Wilshire Rapid 720

February 8, 2016

The rumblings have died down somewhat from January’s LA Times article about the recent dip in public transit ridership in Southern California. disbandedthepta“For almost a decade, transit ridership has declined across Southern California despite enormous and costly efforts by top transportation officials to entice people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.” How is that possible? transit advocates wonder. You’ll never get people here out of their cars, confirmed drivers assert.

There’s been pushback to the article, unsurprisingly, Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker for one. Starting with Perils of Transit Journalism I: Don’t Let Trendlines Confuse You and going forward to his response to the anti-transit triumphalism of Randal O’Toole at the Cato Institute, Mr. Walker forcefully and thoroughly makes the case why the Times’ story is actually less than it seems. I’ll leave it for you to get into the meat of the argument but one significant thought popped out at me.

“A broader point here is that ridership, and especially ridership trends, are meaningless unless they are compared to the service offered to achieve them,” Walker writes.

This echoes the common fallacy that transit ridership is generated by infrastructure.

In fact, transit ridership comes from operating service. Infrastructure is mostly a way to make that service more efficient and attractive, but its impact on ridership is indirect, while the impact of service is direct.

Or, as he sums up in a later post: “What matters is not what is built but what is operated.”

This is key, as municipalities rush in to build out their transit networks with the latest and shiniest technology. godzillaHere in Los Angeles, one LRT extension opens next month, another in May. A subway line is being added to in the slow march toward the coast.

Toronto too is suddenly all abuzz with new plans for expanded subway and LRT lines. Finally! We are joining the 21st-century.

“What matters is not what is built but what is operated.”

Los Angeles, like almost every North American city that isn’t New York, has a transit system heavily, heavily dependent on its buses to keep it operational. 74% of transit users here, I believe it is, use a bus. Most riders have to get to the higher order transit lines cities like Los Angeles are investing in. The only way to do that, both economically and from a built form standpoint, is by bus.

One of the reasons floated for the drop in transit numbers here was a recent fare increase combined with bus service cuts. The same situation the Toronto mayor, John Tory, faced when coming into office back in 2014. busadForget Build It and They Will Come. Don’t Run It Properly (and Charge More For Doing Less) and They’ll Stop Coming.

This was a very theoretical argument for me, living where I do in Toronto, with my easy access to non-bus transit. But I’ve become a bus rider while in Los Angeles, and things look quite different from the seat (or not) of a bus. This is the defining public transit experience for a solid majority of transit users. You want to increase ridership? Make taking a bus a better way of getting around.

I’ve been taking the Wilshire Rapid back and forth. It’s an express version of the local service, running from Santa Monica in the west, east to downtown. Stops are further apart, meaning less time with ons and offs. There’s a dedicated bus lane during rush hours, for fits and starts along the route that is, more or less observed, depending on how heavy the car traffic is.busschedule

The ride has worked for me more than not although it is still a small sample size. My time hasn’t been of the essence on any of these outings, so an extra 10, 15 minutes or so wasn’t not an issue. If it had been,  I would’ve left that much sooner. Another luxury I have getting around.

Bus travel, at least along the Wilshire Boulevard route, isn’t all terrible. But is that any way to sell people on it, to increase ridership numbers? Take the bus. It doesn’t suck.

Except when it does. When you’re packed tight, standing for close to an hour in close quarters with strangers, that woman, nodding off in her seat, keeps dropping her open beer can on the floor, adding to the cloying fragrance. Is that Axe that guy’s wearing?

The Wilshire “Rapid” grinds to a further halt as it crawls into mixed traffic at the Beverly Hills city limit because it doesn’t care for dedicated bus lanes, like the city’s been fighting to stop a subway running below it. It’s not lost on any passenger who’s able to see out a window that this part of Wilshire Boulevard is lined with luxury car dealers. mclarenBMW. Ferrari. McLaren.

If bus service is integral to a properly functioning transit system, and it is for almost every transit system, and if your goal is to get more people using the transit system and out of their cars, and it should be for every major city, road hierarchies must change. That is the key rather than — or an important addition to — building high end transit infrastructure. Buses must run regularly, on time, and as convenient and pleasantly as possible.

