What I Did This Summer

September 10, 2012

So comes to an end my summer sampling tour of what our prime minister once proudly referred to as Northern European welfare states.  Stockholm and environs. North eastern Netherlands. Helsinki. With a couple stops along the way in latitudinally similar if politically divergent Edinburgh, Scotland and St. Petersburg, Russia.

Expecting a wish list I hope Toronto should adopt in order to become a better city? Not this time although it would be surprisingly short in words if longer in action. Invest don’t divest in the public realm. Public spaces and transit namely. The rest sort of falls in line from there.

No. Whenever and wherever I go, I always look forward to getting back home. Toronto is doing something right and has been for some time. Numerous lists and indices attest to that regularly. Which makes the last couple years so mystifyingly troublesome.

Why the retrenchment? Why the fiscal self-immolation? Why all the apocalyptic talk of out of control this and excessive that? All of which needs a healthy dose of restraint and rollbacks.

This is the talk of those who lack an understanding of what makes a city function. Those dedicated to bolstering the private sphere at the expense of the public.  People living in the city but not loving it.

Toronto does not need to be tamed or constrained. If anything, the exact opposite is true. It needs to be embraced, its potential tapped and expanded.

With the exception of St. Petersburg, the other cities on my recent travel list are small in comparison to Toronto. All of them including St. Petersburg possess a far more homogeneous population. Both factors make it easier to arrive at a consensus than the divergent opinions and varying approaches to city building Toronto faces. Instead of seeing that as an obstacle or crisis, however, what’s that about diversity being our strength?

Toronto is a big city. It is an international city. By many, many measures, it is a flourishing city. It has to start acting like one rather than some sleepy backwater burg afraid of its own shadow. There are solutions to the actual problems we face. Invented bogey men looking for quick fixes only add to our woes rather than seek to reduce them.

What differentiates great cities from, well, just run of the mill cities is a dedication by its inhabitants to creating a place people want to live not where they have to live. It’s about delivering contentment as well as opportunity. In a word: liveability.

Much of the material attraction of Toronto for people from all over the world over the past 70 years or so – wide open, seemingly unlimited space to live, to prosper, to raise families – has now become problematic. In some ways we have built strong communities at the expense of the greater whole and left it vulnerable to the pressing needs of a big city in the 21st-century. We are now squabbling siblings fighting over what we’re told are dwindling resources, convinced the only way to make things better is to take more off the table. Addition by subtraction. However that math works.

Cities, world class cities at least (just to make Edward Keenan’s head explode), don’t simply spring up to greatness. They aren’t branded or marketed into Top 10 lists or desirable destination spots. As Toronto’s new chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat wrote today in the Globe and Mail, “Creating great places to live – which includes investing in the buildings and spaces we share in common – is imperative in ensuring that people seek out our cities as places to learn, visit and raise families.”

It’s a matter of rolling up our sleeves and attempting to capture that spark, the essence drawing people to a city. It isn’t solely about aesthetics, beautiful buildings, gorgeous parks and green spaces, humming and alive streets. All that fancy stuff proud penny-pinching politicians decry as wasteful gravy.

It’s about providing people a home that, again to quote our new chief planner, offers ‘beauty and inspiration’. Neither comes cheaply or easily. Greatness rarely does. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, nor was it built on a dollar. Demanding less can only amount to expecting less and, ultimately, getting less.

Beauty, inspiration and opportunity never arise from that.

autumnally submitted by Cityslikr


Raging At Road Rage

May 15, 2012

News just broke that the police have charged a driver with manslaughter in the vehicular death of a skateboarder yesterday.

To use the rather indelicate language of my colleague, Cityslikr, have we lost our fucking minds?!

What situation could possibly arise, what confrontation so dramatic that anyone could justify, rationalize using their automobile as a weapon?

And this is not some isolated incident, some lone sociopath behind the wheel of a car, meting out a little frontier justice at some perceived slight.

Let me back up here. [Hopefully no one’s behind you. Did you check your rear view mirror first? – ed.]

I’ll try not to convict the alleged manslaughterer in my own court of public opinion. He’s simply been charged. Perhaps a judge and/or jury will look at all the evidence and decide that the situation was nothing more than an unfortunate accident. But it seems witness accounts of the incident along with some video footage that caught a portion of it [Unlike, say, the video catching a Toronto Star reporter red handed in the act of spying on Mayor Ford’s kids. – ed.] is compelling enough for the police to proceed with the charge.

