The Wrong Way Down A One Way Street

November 9, 2011

There’s enforced reading here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke or as Cityslikr likes to call it, Book Club. He gives out titles to be read and demands reports be written. No national bestsellers are these, no Oprah Picks. Usually the readings consist of dry takes on policy issues of the day like urban studies, our banking system, the nature of democratic dissent.

It is of my humble opinion that he doesn’t read any of the books himself but farms them out to his colleagues for 800-1000 word abstracts. Why would you comply, you may ask. At least, without proper recompense or accreditation. Well, the fun comes when you completely misrepresent the book you’ve just read and watch him pontificate wildly off the mark on it. Remember that the next time he starts on about credit default swaps or the high cost of free parking. That’s some of my finest work.

Sometimes, however, you will get steered in the right direction and so it was with Chris Turner’s The Leap. So good, in fact, I think Cityslikr actually read it. High praise indeed.

The Leap is both exhilarating and depressing, often times simultaneously which is no small feat. Exhilarating because positive change is so tantalizingly close. You can see it happening, in different places throughout the world, at various levels whether it’s making the move to alternative renewable energy sources in Germany or reviving once moribund cities like Melbourne, Australia. The depressing aspect comes from the fact that so many of us simply don’t get it, opting instead for an unsustainable, unpleasant status quo. Stay the course as they now say in Toronto 2011.

Given the events here with the death of another cyclist on Monday, one passage from The Leap sprang immediately to mind. It’s as follows and I beg the indulgence of those who have read the book already. It and/or Tom Vanberbilt’s Traffic.

“When journalist Tom Vanderbilt embarked on a comprehensive tour of the world of traffic, he peeled back the coherent veneer to uncover a place that was not just arbitrary in its logic but literally insane. His findings, compiled in his 2008 book Traffic, reveal the operation of a motor vehicle as ‘the most complex everyday thing we do.’ The act itself requires the use of a vast subset of 1,500 distinct skills, many of them so far away from our basic instincts and inborn, time-tested survival skills that, as Vanderbilt puts it, ‘In traffic, we struggle to stay human.’ Because we’re mostly moving too fast and at too great a distance from each other to permit eye contact, all of our adaptive social cues are stripped away. It’s easily the most dangerous thing any of us does with any regularity. And on average, Americans spend more time in this state – overwhelmed, dehumanized, engaged in a bewildering and potentially deadly ritual – than they do having sex or eating meals with their families.”

Not to indulge in enflamed, over-the-top hyperbole but I think if we’re looking around for a culprit for the serious democratic deficit currently facing us, the toxic public discourse that now passes for political debate, the unbridgeable left-right schism, we can stop searching right now. It’s all about car ownership.

How can it not be? According to Vanderbilt, drivers spend an inordinate amount of their time ‘overwhelmed, dehumanized, engaged in a bewildering and potentially deadly ritual’, struggling ‘to stay human’. What does that sound like to you? Being at war. For an hour or so every day, over 70% of Torontonians are in their cars, getting back and forth to work, struggling to stay human. And we expect them to simply slough it off, change into their civilian duds and demilitarize into rational, reasonable, engaged members of society?

We’re not talking post traumatic stress disorder here. This is ongoing, day-to-day traumatic stress disorder. Angry, wounded souls driving killing machines through city streets at 60 km/h.

How else to explain the barrage of defensive comments in the newspapers’ comments section to the story of the death of cyclist Jenna Morrison?

I feel very sorry for this woman and her family. But we have to admit that cycling is not a way of transportation in a big city like Toronto. We are not in Saigon for Christ sake. Want to cycle? Go to park. Cars and bicycles on busy streets are deadly mixture and cyclists are victims. Road for cars! Pavement for pedestrians! Bicycles for suburbs and parks! And the sooner we understand this the less tragedies we’ll have.
P.S. Especially when most of cyclists don’t give a damn about road rules, traffic lights, stop signs, etc.

That’s sociopathic in its lack of compassion or empathy. What kind of person would fire that sentiment off into the public realm? One devoid of much humanity, I’m afraid. A soldier in the misnamed War on the Car.

