The Conservative Public Transit Blues

What is it with conservative politicians and their loathing and disregard of public transit?robfordstreetcars

Granted, I’m going out at the far end of the political spectrum and south of the border, referring to the comically diabolical but somehow frighteningly real Koch Brothers – equal parts Montgomery Burns and Lionel Barrymore’s Henry F. Potter – and a bunch of southern Republican lawmakers. Together they set out to push back a Nashville plan, where only 2% of daily commutes are made by public transit, for a Bus Rapid Transit route.

The Tennesse state senate passed a bill with an amendment that read:

This amendment prohibits metropolitan governments and any transit authorities created by a metropolitan government from constructing, maintaining or operating any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane, or other separate right-of-way, dedicated solely to the use of such bus rapid transit system on any state highway or state highway right-of-way unless the project to do so is approved by the legislative body of the metropolitan government and by the commissioner of transportation. This amendment also prohibits such entities from loading or discharging passengers at any point within the boundary lines of a state highway or state highway right-of-way not adjacent to the right-hand, lateral curb line, or in the absence of curb lines, the right-hand, lateral boundary line or edge of the roadway.

None of your fancy dedicated bus lanes in these parts, you stinkin’ communists.

Now we get the Koch Brothers’ angle. Oil industrialist types, private vehicle use fuels their empire. overturnbusPoliticians taking donations from them or their arms length groups like Americans for Prosperity, or simply those relying on them for information, such as it is, will do their legislative bidding.

That’s pretty straight forward.

But the otherwise conflicted conservative attitude toward public transit couldn’t be on better display than in this interview with William Lind, director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. From a fiscal, free-market standpoint, the upside to public transit is clear. Mr. Lind also notes that the more people you get onto public transit, the less cars there are on the roads and, thus, less congestion.

On the other hand, buses and… race. Seems the whiter shades of the middle class don’t care to darken the doors of a bus because… well you know where this goes.poorbus

Race and class are never too far from a transit debate. In the battle over the Nashville BRT, some folks were concerned about transit bringing the ‘riff raff’ into their neighbourhoods. An invasion of ‘burger flippers’ needed to be guarded against.

In Los Angeles, the wealthy enclave of Beverly Hills has fought off a subway expansion and peak hour bus rapid transit only lanes along Wiltshire Boulevard. Swimming pools, movie stars. But we certainly don’t want the help messing with the ambience of the place, getting here more quickly and easily. There is a dark whole of nothingness on the city’s transit map in much of the north-west side of LA where the rest of Los Angeles’ subway, lametromaplight rail and bus expansion fears to go.

Up here, I think, such issues are not so overt, the question of race not so fraught with history. Still, there’s something about the push for subways as ‘1st-class transit’. The whole Scarborough subway fight was underpinned by a certain social status anxiety. If downtown gets a subway, why not Scarborough. Vaughan is getting subway? Why not Scarborough?

Anything less, even those sleek, reliable, iPads of transit, LRTs would not be good enough. (Even a bona fide, bike riding lefty can get all caught up in transit envy.) It would be an indignity, a slight, a civic slap in the face. What, Scarborough isn’t good enough for a subway?

Of course, a certain conservative faction at city council grabbed hold of the fight for not only political reasons but, ultimately, as a way to kick building public transit even further down the road. Promise subways, subways, subways everywhere and, the reality is, you won’t have to build them anywhere, at least not in the foreseeable future. A subway on Sheppard. A subway on Finch. A subway in every backyard. The more ridiculous the claim, the better because the less likely it will ever be built.fingerscrossed

Back in 2010, how many subways did the mayor promise to have built by now, 2014? And how many have been built? Rinse, and repeat.

The conservative leader of the opposition at Queen’s Park has taken a similar tack, promising subways to everywhere throughout the GTA, LRTs to none. When’s that going to happen? When the provincial deficit is eliminated. Uh huh. And how’s he propose to pay for them? Finding efficiencies and waste.

So yeah. Don’t be counting on subways any time soon.


