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


A Higher Bar

April 20, 2016

Here’s what bugs me about Mayor Tory’s reaction to the proposed Bloor Street bike lane pilot project that’s heading to the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee for debate next week? The wet blanket act. getsmygoatYou know, well, if we have to…

The mayor’s not ‘averse to a pilot project’. He’s not excited about it either. He couldn’t be less enthusiastic, if the CityNews video is anything to go by. Instead, he’s using his bully pulpit to dampen any sort of expectations about it.

And suspicious of the whole enterprise? Let’s make sure this “pilot project” isn’t such in name only. Mayor Toy demands that “an honest effort to objectively find out, after you’ve done it, the impact” on all “stakeholders”. These are the words of someone who thinks cycling advocates are trying to pull a fast one on him. Get those plastic bollards go up, they can never be brought down again. It’s a done deal. Game over.

“Big decisions we end up making”, the mayor intones, and we “cannot make them in a cavalier manner or politically correct manner.”

Really?

Says the guy who full-throatedly pushed to keep the Gardiner East expressway elevated, ignoring and even mocking staff opinion that it would be best (suspiciousand least expensive) to tear it down and replace it with an at-grade boulevard. Cavalier, much? Hundreds of millions of dollars, unnecessarily spent to maintain a burdensome piece of legacy infrastructure that will be with us for decades to come. And his eyes narrow at a summertime bike lane pilot project?

Is it any wonder then, one of the bike lane proponents, Councillor Joe Cressy goes on Metro Morning, sounding as if he’s a coach guiding his team into a do-or-die, sudden-death championship game? “If we fail, then we fail with cycling infrastructure throughout the city.” Holy crap! What? The very future of cycling in Toronto, it seems, hinges on the outcome of this bike lane pilot project.

During the interview, Councillor Cressy expressed confidence that, in the end, the Bloor bike lanes would confirm what most every other example of de-emphasizing automobile use around the world has shown. It’s better for business. More people come. More people linger. More people shop. suspiciousIt’s pretty much been the case for 50 years now.

“But we’re not going to trust those studies that have been done,” Councillor Cressy said.

Of course we’re not. Because we’re Toronto, after all. The exception to every and all rules and studies of urbanism. Terra incognita. Unless it’s for cars, the wheel must be re-invented again and again here.

I get, grudgingly, the status quo has home court advantage in these matters. Change is always scary. Can could be for the worse.

But it’s not like this strip of Bloor Street couldn’t do with a little nudge, a little boost of freshness. I’ve lived in the area for years now and I wouldn’t call it vibrant. With a few exceptions, there’s a regular turnover of retail. Walking isn’t terrible but it isn’t particularly pleasant either. You bike through it not to it.

Mayor Tory should be cheerleading for the possibility of a positive transformation of a major piece of public space instead of working the refs to secure the outcome he wants to see. clearthebarIf a reconfigured street works here, why not extend it westward, out towards High Park and beyond, east out along the Danforth? With the exception of the newly spruced up Yorkville segment, from Avenue to Yonge Street (and I’d suggest that ain’t perfect either), most of this run of road could do with a 21st-century makeover.

Unfortunately, given his lukewarm… what’s the opposite of embrace?… of this tiny pilot project, the concept runs contrary to the mayor’s preconceived notions of how a city operates. Mess with cars and drivers, you’re messing with a — if not successful — an established formula. A formula he’s comfortable with, accustomed to.

And as he’s exhibiting over and over again, Mayor Tory is not one who seems at all comfortable operating outside of his comfort zone.

dampeningly submitted by Cityslikr


Can’t Or Won’t?

January 11, 2016

During a budget Twitter discussion last week, Torontoist’s David Hains boiled the process down to 140 characters.

(If you want it in greater detail, I cannot encourage you enough to read his property tax analysis from a couple years ago.)

