Friday, October 20, 2006

People not planes?

Our current mayor, or his campaign workers, have decided that "a waterfront for people not planes" has the mindless appeal of a good political slogan. Except that if you stop to think about it, the slogan has some pretty offensive implications.

Personally, I'd like to make my neighbourhood a place for people, not musical instruments. I'd like to make my house a place for people, not art. And I'd sure like to see the city turned into a place for people, not law offices and courts. I could go on, but I hope I have made my point: people come with art, music, law, justice, and we also come with travel and technology. And it doesn't do to call planes things, from which we can easily separate people. If I take the art from the artist, the fiddle from the musician, the law books and courts from the lawyer, I have effectively undermined their freedom to express themselves; I have diminished their humanity. And if I take the plane from the aviator, I have done the same thing.

Now, I suppose you could make an argument that planes harm the downtown environment; but that slogan says nothing about the environment. And if you did try to make a case that Toronto City Centre Airport harms the environment, you'd have to address a huge body of evidence that moving traffic from Pearson to Toronto City Centre Airport actually reduces pollution in the Greater Toronto Area overall. And in any case, the mayor's campaign can hardly argue against aviation with any consistency, since he's started pushing a plan for an expo in 2015, which will depend on air travel to succeed, in the unlikely event that it does.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Aviation Dreams

One summer day, as I wandered Ontario Place looking for friends I didn't find, I looked up and saw a small high wing aeroplane descend to the runway of Toronto Island airport. Out of the haze of my late adolescence, and (let's face it) too many intervening years, the memory looms absolutely clearly: the yacht harbour of Ontario Place, with its colour and movement, the bustle of the amusement park, and the quick path of the plane's descent. And I remember what went through my mind, as vividly as I remember the sights and sounds of the day. One day, I thought, I will do that. I will fly a small plane into Toronto Island.

It took me over twenty years to make the dream of flight real. Several years ago, as my wife studied for a PhD at the University of Michigan, I took the opportunity to learn to fly. I remember, as all pilots do, my first solo. Everything began as I had expected. My instructor wrote the necessary endorsements for solo flight in my pilot's logbook, then had me taxi to the flight school ramp, got out, and told me to fly three times around the airfield. As almost every pilot ever to solo has done, I quailed at the yawning emptiness of the seat beside me. And then, as I took off, something happened that I had not expected. In a revelation that truly astonished me, as I climbed into the sky, the fear stayed behind on the ground. I had wrestled with fear many times, usually fighting it to a truce. For the first time, I simply left the fear behind me.

Shortly after I earned my pilot's license, I had occasion to take my father to Toronto, where he had a presentation to give at a church. On a grey Sunday morning, I kept the promise I had made to myself more than twenty years before, and flew an aeroplane over Humber Bay, past Ontario Place, and down to the runway of the Toronto Island airport.

Since than, I have flown into the Toronto Island airport many times. I have flown there for family visits, and business. On one memorable Christmas flight, my wife and I flew from Ann Arbor with a friend and fellow student. We calculated that we had taken nearly every form of transportation that trip: car, bus, boat, and plane.

I have taken great pleasure in flying, and it has served me as well for business. I have flown to business conferences, and I have flown my wife on research trips for her academic work. Many other people do not use their dreams of flying merely to support their career; they make flying their career. The airlines we depend on for transportation, the air ambulances our very lives may depend on, and the many essential services aviation provides for agriculture and industry, all begin with someone looking up at the sky, and resolving that one day, they too will follow that road.

Yet the value of a dream does not lie only in its fruition. My dream of flight served me well in the twenty years I waited and worked to make it come true. Harry Chapin's moving song "Taxi" reminds us of the importance of holding on to dreams, and not settling for substitutes. In "Taxi", Chapin tells the story of a taxi driver who dreamed of flying in his youth, "took off to find the sky", and then, in his disappointed adulthood, settled for "flying" on drugs. My own dream of flight made the dream that Harry Chapin's taxi driver allowed to slip away very real to me. It also made the song and its message about the importance of holding onto dreams an important inspiration to me through easy and hard times. Dreams and goals, both large and small, anchor a life. It takes perseverance to make a contribution, and nobody can persevere for long without direction and a sense of what personal achievement means.

Some people, who find the Toronto Island airport a nuisance or an impediment to their desire for a park, have called for the government to close it. This will certainly lead to a debate on the merits of the airport. As we begin the debate, practical questions will probably dominate the discussion. We will have to address questions about the feasibility of operating flight schools in the proposed single runway "commuter" airport. We also have to ask whether two airports, both well outside the city, suffice for the transportation needs of Toronto business as well as the educational needs of local flight students.

As we address the practical questions, let us not forget the importance of dreams. In our haste to banish everything noisy and dirty from the environs of the Toronto waterfront, do we run the risk of putting the dream of flight literally out of sight and out of reach of the next generation?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Nuit blanche sur nos bicyclettes

Allison and I went out on our bicycles for Nuit blanche, Toronto's public art night. We actually started with a trip to take photographs for one of Allison's art projects. We found Queen and Dunn a delightful place, with (among many other charming features) a small Caribbean takeout which offers the dish that for me epitomises Toronto's open multicultural society: Halal jerk chicken.