It’s hard these days to reconcile conservative politics with sound public policy especially when it comes to public transit. Maybe that’s because their base has dwindled to regions where public transit remains negligible, sweetridein rural and suburban areas. But I think the harder truth is the conservative movement has been hijacked by those who simply believe there is no such thing as the greater good. We’re all just self-interested individuals making our way alone in the world.

There are no free rides, just sweet rides. If you want to get anywhere, you don’t do it, sitting at the back of bus.

fed uply submitted by Cityslikr

Everybody Get Happy

Early on in Charles Montgomery’s Happy City (page 6 to be exact), happycitythe author quotes former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, speaking at the 2006 World Urban Forum:

“If we defined our success just in terms of income per capita, we would have to accept ourselves as second or third-rate societies – as a bunch of losers,” he said. No, the city needed a new goal. Peñalosa promised neither a car in every garage nor a socialist revolution. His promise was simple. He was going to make Bogotans happier.

“And what are our needs for happiness?” he asked. “We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality.”

Over the past 3+ years, there has been plenty of head-scratching and analysis over and of this thing that has been labelled Ford Nation. Much of it has been very good (most recently from Naheed Mustafa in The Atlantic – h/t @GerardDiTrolio for the link and Marco Chown Oved in The Toronto Star – h/t @CTBNFG for that link).

But if I may be so bold, allow me to put it all under one big umbrella, using Enrique Peñalosa’s words. fordnation“We need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality.”

Being part of Ford Nation, from a political standpoint, could be viewed as an exercise in inclusion. For the first time in at least seven years, if not since amalgamation, hundreds of thousands of residents, mainly in the surrounding former suburban municipalities of Toronto, felt there was somewhere they had a voice, exerted some power. Rob Ford was their mayor. David Miller was our mayor. It was their turn now. Equality.

Never mind, for the moment, that many of the policies Team Ford would pursue once in power ran contrary to some of the issues that exacerbated the sense of isolation and exclusion, i.e. cutbacks in programs and services, reductions in public transit. Pocketbook politics are strong. For over 3 decades now, conservatives have sold us a bill of goods that more money in our pockets was all we needed to make our lives better. longwaitforabus1It’s a tough rhetorical nut to crack. To paraphrase a wise politico, sometimes that elderly lady has to start wondering why her bus taking her to church on a Sunday morning now comes every half hour when it used to be only 15 minutes before you can convince her that freezing property taxes does have an effect aside from simply saving a bit of pocket change.

Ford Nation is the face of people wanting in, wanting to be heard if not wanting to directly participate in the civic life of the city where they live.

It’s not enough to simply tsk, tsk, tsk, rant in an alleyway and slap our foreheads in wonder at how these people can support a guy who’s clearly not acting in their best interests. Ford Nation is a vehicle for both a collective frustration and, I hope and think, a demand for inclusion in the decision making of this city. scoldForget the reckless driver who’s behind the wheel. That’s ultimately unimportant. It’s the vehicle we need to take notice of.

If we’re truly concerned about the direction our city’s going, of the well-being of all its residents, we have to recognize what the members of Ford Nation saw back in 2010. The status quo is not working. We need to figure out why that is and how to go about trying to address it.

That calls for a positive reassessment not finger-wagging, blame-naming and nay-saying. We need a bus load of ideas, big and small, with a wide open door policy where anybody who wants to, contributes. Point the thing in the direction we want to go, along the surest route we think will get us there, aware that there’s always going to be detours ahead, and invite everybody who’s interested aboard.

It’s time we started talking about what we want from the city we live in not with everything we don’t like about it. Can’t, won’t, no no no, is the language of division and exclusion. Here’s what I’d like to see. magicbusHow about you? is the way we talk when we’re seeking other opinions, when we want to be inclusive, when we actually care what other people think, even those we think we know better than.

