Monday, December 24, 2007

Looking back on Advent

Advent, in the Christian calendar, starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and runs until Christmas Day. During that time, we prepare for the coming of Christ, both in the sense of preparing for the festival of light by which we mark the birthday of the Christ Child, and we prepare to welcome the divine presence into our own lives. We look forward, in hope and expectation, for the dawn of justice, the completion, the hope embodied in the words: "Your kingdom come, your will be done".

This advent season, two things happened that gave me hope. Two isolated news stories that lit up a season of hope, like the first faint blue glow in the sky at the end of the night, by which we who have stood the night watch can keep our faith that the day will come.

  • The governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, has proposed measures to shield the sacred mountain called Bear Butte from inappropriate development, and in particular from the bars and party-oriented campgrounds associated with the Sturgis motorcycle rally.

    The most objectionable of these campgrounds will have much less rowdy partying this year, after its owner lost his liquor license.

  • The legislature of New Jersey abolished that state's capital punishment statute. While various states have stopped executing people under orders from the courts, as New York did, or because the number of innocent people condemned to die had grown unbearable, as in Illinois, New Jersey marks the first American state in a long time to have the people's representatives look at the proposition of capital punishment and reject it; to give up the option to take life in the name of the public. That marks a first, and I believe, or hope, that it marks the beginning of a real moral change. Perhaps when the Governor of New Jersey spoke of "evolving standards of decency, he did not speak of merely one judicial punishment in one state, but for an evolving consensus that we will not solve our problems by killing people.

I will have more to say on these and other matters as 2007 winds down and a new year arrives. I wish you a well of whatever festive season your tradition celebrates; I wish my fellow Christmas a blessed Christmas, and for all of us, a new dawn of hope.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A word to beware of...

Human, as an adjective, applies to all people and to everything we do, from writing poetry, composing music, and curing disease to cutting up the neighbour's children with a machete. However, plenty of writers use "human" in a poorly defined but strongly positive sense, referring to some act or attitude as "more human" to show approval, and "less human" to show the opposite. The very breadth of the word "human" makes it vague, which means an author can use it to express an attitude without explaining it.

Piling on vague adjectives only serves to multiply the vagueness, making a statement that only looks strong, because it deals with something that the writer never actually defines. You do not have to look too far, for example, to find someone using the phrase "authentically human". It usually seems to apply to something the author favours, although in fact, for example, Auschwitz authentically happened, and sad to say, human beings authentically did it, which makes Auschwitz as authentic an example of human behaviour as any of the other things we know human beings do.

I do not believe writers often use vague phrases like "authentically human" to express our own feelings; we usually describe our own feelings more clearly. I think we use vague phrases because we want other people to adopt our attitudes and beliefs, and not knowing the people who will read what we write, we cannot clearly tell them why they should. In other words, when we write vaguely, we do so because we want to have power over our readers, rather than share with them.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why write?

I can't put my finger on when, but sometime in my flying career, after Allison and I had taken up flying long distances, I found myself getting into a habit. After I shut the plane down, safe on the ramp or wherever I parked, I would touch the cowling or the propeller boss, and very quietly say or whisper "good plane". I though of it as my way of saying thanks-- to the plane, the people who built it and maintain it, the people who taught me to fly, the Creator who made the living Earth and the sky above it we had just traversed.

I regularly read a column by Rick Durdan, a lawyer and pilot who writes about his own passionate love for flying and the sky; I dare anyone to read his account of his daughter's first glider solo without tearing up. A year and a half ago, he wrote this:

Just before we closed the hangar door, and when he thought I wasn't looking, Hack gave the cowling a pat and I saw him mouth the word, "Thanks." I looked away and concentrated on pulling the sliding door closed.

I remember reading that and thinking: I thought I was the only one.

In this society, we have few more effective ways to communicate with other people, including people you do not know and may never meet, than the written word. If you ever need a reason to write, you can go back to that. When you write, you make everyone less alone.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Short But Ugly...

I witnessed a short but ugly incident on the TTC Monday night, at the start of a night that came with a jolt after seven months of "daylight savings time".

After running an errand in South Parkdale, I got on the eastbound street car at Dufferin and King. Right after we passed Spadina, the driver made a request over the public address for the last passenger to come up to the front and pay the fare. Did the driver mean the person on a cell phone beside me? I knew he didn't mean me; I had boarded several stops back. The driver spoke again, describing the passenger's jacket. He then said: "the fare is $2.75, not 66¢". We sat quietly, unsure of what to do. The driver then announced that the streetcar would not move until the passenger came up and paid his fare. That produced some rumblings of discontent from the rear of the car. Several more passengers boarded, only to find that the driver did not intend to move the car. At least they got out of the rain.

Then a young man pushed brusquely to the front of the streetcar. The passengers in front of me blocked the view of what he said to the driver, but I could hear the exchange. The passenger said he had no more than the money he had put in the box and had explained this to the driver; the driver replied that he hadn't heard him say that. After a couple more exchanges, someone apparently offered to pay the fare. The driver made a remark about a charity case, then demanded the passenger's student card. The argument then escalated, with the young man making increasingly free (though not imaginative) use of profanity. The streetcar stayed put. After a short time, the driver ordered the young man off, and the passenger stormed out, slamming into the front doors along the way.

After a very short pause, the driver then announced that the front doors had jammed open, and the streetcar would not move anytime soon. The car then emptied; some of the passengers who left by the front door expressed sympathy with the driver, while others abused him, the transit system, and the union.

I left with decidedly mixed sympathies. I can understand the position of the TTC; they depend on the fare box. Making fares optional would shut down the system, although, when I got caught in Mississauga at night with my bicycle, a friendly bus driver let me ride with a short fare, even when I offered to put a $5 into the fare box. I sympathize with TTC drivers; they do a necessary but boring job every day, and should not have to worry about abuse. I've also seen TTC employees throw their weight around with people of colour in ways I don't think they would with, say, David Miller.

In the end, I didn't much like the way any of us behaved. I didn't like the way I sat and did nothing, I didn't like the way some of my fellow passengers abused the driver, I didn't like the way the driver's insistence on two dollars and nine cents led to an incident that tied up a Toronto street and three streetcars (two that got stuck behind us), and I certainly didn't like the way one arrogant young man shorted the fare without apology or even an attempt at politeness.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

And now for something completely different...

As the saga of the notorious Caldera (SCO) lawsuit winds to a close, we have an opportunity to consider some of the issues it raised (and what better day than October 31).

For those people with better things to do with their time than follow the course of software copyright lawsuits, a software corporation formerly known as "Caldera" bought the SCO (Santa Cruz Operation) trademark from Tarantella Corporation, and a license to the Unix System V code from Novell (of networking fame), then passed itself off as the proprietor of all things UNIX and sued IBM over Linux, the free (speech not beer) Unix compatible operating system.

The SCO lawsuit basically accused IBM of illegally copying System V code they licensed from SCO into Linux. The scope of accusations related to the lawsuit eventually expanded to include claims by SCO that the Gnu General Public License violates the United States Constitution (not a problem for Canadians). The lawsuit, and the escalating accusations from SCO and their supporters prompted accusations from the Linux and free software community that SCO merely acted as a "sock puppet" for Microsoft to destroy the free software and open source movements.

If Microsoft did indeed put SCO up to sue IBM to slow the adoption of Linux, they did not exactly have a clever plot. They ended up bankrolling a dubious lawsuit that left them with bad publicity and a bankrupt investment. If Microsoft really intended to make a devious assault on the free software community, they did a very bad job of it. It does not make sense to throw money into a lawsuit against one of the most popular free programs, backed by some of the most formidable corporate machinery on the planet.