The only way to do that, until at least until we’ve invented flying buses, and that takes us back to big ticket transit projects, is to start squeezing cars, making it more expensive to drive them, taking road space from them and giving it over to the smooth and efficient operation of buses. wilshirebuslaneI sometimes wonder if those like Randal O’Toole claim to be bus “champions” because they realize the only way for a bus dependent transit system to fully function is at the expense of the private automobile. Assuming that’ll never happen, not in their lifetime, not if they have their way, it means public transit will always be a second rate way to get around, never a question of choice but necessity.

As long as that remains the case, the lowly bus as the afterthought in transit planning, building ridership will always be an uphill battle.

bussily submitted by Cityslikr


They Killed Meep

May 29, 2015

guestcommentary

He was only four foot four, so it is not hard to imagine that someone driving an SUV down Hollywood Boulevard at night could have failed to see him. Especially if he’d been jaywalking, as the police report said he had been. But the sad, tragic and completely unnecessary death of Ben Woolf, 34, who played the part of a carnival-show pinhead known as Meep on NBC’s American Horror Stories, was also disturbing for the manner in which he’d been killed – clipped by the side mirror of the SUV.

Surely this must be a daily occurrence, I’d thought after reading his obituary. How many times had I felt the blast of wind as a driver sped by with only inches to spare, pinning me against my parked car as I waited to get in? Just the other day, one of them had even flipped me off as he passed, ignoring my gesticulated plea to slow down. benwoolfI wonder now, if I’d been clipped by the side mirror, would the police report say that I too had been jaywalking?

After this latest near-miss, I remember I tried to be analytical, a little way I have of calming myself after a close call. I thought about how much safer that particular street would be if it were to give back a lane. You know, to the pedestrian. I’d read somewhere that narrower streets, and narrower lanes, had the effect of slowing down traffic. But a ‘street diet,’ as it is called, is never easy in this town, where what you drive and how you drive it are important status markers. Just try telling a guy in his brand new $150,000 Tezla that you’re lowering the speed limit or putting one of his favorite roads on a diet and you’re risking a lawsuit, if not a punch in the eye.

And the thing is, most of us have been on both sides of this equation. As pedestrians, we get it. Life is frustrating for drivers. Traffic keeps getting worse and the infrastructure wheezes. Streets are dug up, college campuses are shot up, and doddering movie stars crash-land their single-engine planes into golf courses. None of which is good for traffic (or golfers, for that matter). And let’s not forget the frequent fundraising visits of our commander in chief, which only worsen that pre-existing condition we like to call Carmegeddon. Thanks, Obama.

So like I said, we get it, because most of us are drivers as well. And when we get in the car, there’s usually a very good reason for it. suvpedestrianWe no longer Cruise the Strip, a fantasy about L.A. that is still very much in vogue for certain East Coast press elites. Contrary to their assumptions, we’re too busy, and we’re usually in a hurry. So much so that sometimes it can be a challenge to not hit a pedestrian. And once in a while, we actually do hit one, and they die, or come very close to it.

Even Eric Garcetti, our pedestrian-friendly mayor, got into the act shortly after assuming office. As he carried on what was undoubtedly important city business, the driver of the SUV he was riding in ran over a pedestrian. The woman who was hit survived with minor injuries, and to his credit, hizzoner’s driver stopped. And the incident did induce a reaction on the part of law enforcement. Only, many are saying, it was the wrong reaction. Rather than finding new ways to slow down and reduce the number of vehicles that pass through our increasingly crowded Downtown, One-Adam-Twelve decided to increase the number of tickets they were already handing out – for jaywalking.

There it is again, that word, ‘jaywalking.’ First coined a century ago, it was used as part of a campaign by the auto industry to orchestrate the takeover of our cities. antijaywalkingPedestrians, who had until then been strictly free-range, would now be corralled and told to obey different colored lights. And accidents between cars and pedestrians would no longer be the fault of the joyriding driver but of the jaywalking pedestrian himself.

This is, of course, what happened to Ben Woolf. As with the mayor’s driver, the driver of the SUV that struck Mr. Woolf stopped, and also was not cited. It was deemed an accident because Mr. Woolf had been jaywalking. As for the incident with the mayor, it occurred right outside the Times Building, and was even captured on security cameras there, which gave it a certain local flavor. But still, the Times saw no there there, as this too appeared to be a case where the victim was at fault.

