, according to the Star, the wheels have come off the Rocco Rossi campaign bus. His whole schtick to date had been the crusading outsider riding into town to clean up the mess created by profligate taxing and spending. Rossi was the right of centre, anti-incumbent populist and he carried some momentum early on.

That is until councillor Rob Ford entered the fray. He wasn’t just simply right of centre. He was a true blue right wing conservative with no Liberal stain on his resumé. Ford was well-known for lavishing attention on his (and other councillors) constituents, promptly returning their phone calls. So, he had the populist angle covered. For disgruntled right wing voters, Rob Ford was the real deal.

This left Rossi with only the anti-incumbent banner to fly. While a potent element in a race where the electorate is restive and believe that things are going to hell in a hand basket, it may not be enough to sustain a nearly 10 month campaign especially if the frontrunner with more name recognition is attempting to sail an identical tack. See: George Smitherman as crusading outsider riding into town to clean up the mess created by profligate taxing and spending.

It hasn’t helped Rossi that his platform so far has been underwhelming. Selling off publicly owned assets isn’t an easy pitch to anyone who remembers or drives the 407 not to mention that it makes absolutely no economic sense to anyone other than ideologues and those on the investment side of the equation. His subway plan doesn’t add up even to those who would like more subways built. The latest 6 point economic initiative to create a quarter million jobs in Toronto that he floated last week seems, as the Star stated, vague.

If elected, Rossi vows to “Work at creating growth across the entire 416-905 region.” Then he’d “Tout Toronto-based bank performance during the recession, building on the city’s reputation as an emerging world financial centre.” Etc., etc., broad generalizations and the use of other very active verbs to give the impression of doing something.

All stance and very little substance. Once you cede the stance to a more qualified or well known poseur, there wasn’t much left for any voter to get behind. Even before the dog days of summer, or at least the official dog days of summer roll around, Rossi finds himself in irons, floundering with no direction and little wind behind him.

At least, that’s how the Toronto Star sees it at the moment. The Rossi campaign is dead in the water, torpedoing not only his own chances but apparently those of the other 22 candidates as well, winnowing it down to a 3 man race. That way, I guess, the Star won’t have to do too much multitasking when it comes to their election coverage. Now if only there was a way for them to figure out how to eliminate Joe Pantalone and get it down to just two contenders. It would make everything that much simpler.

not unhappily but warily submitted by Cityslikr


Rocco Rossi Goes Underground

May 5, 2010

So now Rocco Rossi’s going to build us subways. Two kilometers of track and one stop per year for the next ten years. Once we get that albatross Toronto Hydro from around our necks, the world will be our oyster! Get cheque. Go to the bank. Pay off debt. And the money will start rolling in.

Monetization of public assets. It’s so simple that it’s amazing no one else has ever thought of that before.

Oh, wait. They have. Margaret Thatcher. Ronald Reagan’s President’s Commission on Privatization in 1987. Our very own Mike Harris. Remember the 407? (Hey! There’s a snappy campaign catch phrase. Remember the 407! Reminiscent of the defiant battle cry, Remember the Alamo! It’s open for public use. Maybe you want to use it, Councillor Pantalone. A little bump to help you step up and get involved in the conversation.) How about the recent long term lease deal/debacle in Chicago where they outsourced the revenue for parking meters and lots into private hands?

What I’d like to know before we go all weak in the knees over Mr. Rossi’s plan to trade Toronto Hydro for subways is does it make an economic sense? With more than a few substantive examples of privatization plans gone awry, where are the positive illustrations of asset monetization? One? Any? I’m all ears here.

Even in the Fraser Institute’s call to privatization arms, the to-the-point article entitled Time to privatize, there’s talk of the tremendous benefits of “sweeping privatization” backed by overwhelming research in academic literature. The results have shown that privatized firms increased profitability, efficiency and dividends while reducing debt ratios. OK, but what about any benefits to the public purse? What does the public gain from monetizing assets?

Errr… well, a better run, more profitable company will help increase economic growth overall. More money, more tax revenue. So we’re counting on that old trickle down theory that conservative groups like the Fraser Institute love so much. There’s also the possibility of an increased amount of capital investment which would also stimulate overall economic growth, taking us back to trickle down again.

There seems to be a much more robust argument against privatization coming from people like Dexter Whitfield and the Municipal Services Project. Mr. Whitfield summarizes the crux of his recent book, Global Auction of Public Assets: Public Sector Alternatives to the Infrastructure Market and Public Private Partnerships, in a post at Truthout. His view seems to be that the public is better served by directly investing in infrastructure without relying on the private sector. Real life examples seem to back his argument up.