So why did Microsoft back SCO? It doesn't take a conspiracy, either diabolically clever or simply stupid, to explain Microsoft's behavior. Right now, if a medium or large Microsoft customer converts to Unix on the desktop, Microsoft loses that customer completely; Windows, Office, the whole Microsoft product line gets defenestrated. Microsoft had an interest, if nothing else, in making sure they could keep at least a foothold in companies that have moved from Windows to *nix. That would mean porting Office and other Microsoft products to a version of Unix; and obviously, Linux wouldn't do. Therefore, Microsoft had an interest in SCO succeeding and getting clear title to at least their version of Unix. I have no idea whether they really invested in SCO for that reason, and we may never find out.

For now, I will let Unix guru Tony Lawrence sum up the situation with SCO: "it is far past time to be looking into moving on."

Saturday, October 06, 2007

An important distinction

I frequently hear people describe cycling in the city as dangerous, frightening, and nerve-wracking. Frightening, yes, Nerve-wracking, absolutely. But cycling, in and of itself, does not pose any particular dangers. Cycling simply makes you vulnerable to the really dangerous traffic on the streets: the two to nine-tonne steel bombs, otherwise known as cars, SUVs, and trucks.

We frequently conflate danger and vulnerability, but when we do so, we blur an important moral distinction. I behave dangerously when I unleash forces I cannot properly control of cope with, whether I or others will suffer the worst consequences. I make myself vulnerable when I go without protection from dangerous things that other people do. When I speed, as I unfortunately have done, on the highway, I behave dangerously, to myself and others. When I ride my bicycle, I make myself vulnerable, but I do not behave dangerously.

So when someone tells you they find cycling in the city frightening, they should. Going without a steel cage into the unpredictable whirl of our streets frightens me. But that doesn't make my choice dangerous. Sometimes our most responsible choices make us very vulnerable.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Inventions in a future tense...

A critic of cyclists and cycling recently wrote the following:

What's going to be your argument when, as is beginning to happen now, motor vehicle engines no longer run on fossil fuels and don't pollute the air?

This provides an excellent example of an abiding problem in political discourse: achievements in the future tense. Will we have non-polluting cars someday? We do not know, but we certainly do not have them (in any numbers) now.

GM can produce electric cars, but we don't know they can produce enough to really make a difference. Nor do we know if we can grow enough energy crops to power millions of automobiles. We have yet to reconcile the desire of the rich for luxurious mobility and the basic needs of the poor: energy crops compete with food crops for farmland, and electric cars bid up the cost of electricity for heating and cooking. The engineers have some work to do before a truly environmentally friendly automobile reaches the showroom floor.

If it does? Some of us will sigh with relief and take the car. Some of us will insist on riding our bicycles for pleasure and health. But we ought not to base our individual or collective decisions about transport today on some imagined future. Today, when we choose to drive or ride, and when we choose to build bike paths or roads, cars pollute.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Why ride critical mass?

Critical mass, the mass bicycle ride that takes place on the last Friday of every month, stirs some strong emotions. Many of us who who ride with critical mass have mixed feelings: we celebrate the strength of the cycling community that it shows, even as we regret the inconvenience the ride causes to pedestrians, public transit riders, and drivers. On the other side, many people who lambaste the riders for rudeness and confrontation admit that cyclists, by and large, demand nothing but the rights we have by statute and nature.

A wise friend observed that nobody does things that do not, somehow, work for them. So what about critical mass works for me? Why do I ride?

  1. I ride to meet and support my many friends who cycle.
  2. I ride in the hope of putting my experience defusing violent conflicts to good use.
  3. I ride because I have made the journey my home, and my spirit needs to move in the world.
  4. I ride because so many of us ride in fear, and so many others fear to ride, and I want us to have one night in every month when we ride in strength. I ride to remember the white bicycles scattered around the city, and to support the people who go out on the roads despite what those memorials represent.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Some signs I would like to see...

Someone took away our fall weather and poured thick, damp and disgusting smog over Toronto today. The humidex reached 38 Celsius, a level I very much hope it will not reach again this year. I stayed home most of the day, which gave me an opportunity to work on my traffic wish list. Here I present some signs I would like to see on the roads and in mass transit stations.

Cars stop/bicycles yield

This sign means: cars stop and yield to bicycles and pedestrians; bicycles yield to pedestrians. I would like to see signs such as this replace the four-way stop signs used for traffic calming. Traffic control measures designed to slow down motorized traffic or channel it onto arterial roads should not do the same to cyclists. Requiring motorists to stop and cyclists to yield to pedestrians achieves the safety and quality of life goals of traffic calming, while encouraging cycling. In fact, since bicycles produce much less pollution and congestion than cars, providing for the needs of cyclists actually serves the goals of traffic calming measures better than simply four-way stops.
Idaho law allows cyclists to treat four-way stops as yield signs. I prefer to have specific signs for traffic calming stops, because in some cases, it may really enhance safety to have everyone stop. Also, it helps to have measures to accommodate cyclists seen. Such measures offer a healthy response to the refrain we hear too often from drivers and even community leaders, that roads really exist for motorized traffic.

Winter bicycle routes

Toronto City Council seems to think they have a responsibility to keep the salt mine in Goderich in operation. The way the city slathers salt on the streets every winter eats away at bicycles. This gives cycle shops and manufacturers plenty of business, and leaves cyclists who do not want to replace their bicycles every couple of years grinding our teeth. Assuming the advantages of slightly speedier winter traffic justify the environmental and other costs of salting the roads, I would like to see the city devise some winter bicycle routes, where they will not salt the roads, and where they will take other measures to keep cyclists safe from other winter cycling hazards, such as narrower lanes, congested traffic, and reduced visibility.

Bicycle waiting area

A bicycle waiting are at the commuter rail or subway implies that at least one of the cars on each train will have seats which tilt up to allow more room for cyclists or bicycle racks. I would also like to see bicycles allowed onto the subway and commuter rail system at rush hour, with a surcharge for the privilege. A bicycle takes up room and offers its rider significant convenience. I see no reason cyclists should not pay for this convenience, during peak hours. I would rather pay than not have my bicycle allowed on the system at all.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A case in point...

Three weeks ago, I wrote about traffic laws, both real and imaginary. Last week, an article in the Edmonton Sun provided a perfect example of imaginary laws.

The article describes four incidents; in two of them, the cyclist apparently did nothing at all illegal. The writer apparently conflates his own impatience and lack of respect for cyclists with the requirements of the law. A number of points bear emphasizing here:

  • No road user has a right to go faster than the vehicle in front of them. That means:
    • Drivers who want to pass other vehicles have an obligation to do it safely. That obligation does not change when a motor vehicle passes a human-powered vehicle.
    • All types of vehicles take actions, legal, safe, and unremarkable actions, that slow down traffic. Cars turn left into side streets, tying up center lanes. Trucks park to make deliveries. Singling out cyclists for delaying traffic would not make logical sense, even assuming we accept the goal of moving motorized traffic as quickly as possible.
  • The Alberta Highway Traffic Act does require cyclists to stay as far to the right as practicable. Practicable, in this case, means safe, as well as practical. That means:
    • If staying to the right encourages drivers to pass unsafely, then a cyclist has no practicable alternative to taking the lane.
    • Obviously, a cyclists intending to turn left cannot "practicably" travel on the right.

One of the incidents reported in this article illustrates the problems with the writer's mindset. As the writer attempted to pass a cyclist, the cyclist moved out from the curb, possibly to avoid a pothole, and then the writer "had to pull around the cyclist and dodge dangerously into the lane of the oncoming car." The article does not explain why closing the throttle, stepping on the brake, and dropping back behind the cyclist would not have worked just as well. Nor does the author explain why simply slowing down until the lane clearly had enough room for both the bicycle and the car would not have worked.