It also reveals an unwavering belief in the primacy of cars on our streets. ‘Road for cars’! Sound familiar? So obvious and set in stone that it absolves them of any blame for the carnage they inflect while going about their business.

If my nautical knowledge is sound, out on the high seas it is the responsibility of the vessel operating under the most power that must cede the right of way to one that is less able to change course or speed. Thus, motor boats give way to sail boats, sail boats to kayaks. On our roads, the opposite is true. Vehicles most able to inflict damage bear none of that burden. If a cyclist or pedestrian gets mowed down, the reaction tends toward, well, they shouldn’tve been out there, they should’ve been more aware.

To our detriment, we continue to design and build cities around this anti-social mode of transport and somehow expect a public spirited, collective outcome. Cars and community are antithetical modes of thinking. They can only exist in opposition to one another. We’ve tried the car way for a couple generations now. It doesn’t work. It isn’t healthy. We are all the worse for the attempt. It’s time to head in a new direction.

backseat drivingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat

Drive, He Said. And By ‘He’ I Mean God.

July 2, 2011

If you’re asking would I pay five dollars to get downtown quicker and not knock off 14 bicycle riders on the way down Queen Street, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

 — Councillor Doug Ford

There’s a term for the above quote. It’s called a false dichotomy. Either we build toll roads to increase car traffic or we accept knocking off cyclists as just part of doing business in Toronto. Our only two alternatives with nothing in between.

It is the Ford Era and reveals a deadly paucity of critical thinking. Immanis Cogitatio to those of us just slapping together some Latin phrasing to give the appearance of gravitas. No middle ground. No rational discourse. If we don’t do this, then the worst possible outcome will naturally follow.

How do you get through a single day with that mindset and not end up setting fire to something or digging yourself some kind of bunker to sit out the coming apocalypse? Never mind how you ever hope to build a city. A city, that is, not revolving exclusively around you and your needs.

It’s nice to know Doug Ford is willing to pay 5 bucks in order not to run over 14 cyclists. Even those on bicycles are worth $2.80 to the councillor, it would seem. So he’s not totally lacking in empathy although it would be interesting to know just how much he’d be willing to fork over before the cost-benefit ratio tips him toward wantonly running down anyone on a bicycle who gets in his way to and from work. Sorry about that, Lance Armstrong, but I ain’t paying $10 to use the toll road. Opting for vehicular manslaughter over highway robbery.

That the councillor even has some sort of equation for such a scenario, however, reveals his stunted, backward thinking. An immutable belief in the primacy of motorized vehicles, free from any and all evidence to the contrary. So it was, as it is, thus will it ever be. A static future that can never change. My daddy drove his car to work. His daddy drove his car to work. I will drive my car to work. My children will drive their car to work.

I wonder if Great Grandpappy Ford, happily ensconced as he was in his horse-and-buggy, thought similar thoughts when the horseless carriage appeared on the scene. Get them noisy contraptions off my corduroy roads, ya young scamps ya! Those ruts were made for my team and buggy!

But the possible damage wrought by the wider implications of such a narrow-minded, rigid perspective is truly dispiriting (not that the pile of dead and injured cyclists lying in the wake of Councillor Ford’s Escalade rampage is anything to sneeze at). No scenario aside from the one he believes to be true or valid can be imagined without every and all negative connotation attached. This is right because I think it is. You’re wrong because I don’t agree with it. The World According To Doug Ford.

Where everybody lives in a big house in the suburbs. And has a second house in Chicago. And a condo in Florida.

Where everybody drives a big car everywhere they go. And public transit is for the poor. And cycling is what children and left wing, health nut, pinko kooks do.

Where answers are as plain as the nose on your face. And if they’re not, well, you just haven’t asked the right question. And if you don’t know what the right question is maybe you’re just trying to make things complicated.

And making things complicated is what’s got this city in the mess Doug Ford thinks it’s in. Complicated questions cater to special interests. Special interests see things Doug Ford doesn’t see, and if Doug Ford doesn’t see them, they don’t exist. If they don’t exist, why bother catering to them? It only encourages them, encourages different ways of viewing the world. A world Doug Ford doesn’t understand or comprehend.

