Fighting Entropy

It’s not as if city council voted to secede from Ontario and go it alone as a province. Or to institute sharia law. Or legalize pot. Or rid Yonge Street of all cars for all time.

Last Thursday, city council voted to ban plastic bags beginning January 2013. Political implications about our mayor’s relationship with council aside, it was no big deal. Get in line and join the club. Toronto is not the first municipality in Canada seeking to enact such a ban. Not even close.

Yet some who aren’t necessarily against the idea of banning plastic bags found the process with which council went about it detrimental, let’s call it. “Irresponsible,” Torontoist’s Steve Kupferman suggested. “There’s a real chance this move could prove to be a disaster,” Matt Elliott wrote for Metro’s Urban Compass.

Really, guys? Really?

I get that how the vote came to be was out of the ordinary. Oh yeah, I’ll admit that it was impulsive even. Items are traditionally studied before coming to council. Staff delivers reports. They are put through the committee wringer.

All for very good reasons. Councillors should have all the facts there are to have before them ahead of making decisions. To be as informed as possible in order to facilitate easy implementation.

I get it.

But strange times call for strange measures. There’s a gaping agenda hole that needs be filled. Mayor Ford seems intent on whiling away the next couple years campaigning and repealing much of what council achieved over the course of the Miller years. It’s legislative entropy. Without some pushback from the rest of council, the entire apparatus might collapse into itself.

It wasn’t as if it all came right out of the blue, out of left field. They weren’t talking bike lanes or economic development and – boom! – suddenly there’s two plastic bag ban motions. The mayor brought plastic bags to the table. He wanted to rescind the 5¢ fee retailers were supposed to charge for them. As the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale pointed out in his calm, even-handed article, “…once a proposal is brought to a meeting of the whole council, any councillor can propose an amendment to the policy in question — and have the amendment decided upon once and for all on that same day.”

Shit happens in other words. Mayor Ford came to council unprepared for any sort of possible curve in the road. Caught flat-footed by an audible called at the line of scrimmage, he had no back up game plan. It was a rear-guard fight he didn’t have the forces at his disposal to fend off.

This should come as no surprise. Since the bruising transit battle in the spring, the mayor has cast himself in the role of opposition. He’s reactive not proactive; rejecting not building. All with an eye toward finding that one thing that’ll get him in good with ‘taxpayers’ again, that one issue to re-ignite the ire of Ford Nation.

It’s a game of counter-punching now. Unless or until council seizes control of some of the key committees at midterm this fall, we should get used to legislation being made in an extemporaneous manner. As John McGrath wrote back in March, “Every. Single. Decision. From here on out everything the city does is going to be decided on an absurd, ad hoc basis…Toronto’s going to lurch from one battle to another as the two sides at council try to poach votes from the centre.”

But I don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing or an institutional crisis. (Do I think our municipal governance needs some tweaking? Absolutely). This is simply a crisis of… no, let’s not use such catastrophic language… a failure of leadership. Up until the mayoralty of Rob Ford, the amalgamated city of Toronto admirably muddled through for 13 years. Our current cris—predicament is about one guy and the strictest of his ideological adherents.

And as Mr. Dale points out in his article, we’re not in uncharted waters with the plastic bag ban. “Unlike the federal and provincial legislatures, which take months to turn an idea into law,” Dale writes, “council regularly makes policy changes on the fly.” City staff will still write up a full report. If council’s smart, they’ll make time for public deputations. “Since the actual bylaw has not yet been approved, only a council motion,” Dale goes on to say, “the city could still hold public meetings or otherwise allow for corporate feedback. But spokesperson Wynna Brown said ‘it’s premature to speculate on next steps at this point.’”

Leave the speculation to Mayor Ford. That’s really all he’s got. For the rest of us, as the t-shirts and fridge magnets recommend, Stay Calm and Carry On. The wheels of municipal government must keep turning even if it’s unclear who’s at the wheel.

improvisationally submitted by Cityslikr

Carcentrism Is Not The Natural State

The distant din of battle coming can be heard. A clash of cultures is in the offing. Weary warriors once more strap on their chest plates, pick up their shields and lances in preparation. The war on the car, nay, the crusade on the car again has begun.