I consider the conversation about road safety an important one for both drivers and cyclists. We have to talk about safety and legality. But we can't do that with motorists who insist on blurring the distinction between their wants and the public statutes, or between safety for everyone and convenience for them.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Human-Powered Travel and Human Rights

If anyone asked whether the government has the right to sentence any person to house arrest for any, or no, reason, most of us would answer no. But consider the wastes of car-dependent suburbs in North American and several other places in the world, places where road builders include no sidewalks and discourage cycling. A mere administrative action, the revocation of a driver's license, can effectively sentence a person to such restricted bounds that it amounts to imprisonment. The constitutions of free countries, implicitly in the United States and explicitly in Canada, forbid governments to do this.

Yet governments cannot deregulate the operation of cars. Unless you manage to acquire a machine gun or a rocket launcher, you will never own a weapon with the destructive power of an ordinary automobile. No government can treat access to that kind of potential weapon as a civil right. If we cannot accept an inalienable right to drive cars, but we do have a right to move about, to not have the state arbitrarily imprison us, then we must logically decide what form of transportation to define as a right.

Anyone who has read this blog with attention will know that I consider the freedom to use human-powered transportation, primarily cycling and walking, one of the great blessings of an open society. I also see the right of human beings to move about under our own power as an essential compromise between individual freedom and public safety. We must license cars, we must license motorized drivers, for our own safety. But we need not license bicycles or cyclists, and we can, and must, have the freedom to move about, on wheel and on foot, under our own power. Ordinances and policies that forbid cycling and discourage walking can have no place in a free society.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Welcome back, Mr. Ebert

The Toronto International Film Festival is about to start. I was pleased to read in the Toronto Star that Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert is attending the festival, after a forced absence since 2005 due to complications from jaw cancer. I enjoy Mr. Ebert's reviews and I also enjoy his upbeat attitude.

Here's what he says about the festival on his web site:
Say you don't make it into your movie at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The Toronto climate is glorious in September, and it is a city vibrating with restaurants, cafes, shops, theaters, concerts, bookstores and actual movie theaters selling tickets to current attractions. And the festival itself attracts exciting street life around the main projection centers and up and down Yorkville, Yonge, Bloor, King and Queen streets. You would have to be very determined to have a bad time in Toronto, and it's just not worth the effort.

Mr. Ebert, welcome back!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

On Forgiveness and Unintended Consequences

My unpleasant encounter with a car fender last Tuesday has left me thinking about several things, including forgiveness and the law of unintended consequences.

In the moment that I stood in the street fumbling with my cell phone and deciding whether or not to dial 911, several instincts played through me. A long family tradition of toughness weighed against bothering the authorities over a little thing like a roll on the pavement. My history of cycling activism told me to hold the driver accountable. My deep belief in peace and reconciliation left me spring loaded to forgive. My years of experience in the criminal justice system have left me with a healthy respect for its limits. All that, combined with my own reluctance to spend time with police while waiting to get to the doctor, led me not to call 911. Some people who commented on my last post think I should tell the police what happened, if only to keep their statistics straight. I see the point in that call, and I may do it.

The incident did make me think about Toronto's street design, and the driving habits it encourages. Where minor streets such as Euclid cross arterial roads like Dundas, a long time can pass during rush hour without the kind of break in traffic drivers at stop signs should wait for. On Dundas, as on many other streets, when traffic in one direction breaks, the traffic in the other often does not. Drivers frequently pull forward at the first break in traffic closest to them, then wait for a break in the traffic going the other direction. Doing this creates a dangerous situation, but if drivers did not do it, traffic in this city simply would not move. At Euclid, the street where I got hit, "traffic calming" measures (excuse a hollow laugh) compound the problem. Normally, a driver attempting to cross a major street such as Dundas would have the option to turn right and circle back to their destination, but the maze of one-way streets, specifically designed to exclude traffic from the neighbourhood, boxes drivers in and makes it difficult for them to choose the safer course. The neighbourhood pressure groups and traffic engineers who designed the street where I got hit probably did not intend to create a stressful situation for drivers or a dangerous one for me, but between them, they did so.

In his book Dancing with a Ghost, Rupert Ross discussed the preference of Native Elders for justice which dealt with the root of problems, rather than simply punishing the offender. In this case, I see the root of the problem as bad street design, a city profoundly conflicted about the role of the car in our culture, and some very mixed messages about aggressive driving. Right or wrong, I would rather address these roots of the problem than visit retribution on the apologetic young woman whose front bumper shoved my bike.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A roll on the pavement

Christian Peacemaker Teams has an office just off Spadina Avenue and below College Street. I go there to provide computer advice, work on plans, run errands, or just hang out. When I go, I often ride my bike; I find it a pleasant distance to ride in from Bloor West.

Yesterday, as I rode home along Dundas at rush hour, a car tried to cross at Euclid, which has no light, just a stop sign. By the time I realised they hadn't seen me and wouldn't stop, I had passed in front of them. Trying to avoid them, I felt something push my bike. I tried frantically to stay in control, realised I couldn't, and then an instinct that has saved me more than once took over: I relaxed and let it happen. My bike and I went down, and I came off the bike cleanly. I landed on my left hand, and rolled as I hit. I remember thinking I must look like other cyclists caught on You-Tube falling and rolling. I had my helmet on, but I don't think I hit my head at all. I came up in the next second, and roared at the driver, Stop!

I don't think I needed to yell anything; the two young women in the car stopped immediately and apologized profusely. I remember the next few seconds as a bit muddled; I took out my cell phone and tried to decide whether I should call 911. On one hand, I had just had a car crash; on the other hand, I didn't seem seriously hurt, the police might take a while to arrive, and probably had other things to do anyway. I just wanted to get to a doctor and get checked out. The driver asked me if I wanted to call an ambulance, and I knew I did not need to do that. I hesitated for a moment, then looked around for my bike. I panicked for a second when I didn't see it on the street, then realized a witness to the crash had kindly retrieved it for me. I thanked him, collected my bike, and then told the driver I needed her insurance information. She gave me the card, let me a pen to copy the number, and gave me her cell number. She offered again to drive me to the hospital, but I just wanted to get home with the bike. Also, when someone has a car crash, my first impulses don't include accepting a ride from them.

I went to St. Joseph Hospital. Looking back, I would have done better to go to Toronto Western, just two blocks away, but I wanted to go somewhere I knew. The doctors at St. Joseph stitched my thumb up where I lacerated it on the pavement, and took a few x-rays to make sure I hadn't broken any bones. I went home, had some ibuprofen and a hot bath, and emailed friends who had heard about the accident to let them know I had so far suffered no seriously ill effects.

Looking back, should I have called the police? My instincts say no. The driver should have stopped to make sure she had a clear road (which means no cyclists in the way), but plenty of drivers have made worse mistakes in my presence, and I haven't dialed 911. It seemed a bit unfair to try to bring the full weight of the law down on the driver who had the misfortune to get into a crash with my bike.

In the end, I just feel grateful that I apparently go through it with so little lasting harm. When I think of how badly these encounters have gone for other people, I feel fortunate indeed.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Real and Imaginary Traffic Rules for Cyclists

Motorists who complain about cyclists seem to have two principal beefs. Some argue that cyclists take up space that "rightfully" belongs to cars, and that cyclists simply get in the way of what they view as "legitimate" road users. Others point out that the rules of the road apply to all of us. Unfortunately, the first view tends to inform the second: many motorists don't just want cyclists to obey the rules of the road, they want cyclists to obey the rules as they understand them, or even as they invent them.

The laws motorists claim cyclists routinely break fall into four categories: laws which really do serve the purpose of keeping us safe, laws in which the spirit reasonably ought to exempt bicycles, laws which serve a purpose but do not apply in the context that many motorists claim, and, last, laws not found in the Ontario statute books at all, and which some motorists have apparently made up out of whole cloth.