In essence, for a couple key reasons, the keyest being municipalities, unlike their provinical and federal counterparts, cannot run annual operating deficits. Their books must balance. A dollar amount is chosen — This is what we’re going to spend this year! — and you then walk back to where the money comes from. pickanumberProperty taxes make up a large portion of that revenue, in and around 40% usually, so to get 40% of x dollars, the property tax rate has to be y.

More or less.

For a mayor, their administration or the city council to determine what that property tax rate is going to be ahead of spending projections essentially subverts the process. Mayor Tory’s campaign pledge to keep property tax at or below the rate of inflation, and then claiming a public mandate for that after winning office, is simply saying there’s only going to be this much money regardless of needs or other promises and improvements made. You want something new, a service enhanced, some shiny bauble or other nice-to-have? You have to cut something or somewhere else. mathAn ‘offset’, as they say in order to not state the word ‘cut’.

This is especially true since the mayor and his team are refusing to even discuss other sources of revenue. Aside from selling off assets  like Toronto Hydro and city-owned parking spaces, that is, or increasing user fees or squeezing more pencils and training costs from the city. Today on Metro Morning, the budget chair, Councillor Gary Crawford crowed over the possibility of finding an additional $5 million in savings by an exhaustive line-by-line search through office expenses. $5 million in the face of an identified $67 million shortfall in funding for promises and requests already made by Mayor Tory and city council.

By a pre-emptive determination of what the property tax rate will be, thus fixing 39% of the operating budget in place, Mayor Tory is stating just how much he is willing to spend on the city. gotyourbackThis and only this amount. Any addition must be matched by a subtraction. Or found through efficencies, 10s, 100s of millions of dollars paid for by chump change belt tightening.

Two years ago, John Tory picked an arbitrary number he thought would help get him elected mayor of Toronto. It was a number that represented his political well-being not the well-being of the city he wanted to lead. By refusing to budge (much) from that number, and digging his heels in like his predecessor had, Mayor Tory is showing exactly whose interest he’s really looking out for.

frankly submitted by Cityslikr


2016 Budget Launch

December 16, 2015

So yesterday, led by the new city manager, Peter Wallace, staff delivered its 2016 Preliminary Budget presentation at a special meeting of the Budget Committee. My impressions? lookoverthatwayYou’ll have to find out here at Torontoist. While you’re at it, give a read to Neville Park and Sarah Niedoba and Catherine McIntyre. Rather hear words than read them? Brian Kelcey talks about the 2016 budget with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning.

While city staff seemed to be offering up the opportunity to finally have an adult conversation about the kind of city we want to have, and how we’re going to pay for that, early signs coming from the mayor’s office and the point people on his team are not encouraging. Budget Chair Gary Crawford pushed a paper clip motion at committee to see if they can find enough coins under the cushions at City Hall to pay for various initiatives. “Council can make investments and still keep increases at [the] rate of inflation,” Crawford insisted at a press conference after the budget presentation. No, it can’t. That’s pure budgetary fiction.

Councillor Justin Di Ciano, a member of the budget committee, perhaps summed up this approach best and emptiest when he essentially strung together meaningless words and spun a meaningless anecdote for 2 minutes, absolutely devoid of any substance, and echoing Mayor Tory’s campaign chant of ‘prudence’. These people, the mayor’s people, are zealously determined not to have any sort of serious conversation about the direction the city has to go.

The reality on the ground may have other ideas. Mayor Tory (and other so-called ‘fiscal conservatives’ on city council) may have finally painted themselves into too tight a corner. Things cost money. That money has to come from somewhere. Empty rhetoric has been tapped dry. Big investments and ever shrinking revenue sources simply don’t add up.

Councillor Gord Perks begins the conversation this city needs to start having.

ominously submitted by Cityslikr


The Divine Right To Drive

November 2, 2015

We now return you to our regular scheduled programming…testpattern

With the conclusion of baseball’s post-season last night, it’s back to my normal television viewing pattern which consists of largely of DVRing, Netflixxing and disappointment shaded avoidance. I mean, really? Storage Wars?!