Then two weeks ago, a young man named Eduardo Lopez got a jaywalking ticket for $197. antijaywalking1The Times reported on the extreme hardship the ticket presented for the 22-year-old, who lives with and supports his mother and four younger siblings in a one-bedroom apartment. When ticketed, Mr. Lopez, a hustler in the best sense of the word, had been running to catch a bus that would have taken him to Glendale Community College in time to make his first class. This after not sleeping for 24 hours and working the graveyard shift at a pallet manufacturing plant near LAX.

It may turn out that coverage of the unreasonable and punitive ticketing of Mr. Lopez will help hasten a shift city-wide in the balance of power from drivers to walkers. But that will come too late for Ben Woolf. Friends and fans alike were devastated by the news of his death, and filled the correspondence columns of Variety and other outlets, giving us a fuller picture of the man. One posting revealed that he’d done a more-than-passable job at learning Hindi for a movie in which he’d been cast. Another talked about how he’d be missed by the pre-school kids he worked with as a teacher when he wasn’t acting.

Yet another said simply, “They killed Meep.”

benwoolfmeep

It was an odd and moving summation of the sadness felt in the community for the unnecessary death of one of its own, a man we were as likely to bump into at Trader Joe’s as to see performing in the carnival world we call TV.

sadly but unsurprisingly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum


To Live And Drive In L.A.

April 10, 2015

(First time posting from our new Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, a friend of ours from back in the days of fire, earthquakes, riots and O.J. We fled to our northern safety. He remained behind.)

*  *  *

guestcommentary

Recently, Zocalo Public Square, the not-for-profit ideas exchange, hosted a discussion at MOCA in Los Angeles that asked, “Is Car Culture Dead?” The question set off an internal alarm. After all, I lived in L.A., the city known more than any other for its love affair with the car. If car culture were dead, that would mean the end of the affair. And nobody wanted that. Or did we?

I took my seat in the auditorium and tried to remember how it had all started. It was after World War II, and we’d been promised that the car would liberate us from such quaint notions as public transit and a single, central business district. We’d been promised that it would bring all the advantages of the city right up to the white picket fence that surrounded our single-family homes, our pools and our patios with the outside barbecues. All these promises were fulfilled, spectacularly so, and a deep, abiding trust developed. lovemycar6And what is trust but the bedrock of a healthy, loving relationship?

Did we have, ahem, bumps in the road? Of course. What relationship doesn’t have a few? But we dealt with them, because that’s what you do in a committed relationship. Like the time we started choking on something called SMOG. Did we give up? Heck, no. We slapped catalytic converters on our tailpipes and changed the formula of our gas. Or the riots, remember those? Some would say they were brought about by social and economic inequities engendered by the use of our cars. But did we throw up our hands and give up like a bunch of East Coast metropolitans? Double heck no! We cracked down, giving our police more guns, more helicopters and more surveillance capabilities. Why? Because I’ll repeat: That-is-what-you-do-in-a-committed-relationship.

And the relationship has only deepened through the years, because what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Right? lovemycar3So who the hell were these Zocalo Public Square types to come in here and try to pull us apart? What nerve!

If William Shakespeare had been sitting next to me, he might have leaned over and told me, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Good ol’ Bard of Avon. He’s always there when I find myself starting to become unhinged. Why he calls me a lady is another matter that I won’t go into right now.

But alas, the great explainer of human nature had a point. The city had come to be known more for its dystopian commutes than its white picket fences, putting our relationships under a new kind of strain, one we’d never seen before, and one for which we have as yet to come up with a solution.

This new strain comes from two different though related developments. On the one hand, we can point to the five separate rail lines being built or extended that will connect such disparate and distant hubs of activity as Santa Monica (the beach), Long Beach (the port), Pasadena (the foothills) and North Hollywood (the Valley) to the resurgent Downtown (down by the river). lovemycar8By early next year, a traveler will be able to traverse the 5,000 square-mile (more or less) urban cluster from any of these points with just one transfer. And without a car.

On the other hand, there just seems to be no traffic relief no matter what we do. Emblematic of this is the just-completed widening of the 405. After five years of blasting through the Santa Monica Mountains, commutes are about a minute longer now than they were before the $1 billion undertaking was undertaken. And told-you-so’s of induced demand only make car commuters that much angrier.

Even I, a devoted road warrior, have to admit: While I still love my car, I am no longer sure I am in love with it.