Real Laws that Really Apply

Everyone who operates a vehicle at night needs lights and reflectors. That includes cyclists as well as drivers. Every vehicle should obey the traffic lights. Vehicles don't belong on sidewalks or in crosswalks. Any cyclist can turn into a pedestrian at any time; just get off the saddle, grab the handlebars, and walk. Don't ride past open streetcar doors. Yield to the bus. Respect crosswalks. The list of laws that reasonably apply to bicycles includes most of the highway traffic act.

Real Laws that Common Sense Says Shouldn't Apply to Bicycles

Traffic calming rules apply to bicycles, although many of them really should not. When a local neighbourhood committee asks for stop signs on every block to deter commuting motorists from barreling through at fifty km/h or more, they don't intend to force bicycles traveling at twenty to thirty km/h to stop every sixty meters. However, we have a solution for this: change the law, so the letter reflects the intent. Where four-way stop signs and other traffic calming measures don't need to apply to bicycles, change the rules, and change the signs to match.

Real (Sort of) Laws That Would Paralyze Urban Traffic

According to a literal reading of the highway traffic act, you cannot pass another car on the right. Toronto has a number of streets with advanced right turn signals, and of course, cars routinely turn right on red. In congested traffic, the cars in the least congested lane move ahead as quickly as they can. Whenever cars in the rightmost lane move before cars in the left or center lane, they technically violate the law. If everyone followed the law rigidly, no lane could move unless the left-most lane started moving first. Nobody ever drives like that, but some motorists apparently insist that cyclists ought to ride that way.

"Rules" Made Up Out of Whole Cloth

One motorist recently wrote to a public forum, complaining that:

As a driver, this is frustrating. Cars move at a good clip, as I'm sure you're aware. When a cyclist darts in front of them to avoid a "pothole", as in your example, they usually do not signal. This is actually the law, to signal, if you are a car or a bike...any vehicle needs to signal.

This argument misstates the law in two ways. First, cars do not "move at a good clip"; they travel at the speed selected by their drivers, who have at all times the obligation to operate them in a safe manner. That means a driver who cannot avoid a cyclist in front of them maneuvering to avoid a pothole should slow down. Second, a cyclist, like a car, has a right to maneuver in the cyclist's own lane without needing to signal. If you want to pass a cyclist in their own lane, you have the responsibility to do it safely. That means leaving the cyclist enough room to avoid road hazards. If you can't pass safely, slow down. I don't think any motorist has ever died from driving at bicycle speed for a few blocks.

Then we have the extraordinary delusion that the highway traffic act, or any other traffic regulation, contains some sort of provision for those drivers who consider it unfair that cyclists take advantage of the nimble nature of our vehicles. Yes, bicycles work better in congested traffic, precisely because we can cycle through gaps in traffic that cars cannot. If you want to take advantage of that too, get on your bike; with one less car, we'll all have less congestion to worry about.

Why does this matter? First of all, it matters that road users have reasonable expectations of one another. Also, some drivers seem to believe they do not have to respect any cyclist if they see just one cyclist do something they consider wrong. That attitude has plenty of obnoxious features by itself; if you extend that way of thinking to cars, could the police ban motorized traffic from the city for twenty-four hours after every hit and run? If drivers can behave with contempt and distrust for all cyclists because of the behavior of one cyclist, can any cyclist who has ever encountered a drunk driver treat all motorists with contempt and disdain? But this belief in collective guilt takes on an additional dimension of absurdity when the "rules" motorists blame us all for breaking exist only in heir own heads. Plenty of cyclists, including myself, advocate excellent cycling, which includes showing respect for other road users. We should follow the rules that keep us and other road users safe. Those rules, however, come from the law and the courts, not the desires of individual motorists.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mr. Bush doesn't get it

...the American people will never be safe until the people of the Middle East know the freedom that our creator meant for all.

Almost five years after Jean Chretien summed up the problem with a single nation trying to police the globe and impose one version of the "good life" on everyone, George Bush still doesn't get it. As the United States prepared to invade Iraq, Chretien asked the single question that, in retrospect, everyone should have asked: once we grant the world's dominant military power to impose their vision of freedom on anyone, anywhere, by armed force, what limits to this power exist? And if any nation can suffer an invasion simply because opinion moulders in the United States find their society insufficiently "free", then what freedom, what security does anyone have?

Almost two hundred and twenty years after the framing of the United States constitution, and four bloody years in Iraq (and counting), the basic concept that freedom means, above all, limits on the power of people with uniforms and guns still escapes many "serious" foreign policy minds in Washington. Almost eighty years after the Kellog-Briand pact, it hasn't penetrated the mind of George Bush or his supporters that the same principle of freedom from government intervention that underpins the US constitution has to apply to everyone. Trapped in a tragic conviction that the United States government can make people free by pointing guns at them, Mr. Bush and his supporters have succeeded only at diminishing everyone's freedom.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A beautiful pause in Wisconsin

Toronto, Ontario. -- On the way home, we spent three days in Wisconsin, first visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum to see their current exhibition, Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape. Then we stayed at a lovely, quiet resort in central Wisconsin, the Oakwood Lodge in Green Lake.

I think that the picture says it all.
And here's another picture.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Road East

We headed east from Bear Butte and Sturgis South Dakota on Tuesday, making for Sioux Falls where we had to drop a colleague off. Interstate 90, the road which traverses the southern part of South Dakota from Minnesota to Wyoming, has relatively little traffic. However, much of that traffic consists of big vehicles. We regularly saw bus-sized recreational vehicles (RVs) towing SUVs. In fact, one RV actually had a hummer in tow, which pretty much redefined the term "wretched excess" for me.

We stopped for lunch at Wall Drug, which has essentially evolved from a small town drug store on the edge of the badlands to a large western-themed mall. They have a cafe which serves a good inexpensive breakfast, and a sculpture court where you can take someone's picture on a jackelope.

After we had dropped our co-worker off for the flight home, we headed for our first night's stop in Fairmont, MN. The next day we drove on through to the Mississippi crossing, and then on through the Wisconsin Dells, and so to Kenosha on Lake Michigan.

And so we ended the first part of our trip, the excursion to South Dakota and our religious meeting.

A Prairie Trail

Green Lake, Wisconsin. -- I am writing from a resort in Wisconsin, but (to keep with our chronology), I am recalling the events of a few days ago, on the prairie.

John has already written about our reasons for being in South Dakota, where John spoke at a Spiritual Forum in Rapid City and where we stayed for two nights at the prayer camp at the foot of Bear Butte. So I am just adding a few impressions.

Now I have to admit that I do not like camping as a rule, being quite fond of the comforts found in say, a nice Holiday Inn or a cosy bed and breakfast. But the experience of camping on the prairie was lovely in a lot of ways. First, and most important, because of the warm welcome we received from the First Nations people there. Second, because of the gentle breezes that kept the heat at bay (even though they threatened to blow one tent away).

Third, as an Ontario resident, I had never really seen the grasslands up close or realized how rich and colourful they are. Black-eyed Susans are the flower of choice there, growing by every roadside in the hundreds. There are plants with little red berries (I don't know the name) and others that have elegant brown thistle-like (but not prickly) flowers. Best of all, sage grows alongside the pathways, and across the pathways too, so that, as you walk, it is as if your footsteps are always raising incense.

Honouring our Ancestors

Christian Solidarity Walk,
Mato Paha 2006
Green Lake, Wisconsin - As part of our trip to Mato Paha (Bear Butte), we attended a spiritual encampment set up to pray for the protection of the sacred mountain. There we met a Lakota woman who spoke to us of White people who ask to join First Nations rituals, to take part in Sweat Lodges and watch the Sun Dance. She told me she asks them what they do to honour their own ancestors, what rituals they have.

