Blind Spot

June 16, 2016

Here’s how it starts.

On Monday’s edition of the CBC’s The Current, carsofthefuturethe show’s host Anna Maria Tremonti was talking to the president of General Motors Canada about technology, innovation and the future of transportation. It essentially went like this:

Cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars. E-bikes (manufactured by GM natch). Cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars. Multi-modality. Cars, e-bikes, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars.

With self-driving cars, our future roads will look pretty much like our current roads. Filled with cars. In a 24 minute segment, public transportation wasn’t mentioned once. Unsurprisingly, at least from GM’s standpoint, as it looks to shore up its share of the electric and, ultimately, autonomous vehicle market. The nature of car ownership may change, with more of an emphasis on ‘sharing’ ownership. carsofthefuture1But car ownership there will be and General Motors wants to be a major part of that.

There continues to be very little talk, though, of autonomous vehicles and public transit which, one would think might be a relatively hot topic of conversation. Setting aside a discussion about the loss of yet another sector of well-paying jobs, since labour costs are the prime driver of public transit operating budgets, you’d think municipal governments all over the place would be salivating over the possibility of self-driving buses, streetcars, trolleys, trams. Just like the move toward automated subway systems. Not only cheaper to run but also better in terms of route management and increased frequency, owing to the absence of messy human imperfectness.

Yet, it’s still largely all about the new technology and cars. Cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars.

Almost simultaneously with The Current interview on Monday, the city and Mayor Tory announced its road safety plan to… and I’ve been waiting pretty much my entire writing life to use this phrase in a sentence… carsofthefuture2universal opprobrium. “Very unambitious,” the Globe and Mail’s Transportation writer, Oliver Moore called it. Where other cities around the world have adopted the Swedish concept of Vision Zero, essentially a target of no traffic deaths with aggressive time lines and money to pursue it, our mayor championed the idea of reducing traffic fatalities by 20% over the next decade. A target “smaller than many of the normal [traffic fatality] fluctuations from year to year,” Moore pointed out.

“Very unambitious,” is a nice way of putting it.

As for money budgeted to achieve this modest target? Equally modest. $40 million extra over the next 5 years. Cities like New York? “An additional $115 million this year alone.” San Francisco? $70 million in the next 2 years.

Mayor Tory made the appearance of scrambling backward on the road safety plan on Tuesday when he told Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway on Tuesday that it was a ‘mistake’, a ‘communications mistake’ not to make it clear that he and the city had every intention of aiming for the Vision Zero standard of 0 road deaths. “The objective is to get to zero as quickly as possible without trying to put a time frame on this” Not really the “aggressive” approach to traffic safety Vision Zero calls for but very much the Mayor Tory way on policy issues he agrees with in theory. carsofthefuture3Why shoot for the moon when, really, the appearance of doing something is what’s called for?

As he was performing his radio mea culpa, the mayor’s traffic congestion enforcement blitz was underway and, wouldn’t you know it? It was the pedestrians’ fault all along! Not obeying the rules of road and following traffic lights that were set up to keep them in the proper place. Huddled together on the curb, waiting for their brief window of opportunity to scurry across the street and be one their way. Yep. If pedestrians would just follow the laws and traffic lights, cars would be free to do what they were designed and built to do, what cities have designed and built their infrastructure around. The domination by private automobiles of the public space that are our roads and streets. The terrorizing of other road and street users into submission.

The conclusion of this dynamic is perfectly logical.carsofthefuture4

Such pampered entitlement and obvious preferential treatment of car drivers leads to a contempt of anyone else not behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle. A fraternity of the self-righteous and self-important. A confederacy of disregard.

As a matter of fact, I do own the road. We’ve all seen the bumper stickers. Don’t like my driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.

And if somebody dies, we’ll call it an accident. Of course, it was an accident. No one would mean to jump a curb with their car and kill somebody. It’s more of a faulty assessment of the possible outcomes to bad, split-second decisions made to get just one car length further forward.

Damage done, death inflicted, it usually ends the only way it possibly could. A fine. Demerit points. Probably a bump in insurance rates. But no jail time. No talk of a life time ban for blatant indifference or lethal inattention to anyone else on the road. carsofthefuture5Fatalities merely chalked up to going about your daily business in the big city.

Hopefully, sometime in the near future, if certain carmakers are to be believed, technology will save us from our indifference to the death and killing in our streets. Fingers crossed. Nothing to be sneezed at, for sure. It’s just, by the sound of things, it won’t make a dent in how we prioritize our transportation hierarchy. Cars, first and foremost. Cars, now and forever.

carfully submitted by Cityslikr


This Is Not A New Message

December 4, 2015

Just in case you were wondering, I am indeed acutely aware of my increasingly out there position on the Mayor Tory crank scale. Where others detect glimpses of positive in his governance approach, I see lapses of courage and conviction. Well, at least it’s something leadership now passes for a welcome breath of fresh air. It Could Be Worse, Our Strength.