Toronto won’t work unless it works for everybody. There’s no easy fix for that. Consensus building is the only way forward to that goal. True consensus can only happen when everyone’s voice is heard and treated equally. That’s where solutions start.

happily submitted by Cityslikr

If Mayors Ruled The World

While a contingent of Toronto city council watchers fret and wring their hands over the state of our local democracy, I find it tough to get too tied up in knots about what’s been happening here. You want messed up democracy? How about that stable majority government in Ottawa and the sledgehammer passing of C-38? Now, those people should be worried their state of democracy there. [Errrr… Aren’t we ‘those people’? – ed.]

In fact, I’d say in comparing Parliament Hill to our City Hall, we’re doing just fine, thank you very much. Checks and balances are in place. Blind party loyalty is non-existent to any detrimental extent. Councillor Doug Ford might be on his way out!

Even here in Toronto, municipal politics are where it’s at, where the rubber hits the road, according to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We’re [municipalities] the level of government closest to the majority of the world’s people,” Mayor Bloomberg has said. “While nations talk, but too often drag their heels — cities act.”

So, What If Mayor’s Ruled The World?, asks political scientist Benjamin Barber in the above interview with Richard Florida and in a talk presented to The Long Now Foundation last week in San Francisco. The world might just be a better place, Barber thinks. More equitable. Further along the road toward sustainability. More democratic.

Barber sees cities as places ‘… governed by voluntary cooperation and shared consensus’. Cities are ‘…defined above all else as places of collaboration and pragmatism.’ “Mayors are the most pragmatic and effective of all political leaders because they have to get things done,” Barber writes. [La-di-da. And then there’s Toronto. – ed.]

Of course, it’s easy to be cynical these days in these parts. Getting things done translates into little more than attempting to roll back almost anything that happened from 2003-2010. Repeal this tax. Kill that transit plan. Not so much a situation of getting things done as it is seeing things undone. At all levels of government right now, that is the new conservative way.

Barber, quoting urban planner Bruce Katz, says, “If you love cities, you’re going to love the 21st-century.” Hold on to your horses, says our mayor and his team who haven’t yet come to terms with the last 30 years of the previous century. They like living in a permanent state of counter-urbanization as they would call it at Human’s Scribbles. Cars rule. Public transit is for the poor. Children ride bikes. Public space amounts to little more than shopping malls and your backyard when you invite friends over for a BBQ.

But think about this.

As much as we can blame Mayor Ford’s reversal of fortune on his own obstinate bumbling or the coalescing of the opposition into an organized group slowly shaping into a body capable of piecing together an agenda for the city, it also could be that he’s fighting an uphill battle against the march of history. Actual 21st-century urbanization is coming. Some of it’s already here. This isn’t a right-left issue. We’re talking the future versus the past. Our mayor came into office already yesterday’s man.

We really do need to stop comparing Mayor Ford to his predecessor, David Miller. Instead, let’s prop him up next to Miller’s true successor and urban heir, Mississauga’s 91 year-old mayor since 1978, Hazel McCallion. While Toronto’s mayor has made it a point to erase the city of any and all traces of Miller, McCallion has embraced much of Miller’s agenda, including the idea of LRTs and extra municipal taxing powers like the VRT. Mayor McCallion has been front and centre demanding a dedicated regional wide sales tax to building public transit. “…if you don’t want tax increases,” says McCallion, “you’re not going to get service, it’s as simple as that.”

Times, they are a-changing. Cities must change their ways of going about things in order to adapt and flourish in this, The Urban Age. Even the former Queen of Sprawl recognizes that fact.

And because of the nature of cities, the almost immediate relationship between by-law enacted and by-law in effect, change can happen like that. [Imagine a snapping of fingers. – ed.] Some find this unsettling, even some elected to serve the best interests of the city. That’s the other beauty of city life. We can ward off or mitigate their worst reactionary instincts. It’s happening right now.

That’s why Councillor Doug Ford calls it ‘dysfunctional’ and is thinking of jumping ship. Actual democracy tends to be messy. Autocrats don’t like to get their hands dirty.

“Democracy began in cities,” says Benjamin Barber, “and works best in cities.”

Despite appearances to the contrary, I think Toronto’s in pretty good hands right now since those who are adhering to that notion have assumed control of the place.

merrily submitted by Urban Sophisticat