As a Christian, my religious rituals do not relate to my ancestors. But I do make an effort to honour my ancestors; I work for justice towards Aboriginal North Americans on my behalf and theirs.

My great-great-great uncle, William Spragge, signed the Manitoulin Island Treaty on behalf of the Crown. I don't know his actual attitude towards the First Nations he negotiated with, whether he truly wished to make the encounter between two cultures as just and fair as he could, or whether he mainly wished to move Aboriginals and their cultures out of the way of European settlement. In a sense, it does not matter very much. The Europeans who first encountered First Nations people shared the difficult task of reconciling two very different cultures with very different views of the world, and I believe in evaluating even their worst failures with compassion.

But whatever my ancestors did or failed to do right in the centuries that preceded this one, their actions form part of an ongoing relationship. I can choose to honour the best things my ancestors did by doing everything I can to foster a just relationship between the Aboriginal and Non-aboriginal people of this continent. If enough of us do so, in the end I believe history will see even the worst mistakes of our ancestors as slips at the rocky beginning of a positive relationship. If we and the generations that follow us fail, then all that our ancestors did, the good and the bad, will blend into a history of genocide, of the destruction of a people. I do this work, I strive to steer our relationships in a positive direction, because I have the honour of my ancestors in my keeping.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Not Quite Critical Mass

Sturgis SD. - The thunder creeps in everywhere: through library windows, through the walls of our tent at night, and into the cafe where we eat. Tens of thousands of engines roar in unison at the Sturgis motorcycle rally, where we have come to attend a prayer camp for the protection of Mato Paha, the holy mountain threatened by bars and party venues. We have come to meet with Native Elders, and have joined a prayer camp sponsored by the Northern Cheyenne.

During the rally, Sturgis South Dakota presents a picture of a culture utterly enthralled to the internal combustion engine; some motorcycle rally participants arrive on motorcycles with their tents and bedrolls, while others ride in van homes or rolling palaces towed by semi-trailers. The festival has grayed; the average age of the participants has topped fifty. But even the AARP of motorcycle rallies has plenty of beer, plenty of noise, and a very busy court and jail.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Cyclist Goes for a Long Drive...

Winner, SD. - If you read the cycling stories and the cycling advocacy here, the stories of travel by car we have posted in the last three days may make you wonder: why did we choose to drive? And does that mean my advocacy for cycling only means advocating easy cycling?
The work I have undertaken on behalf of Christian Peacemaker Teams requires travel to Rapid City South Dakota, two destinations not served by any public transit other than a bus service which runs on an irregular schedule, and an airline service. The work we plan to do requires mobility in a place where summer temperatures routinely get up into the mid forties (Celsius). We need to go to the area at a time when demand for accommodation pushes hotel prices for even budget hotels into the $200.00 per night range. We have to navigate changing circumstances, complex politics, and extreme, unpredictable weather. To do this work, we need a car. A bicycle touring champion might operate successfully on a bicycle in these conditions, though I doubt it, but I cannot.
All this means nothing to the Earth's carbon balance. Does the work we do justify itself to future generations, who will have to endure the atmosphere we leave behind? I believe it does. Nothing creates as much pollution as unconstrained conflict. I consider peacemaking a carbon offset. I believe the work we do to heal confrontations justifies the carbon we must expend.

Classical taste in the Midwest

Sioux Center, Iowa. - During our stay in Beloit, Wisconsin (which we learned is pronounced Beloyt, not Belwah), we enjoyed visiting Beloit College. Besides the fascinating effigy mounds and Emma Goldman sculpture, there was the Wright Museum of Art, a delightful red brick structure. Its courtyard with round arches has a definite air of promoting art as a civilizing influence.

Among the exhibits was a plaster cast of the ancient Greek discus thrower. The label explained that he was one of a collection of plaster casts acquired from the Greek government's exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Typical of such collections, these casts were once treasured, subsequently fell into sad disrepair, but are now being rediscovered. The museum invited us to "adopt" the plaster cast of the discus thrower or one of his fellows.

After enjoying a small exhibit of plein air painting, and a show of sequential paintings, we were on our way.

Crossing Minnesota

We set ourselves a challenge yesterday: swimming, blogging, sightseeing, and getting from the edge of southern Wisconsin to the borders of South Dakota. By Mapquest's account, it should take eight hours to drive that distance, but MapQuest does not take construction delays, rainstorms, or meal breaks into account.
We started out looking at Native effigy mounds at Beloit College, a small liberal arts university. The mounds at Beloit look like small humps, clearly visible as human constructions, rising between two and four feet above ground level. The brochure provided by the college anthropology museum tells us they date from AD 800-1000, and surmises that Native families built them as projects to foster family unity. Beloit College has added some modern sculptural installations to the grounds as well, including a tribute to Emma Goldman. It consists of a seat with a cage in front of it, and an open liberating window to the left.

We had lunch in Beloit, then drove north and west, past Madison to the Mississippi crossing that divides Wisconsin from Minnesota. The Mississippi has cut a large valley here, with impressive bluffs looming over it. According to the historical plaque, the area has attracted tourists since 1855. The highway follows the valley for a short while, then climbs out into rolling farmland of Minnesota. We stopped for dinner in Rochester, which appeared to have a balloon festival under way.
After dinner, we drove on in the dark; rain turned the drive into a challenge at first, then an endurance test. We arrived after midnight.
Today we pick up our co-worker and travel on to the meeting in Rapid City.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Revisiting old Haunts

Beloit, Wisconsin. - I have little to add to John's post except to say a bit about revisiting Ann Arbor. When we arrived there with Rebecca and Doug I was delighted to show them the parking structure, which goes beyond parking to be a lesson in cross-cultural mathematics. Each floor is indicated in a variety of number systems -- modern Arabic, Roman numerals, Egyptian, Chinese and Hindi. Having lived six years in this lovely city with its high concentration of Ph.D.'s, all I can say is, this is so Ann Arbor.

It's interesting how a one-and-a-half hour revisit to a city one knows well, becomes a condensed version of one's remembered life there. Zola is special to us because of many visits for waffles and other treats, but especially because, the evening after I successfully defended my dissertation, my superisor Howard took us to dinner there.

By the way, it is the addition of yogurt and lemon zest that makes the Zola waffle so special

The Journey is Our Home

Yesterday we left our house with the sun. Friends picked us up in the Christian Peacemaker Teams car, and we headed west for Chicago. Rebecca and Doug had meetings at the Chicago offices of CPT; we plan to attend a spiritual gathering on the subject of Mato Paha, the great sacred mountain of the Western Plains.

We had a long drive ahead of us for this first day: from Toronto through Chicago to Beloit in Wisconsin. Fortunately, our friends took turns with the driving, allowing me to catch up on sleep that the trip preparations had given me no time for. We took our friends to lunch in Ann Arbor at Zola's cafe, and treated them to the best waffles on this mortal Earth. Then we hit the road again, through the hills of southern Michigan and the northern Indiana, through the dark and slag-scarred mills of Gary Indiana, and so to the CPT American office on Chicago's West Side. There we rested and had dinner.

Whenever I see it, the scale of the American industrial landscape impresses me; where other cities have a lifting railway bridge, Chicago has a row of lifting bridges. The use of steel in places like Chicago also impresses me; where in Toronto we tend to build in square forms that have a spare functional beauty, American designers use more decoration, shaping even objects such as bridge supports into decorative shapes which look to me like tulip bulbs, and weaving decorations into bridge railings.