That is a scary, scary world.

contrarily submitted by Urban Sophisticat

Truly A Ford Nation

June 24, 2011

As a non-car guy, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking, talking and writing about cars. I’m bored to death with it, frankly. Perhaps you too are bored with my constant car chatter.

And here I go again writing about cars.

The most recent cause for my car thoughts comes from an article written earlier this week by David Akin. In it he cited a paper given by Zach Taylor, a Ph.D. candidate, at the Canadian Political Science Association Conference last month that suggested car ownership and use may have been a key factor for those who cast their ballots for Rob Ford in last October’s municipal election. “The propensity to commute by automobile is a strong predictor of Ford support,” writes Mr. Taylor, “while property-oriented variables (the home ownership rate and percentage of housing in detached form) are shown to have a negligible influence on candidate support.”

Ah yes, the War on Cars. Great bumper sticker sloganeering that, not coincidentally, fits perfectly on the back of cars that Ford voters drive. Simple, very effective three word politics.

I will stop myself on theorizing about what I believe to be sociopathy in people’s attachment to their automobiles since it would be a gross generalization. Many folks, having either bought into the lure of a nice house in the suburbs or simply living where they can afford to live, depend on their cars. To get to work and home again, shop, take the kids to school or extracurricular activities, to simply get to where they need to go.

Even if they wanted to rid themselves of their auto reliance, many people couldn’t at this point. There’s no other reliable way to move around their parts of the city in a timely fashion. Ironically, by voting for their auto-centric way of life, they helped elect a mayor who seems determined to make it even less likely they could live car-free if they wanted with his orchestrated attack on Transit City.

No, I think the problem is much more fundamental than that. A continued attachment to cars as our primary mode of transport is a refusal to accept that the world has changed. Automobiles are the kings of the 20th-century. We designed our cities around them. They represented freedom and status. Dodge. Grab Life by the Horns. Buick: Dream Up. SAAB:Welcome to the State of Independence. Jaguar: Don’t dream it. Drive it! Honda: The Power of Dreams. Subaru. Think. Feel. Drive. Ford: Built for life in Canada.

Inundated like that, how could you not want a car? How could you not need a car?

Problem is, it’s 2011, a decade plus into the the 21st-century. The true cost of our car culture has fully manifested itself in our blighted streetscapes, loss of productive time stuck in traffic, environmental degradation and a dependence on dwindling energy resources. For many, driving is the worst way to get from point A to point B anymore.

So we split into two camps: those wanting to make driving easier and those wanting to reduce the primacy of cars in our transport system. Although there would be significant overlap between these seemingly opposing views, this is where the battle lines are drawn. Don’t touch my car versus Get out of your car. Status quo versus embracing the future.

The War on Cars should actually be referred to as the War on Modernity. Having held sway for, let’s call it 60 or 70 years, car ownership is the entrenched interest, a fact of life that was simply a given, the norm, but is now under siege. A perceived assault on the ability to drive anywhere anytime is seen as an assault on a way of life. First, they came for my car, and I said nothing. Then they came for my parking pad. You will have to pry my cold, dead hands from the steering wheel.So it’s not really about cars. It’s about change. Change will always be resisted until it becomes inevitable but the transition seldom is smooth or without – ahem, ahem – the occasional bump in the road. History, though, can only be delayed not indefinitely deferred. We, us car unenthusiasts and embracers of the future, are in a temporary holding pattern, waiting for the last dying gasp of an era.

autodidactically submitted by Urban Sophisticat

Saturday Drivers

February 6, 2011

The sins of Friday night are visited upon a Saturday afternoon as I found myself in the passenger seat of a friend’s car. Let’s call him ‘Steve’ because that’s his name. My friend, that is, not the car. We were on an errand run that Steve claimed I agreed to participate in sometime after the Glenmorangie had run dry and we were trying to convince ourselves that the Crown Royal was just as good.

While I was in no position to dispute his version of events, I found it to be highly improbable that I would’ve agreed to such a thing as an ‘errand run’ regardless of how drunk and amenable I might’ve been. I don’t do ‘errand runs’. It’s why I’ve lived in an apartment all my life. To avoid doing ‘errand runs’. Light bulbs blow. Call the landlord. Water pipes freeze and burst. Call the landlord. Dead body on the landing of the staircase. Call 9-1-1. Then call the landlord.