Relationships, as the Bard well knows, are never easy, even when there are no Capulets or Montagues around to mess things up. And as Neil Sedaka reminded us many years ago, breaking up is hard to do. But the Bard (the Elizabethan one) provided a ray of hope.

“Hast thou considered opening up thine relationship?” lovemycar1He asked this casually, not even looking up as he texted his broker in New York.

I blushed so deep that any one of the new generation of Downtown chefs could have sliced up my head and put it in a salad. Of course I’d thought about it. I mean, who hadn’t, right? Like everyone else, I’d heard the talk. About how an open transit relationship would be better for the environment, how it would lower my car insurance, how it could extend the lifetime of my car. I’d even heard that it could spice things up in the garage, if you know what I mean.

Then one night, I found myself planning it out in my head. First, I’d leave the car at home, discreetly of course. I’d take the train or the bus, or even walk, if I could remember how. But no, the Bard shook his head. That would amount to cheating. Apparently, the way these things go, you have to be open and honest with your partner. lovemycar4Yeah, I thought, and take all the damned fun out of it!

But the Bard patiently walked me through it. I’d have to be loving and honest, and communicate clearly with my partner that the new arrangement was for the commute and for the commute only. There would have to be rules: There’d be no riding of the train to the end of the line just to see what was there; no overly chatty conversations with strangers asking you how to get to Union Station, and definitely no weekend passes! Maybe down the road, there could be a discussion about taking transit to an occasional Dodger game, so I wouldn’t have to leave in the 7th inning to beat the traffic. But that could wait. Still I wasn’t convinced. The Bard reassured me that the greater trust that would develop could even strengthen our bond. I looked at him quizzically. Strengthen our bond? Really? Where did he get this stuff? Nevertheless, I quickly jotted it down so I wouldn’t forget. lovemycarIf I could convince my partner about this bond strengthening stuff, I could have my cake and eat it too!

I watched the different people file into the auditorium. They chatted and smiled and shook hands with each other. They were, in sum, just a bunch of normal commuters, and they all seemed so satisfied with their lives that it brought me back down to earth. Who was I kidding? An open transit relationship was what they did in places like Vancouver or Portland. Or even Toronto. [Clearly our correspondent hasn’t visited us lately. – ed.] But I wasn’t in those cities. I was in L.A., a city that embraced a multitude of kinky lifestyles, but where taking the bus up Western was the ultimate taboo.

To avoid eye contact, I picked up the Metro pamphlet that was sitting in my lap. And then I saw it, a photograph of the first of the sleek, new Kinkisharyo LRTs that had recently started issuing from the Japanese company’s Palmdale assembly line. It was exactly like the one I had seen that morning on my way into work. I was stopped at a light, listening to Rush Limbaugh, when she appeared. I watched her slide gracefully through the intersection behind the lowered yellow-and-white, candy-cane striped traffic arms. A real slinky, if you ask me, she was quiet and cool as she carried her Expo Line passengers in air-conditioned comfort on the way to Culver City. kinkisharyoAnd as the last car went through, I don’t think I’d ever been so revved up. The light must have changed, because suddenly people were honking and yelling at me to move. A silly, stupid smile spread across my face like I was a frat boy getting his first lap dance at Jumbo’s Clown Room. But no, this was better. This was 50 Shades of Kinkisharyo.

The panel participants came out onto the stage, and I folded up the pamphlet and placed it safely in my backpack for later research. The moderator, an ex-Detroiter named Mike Floyd, Editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine, introduced everyone and asked each of the panelists how he had traveled to the event. Predictably, the car people drove. They were Terry Karges, Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, and Myles Kovacs, Founder and Editor of DUB Magazine. The transit people, you guessed it, took transit. Or walked. They were Deborah Murphy, an architect and Founder of Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group, and Mimi Sheller, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Mobilities Research and Policy in Philadelphia. lovemycar2Presumably, this latter participant flew then walked. Show offs, I thought.