After dinner, and after leaving our friends behind, we headed west for the final phase of the day's journey: the trip to Beloit Wisconsin. We followed I-90 out of Chicago to Rockford, where crews repairing up the road reduced traffic to a monumentally frustrating crawl. And so to the inn and bed after a long day, a long leap at the start of our journey.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Riding to Port Hope

This weekend, I joined Vic Gedris and a mixed group of bicycle riders to celebrate my birthday weekend with a cycling and camping trip. Two nights under the stars, and a 100 kilometer round trip; what better way could I chose to close out an interesting 51st year?

The trip had a several highlights for me, things both important and trivial:

  • The train that returned my wave with a toot,

  • the patience of my fellow riders, who often waited for an old man who fell behind,

  • the waiters in the Beamish House restaurant at Port Hope, who responded to the news that a party of tired, hungry and sweaty cyclists had descended on their patio with pitchers of ice water and plates of food,

  • the impromptu pot luck dinner we organized on Saturday night after the ride.

  • the waterfront trail winding through the country along the waterfront, and the ongoing work to improve it.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Not Ready to Make Nice

Credit: Sharon Mollerus Licensed Creative Comons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0

We rented the "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing" on DVD last week, and by coincidence, at just about the same time I ran across evidence of the evolution of people on the opposite side: advocates for the Iraq war.

Consider David Warren, perhaps the most strident of the Canadian backers of the war in Iraq; he generally gets credited with the "flypaper" justification for occupying Iraq. Four years ago, in high indignation over Jean Chretien's refusal to participate in Iraq, Mr. Warren had this to say:

...this New Canada that makes me heartsick as it does several millions of my fellow Canadians -- that fills us with such a deep sense of shame.... This Canada that despatched its few remaining available soldiers hurriedly to peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan as a kind of insurance in case the Americans asked for help. ("Sorry! We gave at the office.")

Over the next three and a half years, Canada went through two elections, the second of which brought in a Conservative party government. Through those three and a half years, the Canadian government remained fully committed to the mission in Afghanistan the Chretien government had first signed on for in 2002. But as Iraq sank into chaos and failure, as American casualties mounted and ten percent of Iraq's population fled, Canada stayed resolutely clear of any involvement with the "coalition of the willing". In November 2006, David Warren wrote this:

With a few gracious exceptions, such as Britain, Australia, Poland -- and Canada, rather late in the day -- the West has watched America defend our common vital interests, alone.... I am, on balance, ashamed of the hesitant and scrounging support my own countrymen have given our American allies.

Last week, he had this to say about the Canadian dead coming home from Afghanistan:

...we are a nation, and when they send our boys back from Afghanistan in boxes, it doesn’t matter what our politics are. We stand with them and for them, and we salute them, for they were our bravest and best.

When did Canada's commitment to Afghanistan change from a poor excuse to avoid helping the Americans in Iraq to a noble cause? And more important, why does it matter?

Let us try another example: consider Dan Riehl's argument in favor of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq.

...we have engaged a ruthless enemy in a generational conflict that only the naive thought would be over in a few years, or go precisely as planned at its beginning.

I wonder if Riehl considers the multitude of US officials who confidently predicted a short war, a "cakewalk", before the invasion of Iraq among the naive, and whether the presence of so many naive policy makers in the Bush administration has helped lead to the current sorry state of Iraq. But, again, what do we accomplish by holding the proponents of the Iraq war to account for the disconnect between what they said then and what they say now, or for the contradictions between what they say and reality?

I think it matters that we hold the advocates for the war in Iraq accountable, simply to make the point that reality always wins. Politicians, whatever they want to believe, cannot order up the truth to suit themselves, and when they ignore the actual situation in favor of the things they and their constituents prefer to believe, they incur a high cost, which someone else often has to pay. Holding people accountable doesn't mean stocks and dunces caps in the public square; still less does it mean denying the very real arguments about the iniquities of Saddam Hussein that people sincerely advanced in the run-up to the war in Iraq. It does mean not accepting nonsense and not listening to absurdities in silence. It means always keeping in mind the difference between forgiving the people who pushed so hard for a disastrous war, and condoning their arrogance and thoughtlessness.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Shopping by Bicycle

I shop by bicycle. I find I can get enough groceries to last at least half a week into the rear panniers of my bicycle, and if I need to buy more, I can always load my front panniers. The picture to the right tells the story: all the food and drink on the table went into the panniers. I didn't have to pack tightly to fit everything in. The food I buy in an ordinary shopping trip, the kind many people make in a car, will generally fit comfortably enough in one or two panniers.

When I buy larger items, such as toilet paper, I generally use a bungee cord to strap the object to the rear deck of my bike, as the picture to the left illustrates. Usually, a single length of bungee cord suffices to secure a quite large item to the rear of the bike.

I find that I can ride quite comfortably carrying heavy load on the bike. The goods I bought in the shopping trip pictured above have mass of at least ten kilos (weighing twenty-two pounds), more than I would ever want to carry on foot. Riding, I didn't even notice I had them on. In many ways, a bicycle shows its advantages best when carrying heavy loads.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Cycling in Toronto -- Next Steps

The web log "I bike TO" has started some interesting discussions of our ultimate goals; imagining what the streets of Toronto should ultimately look like, and how they should ultimately work. I would like to start with a more modest goal: imagining what our next steps will look like. What do we need to do this year, and between now and 2010?

Building Critical Mass

Eight years ago, I stood on the street in Amsterdam and watched hundreds of cyclists rolling through an intersection. I thought then: the Dutch have passed the tipping point. Cyclists in Amsterdam have the numbers, to dominate not only the streets, but the perception of the streets. To a resident of Amsterdam, Rob Ford's "Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks." must seem self-evidently absurd.

So how do we get past that tipping point? In a culture saturated in car advertisements, where car columnists can speak about speeding as "not the problem", how do we turn this corner. In fact, nobody can guarantee we ever will.

Not one to go down without a comment, or a fight, I will propose four measures to support right now to get the bicycle commuters, the bicycle shoppers, and the Sunday cyclists out on the road.

  1. We need safe bicycle routes. That means bicycle routes safe from aggressive drivers, but also safe from muggers and rapists. We need lit, monitored cycle paths. We need more bicycle lanes, if lanes attract more cyclists and help keep them safe. We need more effective education for motorists on the need to share the road. We need sharrows on every street in the city.

  2. We need year-round bicycle routes. A fellow parishioner of mine told me his bicycles wear out in two years because he rides them in winter. The combination of salt slathered on roads, bicycle paths with "No Winter Maintenance" signs, and the inevitable hazards of winter add up to a potent, and toxic, combination of factors steering people away from winter cycling. I believe we need to designate winter bicycle routes along side streets, where we can avoid salt in favor of plowing. I believe we need to get the city to commit to keeping selected cycling routes open all year.

  3. We need public transit to accommodate bicyclists, not just when the TTC or GO finds it convenient to have cyclists aboard, but all of the time.

  4. We need to reach out.

    • We need to reach the thousands of unorganized cyclists in this city. Almost two thirds of the population of Toronto cycles; we need to make sure they know that by riding more, and by getting involved in the politics of this city, we can make our rides easier and safer.

    • We need to reach out to racialized and immigrant communities. We need to make the economic and health benefits of doing without cars clear to everyone in Toronto, and we need to hear what other communities need to make car-free transportation work for them.

I do not propose these things as our ultimate goals, merely as the next steps toward which we should organize. But I believe that as we begin to achieve these goals, we will move close to a bicycle friendly city, one which has broken the car addiction.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Answers for rude drivers....

In January of this year, I posted on the need for an alternative means of communication with rude and aggressive drivers. A reader added a comment to the effect that the Australians may have found a gesture that works.

I hope it works, because road rage hasn't gone away.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

This is my bicycle...

This is my bicycle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Together, we make up a truly remarkable vehicle: efficient, agile, silent, non-polluting.