But I don’t think it too wildly off the mark to suggest that road rage has become endemic. How many days do any of us experience, whether driving, cycling, walking, skateboarding, free of shouted profanities or flicking off of others either between drivers or across transportation modes? How many blocks do you go before experiencing the grating sound of an aggressive horn announcing that somebody’s pissed off with something somebody else is doing?

Hey, jag off! The light turned green a nanosecond ago! I’m very important and have very important places to go!!

All leading to the inevitable, unsurprising yet still totally shocking outcome that occurred yesterday.

Where does such anger come from?

I’d argue that, at least in part, it comes from a deep well of entitlement. What’s that bumper sticker read? As a matter of fact, I do own the road. Watch then councillor Rob Ford’s speech on bike lanes from a few years back. “What I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks. Sooner or later, you’re going to get bitten.” [Or have your head smashed open on a curb. – ed.] “Every year we have dozens of people hit by cars or trucks. Well, no wonder. Roads are built for buses, cars and trucks. Not for people on bikes. And my heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

This is not to pin blame for the skateboarder’s death directly on the mayor. [Absolutely not. He didn’t specifically say skateboarders don’t belong on the roads. – ed.] But his laissez-faire attitude toward non-drivers’ fate if they dare hazard road travel more than reinforces the privileged sense of entitlement many behind the wheel carry with them. So no, it’s not a case of counselling murder [Although the odd dust-up or casual contact on your way to work can be a source of grins and chuckles to the mayor and his councillor brother. – ed.] so much as it is absolving motorists of any responsibility for their actions.

“And my hearts bleed for them when I hear someone gets killed but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

Tagging along with Cityslikr on his Scandanavian fact-finding mission last week, I was struck by how a civilized, non-car first society deals with, ummmm, living in the 21-st century. Pedestrians, cyclists and cars share the roads equally and, seemingly, in that order. Might doesn’t make right. In 1997, Sweden undertook a traffic safety initiative called Vision Zero. It’s goal? “No loss of life is acceptable.” The exact opposite sentiment to one that includes ‘well, at the end of the day…’ as we wipe our hands clean.

“In every situation, a person might fail. The road system should not.”

While lifting responsibility off of individuals as the primary cause of traffic accidents, Vision Zero looks to design traffic systems that minimize the damage done when accidents happen. Speed Kills, Safety First and all those other touchie-feelie, kooky, left wing European sensibilities. So along with promoting safer car design, for example, there’s much talk of ‘traffic calming’ and ‘pedestrian zones’ and the kind of thinking that doesn’t simply put ease of mobility before personal safety.

At the end of the day, really, the fault for injuries and fatalities resulting from traffic accidents lies at the feet of those who view transit through the single lens of speed first and the primacy of the private automobile above all other forms of personal transport. To shrug off the death of a cyclist under the wheels of a motorized vehicle or a pedestrian struck down in the middle of the road with a, well, they shouldn’t have been there in the first place or they should’ve looked both ways simply lays the groundwork for the more homicidal tendencies of a small percentage of drivers who become temporarily unhinged behind the wheel. The roads are built for cars, goddammit! Get the fuck out of my way!!

If a cyclist or pedestrian or skateboarder or rollerblader isn’t supposed to be on the road then they can be viewed as trespassers when the are. Indulged or tolerated at best, the situation can be made dicier if they don’t exhibit the proper amount of deference. And occasionally when they push back hard enough and exert their right to use the roads, they take their lives into their own hands, swimming with the sharks as they are. It’s an easy escalation.

An acceptance of accidents (fatal or not) as just a part of doing business normalizes death on our roads. Shit happens. What are you going to do? Don’t want to get hurt? Travel around in this biggest, meanest vehicle you can find. [Hey! That gives me a great promotional angle to sell cars. Note to self: target soccer moms. – ed.] The more of us who do that, the more traffic there is, the more confrontation. Road rage just comes with the territory. Don’t want to get hurt? Show some respect and let me have my way.

These aren’t rules of the road. It’s a guide to survival of the fittest. As a matter of fact, I do own the road. You’ve been warned. Use it at your own risk.

[And as we go to post, news of a cyclist struck by car earlier today. – ed.]

subduedly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Stockholm Syndrome

May 7, 2012

I’ve travelled to enough places to know that the familiar tends to temporarily fade in the face of the new, novel, unique. Oh, why can’t we be just like this, do things exactly like they do here? If only we were on permanent vacation life would be so grand.