Sports, in general, baseball specifically, is the only time that I spend watching TV in the traditional manner any more. That is, with unfiltered commercial breaks. Sure, I will take to muting them, using them for a bathroom break or to simply stretch my legs. I mean, come on. That first week of October, there were 4 games a day!

Still, baseball broadcasts are when I am really subject to television advertisements, and I can only conclude one thing: televised professional sports exist merely to maintain our automobile industry. carad3How many car ads can they fit into one commercial break? A lot, let’s just say.

And like every other form of advertising, car commercials in no way reflect real life, do not in the least represent any sort of the reality of car ownership. In the ads, a lone automobile contends with the elements of nature. A shiny private vehicle transforms a dreary life into one of white teeth and daring do. A luxurious ride provides escape and calm from the horrors and blight of the modern world.

Your car is different than their car. Your car, in no way, contributes to the grind of your daily commute. Your car is a haven. Your car is not traffic. Their car is.

None of this is a revelation to any of you. Neither is it, I know, at all novel or a new thought. Mark it with a big ol’ shrug and a Well, d’uh.

I bring it up because this morning a group called the Ecofiscal Commission (“Practical solutions for growing prosperity”) released a report calling for a more sensible approach to road pricing in some of Canada’s largest cities. carad2Matt Galloway spoke to one of the report’s authors on Metro Morning today. Matt Elliot took a ride with another one of the authors. In the Globe and Mail, Oliver Moore wrote an article on the report. Tess Kalinowski did the same for the Toronto Star.

In short, we’re talking tolls. We can’t sort out our mobility woes until we start properly charging drivers more fairly for their use of the roads, especially our urban expressways. This is important for any number of reasons, none more so, perhaps, than providing ammunition in the perpetual debate over whether or not drivers already pay more than their share. Gas taxes, and all that. They don’t.

I also bring up the subject of car commercials, the glut of them and their lack of grounding in reality, because one day last week 16 pedestrians were struck down by cars in the GTA. Sixteen! In one day! Ten more than the average daily pedestrian-automobile number of collisions. Six! A day!

The Toronto Police Services responds by announcing a Pedestrian Safety blitz this week, complete with this video:

While we’re told that there’s a 50/50 split in responsibility between drivers and pedestrians for “accidents” that occur between them, this is all about pedestrians taking full responsibility. Be Prepared. Be Seen. Be Safe. “Cross the street as if your life depends on it,” the nice police officer tells us.

Nary a word about drivers driving as if their lives depend on it, as if somebody else’s life depends on it. carad1Why aren’t we instructed to operate our motorized vehicles as if there’s always the possibility that a 4 year-old child could pop out onto the road out of the blue? Why don’t we demand drivers drive to accommodate the most vulnerable of us who they share the road with? Why is it that in 2015 we still behave as if roads are the sole domain of automobiles and the rest of us have to ask nicely and behave properly in order to share the space with them? Even though pedestrians (and cyclists and skateboarders and rollerbladers) pay disproportionately for them?

The most obvious answer to those questions is that that’s just the way it is, the way it’s been for 70 years or so. In the hierarchy of transportation modes, the car is king. Change is slow, the status quo bias strong.

It is a mindset reinforced every time we turn on the TV. carad5With every car commercial we watch, with the freedom of the open road, blowing through our hair, with the high end, Bang & Olufsen sound system blasting out our favourite tuneage, with the rich Corinthian leather (not even a real thing) that cocoons us from the stop and go, years off our lives traffic we find ourselves in every time we get behind the wheel, no report on road pricing is going to convince us to pay more for our right to drive our cars, to persuade us to share the roads more equitably, to assuage our unrelenting and misplaced rage at being stuck behind a streetcar. Television promises drivers unfettered access anywhere and everywhere they want to go, no money down, don’t pay until next year.