A bicycle has a ratio of one watt to the guidance system, the cyclist's brain, for every four watts that goes into the propulsion system, the cyclist's legs. Consider, by contrast, the car: for every watt of brain power, in many cars a thousand watts go into the drive train. That makes a bicycle the smartest transportation system on the road today.

My bicycle gives me pleasure, lets me move through the world using less energy than any other vehicle, gives me a way to experience, directly, the smells of the city, the slopes, turns, and texture of the road, see, hear, and feel the world I move through.

I ride to shops, work sites, through places of beauty and peace and across gulfs of concrete and hazard. I ride in cooling breezes during the summer, and snow flurries in the winter.

After eleven years of riding, this bicycle has come to fit me.Together, this bicycle and I move in the world.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A feature, not a bug...

Cyclists do not have to pay car insurance premiums. To judge from the comment recently dropped on I Bike TO, some people regard that as a bug. I see it as a feature, for two reasons:
  1. Operating a vehicle with a mass of 100 kilograms powered by a 100 watt power source carries less risk to everyone around you than operating a vehicle with a mass of 2000 kilos and a peak power of over 150,000 watts. Cars pose a risk to drivers, passengers, other road users, and even pedestrians. As well as keeping hundreds of auto body shops in business, your (2003) car insurance premiums helped pay the funeral expenses of 2,778 people killed in crashes in this country, and medical and rehabilitation costs for 222,260 people injured. When you drive, you operate a two-tonne battering ram fueled by the explosive equivalent of 800 pounds of dynamite. The risk translates into cost, but even insurance premiums cannot offset all the risks of driving. We should welcome a method of transport which avoids the risks of the car, not resent it for costing less.
  2. The Canadian Charter of Rights identifies personal mobility as a right. Attaching a price tag to a right makes it hard for many people to exercise, and makes it irrelevant to many poor people. In a car-dependent culture, high-speed roads can act as prison walls confining poor communities. A means of personal mobility available to everyone makes everyone free.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Thirty-day chip

I started this year by posting my sole New Year's Resolution: to cycle more and drive less. Now at my house we keep track of our car-free days. We expect to make this our fourteenth car-free day; we used our bicycles to go out to dinner in Port Credit. We've promised ourselves that we will do something special when we have accumulated thirty car-free days.

We try to define a car-free day as a day in which we neither drive nor do we make any secondary use of a car; by ordering food delivered or by taking a taxi. We can have a car-free day where we take the train or public transit. But above all, a car-free day means taking the opportunity to travel by bicycle.

For me, car-free means freedom, from the cost of gas, as well as from all the other costs, economic and personal, of using a car. It means relying on myself for my own travel.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Thank you for reading this weblog. I appreciate your deciding to spend some time on what we write here. If you should decide to comment on what you read, we look forward to reading what you have to say.

So why do I have comment moderation enabled? I want to prevent spam comments. I welcome comments on anything we have written, whether you agree with us or not. I only insist that you:

  1. keep the ratio of profanity to thought reasonable (for best results, avoid profanity completely)
  2. do not attempt to advertise a product or service, and
  3. avoid insulting or abusing third parties.

As long as you stay within these guidelines, feel free to post your ideas in the comments. If you need to get in touch with either of us privately, submit a comment with NOT FOR PUBLICATION at the head, and an e-mail address or some other way we can reply to you.

Friday, June 22, 2007

An Armed Society

The National Rifle Association in the US likes to quote Robert Heinlein: "An armed society is a polite society."

Here in Toronto, we have the arms, all right. We (or most of us) frequently tool around in two-tonne battering rams, each powered by enough high explosive to take down a building. We seem to have missed out on the "polite" part, though.

Most drivers behave with appropriate courtesy and respect, but a minority behaves in ways ranging from pushy and disrespectful to homicidally reckless. What did we do wrong? When do we get the "polite" part of our armed society?

I generally disagree with Heinlein every chance I get, but I partly agree with him here. In an armed society, people take their manners seriously, because what they do, and say, can have serious consequences. I think we do not have a polite society on the roads because we do not have a society of armed, self-confident equals. Instead, we have a society of patient, courteous drivers and a minority of motorized yobs. And because the majority has not yet developed an effective way of responding to the disrespectful, even lethal minority around us, violent drivers have impunity. Many people do not take their behavior seriously, because the consequences only go one way.

If we want to respond to aggressive drivers, we can assert our rights on the street, or we can assert them effectively in the courts. Given the consequences of a demolition derby, or even a game of chicken, on our streets, dealing with violent drivers through the courts makes more sense than anything else. If you drive a car, you operate a weapon, and the misuse of that privilege ought to carry the same consequences as the misuse of any other dangerous weapon. The time has come to take the rights and the responsibilities of all drivers seriously.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Urban Oddness

Yesterday I was on the westbound platform at Toronto’s Runnymede subway station when I saw an odd sight. A man, walking along the platform, turned his head to look at a round rust stain on the floor, a stain that suggested the former presence of a garbage can. The man then tossed a crumpled piece of paper in the general vicinity of the round stain. This action suggested three possibilities:

1. The man saw the stain but registered it in his mind as a garbage can, and therefore tossed his garbage in the proper direction.
2. The main disagreed with the transit commission’s decision to remove the garbage can, and therefore tossed his trash in the hope the garbage can would rematerialize some day.
3. The man didn’t know where he would find a garbage can, and so just tossed his garbage in the nearest available place.

Of these possibilities I find the first one the most intriguing, because it suggests that, for the man, a representation (the stain) took on the same value as the thing itself (the garbage can). This calls to mind French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacrum. Professor Dino Felluga offers the following helpful prĂ©cis: “Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice.” I would suggest that a parallel to the man’s actions in the subway might be if someone whose pet had died adopted a plush toy animal, treating it just like the real animal.

I see though that I have been sloppy: the rusty circle is a trace of the garbage can, not a representation. It is a leftover, a relic, a remnant. So a better parallel to the man’s actions in the subway might be a widower who has taken to addressing his wife’s discarded shoes as though they were her.

Returning to our subway litterbug, the person’s actions show a stubborn ability to ignore an obvious loss (of the garbage can), in order to accomplish a task (trash disposal). This seems to me, in an odd way, to blend wishful thinking with well-developed survival skills.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Cars, Planes and Snake Oil

George Monbiot wants us to believe the science of global warming, not the politics. He wants you to understand that the atmosphere does not care about our politics or our needs; it responds without malice or mercy to the gases we put into it.

George Monbiot also wants you to believe that aviation, which produces roughly 3% of the world's greenhouse gases, poses such a threat that we must stop airport construction at once and ground as many of the world's airplanes as possible, but that we can continue driving our cars, which produce (in Canada) six times as much greenhouse gas in tonnes (you can find the relevant figures for Canadian emissions here) without worrying. Seems that we can keep driving with just a few minor technological changes, including the risibly Rube Goldberg vision of crane-equipped filling stations lifting out spent batteries from electric cars and dropping fresh ones in.

George Monbiot's claims in this regard involve three specific problems:

  1. Claims that electric cars and high-mileage engines will solve the problems posed by the automobile ignore all of the side effects of a culture designed to cater to the needs of the car. Road construction produces tonnes of greenhouse gases, and once constructed, these roads trap sunlight and radiate terawatts of heat. A road, as a friend of mine observed, constitutes an extraordinary act of violence against the landscape. Electric cars will not change any of this; they will, no less than the gasoline cars they may or may not replace, keep huge areas smothered under heat-absorbing asphalt. Nor will electric cars require less manufacturing, metal smelting, or maintenance than gas cars, all of which requires energy.
  2. Electric cars will not "run on" batteries; the batteries will merely store the energy to drive them. And cars require a lot of energy: powering the traffic of a medium-sized city will require tens of thousands of wind turbines. The hunger of these thousands of batteries for power will lead to the very conflict Monbiot and those who agree with him cite in relation to biofuels: between the mobility desires of the well to do, and the basic needs of the poor. Charging thousands of batteries will push up the price of the power everyone will need to heat their homes and water, and to cook.
  3. Most of us, at least the majority of those of us who live in cities in the developed world, can do without the car. We could accomplish most if not all of what we do with car travel, for most Canadians, with improved public transit and human-powered personal transport. To a certain extent, we can replace aviation as well, with trains and ships. But to provide essential services for isolated communities, for trips (such as trips to the sick bed of a friend or relative overseas) we cannot do without aviation.