The tension between pro-car and pro-transit people was so thick you could cut it with a wiper blade. Ms. Sheller got things rolling with her assertion that a national and global transition is taking place, with fewer people driving and getting licenses. Mr. Karges promptly disputed this assessment, putting forth that people still like to drive, and pointed out that the Forza Motorsport driving game currently has 43 million Xbox subscribers. To which Ms. Murphy responded that those 43 million subscribers need to get out of the house, go for a walk, maybe meet a nice girl who will make them forget all about their Xboxes. Mr. Kovacs, the urban custom car enthusiast, smiled knowingly and said that in L.A., you drive to impress, and what impresses is a fast, low-slung car with poor visibility. And so it went for about 40 minutes or so.

But then the audience got into it. Somebody asked about the self-driving car, and it was off to the races. In fact, that was the only thing anybody in the audience wanted to talk about. Clearly, the autono-mobile had captured the imagination of Angelenos. The self-driving car was seen as a panacea. lovemycar7Not only would it allow us to get more work done while stuck in traffic, but the traffic itself would be cured, because as everyone knows, traffic is caused by a-hole drivers constantly accelerating and braking for no reason. If not for these jerks on the road (and I admit, I’m one of them), our commutes would once again be smooth sailing. And there wouldn’t be any accidents either because these computers on wheels, as some are calling them, are much smarter than us. And if a pedestrian decided to throw himself in front of my car as part of some misguided protest about the 99%, well, manufacturers have thought of that too. Just out is a pillow-soft bumper so that when pedestrian and car collide, the pedestrian won’t feel a thing. Rather, he’ll think he’s at a pajama party and be grateful for the playful interruption to his daily routine.

I sat in wonderment. People were so enthusiastic about the autonomous car that nobody wanted to hear about the kinks that needed to be worked out. Things like liability insurance and computer hacking. And what about driving my own damned car? The whole thing, I’ll admit, seemed to be a big step backward to me. lovemycar5I mean, I hadn’t been driven around since I was a kid, and then it was because my bike had a flat and it was my mother doing the driving. I suppose I could derive some recompense in that I would dang-sure have a mini-bar in my self-driving car, and I’d toast and make faces at the other drivers who were stuck in traffic. But wouldn’t I be stuck too, you ask? Heck no, I wouldn’t be stuck. I’d have a mini-bar!

Eventually, though, I think all the non-driving would get to me. Because without the sheer pleasure and excitement of driving, what was the point of having a car at all? And that would truly mean the end of the relationship.

I was so upset, I went home and hugged my Prius.

toliveanddieinLA

drive byly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum


Carless In LA

February 12, 2014

Don’t get the wrong idea. Los Angeles has not become a car-free mecca. There’s still a love affair going on there between humans and their driving machines. kardashiancarPublic displays of affection appear regularly in the form of Lamborghinis, sporty sport Lexi and monstrously big, military looking SUVs.

But there does seem to be something of a change in the air, at least to someone like myself who has not visited the city in nearly 20 years after having lived there for a brief portion of the early 90s. Ah, the early 90s… The early 90s… Nope. I got nothing. You know what they say. If you can remember the 90s…

Back then, you’d never even think of moving to Los Angeles without owning a car. Cycling was pure recreation, done far from the roads, by the sides of concrete rivers and very welcoming and expansive ocean side paths. Public transit? Oh my. Public transit in LA.

A personal example.partridgefamilybus

From where we lived, the morning commute to the school campus was, on average, about 20 minutes one way by car, barring any sort of natural disaster or riot that was prone to flare up along the way. That very same trip by bus? Usually more than double that time, clocking in at 45 minutes. And if I remember correctly, the bus route that got you there in the most direction fashion stopped running by 7pm.

So seriously. Who’s not going to drive over taking the bus? Pretty much nobody except for those who couldn’t afford the luxury of having a choice.

It’s been a slow grind over the course of the ensuing two decades. Change from such auto-orientation could not possibly happen any quicker. This is LA, after all. The land where dreams of unfettered car ownership, top down, wind in your hair, Beach Boys My Little Deuce Coup, are born.redlinebusLA

We’ve got all these freeways, man. Neighbourhoods were destroyed putting them up. We gotta use them.

Still, I have to say the transformation to a less car-dependent place is noticeable even if you’re not really looking for it, I think. For starters, there are buses everywhere, regularly spotted throughout the day even weekend days. Blue buses. Orange buses. Red buses. The occasional green bus.