Examining Mr. Rossi’s plan specifically, things just don’t seem to add up. If I understand correctly, the city of Toronto garners more equity annually from it’s ownership of Toronto Hydro than it spends on servicing the debt. In selling Toronto Hydro, we pay down some of the debt thereby decreasing the amount of interest we pay per year. But after the one time payday, we get no further revenue from Toronto Hydro. So unless Mr. Rossi plans on paying off the debt entirely, we’re still in a negative cash flow situation as opposed to a slightly positive one if we keep revenue coming in from our ownership of Toronto Hydro.

And he plans to build 2 kilometres of subway track and one station per year at roughly $200-300 million a pop? How? Where’s the money going to come from?

Yet this announcement was made to great fanfare yesterday morning. What has Rocco Rossi done to earn himself such a free ride? Serious candidates should have serious plans not simply the hocus-pocus of you want subways? I’ll give you subways. Just don’t look behind the curtain.

Rossi’s announcement is the latest in a trend from our conservative candidates of shameless pandering that was best summed up in the Tweet-o-sphere yesterday by Graphic Matt. Look at me! I’m a right-wing candidate for Mayor of Toronto. Here is my proposal: subways! Here is how I will pay for them: magic!

— head scratchingly submitted by Cityslikr


Selling The Crown Jewels

March 11, 2010

What’s with our politicians lately and their hell bent determination to sell off the proverbial farm? Is it something in the water (publicly owned, for now) they’re drinking? First, mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi made divesting the city of Toronto Hydro a major plank in his campaign platform. His main rival, George Smitherman, has slowly come round to a similar way of thinking.

Now the provincial government has been pondering aloud thoughts of unloading such assets as Hydro One, OLG and the LCBO. While putting nothing on the table in the immediate future, the government has hired a couple investment banks including — wait for it, wait for it — Goldman Sachs to assess the worth of a proposed super Crown corporation, bits of which could be sold off to private hands in an attempt to “monetize public assets” and “unleash” an economic jolt to the economy. Colour me unimpressed because I smell a big steaming pile of panic in this approach.

Didn’t we just undergo about 18 months or so of near economic calamity followed by a present recovery that is robust only in its anemia? All but the most hardcore Milton Friedmaniacs should have no trouble with governments carrying a debt load as result of keeping the economy and vulnerable citizens afloat during such harsh economic times. And frankly, why anybody would be listening to anyone touting Milton Friedman tinged views after their healthy contribution to the recent financial fiasco is beyond me. The acolytes of Milton Friedman should still be silent with embarrassment.

Maybe if I could find a single unqualified example of a government being well served by a one time sale of a public asset, I’d be more open to the concept. Proponents hail the leasing last February of Chicago parking meters for the $1.2 billion dollars it netted the city. Yet within a month, problems arose with price hikes, bad maintenance and no public accountability (read all about at theexpiredmeter.com) and for the next 75 years, the money paid for parking at meters in Chicago will go directly into private hands instead of the public purse.

And this is cited as an example of a good deal by pro-privateers. Let’s not even bring up our provincial government’s 99 year “lease” agreement of the 407 toll road back in 1999. For me, a public sale of assets inevitably amounts to nothing short of a public fleecing.

I’m no economist but the selling of public assets just doesn’t make in any sense. If an asset is worth something and by that I mean it generates revenue, why sell it? If an asset doesn’t generate revenue, who wants to buy it? And if the asset in question is a public utility? Well that’s a non-starter. Society cannot be well served by placing public utilities into private hands.

Yet here we are once more with a government in power, facing a looming election and an ugly looking bottom line. Short term thinking holds sway. Hawk the public wares, pay down the debt and declare your fiscal prudence. Pay no attention to the revenue stream that ceases to flow into government coffers. The next time a crisis arises (and in the boom and bust economy we embrace, there will always be another crisis), we’ll just auction off another asset. That is, of course, if there’s anything left to sell.

But just for a moment, how be we try thinking outside the privatization box? What about instead of selling off, say, the LCBO for a single cash grab that we’ll never have access to again, we impose a twenty-five cent tax on every bottle of intoxicant purchased and dedicate it solely to lowering the debt? Drink Down the Deficit®™©, we’ll call it. When things are back under control, we rescind the tax?

Fuck that. If things are so dire that we’re actually contemplating the sheer stupidity of selling off money making enterprises, levy a buck a bottle at the LCOB and two bucks a square at the Beer Store. Yes, it’s regressive and we’re piling the debt load onto the backs of those who can least afford it but if we’re being truthful about the matter, we’re doing the same thing by selling off cash cow Crown corporations. It just simply delays the inevitable.

As an imbibing enthusiast, I will happily pay more for the privilege of the tipple knowing that the money is going toward deficit reduction rather than into the pockets of the vultures who are greedily circling the body politic. In fact, I will consider it my patriotic duty to up my consumption of alcoholic beverages and do my part in slaying the deficit dragon. Let us raise multiple glasses to the health of the commonweal.

Chin, chin.

soberly submitted by Cityslikr