Reason and rational thought have nothing to do with it. Driving is a singular experience. Normal rules don’t apply.

rationally submitted by Cityslikr


A Catalyst For Real Change

September 18, 2015

This will be the last thing I say about the 2024 Olympic bid, now non-bid.

Honest.crossmyheart

I’m as tired of it as you are.

Honest.

On Tuesday, prior to Mayor Tory officially confirming what everyone unofficially already knew, Matt Galloway hosted a segment on Metro Morning with two opposing views on the city-building merits of hosting the Olympic games. Supporting the idea was Rahul Bhardwaj, CEO and President of Toronto Foundation, an organization promoting “the Art of Wise Giving” and connecting “philanthropy to community needs and opportunities” (according to the group’s website). He was also the VP of Toronto’s last Olympic bid, back in 2008.

I’ve seen Mr. Bhardwaj talk at a couple of events over the past few years, heard him interviewed on the radio. He always struck me as somebody I’d like to see in public office. impressedThoughtful, enthusiastic, articulate, a welcome addition to any legislative body, in my humble opinion.

So I listened intently to his arguments about what hosting the Olympics could do for Toronto. Since it was pretty clear that wouldn’t be happening this time around, no looming deadline hanging over the discussion, it didn’t feel all so loaded and contentious. Now, with years of planning ahead at our disposal, was the time to have this conversation.

He sang a familiar refrain. Hosting the Olympics would act as a “catalyst for the things this city needs,” he told Galloway. The Olympics presented “an opportunity to focus scare resources” at all levels of government on building things like transit and other infrastructure, affordable housing, create jobs.

“World class cities, that’s what they do,” he said. Yeah. He went there.

“We all have to take risks. We all have to innovate.” Failure to do so spoke “to a lack of confidence”, ambition even. spielTo not bid on the Olympics represented a “missed opportunity,” according to Bhardwaj.

Aside from the ‘world class city’, lack of confidence nonsense, I found fault with little Mr. Bhardwaj said. Toronto certainly has a long list of need-to-haves in terms of both physical and social infrastructure. It doesn’t have the means to pay for them itself nor should it have to. The other levels of government, the senior levels of government have proven loath to contribute to any or all of these items fully or regularly. Offering up an opportunity to do so in a manner that allows them to be both self-aggrandizing while appearing to be province/nation building rather than specific city building might just be the ticket.

Risky, for sure, as all sorts of things have to fall into place for any sort of Olympic bid to succeed. Innovative though? I guess, if that means depending on a magic bullet solution that’s shown mixed results in other places that have hosted the Olympics. As Mr. Bhardwaj’s co-guest on the show, Dean Rivando, claimed, the 2012 games in London brought $7 billion in infrastructure with a $14 billion price tag in public money spent. vantageThat’s a pretty hefty middleman sum.

“Why do we need a circus like that [the Olympics] to build the things that we need in Toronto?” Galloway asked Bhardwaj.

Answering that question satisfactorily would be something truly innovative. City-builders like Rahul Bhardwaj should spend some of their city-building energy addressing the asymmetric governance structure which sees us funnelling most of our money the furthest away from where we need it and have it trickling back when it suits the federal and provincial governments’ interests. We’re like children who cut the neighbours’ lawns for extra cash in order to pay rent to our parents, and still have to beg them for an allowance, and when they give it to us, we’re told we have to use it to go buy them a pack of smokes. (Yeah, I’m of that vantage. Pun not typo.)

Bad analogies aside, we need innovative city leaders who don’t simply accept the status quo. I do not believe you can be an effective and useful city builder anymore unless at least some of your respective connections and social capital are utilised in the direction of confronting and combating the fundamental lack of fairness in how our governance model functions. puppetmasterWe have to figure out how, in the 21st-century, we shed our 19th-century skin.

By hosting the Olympics, Bhardwaj told Metro Morning listeners on Tuesday, “We can actually build a vision of this city.”