I do not own a home because I do not have any interest in doing ‘errand runs’. That, and I am a terrible credit risk. We’re talking ultra-risky. Unsuitable for one of those subprime mortgages they were throwing around down in the States a few years back. It all started with an outstanding phone bill, most of which wasn’t mine, and pretty well snowballed from there.

But I really do hate errand runs and yet, there I was, running errands in the passenger seat of Steve’s car on a Saturday afternoon. He was determined to finish up the exercise room in his basement so that he could finally unpack his Bowflex that had arrived, he’s claiming just a few months back. I’m pretty sure it’s been at least a couple years.

Judging from the traffic, we were not alone on our errand run. The roads were unbelievable. How do people do this, I asked Steve. Grind out traffic Monday to Friday on their way to and from work, and then this again on Saturday? That’s a whole lot of your life spent behind the wheel of a car. No wonder society is so marked by anger and frustration. This is no way to live.

And the behaviour on the roads? Deplorable. Rude.  Anti-social. People simply do not act like this when they’re not driving. Just like anonymous posters on the internet. All tough talking and bullying online but in real life? Sunday school teachers. And not the creepy kind of Sunday school teachers.

It got a whole lot worse as the wet snow started to fall just around the time the sun set. No noticeable reduction in speeds while lane jockeying increased. Space between cars misinterpreted as invites to cut in rather than a safety buffer. Did that dude just blow right past the streetcar’s open doors?

Perhaps things seemed more precarious than they actually were because Steve was skidding about in his all-weather tires which, of course, precipitated a heated discussion between driver and passenger. I don’t even own a car and I know that all-weather tires mean all weather except for winter. Unlike that $40 package of 4 season furnace filters Steve bought at Lowes where the summer filter seemed a bit superfluous to me, winter tires aren’t really gimmicky.

“We don’t usually get that much snow in Toronto,” Steve yelled at me. “Yes, but when we do,” I yelled back, refusing to turn down The Cult-like song we were listening to on the radio so that we might have a more cordial discussion on the matter, “you don’t take your life into your hands every time you drive.” Steve just gave me the finger and turned the music up louder.

Along with increased errand runs, driving and car culture just encourages bad behaviour. It gives those who participate in it on a regular basis a misguided sense of entitlement. They live a life full of rage and unchecked aggressive tendencies. We will never build better societies until we diminish our dependency on the automobile and accept the fact that they make us despicable people.

antiautobodily submitted by Cityslikr

Drive, He Read

August 26, 2010

To avoid any appearances of a conflict of interest or accusations of log rolling, I have been tapped to write this post today. I am not a reviewer of books. My métier of TV and movies is more passively pleasing to me. But since both Acaphlegmic and Cityslikr are, if not friends, than certainly amiable drinking companions of Tim Falconer, it was felt that perhaps we needed a more objective take on his 2008 book, Drive. My lone encounter with Mr. Falconer was just after he’d had a pedicure and kept demanding to see my feet which didn’t make me partial to liking his book.

Although of all of us who toil away here under the All Fired Up yoke, there’s little question that my voice is loudest when it comes to making anti-car noises. So Drive is really up my gasoline alley, as it were. It’s almost as if Mr. Falconer wrote the book with me in mind. Quite a feat since we had never met during the course of the writing.

But the author and I do share a similar non-car background. He didn’t get his full on, non-learners driver’s licence until his late-30s. I got mine when most red-blooded males did back in the day. At the age of 18 when you needed it as picture ID to get into bars and buy booze in the stores. I’ve not had much use for it since, living as I do, along with Mr. Falconer, in downtown Toronto and its wide range of transportation options. (Note to ed.: I don’t live with Mr. Falconer but rather we both live in downtown Toronto. In completely separate abodes.)

Unfortunately, a few years back Falconer broke down and sold out, buying a 1991 Nissan Maxima despite considering himself first and foremost a pedestrian. In it, he headed off on a 9-and-a-half week, nearly 15,000 K road trip from Toronto to the heart of car culture, Los Angeles, and back again; a journey that is the narrative basis for Drive. Like any good road trip (and I would never claim that there can’t be good road trips), the tale Falconer spins is a meandering affair, never doggedly adhering to a rigid map route. Along the way, we get a thorough history of the automobile and its immense impact on the development of society especially after World War II.

