Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rememberance and faith

Yesterday, I stood with a crowd of people in the center of Toronto, at the cenotaph by the Old City Hall. We stood in silence awaiting the hour: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when ninety years ago, the guns fell silent. As the notes from the bell in the old city hall clock faded, a bugle played the haunting notes of last post, and a flight of four Harvard trainers passed overhead, just over the tall buildings of downtown Toronto. As the passed us, one pitched up and made a climbing turn westward, in that most moving of all aviation displays, the missing aviator formation.

I thought of memory, and how the custom of sounding horns in honour of the fallen probably dates back to pre-Christian times, when my forbears honoured Arawn, the hunter of the dead, consort of the Great Mother. I thought of the wheel of time. I thought, too, of this. Both my grandfathers took part in the Great War. They returned after the armstice, and eleven years after the eleventh day of the eleventh month came the birth of my parents. And politicians let go of the promise that my grandfathers had endured the mud and the horror and the death to end all wars, and Hitler plunged the world into another war even worse than the Great War. And eleven years after that war, my parents welcomed me into the world.

And I thought of this too: that if we continue to permit war, accept war, then we do not merely break faith yet again with those men who, ninety years ago, fought to end all wars. We break faith even more terribly with our children, because unless we make an end to war, they have no future. For our society has developed the means to destroy itself, and we know that, soon or late, those means will fall into the hands of someone in the throes of dark pain and hopelessness, or of unthinking belief. They will come, in other words, to someone who will use them. And then we shall have no civilization, and the Earth will no longer support it inhabitants, and if anyone survives, they will count themselves less fortunate than the dead.

Therefore, let us never dare remember the sacrifice without the promise that prompted it. Every day we let by without looking for a way to keep the promise given to those millions of suffering men, those ninety years and more ago, we break faith anew.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Felicitations to my friends and relations in the United States

When I was seven or eight, one of the junior ministers in my church, in sleepy London Ontario, announced that he planned to travel to the American South for the freedom summer. My parents believed deeply in justice, so with their encouragement I got a quarter or so together, put it in an envelope, and gave it to him. I know the gesture touched him, because he said so.

Tonight, I went to a celebration in Dundas Square of the election of President Obama. Young people waved the Canadian and American flags together, something that I have not seen as that strong an affirmation of an American political development in my country for a long time.

Whatever comes, I want to remember this moment. Our societies, our nations, our people, can affirm each others moral achievements, and challenge each other to reach further, to exceed our accomplishments.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

One day left...

to send a message to city council if you want to support the Annette Street bicycle lane. Click on the link above to see how you can get involved.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lessons from Annette Street

Last Friday, the cyclists of this city lost the Annette bike lanes from Jane to Runnymede, and we lost badly. A back room deal trumped the efforts of those who came out to two public meetings and gave deputations to the committee. The outcome did not only short change cycling in this city, it insulted public participation. Those of us who rearranged our schedules, lost work, time with our families, or sleep to come out and speak up got the door slammed in our faces and had our voices trumped by lobbying and back room deals.

So what lessons should we draw from this?

  1. We have a broken city government; unfortunately, just knowing that won't get us any further ahead.
  2. Toronto politicians, for a mix of good and bad reasons, listen to the concerns of merchants. Since merchants fear the loss of parking as much as anything, plans for bicycle lanes will have a very rough ride if they do not accommodate the perceived need for parking. In some respects, this makes sense; a bike lane contributes much less than it otherwise could to a livable city if the loss of parking bankrupts local businesses and drives their customers to Wal-mart and other local big box complexes.
  3. I draw a simple if less than pleasant lesson from this: we have three choices when it comes to pushing for bicycle lanes.
    • We can find ways to accommodate merchant concerns about parking. We can run bicycle routes around commercial clusters. We can push to replace residential parking with commercial (merchant) parking. We can accept gaps and sharrows in the network.
    • We can push, hard, for the facilities we need. That may make us disliked, because to get bicycle lanes, we will have to take away parking, if not merchant parking then residential parking. We would have to work to deprive some people of a level of convenience they have come to feel entitled to. We would probably have to use boycotts, and would certainly have to work very hard to defeat certain councilors.
    • We can turn up at public meetings, as we have done, and continue to lose. I don't consider that a good option, but we seem to have chosen it, and we will have to make a conscious choice to do something else.

In the short term, we have to decide quickly whether or not we want to offer a compromise when we bring this situation before the full council. We have a good process argument against the decision, in the sense that cyclists got left out of the negotiations on the final proposal. But that argument works better if we can say we really would have negotiated. Certainly, if I had known that Councilor Saundercook would push for the installation of sharrows, I would have worked hard for a better compromise. If we take the position that we want bicycle lanes, we have a right to bicycle lanes, and we insist on nothing less, then council can reply that we simply reached an impasse, and the councilors did what they thought best for the city as a whole.

Belated Update, November 4:

I stand corrected; over 150 emails later, we have our bicycle lanes. And let us not underestimate the importance of this achievement, either. City council has traditionally chosen commercial parking over bicycle lanes, and this may mark the first time they deferred to community pressure (thanks to all who sent in the email messages or otherwise lobbied council). We can make change, and we don't have to back down.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Memorial ride today

A memorial ride will take place to day at 6:30 (1830) to memorialize a cyclist killed on September 10. We will meet at Bloor andSpadina and ride to Trethewey Drive and Tedder Street.