According to Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker, it was the bolstering up of the bus networks throughout Los Angeles County, especially the MTA’s red beauties, all shiny, all articulated, that kick started LA’s public transit revolution. And I have to tell you, my bus trips on Monday’s Carless in LA outing were not under-used, both a mid-day trip downtown from Santa Monica and the “other” red rocket during rush hour back west along Wilshire Boulevard. Standing room only for a segment of the latter trip and by the time the morning bus ride hit the Santa Monica Freeway, it was hauling at near capacity.

Of course, by their very nature, the long denigrated, lowly buses don’t really grab the headlines when it comes to transit discussions. LA’s got subways, baby. Hey. What world class city doesn’t, am I right? metroLAmapTwo lines, running mostly through the downtown core — Yes, Virginia. There is a downtown Los Angeles. — with one extending right over and up into the San Fernando Valley to North Hollywood. It’s not an extensive network. Barely could be considered much of spine of the system. One gets the feeling it’s something of a Fordian-like sop to keeping transit from taking up precious road space but, hey, it’s not cars.

In actual fact, the real gem of the current transit build in Los Angeles (of course, I may be somewhat biased) is the series of LRT lines it’s put down and continues to extend.

Folks. For the record and despite what has been incorrectly stated again and again and again during Toronto’s ongoing, rage-y transit debate for the past 3 years or so, our city doesn’t have any sort of LRT operating within its system. LRTs are not glorified streetcars. The St. Clair disaster was not perpetrated by any sort of LRT. The Spadina bus was not replaced by an LRT.

Los Angeles has LRTs. Toronto does not.

I only had the opportunity during my ever so brief transit foray to take one of the LRT lines, the Gold Line, running from one terminus in downtown’s East LA and the other, up to the north and back east, in Pasadena. goldlineTwo other LRT lines connect to Union Station via subway, one running south down to Long Beach, a second, the Expo line, heads west toward the Pacific, now ending in Culver City but a much needed extension to Santa Monica is slowing inching its way to a 2015/2016 completion date. A 4th light rail line, the very first one built, runs south for about 35 kilometres from downtown-ish to Long Beach, connecting to both the Blue Line LRT and the Silver Line BRT along the way.

You may ask why, if I’m such a big fan of LRTs, I wasn’t all over that map, giving each and every one of those lines a serious test run. Here’s the thing. One, there was only so much time in one day. Secondly, what the LRTs offered to someone such as myself, armed with a $5 day pass and curiosity bordering on obsessiveness, was the ability to hop on and off the train wherever it caught my fancy. With much of it being above ground, you looked out the window and seeing something interesting, off you got.

Which is how we ended up in South Pasadena. Mission Station was situated in what looked to be the main intersection of some quaint little town lifted right out of Frank Capra movie. missionstationSteps off the train, you walked along a street of refurbished buildings now housing bars, coffee and artisanal shops. Or what they used to refer to as Mom & Pops. Huh, I thought. I might’ve missed this had I been travelling underground, heading hell bent to my destination further on.

Of course, transit isn’t built for demanding tourists who want the luxury of sightseeing without the hassle of driving to get there. You build transit in order to efficiently move as many people as possible around a region. Places like Los Angeles have realized relying on the private automobile is not the most effective or healthy way of doing that.

My guide for the day, Ned let’s call him because that’s his name, is a long time Angelino now looking to live a less car-dependent life in LA. 90sWhen we first met, back over 20 years ago, such a thing was nothing but a pipe dream. You don’t want to get around by car in Los Angeles? Move to San Francisco.

Now? Not a pipe dream. It isn’t easy, certainly not everywhere, trying to navigate the city without your own four wheels. Parts of Los Angeles remain severely under-serviced by public transit including the affluent west side where recalcitrance to share the roads (both at grade and below) on the part of municipalities like Beverly Hills have left places like UCLA in Westwood isolated from the rest of the city.

Still, this is not the laughably public transit stunted city I remember. While the state as a hole has suffered severe economic blows over the past decade or so. Los Angeles has managed to fund their public transit renaissance. TOtrafficcongestionFormer mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped convince a normally tax-averse population to accept a half-cent sales tax increase to fund a 30 year transit expansion. He then took this Measure R to Washington to secure federal loans in order to shrink the 30 year timeline down to the 10. 12 proposed major transit projects in 10 years.

If such a feat can be accomplished in a car-centric city like Los Angeles, what exactly is holding us back here in Toronto?