The subtitlely thingie of Drive is “A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair With The Automobile” and truer words have never been written after a book’s title. What was most startling to me while reading this book was, for every sane person who either hates cars or doesn’t put much thought at all into their existence, there seems to be a dozen who absolutely love them. I mean, really, really loves them. These self-proclaimed car nuts never outgrow their adolescent fascination with their toys.

If there’s one complaint I had with Drive, it’s that too much time is given over to these car freaks which, to my deaf ear on the subject, began to sound all the same. After yet another outing Falconer takes with the Rocky Mountain Mustangers or Gateway Camaro Club, I found myself growing increasingly irate and finally snapping. I KNOW HOW MUCH YOUR CARS MEAN TO YOU, PEOPLE! BUT THEY’RE JUST THAT! CARS! I COULDN’T GET ENOUGH OF CRACK COCAINE EITHER. I JUST HAD TO STOP DOING IT FOR THE SAKE OF EVERYONE AROUND ME!! YOU SHOULD TOO!!!

The beauty of Drive is that it seems to anticipate that reaction in many readers and delights in turning the tables on them… er, me. It’s not surprising that I reacted so violently negative to yet another pot-bellied, middle-aged car jockey waxing nostalgic about his Ford Falcon because early on in the book, Falconer provides data that shows Canadians are more prone to see their cars as little more than appliances to be used in getting to where they need to go. Americans revere their cars and treat them accordingly as potent symbols of freedom and mobility. So naturally, I’m going to see them as completely out of touch with reality and vile, brainless materialists. Thus, Falconer deftly manages to shine a glaring light on my prejudices.

That makes the real heroes of the book the ones Falconer meets who have a much more rational approach to the car conundrum than I do. Hell, some of them even like driving but have concluded that urban planning around the needs of cars is the surest way to inflict the greatest amount of damage on cities.  There’s James Kushner, a teacher at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and perhaps the only Angelino who does not own a car. His two books, The Post-Automobile City and Healthy Cities are in the mail as I write, destined to the growing pile of books I need to get to in order to truly start understanding urban dynamics. Donald Shoup, ‘America’s Parking Guru’ (and who we featured here back in March. You may recognize my colleague’s dining and discussing partner) is a joy to listen talk so academically about the problems of parking and how to fix it. (Heads-up: we aren’t paying nearly enough for it.) His book, The High Cost of Free Parking is already on my book shelf.

But the nucleus of the post-automobile future city truly emerges in the last 8 pages of Chapter 16 (San Francisco, Man versus the Internal Combustion Engine). Mr. Falconer talks with two members of the Sierra Club. John Holtzclaw chairs the organization’s Transportation Committee and Tim Frank is the chair of the group’s Challenge to Sprawl Campaign Committee. Together they put together an urban environment where private vehicles will slowly and naturally be squeezed out or, at the very least, be severely reduced in importance. How will this come about? Our growing urbanization and need for higher density. (A ‘variety of densities’, according to Holtzman.)

Presently, density is a hot button issue but those resisting it appear to be on the wrong side. Frank argues that density could, ironically, wind up uniting right and left. He sees density appealing to the left because of its tendency toward social justice if things like mixed income housing are part of the plan. The right will take to it as denser communities make various government services less expensive to deliver and need fewer people to deliver them. Increased density equals smaller, more efficient government.

More exciting still for those of my political stripe, John Holtzclaw believes that increased density creates a more tolerant, liberal-minded society. “People who live closer together and are less dependent on the automobile develop a different attitude toward citizenship and activism,” concludes Falconer. So take heart, all you who grow dismayed in the face of Rob Ford’s spike in popularity and Stephen Harper’s relentless push to neo-con Canada, for they are fighting a losing battle. The slow march of history is on our side.

How cool is that? A political manifesto rising up from a book about cars. That’s quite something to pull off but is exactly what Tim Falconer does in Drive. So run, don’t walk (and certainly don’t drive although cycling is encouraged) and pick up your copy. The revolution (or – a-ha, a-ha — the rpms) has begun.

car-freely submitted by Urban Sophisticat