But honestly, I look at this…

johntoryvision

… and think, Are you fucking kidding me?

That picture and headline (taken from a news article) strikes me as more depressing and discouraging than anything I saw during the Ford administration. Yeah, seriously. You could take comfort, albeit a cold kind, during the Ford years, warmed by the knowledge that the darks days couldn’t last. Wobbly almost from the outset through the weight of sheer incompetence and personal demons, it had to eventually, and fairly quickly as it turned out, come crashing down. Shocking for sure but kind of like an unsuccessful siege. Damage inflicted but the fundamentals left intact, relatively sound.bloodied

Perhaps the worst outcome of the Ford mayoralty is that now, a full year out from its official end, we as a city reward any politics that aren’t crack and booze fueled. We grant anything as ‘vision’ that isn’t… a-hem, a-hem… blurred. Doing the right thing means not doing the wrong thing.

Mayor Tory’s proposed .5% Capital Building Fund levy is the wrong thing going generally in the right direction. But times being what they are here in Toronto, the Ford spectre still looming large, we call such an announcement visionary. ‘Modest’. ‘Sensible’. ‘Workable’. ‘Unsexy’. Even, incredibly, ‘a new vision’.

After writing about this yesterday, I sat down and re-watched City Manager Peter Wallace’s budget pre-presentation, let’s call it, to Executive Committee this week. I urge everyone to take 30 minutes or so and give it a look. It’s clear, easy to follow and very direct about what we have to do (and what won’t really work) in order to develop a sustainable fiscal plan (especially on the capital side of the ledger) going forward.

I want to focus on this one slide. (Lifted right from Steve Munro as I’m too much of a technical knucklehead to figure out how to convert a PDF to JPEG. Thanks, Steve!)

stateofcityfinanceschart

While it is true that, since 2000, Toronto’s property tax rate increases have been kept to below the rate of inflation, all property taxes have not been treated equally. In order to bring certain business and ‘non-residential’ property taxes (including some very residential apartment buildings) more in line with other GTA municipalities, in the spirit of competitiveness, the Miller administration set in motion a re-jigging of the ratio between residential and non-residential rates. wonkyIt’s a process that’s still going on but, in effect, it’s meant that any property tax increase over the last decade or so has been felt more heavily on the residential side.

Now, while I still believe that for the services we receive and demand from the city, Toronto homeowners are getting a pretty sweet deal on their property taxes, the dynamic as shown in the above slide from the city manager provides a picture of why they may be feeling a little squeezed. Since about 2005, residential property tax rate have gone up above the rate of inflation. In a surprising bit of information, and running contrary to the Ford narrative of respecting the taxpayers, the city manager pointed out that over the past 4 years, residential property tax hikes have gone up at an increasing rate!

So, homeowners, those vaunted hardworking tax payers, have not been wrong in feeling that they’ve been squeezed, certainly in terms of their property taxes.

Listening to this, reading through the prepared documents, what is Mayor Tory’s response? To increase property tax rates by an additional .5% above whatever annual bump will happen. fingerscrossedbehindbackHe and his supporters can call it a levy. They can try to pretend it’s something it isn’t. But it’s a property tax increase.

I don’t think it’s accidental that throughout the Executive Committee presentation, the city manager continued to point in the direction of the Land Transfer Tax. He called it a lifesaver, and that without it, the city would’ve been forced to face the financial wringer sooner. Lookit it, people. Lookit this source of revenue. Controversial? For some. Sustainable? Probably not, and certainly not at the level it’s been at during our housing market boom. But lookit it. You see what the city manager sees? It’s not the property tax.

This is why Mayor Tory should not be applauded for his announcement. An additional property tax isn’t in any way, shape or form ‘a new vision’. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Even Rob Ford was in favour of increasing the property tax to help fund his Scarborough subway vision.

Mayor Tory was presented with an opportunity for a wider conversation about revenue tools and he chose to ignore it. charliebrownInstead, he simply continued to pile on the property tax base, and at a rate that, in the end, won’t even make much of a dent in the capital state of good repair backlog let alone build anything much new. And if one nickel comes out of this fund for SmartTrack… ?

When we come up short again — and the proposed implementation date of this Tory tax in 2017 means we’re already short in 2016 – and another round of discussions about revenue tools raises its head, people will be indignant. We are being nickel and dimed to death! What about that .5% levy, they’ll ask. Where did all that money go?

At best, this should be seen as a sideways move, a side-step, another dodge by a politician unwilling to face up to reality. Yet, for Mayor Tory, it’s like he’s invented the wheel. It’s not much (modest) but it’s better than nothing (workable). This is exactly what exceeding exceedingly low expectations looks like.

crankily submitted by Cityslikr