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr


The President’s Man Goes Local

October 5, 2010

So Rahm Emanuel resigned his post as chief of staff to the most powerful position on the planet (after, that is, the top 5 places within the Chinese government structure) to run for the mayoralty of Chicago. This is a guy who served for three terms in the House of Representatives. He’s now running to be mayor of Chicago. A power broker inside the D.C. Beltway packs it in for what looks to be a rough ride of an election in the 3rd biggest city in America.

Does that strike anyone else as a step down a rung or two of the success ladder?

I mean, aren’t mayor positions simply consolation prizes for those without the goods to make it big at state/province or federal levels of government? It certainly seems to be the case here in Toronto during this particular campaign cycle. Also-rans and not-quite-good-enoughs battle it out for ultimate supremacy of this backwater burg we call home.

Yet, here’s arguably the meanest, nastiest and most successful backroom Democrat in recent memory heading out of Washington to try his luck running for the lowly position of mayor. Obviously it’s some sort of punishment being meted out for the crime of pushing President Obama too far to the middle. Yeah, thanks for all your help, Rahm. How be you just run along now and try your hand at local politics?

Or, maybe this is a case of an extremely motivated politician realizing just which way the wind is blowing, where the action really is. Cities are where it’s at, baby. In this globalized world of increasing urbanization that we’re living in, cities are assuming control of the agenda, the engine driving innovation, sustainability, diversification. What politician with an elevated sense of self-importance (one can posses that trait in a good way) wouldn’t want to be at the forefront of all that?

Gazillionaire Michael Bloomberg, touted as a possible independent candidate to run for the presidency of the United States, takes a pass, opting instead to stay as mayor of New York City. In Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa dabbled for a time in California state politics before moving into the municipal arena, first as a council member and then mayor. Portland Oregon mayor Sam Adams has burst onto the national scene as a leading advocate for building environmentally sound cities. So famous has he become that a beer has been named in his honour.

But over the course of Toronto’s dreary 9 month campaign so far, we’ve been told it’s just about filling potholes and fixing street lights. After 7 years of tentatively stepping toward the future, all we’re hearing now is what we can’t do, not what’s possible. Voters are cowering in the face of necessary and exciting change; their fears and worst instincts catered to by unimaginative candidates who seem oblivious to the shifting sands of where power is headed. We imperil our ability to adapt to what’s coming and thrive in the possibilities that will arise if we hand over the levers of power to someone incapable of seeing past nickels and dimes.

Rahm Emanuel seems to understand this. He’s angling to take the reins of a great but deeply troubled city. Much more troubled than even the worst case scenario being painted about Toronto by the hysterics contending for the mayor’s position. Chicago’s money woes are significantly worse than ours. Allegations of actual corruption and cronyism have stuck to some of the outgoing city officials. Crime is a significant problem there and not just a convenient bogeyman being shaken around in order to frighten voters.

Despite all of that, Rahm Emanuel wants to be the mayor of Chicago. There’s an element of flight, certainly, from an administration looking to take a hit in next month’s midterm elections. If it does happen, there’ll be plenty of fingers pointing at Emanuel as a prime architect of Obama’s fall from grace. But he could run toward a much more lucrative spot in the private sector, assuming such a thing exists anymore which also might explain the President’s low approval ratings.

Emanuel’s decision to follow in the footsteps of Richard M. Daley bespeaks of how important cities have become on the political landscape. Those accepting that new reality have begun to assume responsibility for proper future planning, at times defying upper levels of governments by setting more stringent environmental targets and broadening personal rights and freedoms. In the vacuum created by the divestment of powers by successive federal and provincial/state governments as a way to balance their books, forward thinking cities have assumed the responsibilities and set out on a course to not only remake themselves in a 21st-century fashion but the regions and countries that they are part of as well. Savvy politicians like Rahm Emanuel recognize that and are jumping at the chance to get involved.

It’s unfortunate Toronto has been hijacked by mayoral candidates more content to wallow in petty grievances and almost tribal hostility instead of generating ideas about how best to move into a future where cities will be at the forefront of policy decisions and societal change. If the next mayor doesn’t understand that and seize upon it, all the advantages we as a city have presently (and we have many) will be for naught. Our enviable position cannot be translated into expanded opportunity by merely filling potholes and fixing streetlights. We need to stop shying away from thinking bigger.

civically submitted by Urban Sophisticat


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


Cities In Ruins

July 17, 2010

The specter of bankrupt cities begins to hang above us. News from south of our border is unrelentingly grim; the pictures grimmer still. Los Angeles, the second largest city in the U.S., like much of the state it operates within, has apparently run out of money. Detroit looks like it’s in the middle of a war zone.