Toronto’s chief of medical officer of health, Dr. David McKeown, has put forth a recommendation to lower speed limits in Toronto, 30 km/h on residential streets and 40 km/h on the main streets, down from the 60-40 km/h range the city now allows. Them’s fighting words to car advocates, protectors of the status quo.

“Slow and Stupid,” the Toronto Sun front page kvetched. Underneath the headline, the photo suggested if such insanity came to pass, we’d be knocked back to 19th-century modes of transportation. Speed=modernity.

“As a general rule, especially on major arterial roadways, I think the speed limit is appropriate,” Public Works and Infrastructure Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong told the Sun’s Don Peat. “It seems the medical officer of health is spitballing 30 km/h, if we were to take him at his word, because it reduces accidents. Why don’t we reduce it to 20 km/h or 10 km/h? Why don’t we all walk? In which other major city do you have 30 km/h as the standard speed limit?”

A quick look on Wikipedia shows that on residential streets, many states in America utilize 15-40 mph speed limits (24-64 km/h range). So, in fact Dr. McKeown’s suggestions aren’t that out of line crazy. At least, not socializing hot dog crazy.

As for reducing speeds to 10, 20 km/h or, heaven forbid, walking even, yes councillor, why not? Where is it written cars, trucks and other private vehicles must, must, must be allowed to drive at a speed that makes them a grievous threat to anyone else using the roads in any other manner? I know the mayor, back in the days when he was a councillor, let it be known that roads were built for busses, cars and trucks. But such Fordian Urbanism is hardly universally accepted.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not that coincidentally) an Atlantic Cities article made the rounds yesterday, The Invention of Jaywalking. In it, author of the book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton, asserts cars weren’t immediately granted primacy of the roads upon their appearance a century ago. In fact, many of the same fights that are being waged currently echo the ones fought back in the day.

“Streets back then were vibrant places with a multitude of users and uses” (Can you say ‘complete streets?) “When the automobile first showed up, Norton says, it was seen as an intruder and a menace. Editorial cartoons regularly depicted the Grim Reaper behind the wheel. That image persisted well into the 1920s.”

An ‘intruder’ and a ‘menace’ and those behind the wheel were held responsible for any death and destruction their machine might cause. “Norton explains that in the automobile’s earliest years, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver.”

“The perjury of a murderer,” a 1923 editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thundered about any driver trying to weasel out of responsibility for the carnage inflicted by their automobile. And this, nearly a century before there was any talk of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Where is such righteous indignation these days?

According to Norton, the turning point came in 1925 when the city of Cincinnati moved to bring in a law capping car speeds at 25 km/h. Seeing that as a threat to the marketability of the automobile, auto clubs and dealerships fought back, brining in car manufacturers from Detroit and eventually beating back the speed cap initiative and “…promoting the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of ‘jaywalking’ — a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 — was enshrined in law.”

And we now bear witness to how that’s all played out. Unsustainable cities and communities built and designed for private vehicle use. Public transit relegated to 2nd-class citizenship. Almost no accountability demanded from drivers who destroy property, kill and maim other interlopers on the roads, sucking up vast public resources while they’re at it, freeloading teat-suckers to use the parlance of our times.

But ask drivers to slow the fuck down? Out of the question. An untenable imposition. A declaration of war.

“My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone’s got killed but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

The modern drivers’ creed. My space, my rules. Trespassers beware. There is a license to kill.

It didn’t used to be that way. The idea of complete streets, roads as a shared public space where all modes of traffic share equally, is not a new one, not some airy-fairy, kooky leftwing war on the car. It’s had a much longer history. Cars, in fact, are the intruders and interlopers. Their ascendancy was the result of politicking rather than “… some inevitable organic process.”

There is no natural right of the automobile and their owners and operators. Such a privileged status and pre-eminence on our roads gained through in the trenches PR campaigns and vigilant lobbying. What’s now been termed a war on the car actually began as war on people, public spaces, communities, cities. Car owners are not the victims in this. They are the perpetrators and should be dealt with accordingly.

retributively submitted by Cityslikr

Diminshed Expectations Are Contagious

I have come to terms with the fact that our 4 dailies, most of the mainstream media actually, take a dimmer view of government than I do. For I continue to believe that our elected representatives act only as badly, goodly, cravenly, bravely, miserly or magnanimously as we allow them. Their faults are our faults. Their successes ours. At the end of the (election) day, governments remain accountable to the people and to the people only.

Yeah. I do actually believe that.

So most political coverage from our newspapers that comes across my desk I read with a mixture of anger, dismay, incredulity, angrier, disbelief, confusion, angrierer. (But not you, Christopher Hume.) It’s not that I simply disagree with much of what’s written. That’s a given. I just find it discouraging to think of the influence the discourse has on our political atmosphere. A disheartened atmosphere of No Can Do-ism and diminished expectations. Ask not what your government can do for you because it can do diddly squat.

So it was as I read Chris Selley’s piece in the National Post a couple days back, Let’s get diesel trains to airport on track Mr. Selley may have a tepid point with his analysis of the diesel vs. electric debate. Let’s take whatever we can to get a rail link between downtown and Pearson. Finally. It’s long, long, very long overdue. But isn’t it this grudging acceptance, this settling for something less, this sense of diminished expectations that has got us into our current transit mess in the first place?

Had the newly minted Harris government not experienced a failure of nerve or a failure to take the long view or just been less… oh, I’m so tempted to drop the c-bomb and add an ‘ish’ here but I’ll restrain myself… back in 1995, we’d already have a subway running along Eglinton Avenue. Fast forward 13 years, Premier McGuinty wavering in the face of a recession induced deficit and scaling back plans on funding Transit City, itself something of a We-Don’t-Have-The-Density/Money-To-Build-Subways compromise. The result? More delays and opening the door wide to the new mayor’s ridiculously under-thought out Sheppard subway plan that, whatever the outcome, only means even further delays for Toronto.

What happened to the time when our politicians marshalled an uncertain public to embrace the great unknown for the greater good? Like JFK sending Americans to the moon. I’m sure a very solid dollars and cents case was made why that wouldn’t be a good idea. Or (and I hesitate to go here, fearing that I may just be invoking Godwin’s Law which I only recently learned about from @jm_mcrath) back in 1939, imagine western governments worrying about the costs, both human and financial, of going to war with the Nazis? You know, the timing’s really bad. Winter’s coming. We’re still a little behind the 8 ball with this Great Depression-y thing…

Oh, right. We now have leaders marshalling an uncertain public to embrace bad causes for the lesser good. Like say going to war in Iraq. Deregulation. The debasement of government itself.

The strange thing is, we watch as the private sector nose dives into a near death spiral through mismanagement, criminality and irrational swings in triumphant certainty to baseless fear, only to be picked up, dusted off and sent back along their way with billions of dollars of government cash, yet still we lionize these titans of industry for their daring-do, spirit of adventure and risk taking in the face of daunting odds. Our politicians? Not so much. Just deliver the services we demand, don’t take too much money from us and try and keep quiet over there.

While no transit expert, I think the case for electrifying the rail link from downtown to Pearson is a slam dunk. Yes, the upfront costs are more but the general feeling is we will recoup that money through lower operational costs down the line. Electrification would allow more flexibility in terms of the numbers of stops along the way. There’s that whole concept of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. I know some of our electricity is coal generated but it is more flexible to future energy innovations (although there’s another front where our politicians are easily swayed away from green energy by dubious arguments). Diesel is diesel and electric trains simply make public transit a joy.

Mr. Selley does his argument a great disservice by blithely pointing out that the diesel trains Metrolinx has contracted to buy are convertible to electric as if it’ll be as easy as that. Slap up some wires, attach a couple of those rod thingies to the trains and we’ll be good to go. It’ll be a little more burdensome than that and, if history can be used as an example, the cost will be much higher in the long run than if we just electrified it now. (And while we’re in critical mode with this. Please, Chris. “If I worked downtown and was flying to London, I’d much sooner change in Montreal, or even Newark, than brave Pearson.” Seriously? A connecting flight rather than making your way to Pearson for a direct one? A little over the top, wouldn’t you say?)

But that seems to be what we do these days, make questionable claims to back up our demand for less bold measures from our governments. Bold measures are inherently risky, unpredictable and oftentimes don’t immediately pay off. It takes some courage to step up and see them through. If our politicians aren’t capable of such conviction, maybe it’s because we aren’t either.

boldly submitted by Cityslikr