So I hesitate to head in this particular direction, comparing cities, one that I call home and the other I visited for less than 48 hours. Especially two such wildly different cities – a compact medieval town built over 14 islands versus another, fronted on a lake and just over 200 years old, its major growth spurt occurring during the age of the automobile. A fun but futile exercise. Nothing more than apples to oranges, dollars to deutschmarks. Why bother? What’s the point?

The thing is, despite the glaring differences, Toronto and Stockholm, Sweden are not diametrically dissimilar. Toronto is bigger both in population and area but, surprisingly, the two cities are not that far off each other in terms of density. Whereas single family housing is a rarity in Stockholm (when they do it, they do it grandiosely with riverside mansions on the island of Djurgården), the city is largely comprised of 3 and 4 story apartment complexes. There’s none of the high rise living that is common place in Toronto.

Moreover, the two cities share a geographic kinship. They are northern towns, both subject to long, cold winters and ever so fleeting seasons of warmth and sun dresses. Of course, it’s more extreme in Stockholm than it is Toronto which makes some comparative aspects between the two instructive.

How do residents get around and conduct their business in what might be considered inhospitable weather for a majority of the year?

Stockholm has a much more extensive subway/rail system than Toronto (surprise, surprise). Four lines spider out from the main train terminal on Östermalm. Surface routes are covered mainly by buses and the odd streetcar/trolley services some spots. It also utilizes a ferry system since it contends with water on all sides. Not for nothing is Stockholm referred to as the Venice of the north.

But, like Toronto, public transit in Stockholm seems like a secondary mode of transit, one taken not as a last resort but merely to supplement the main mode of travel which, in Toronto, would be the automobile. In Stockholm, it’s on foot and bicycle.

Now, it was springtime during my stay, a cool, cool springtime with a hint of winter still in the air, but springtime nonetheless. There was no snow on the ground. Biking and walking were easy.

Yet, it’s hard to imagine how the population would or could revert back to public transit/private vehicle method of movement when the snow blows in. Simply put, Stockholm is not designed for easy car use. Or more to the point, the city flow is not dictated by cars. Now before you go flying off, all half-cocked, talking about its age and how it was built before car travel, there’s plenty of examples where old, pre-Henry Ford cities have been reconfigured to accommodate private vehicles first and foremost. Rome. London. New York. Toronto.

So this is a choice not simply some fate put upon us by circumstances.

In Stockholm, roads are a public space and there is a hierarchy of how they’re used. Pedestrians rule. Anyone not travelling by foot must always be aware of those who are. It is your responsibility to not to adversely interact with them.

Cyclists are offered the same protection in terms of motorized vehicles. Bike lanes run throughout the city. They’re bult off road as well as at the edges of sidewalks and as sharrows at the sides or in the middle of roads. A biker’s main concern is to not hit a pedestrian. That’s their responsibility.

Those choosing to drive a car must be vigilant of everyone else using the roads. Roads are not their domain in Stockholm. They are forced to share the space equally and seem to bear the most responsibility for any problems that arise.

This set-up seems to naturally lower speeds throughout the city. The faster the mode of transit you’re capable of at street level, the more the onus is on you to travel safely, defensively. Pedestrians amble. Joggers job. Cyclists cycle. Drivers? Well, they go as fast as the situation dictates. They do not dictate the pace.

Thus, the streetscapes in Stockholm are more human, full of non-automated life. Cars and other vehicles are present but it’s just not their sole playground everyone else has to adapt to. When pedestrian life takes precedence, pedestrians will fill that space. When car travel does, well, you do the math.

We can’t simply admit that designing cities around private vehicle use was a huge mistake, and then tear up the suburbs and start all over again. I know, I know. As tempting as that is. But we can admit continuing to design cities for the primacy of private vehicle use is a mistake and stop doing it. Let’s start from the centre and work our way out. That part of Toronto that was here before cars were and that has been scarred trying to accommodate the ease of automobile use ever since. Let’s reclaim that. Not by banning cars but by forcing them to start sharing more evenly, both spatially and economically.

Our mayor and his allies love to claim that there’s a war on cars, some sort of challenge to the divine right of automobile owners, when actually all that’s being contested is their primacy on our roads. No, as a matter of fact, you don’t own the road. Car drivers aren’t even very good tenants, using more than their fair share while bearing little responsibility for many of the negative results of their presence.

Until we recognize the adverse consequences of giving over a good chunk of our public space to private car use, we’ll never really start to build healthy, more liveable cities. Toronto doesn’t need to be more like Stockholm. It just needs to think more like Stockholm and put driving in its proper place. As part of an integrated transit system and not king of the road.

swedishly submitted by Cityslikr