Such financial contagion has yet to surface here to any degree but the rumblings can definitely be heard. Growing debt. Out-of-control spending. City employees with fat salaries, fat benefits and fat pensions to match their fat asses that they spend all day sitting on. Sound familiar?

These people have had it too good, the reasoning goes, making a better living than we do from our sweat, toil and taxes. But the good times are over. We need to reign in, tighten up and cut back. Stop spending and start being sensible again like we were back in the day.

Trouble with this line of thinking, as we see it, is that it only considers half the economic equation. If you cut spending by cutting salaries, doesn’t that diminish incoming revenue in the form of taxes? If people are making less or are fearful for their futures, don’t they likewise stop spending? Government revenue sources begin to dry up.

So it becomes like the image in Ronald Wright’s ‘A Short History of Progress’ of the Rapanui laying waste to their land to build the Maoi monuments to their gods, pleading for divine intervention in reversing an ecological downturn. The frenzy of building only serves to exacerbate the problem. An almost too perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy or the solution being no solution whatsoever.

We’ve been at it now for decades, public sector austerity as part of the trickledown theory of rising tides raising all boats. Hold on, hold on, hold on, I hear you screaming at me. What planet have you been on during the past 7 years? You certainly weren’t living here in Toronto. David Miller fiscally austere? Look at the numbers. Look at the numbers!

Yes well, numbers never lie do they, and always present the cold, hard truth. The fact of the matter is that David Miller’s 7 years were little more than a desperate attempt to staunch the slow bleeding of social spending brought on by cuts and downloads and neglect by senior levels of government since the federal Liberals bought into the Reform playbook in 1993. And trade deals that gutted our manufacturing base. And let’s not forget the megacity’s first mayor, Mel Lastman, and his ill-advised promise not to raise property taxes during his first term.

It was a promise reminiscent of California’s 1978 Proposition 13 that, among other things, “lowered property taxes by rolling back property values to their 1975 value and restricted annual increases in assessed value of real property to an inflation factor, not to exceed 2% per year… the initiative also contained language requiring a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses for future increases in all state tax rates or amounts of revenue collected, including income tax rates. It also requires a two-thirds vote majority in local elections for local governments wishing to raise special taxes.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

And look at California now? Blame the mess they find themselves in on illegal immigration or overpaid civil servants or whatever other boogie man you want to summon up but ignoring the price the state has paid for its greedy, self-centred embrace of Prop 13 is simply ignoring reality. Handcuffing (or ignoring) government’s ability to adapt to changing economic landscapes, good or bad, leaves the public susceptible to the mindless vagaries of chance and the market. It is nothing more than a dereliction of duty.

Almost two years ago now, governments the world over infused mind-bogglingly amounts of public money into financial institutions deemed too big to fail. The economic fall out would be irreparable. We were spared that here in Canada but still managed to throw around a lot of money into our deeply troubled automobile industry because it too was too big to fail. While afraid of what massive layoffs would do to our economy, we weren’t too concerned about the effect of wage rollbacks aside from increasing our productivity factor. Again, the argument was put forward that workers were being paid too much as the cause for near insolvency as opposed to management, for the 2nd time in a generation, was caught flat-footed by a sea change in the market.

So if an industry can be too big to fail, what about a city? What are the implications of a Detroit dying, aside from a rush to adopt the Red Wings but not so much the Lions. Can a city, full of people like they are, ever really be considered broke? If 80% of a country’s population live in cities, and people are the generators of wealth, then 80% of a country’s wealth comes from cities. I know it doesn’t work out exactly like that but the point is, if the money and wealth that is created in cities remained in the cities, then it would be hard to imagine how cities could go broke.

So maybe what we’re facing isn’t fiscal bankruptcy but more of a bankruptcy of ideas. The solutions on offer to our problems are exactly what created the problems in the first place. To pursue them would be tantamount to doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. We all know what that is the definition of.

wistfully submitted by Urban Sophisticat