I claim no particular expertise on global warming; I can't tell you whether the doubters have it right, or the people who claim we have already passed the point of no return, and without high technology solutions, we have already plunged into disaster, or those, like Monbiot, who claim we can avoid the worst of global warming if we make sacrifices. I can, however, say this: if we indeed must cut our emissions by 90%, we will almost certainly need to reduce private car ownership very substantially. I do not think those in the environmental movement who gloss over this reality do the world any real favours.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Get on your bike

Gas, like any other limited good, goes to the highest bidder. Suppliers charge whatever the market (meaning the people willing to pay the highest prices) will pay. The oil companies will continue to raise their prices until people start to resist in the only real and meaningful way: they get out of their cars. Complaining about gas prices will do you no good. Writing politicians will not help at all. As long as you refuse to do without their product, as long as many of you won't even try, the oil companies will have you under their thumb. Want to free yourself from the oil companies and their prices? Then you have to free yourself from the car.

Getting out of your car accomplishes three things. First, it takes the pressure off the supplies of gas. If the supply of gas starts to outrun the demand, prices at the pump have to come down, as gas stations start competing for business. Second, it shifts the emphasis from facilities for cars to the alternatives, such as bike routes and public transit. Since these alternatives use less fuel, that further reduces the ability to oil companies to set their own prices. Finally, getting onto a bike, or public transit, or to any alternative to the car frees you. The real advantage the oil companies have over you lives in your own mind: the conviction that you have no alternative to driving your car and burning their gas. Once you free yourself of that belief, you have the power, because they have to sell gasoline, and you don't have to burn it.

So if you want freedom from high gas prices, relax that death grip on the pump handle and the steering wheel. You don't have to take your car to the auto graveyard; if everyone replaced 10km a week of driving with cycling, walking, and public transit, the gas stations in this city would sell seven hundred thousand fewer litres each week. That would make them take notice, and almost certainly have them rolling back their prices, in a big hurry.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Odd and hostile, or hostile to the odd?

Balloon Juice recently linked to interesting comment on the Virginia Tech murders. In an unusually lucid piece, the Wall Street Journal's Opinion web site weighs in on preventative involuntary commitment. I don't oppose all involuntary treatment, particularly for people giving serious indications they may commit violence. But I do have a very fussy attitude about the spirit in which we provide this treatment.

...the worst-case scenario would've been a minor league civil liberties goof: an unpleasant semester break for an odd and hostile young misanthrope who might've even have learned to be more polite.
When I read this in a proposal for involuntary commitment, I see an entirely unacceptable willingness to disregard the civil rights of "odd" (not like us) and "hostile" people. If we can justify locking up people who pose a threat, we should lock up polite conformists whom qualified evaluators judge a threat, no less than the rude, odd, and defiant.

Apart from any other considerations, a political nonconformist, for example a passionate supporter of George W. Bush in Berkeley CA., will appear "odd" to the people in their vicinity. And when someone flatly disagrees with views you cherish, they generally appear pretty hostile. When you dismiss the rights of the "odd" and the "hostile", you lay the foundations for social repression, and political repression does not follow far behind.

Level crossings -- levelling industrial infrastructure

Spacing wire linked to an interesting article from NOW, proposing an expanded number of level railway crossings for pedestrians and cyclists. I applaud anything which promises to make walking or cycling easier, and if we can make pedestrian or bicycle level crossings safe, I see nothing wrong with them. However, the article contained a couple of passages which displayed a disturbing skepticism about the future of railways in Toronto:

The insistence on a lofty 7-metre height clearance (in case the railways ever get around to converting from diesel to overhead electric) dooms walkers and cyclists to climbing up and down a hundred stairs or following winding, fenced ramps like rats in a maze.

Obviously, bridges built with less than the required clearance for overhead wiring would complicate efforts to electrify the railways, leaving us with diesel pollution (and carbon emissions) from train traffic for a long time.

For better or worse, rail-based industry in the 416 is in full retreat.

Considering that people who live in Toronto have not yet stopped shopping, that means the trucking industry continues to advance. That, in turn, means that we continue to depend on one of the most carbon-inefficient means of transporting goods. I don't see a "better" side to this; I see it as unambiguously worse. If we can make level crossings work safely, the article in NOW makes a pretty good case for them. However, that case should not include an argument that we no longer need railways, or that we can give up on electrifying them.

The comments in Spacing included an even more explicit demand that the railways "adapt" to the needs of the city. I see this refrain too often in discussions of city policy; in the name of banishing industry from the city, too many people seem willing to destroy less polluting transportation systems. We have already seen plenty of calls to make the port lands into residential neighbourhoods and vandalize the turning basin with a "promenade". Now, apparently, we should not worry about destroying the rail corridors. If we carry on like this, the trucking industry will inherit to sole ability to deliver goods to Toronto, at a serious cost in local and global pollution.

In the NOW article, Roger Brook speaks of the Wallace Avenue Bridge which crosses the rail corridor in the West End. I cannot speak to the utility of the bridge for pedestrians, but as a cyclist, I cross that corridor regularly. I have written about the intersection between Annette, Dupont, and Dundas and the railway underpass. In my opinion, the Dupont underpass offers most cyclists the best possible place to cross the West End rail corridor, or it would if the city would take just a few measures to make the intersection safer.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Drivers... about left turns (and signalling)...

Recently, I had occasion to make a left turn onto Runnymede Road from a two lane local street. To allow cars making right turns to pass me, I had pulled over to the left side of the lane, then a car pulled onto the right side of my bike with its left turn signal going.

I accordingly pulled out in front of the car, and when the road cleared, I pushed off, making sure I stayed in front of him.

The safe and courteous way for cyclists and cars to share the road in a left turn goes like this: the cars and bicycles go in the order they arrived at the intersection. When a bicycle turns, the cyclist rides ahead first, making a wide, "L"-shaped left turn, which leaves room for the car to proceed through the intersection. That way, the car turns into the left lane (or the left side of a single lane), and the bicycle turns into the right lane.

A car which tries to pull out to the right and turn to the left will cross paths with the route the cyclist would normally take to turn left and reach the right lane. Experts on bicycle safety warn cyclists to avoid situations such as this. As the diagram to the left shows, the car and bicycle tracks overlap in this situation.

So why insist on proceeding in order? Why not just allow cars to go first? Two reasons: I ride my bicycle for much the same reason most people drive: I have somewhere I want to go. I want to get there safely, and I also want to get there today. If I get off the street and wait for all the cars to go by, I will never get anywhere. Also, the rules of the road, including having vehicles proceed in order, makes traffic movements predictable and therefore safe. When some cars queue up safely to turn, and others pass in violation of the laws, other road users lose the ability to anticipate the movements of other vehicles. Treating cyclists as vehicles (as the Highway Traffic Act requires) simply makes everyone safer.

On the subject of safe turns... if you pull up behind me while I wait at an intersection, I will look to see if you have your right turn signal on. If you do, I (and most cyclists) will move left or right if we can do so safely so that you can turn. If you do not signal, I can't tell what you want to do.