We went on to 48 Abell Street, where a friend of ours wants to replace a superannuated factory full of illegal artist's lofts with a mixed-use development containing 199 units of low-income housing. Then we rode on south through Liberty Village, down Sudbury Street to Wellington, where we stopped for coffee at the charming Olde York pub. Despite its name, the Olde York actually features fifties modern decor, and a menu directly from the multicultural Toronto of today. After that, we cycled into the center of the city, did some shopping, and had dinner.

After dinner, we headed off to the Royal Ontario Museum and Philosopher's Walk for the art installations there. We found the weather cooperated perfectly with the "white night" theme of the evening, with a white sky and the kind of cool humidity that makes the fall air near the Great Lakes feel like velvet. Michael Snow had projected a video of grazing sheep onto the dome of the McLachlan planetarium; in the dark with the white sky behind we could not tell where the dome began or ended, so the field of sheep loomed eerily out of the semi-dark, like a window into a more peaceful reality.

From the front of the ROM, we went back to philosopher's walk, visiting first the silver tree. The silver tree exhibit consisted of a tree wrapped in silver paper or Mylar, with strips of paper containing hopes (peace, etc.) hanging from the branches. With numerous participants grouped around it, it had the feel of a pagan ritual. It left me thinking about the nexus between the the beautiful and the spiritual; how religious rituals so often consciously aim at beauty in their surroundings and execution.

From the tree, we went south to the fog installation. Again, the weather cooperated perfectly; in the damp air, the fog generators put out a barely penetrable haze, out of which a throng loomed in eerie twos and threes. I turned off my bicycle headlight as we cautiously walked our bikes along the path, but I left my tail light on.

Afterwards, we rode over to an opening at the Spencer Gallery, an excellent little gallery on Markham Street specialising in contemporary international art. A friend had recommended the opening to us, and we enjoyed it very much.

Afterward, we rode home, an adventure in itself. A ride to West Toronto presents an interesting challenge. The streets that offer the best bicycle route to Bloor West and Old Mill, Dupont and Annette, can prove tricky to turn on. A Toronto Councillor once likened cycling in Toronto traffic to swimming with sharks, and I rather like swimming with sharks. The adrenaline rush I felt hanging nose to nose with a BMW in the left turn lane of Dufferin Street at Dupont capped a wonderful evening.

Don't worry about your enemies, worry about your friends

To paraphrase a comment attributed to Warren Harding: politicians generally have the power to deal with their enemies; the job gets tricky when they have to worry about their friends. Mayor David Miller has to worry about his friends in Community AIR, the lobby group which agitates for the closure of Toronto City Centre Airport, a small short-range airport on Lake Ontario near Toronto's downtown. Community AIR backed Mayor Miller vigorously in the last election, and he promptly gave them what they wanted in return: a request from Toronto City Council to the Canadian government that they cancel a lift bridge to the airport. The opponents of Toronto City Centre Airport hoped that would lead to the closure of the airport, but it did not. Instead, an airline entrepreneur made plans to operate a short-haul airline from Toronto City Centre using advanced, Canadian-made turbo-prop aircraft. Community AIR goes into this election frustrated, with a victory under their belt that did not get them what they wanted. They have begun asking Mayor Miller for things he can't possibly deliver. And they have begun asking it in public.

Community AIR, and their allies, subscribe to three linked myths. The first, the myth that their anti-airport group has political strength, they believe because the mayor of Toronto regularly supports their position in his rhetoric. However, if the airport issue could really tip election results city-wide, the mayor would have a clutch of council resolutions in his pocket, demanding that the federal government ground Porter Air (the airline about to open service at Toronto City Centre Airport), that the government close the airport entirely to commercial traffic, or even that Transport Canada (which owns the airport, and operates it through the Toronto Port Authority) close it altogether. Mayor Miller has never done so, and he certainly has the intelligence to understand that a city council resolution makes a stronger statement about the position of the city than press interviews by the mayor alone. If he hasn't put a single resolution before council since the first announcement of the plans for Porter Airlines, a period of over nine months, it implies that he could not get such a resolution passed.

The myth of political strength rests on a myth of moral strength. Community AIR stakes out claims heavy on rhetoric about a “clean green waterfront”, but in the end their position amounts to a demand that one privileged neighbourhood (where most of the members of Community AIR live) get all it wants, indeed all it could possibly ask, and that others (people who live near Toronto's main airport, Pearson International) pay the environmental costs.

That leads to the third myth, the myth that Community AIR has a strong factual case. They have made a number of claims that make their position look good, but which have no validity. Their analysis ranges from deeply flawed (such as their claims about the suitability of the runways and taxiways at the airport) to outright fiction (such as their claim that commercial flights will go up the Don River Valley, right through the city, when in fact flights from Toronto City Centre Airport turn south, over Lake Ontario.

Phantom strengths, like phantom wealth, have the baneful effect of inducing people to overspend. In political terms, this usually means they refuse compromises and demand exactly what they want, nothing less. A single quote characterizes the position of Community AIR: “We'll only be happy when we see bulldozers ripping up the runway.” A position such as that doesn't leave a lot of room for negotiation and compromise, the soul of politics. It leaves Mayor Miller with neither the political strength to make demands, or the flexibility to make deals.

Going into the fall municipal election, after a term characterized by disappointed expectations, David Miller needs to have the voters see him as effective. That won't happen if supporters who badly overestimate the strength of their position make impossible demands of him.