How about dedicating our efforts to building a city that isn’t dependent on other levels of government to do things it needs to do, a city that doesn’t have to beg and perform a song and dance in the hopes of propping up our crumbling infrastructure or housing its residents affordably or move them around from point A to point B quickly and efficiently? A vision of an independent city that makes the right decisions for the right reasons rather than because it has little alternative. That’s the vision of Toronto I’d like to see us pursuing.

for realzly submitted by Cityslikr


A Vital Civics Lesson

June 8, 2015

Let’s set aside the cynicism for a moment. Ignore the urge to tabulate political calculations. Don’t discuss whose voices get heard in this city, whose opinions matter. cuphalffullNot yet, at any rate.

We need to revel in the fact that fierce citizen engagement can directly affect change. Take a moment. Take that in. Enjoy it. Learn from it.

Mayor John Tory came out yesterday in full support of ending the practice of police carding in this city. It’s a huge shift from the mayor who, less than a week ago, was full of — How’d John Barber put it in the Torontoist? – “marshmallow circumlocutions” in defense of reforming rather than ending the system.

The personal stories I’ve heard in recent months and even before, the words, laden with deeply-felt emotion, have been building up in my conscience and they have stuck with me.

And so after great personal reflection, and many discussions — highlighted by a very candid, thoughtful discussion with a number of people including Desmond Cole and others — I’ve concluded that time has gone on too long and that it was time for me to say, enough.

It was time to acknowledge that there is no real way to fix a practice which has come to be regarded as illegitimate, disrespectful and hurtful. It was better to start over with a clean slate.

On Metro Morning today [no link yet], that very same Desmond Cole whose article in Toronto Life on his personal experiences with police carding served, I think, as the tipping point in the conversation, humbly deferred any sort of hero designation, rightly pointing the community and members of it who worked to bring about the change. No one person can ever successfully challenge a status quo system. desmondcoleThey can lend a voice, serve as a catalyst, contribute mightily, doggedly, relentlessly as part of the cause. Lone white knights are just fairytale characters.

The few times I talked with Desmond Cole about the issue, it was obvious the kind of personal and professional toll it was taking on him. I’ve been caught up in far less significant issues (yes, the Gardiner East pales in importance next to carding) and found everything else can fall by the wayside. Doctor appointments. Social engagements. Personal hygiene. Civic engagement, especially something as fundamental as our civil rights, comes at a cost. There are only so many hours in a day, so many fucks to give.

Which is why the more people who slice out even a few hours of their lives to contribute collectively to issues that matter to them, their family, their community, the less onus we place on individual efforts. Yeah, everything needs an instigator, an organizer, somebody to do a website. But it takes an army to knock on doors, to stand up and speak at public events, to testify on that one thing that serves as a barrier, that squeezes opportunity, that impedes the possibility of living fulfilled and meaningful lives.

So, let’s acknowledge this moment. That time when a bunch of people, almost exclusively from communities throughout the city normally without such a powerful voice to force the powers that be to take notice and actually change course. firststepIt’s something we need to relish. Change can happen.

Tomorrow’s the time to worry about the fuller picture. I am always wary of an on the road to Damascus conversion like Mayor Tory has seemingly experienced. He foisted himself immediately into the middle of the carding issue, putting himself on the Police Services Board after becoming mayor and mucking about with carding reforms that were already underway. But his words, if bloviatingly verbose at times, came across yesterday as genuine and heartfelt.

There’s no reason to expect the police services and its new chief will roll over passively on the issue just because the mayor said so. The service (with its former chief of police) resisted earlier calls for carding reform, ignoring directives from the board to do just that, creating the impasse Mayor Tory coddled up to just a few days ago. Systemic racism isn’t magically wished away by some mayoral fiat.

This issue ain’t over, is what I’m trying to say but, holy shit, did it receive a decisive body blow with Mayor Tory’s change of heart. Grab hold of that. Hug it close to you for a moment. Realize, as a matter of fact, you can make a difference. We just have to stop waiting for someone else to do it.

lilliput

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr