Fighting Entropy

June 11, 2012

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

April 25, 2012

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

March 18, 2011

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


Back In The Game

March 13, 2011

Not all that long ago, as recently as the waning days of 2009 in fact, I was happily living my life as a self-identified political apathete. Cocooned in a warm, fuzzy coating of ‘They’re all the same’, I voted when I had to and with very little enthusiasm. Calling myself a Red Tory to anyone who asked, I failed to recognize I’d become a species near the brink of extinction and that almost the entire right side of the spectrum had been slowly consumed by what can only be described as a brand of radical conservatism.

Then I went and did something stupid like sign on to All Fired Up in the Big Smoke and become involved, active and aware during last year’s municipal election campaign. I honestly believed I could bring a dispassionate, rational voice to the site but as things progressed… or maybe that should be, regressed… out on the hustings, it was a stance that became more and more untenable. Disregard grew into disbelief that morphed into shock, anger, fear until, ultimately, at the race’s conclusion, a little bit of my soul died.

“This is why you shouldn’t put yourself out there,” I thought to myself afterwards. “It can all turn out so horribly, horribly badly… bad? Badly?” Don’t like the sound of ‘badly’ in that context but ‘bad’ is in all likelihood incorrect.

So, I fled. In hopes of rediscovering my old self. My old, disinterested, apolitical self.

I took to the seas. I took to the bottle. I took to my knees to pray that it had all just been one bad dream. All to no avail. I was hooked. I’d become a junkie of the worst kind. The political kind. I can’t quit you, Toronto municipal politics!

Once having acknowledged and accepted that fact, I found myself face-to-face with a dilemma. By the time I turned my attention back to City Hall, it had become something of a partisan hellhole. Serious battle lines drawn. Whatever divisions that had manifested themselves during the election were, by the time Mayor Ford was sworn into office, deep to the point of moat-like. While my colleague Cityslikr seems to be quite content wallowing in such a nest of vipers, the thought of joining him struck me as wholly unappealing. Surely there was a way to make a more positive, satisfying contribution.

And there is. Voting/electoral/ballot reform.

If you hadn’t noticed, things are horribly out of whack on that front here in Toronto. In a couple great posts back in January, John Michael McGrath dug into the grisly details of highly disproportionate wards where some councillors are buried deep in constituent work while others have a lighter workload and have additional time to offer help, sometimes unasked, in other wards and do regular radio spots. It is a situation that seriously undermines the notion of one person, one vote that we like to believe sits at the heart of our democratic system.

While adjusting boundaries to more equitably distribute numbers throughout the city’s wards, there’s also a deeper fundamental change that needs exploring. Since amalgamation and the elimination of Metro Council, Toronto has suffered under a lack of city wide vision. Only the mayor is elected by voters throughout the city. So he (and it’s only been a ‘he’ since we became the megacity) sets an agenda for the entire city and must contend with the views and opinions of 44 councillors whose priorities for their constituents oftentimes sit in direct opposition to a broader view. For example? We all know that increased density is a must for our future well being. Yet where do we start developing? As the battle at Lawrence Heights shows, communities may see the need for more density but they don’t necessarily want it near them.

At the same time, there’s also a growing demand for a strengthening of local input into decisions being made at City Hall. This suggests we should look at giving more powers to our community councils. Not only would this foster an increase in citizen participation but it would also relieve the burden on city council to spend their time debating and voting on such hyper-local issues as extending liquor license hours to Paddy McMuldoon’s Irish Emporium Pub for St. Patrick’s Day or if a tree needs to be cut down in Ward Wherever.

All of which points to not only such electoral reform issues as at-large councilors and the like but actual improvements in voting. Yes, I’m talking about the bogeyman of proportional representation and changing how we cast our ballots. It is long overdue and we need to stop ignoring the claims of over-complexity that inevitably arise from the political class that has benefited from our current, first-past-the-post system. Arguably, this is something we could do most easily at the municipal level, owing to the fact we are officially party-less. Time is of the essence and new rules have to be in place soon in order that the can come into effect for the next municipal election.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Not only do reform-minded people have to contend with entrenched status quoers but there is a divide within the ranks of the reform movement itself. It’s a clash of ideas that was captured nicely last month by Jake Tobin Garrett over at Spacing and, unfortunately one that can be used by opponents to argue for doing nothing.

But that really isn’t an option. Voters continue to be disengaged from the process and campaigns at every level are rarely fought over issues. The first-past-the-post system seems to encourage negative, I’m-not-as-bad-as-the-other-guys races and a clawing for a mere simple majority usually leads to more voters casting ballots against the ultimate winner. And as we can see by watching recent events in Ottawa as well as City Hall here in Toronto, negative campaigning moves directly into negative governing.

So I begin the initial steps of understanding alternative ways of electing our representatives. What I do feel strongly about right now is that Mayor Ford’s campaign pledge of cutting council in half is a non-starter. It will only increase our democratic deficit and his argument that since we only have 22 MPs and MPPs we only need 22 councillors displays a monumental ignorance about the difference between the services delivered to the public by their councillors and by their representatives at Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill.

Secondly, what we need to demand right now is the ability to elect our municipal officials by a ranked ballot. For a primer on what exactly that is, I highly encourage you to read over what the folks have to say over at RaBIT. I know this wades right into the controversy over alternative voting versus true proportional representation (about which you should also read at Fair Vote Canada) but 21 of the 45 people making decisions for us at City Hall were elected with less than an absolute majority of votes. In fact, 5 of our councillors had less than a third of their ward voters actually cast a ballot for them. So we have the ludicrous scenario of someone like Councillor James Pasternak standing up at council, claiming to speak for his ward when, in fact, less than 1 in 5 of the voters in Ward 10 who chose to cast a ballot, voted for Mr. Pasternak.

That ain’t democracy, folks. It’s time for a real change. And that’s what I intend to dedicate my time to, back here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke.

submitted by Urban Sophisticat


The Politics Of Pandering

February 14, 2011

Half measures. Political legacies, both good and bad, are not made from half measures.

Don’t mistake half measures for compromise or consensus. Half measures represent uncertainty and timidity. They do not generate loyalty or commitment but ultimately build mounds of contempt. Half measures spawn a whole lot of meh.

The Dalton McGuinty Liberal government lives and breaths half measures. It sketches big thoughts and ideas in sand and stands back, content as its opponents wash over it, leaving mere traces of the original from which they’ll try to re-design a coherent whole. Half measures represent a half-hearted attempt at leadership and good governance. We believe in this unless people don’t think it’s a good idea.

The latest McGuinty about-face and cave-in came last Friday when it quietly announced shelving off-shore wind generation plans, burying it deep in the joyous tumult that greeted the news of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. For Further Scientific Study was the reason given, whole-heartedly embracing the skepticism of anti-wind turbinites especially those in politically contentious ridings in this, an election year. Thus, did the government sever an arm from its renewable energy plans and open wide the door to its critics who either think this just proves what they’ve been saying along that the need to find alternative sources of energy is just a bunch of hokum and green energy is actually “green” energy or that the government shouldn’t be in the business of funding new research and technology development ever. Or both.

It’s not as if there isn’t any information out there that couldn’t counter the claims made by the largely NIMBY crowd who view the very sight of the wind turbines as a personal affront to their well-being. Even a cursory web search took me to sites like this and this and this that dispute many of the claims being made by those seeking to kill wind energy in this province. Are they any more valid than the arguments being made by the anti-forces? I don’t know. But they seem strong enough to enable the government to make a principled stand in favour of a continued pursuit of energy through wind generation.

Sadly, principled stands seem to be an anathema to Liberals these days. Not just with the McGuinty government but with their federal brethren in Ottawa. Former Liberal mucky-muck George Smitherman couldn’t make one during his run for the mayoralty of Toronto last year and paid the price with a sound defeat at the polls. Resoluteness, even in the pursuit of destructive ideals, will attract a more passionate following than wishy-washy indecisiveness.

That is not to say what the province needs is another heaping dose of Common Sense. All of McGuinty’s equivocation multiplied cannot match the damage wrought on this province by the cancerous anti-government policies of his immediate Conservative predecessors.  It’s just that, governing on the basis of being slightly less like them is ultimately uninspiring and ineffectual in rebuilding after the swath of disaster created by Hurricane Harris.

Yes, the Liberals have invested more in education although not nearly enough to bring us back up to speed. Ontario is still dead last in per capita funding for post-secondary school education. How’s that going to help push us forward in the knowledge economy? The Big Move was a step in the right direction toward finally bringing about a blueprint for a GTA-wide transit network but it remains woefully under-funded and susceptible to politicking. Witness the government’s willingness to consider the inane attack on Transit City – arguably the beating heart at the centre of The Big Move – by an ideological driven, transit ignoramus all because it’s an election year and some 416 ridings could be up for grabs.

And now an environmental reversal “after years of touting itself as the greenest government in North America” in the face of discouraging poll results 8 months before an election. Plug in your own cliché here as I write You Got To Stand For Something Or You’ll Fall For Anything. It is a move that allows the opposition to frame the debate in a fashion that best fits them. Instead of standing its ground and calling out the Conservatives as knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathers with their heads in the sand on environmental issues (take a moment to savour that image) who are jeopardizing future generations to a life of dirty, fossil fuel dependency, the Liberals look weak, opportunistic and dishonest.

Not really the image you want to run with in the anti-political environment that seems to be present in the electorate right now. Although, it may be difficult for the provincial Liberals to let go of it since they’ve been elected to two straight majority governments on just such a platform. It’s tough to argue with success.

strongly submitted by Cityslikr