Mourn the dead; fight for the living.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Another Annette Bike lane meeting

Monday night, Bill Saundercook, the councillor for Ward 13 meeting to discuss bicycle lanes on Annette Street, and thanks to I Bike TO getting the word out, I and a number of other cyclists attended. City staff had presented three alternatives: bicycle lanes on Annette from Jane to Runnymede, bike routes along Ardagh to the south of Annette and St. John's Road to the north, joining the bicycle lanes at Runnymede and connecting to Annette at the Annette/Runnymede junction, and a bike-friendly curb lane with chevrons encouraging road sharing on Annette from Jane to Runnymede. For maps of what these might mean, see below.

Nobody in the crowd opposed bicycles or lanes in principle, although some clearly wanted to preserve the facilities for automotive traffic, and one or two asked questions about the volume of bicycle traffic on Annette. The meeting appeared to have a pro-cycling majority, with a few business owners concerned about their parking, and one or two people clining to the notion that cars will and must always rule the city.

Option 1: Bicycle lanes on Annette from Jane to Dupont

View Larger Map

Option 2: Bicycle routes diverting around Annette from Jane to Runnymede

View Larger Map

Option 3: Sharrows for Jane to Runnymede; lanes from Runnymede to Dupont

View Larger Map

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Peeking over the Fence: a Dangerous Assumption

On the subject of Sarah Palin's controversial prayer for wisdom in the context of the Iraq war, Julie Ponzi writes:

No fair-minded person could read that as an assertion that our task abroad is certainly "from God." It is, rather, a prayer that the task will be a task from God, i.e., a prayer that we would do as God approves. It is, as she said, an invocation of Abraham Lincoln’s prayer that we might have the wisdom and the fortitude to do as God would have us do and not any kind of claim to special or privileged knowledge of the will of God.

This analysis makes a great deal of sense, but it interests me that many of the "movement conservatives" who explain what Palin's prayer "really meant" have apparently not thought through the implications. Sarah Palin's prayer implies that as an official of the US government she would act, first and foremost, as a humble servant of the Creator. If so, we can expect that many of the arguments made by secular conservatives about national interest and power politics would have no effect on her. Many of the neo-conservatives who have hailed her as the hope for salvaging the McCain campaign appear to assume that if elected, she will shape her faith to conform to their ideological needs and policy prescriptions; that she will claim, as conservatives before her have done, that American power by definition has the blessing of the Creator.

Anyone who assumes they can manipulate or predict Governor Palin's religious convictions would do well to read the history of people like William Wilberforce, John Newton, and the Great Awakening. They might follow up that with a look at trends within the American evangelical community. A clear understanding of that history will reveal something that properly ought to alarm the neo-conservative movement: the arguments of people such Jim Wallis and Ron Sider may well reach her more effectively than theirs.

Neo-conservatives and their allies the "national greatness" or "Jacksonian" conservatives share this essential error with secularist liberals: the delusion that social and political change can only come through a secular argument that both changes individual minds and harnesses the power of the government. But that overlooks the role of faith in all of the great positive paradigm shifts of past centuries, from abolition to civil rights. Those secular conservatives, and especially the conservative political operators, who think they can control the church and make Christian doctrine conform to their idea of the national interest simply haven't paid attention to either history or to current trends.

Link via Jim Henley.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ten kinds of people...

There are ten kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don't -- computer programmer's saying.

I have an elegant watch with a black dial, white numbers, silver hour and minute hands and a red second hand. It keeps good time. My parents gave it to me, on the last Christmas our whole family celebrated together. More than anything else, I treasure gifts that say: I know you, because they celebrate connection. We could see each other, each shaped by a lifetime of struggle, always with the world and often with each other. We saw each other, as parts and as a whole. I knew my parents and they knew me. And I carry the proof on my wrist. The dial contains a visual pun: an analog watch dial with binary numerals. It says, clearly, that this watch belongs to a computer geek with a sense of irony, a relish for contradiction, for the complexities of life. As I said, my parents knew me.

Like many people, I have deeply ambivalent relationship with time. I do not understand it well, and what I do not understand I make my enemy, struggling hard, sometimes, to resist a flow I will never control or even really understand. And yet, sometimes, my life reveals a hint of what the wonderful phrase "in the fullness of time" tries to convey. Three years ago, I misplaced the watch. I searched and fretted for weeks. Then I settled into a belief that the watch would turn up again at the right time, that I needed to separate myself from the need to keep time for a while. While I never quite freed myself from the fear that I had simply lost the watch, I never gave it up for lost, either. A few weeks ago, I moved my office. When I dismantled my old desk, found my watch underneath it. A new battery, a clean crystal, and a new watchband later, it sits on my wrist. It reminds me of the way time passes, and it also gives me a powerful reminder of what time can never take away.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

End the Impunity

In this country, or at least in this province and city, drivers who kill people can expect a light punishment, unless of course they kill themselves as well. Although the public appears to have no sympathy when reckless or drunk drivers kill themselves or their friends, we appear to have a distinct disinclination to punish the same kind of driving when people engaged in it kill other people.

While this seems inconsistent, it makes sense for people who want the law to overlook driving errors. If a dangerous driver kills himself or herself, showing sympathy would imply the need for a law to encourage people to behave responsibly. If they kill someone else, then we can expect to hear the argument that however egregious the offence, ruining the life of the driver at fault will not bring the victim back. These contradictory positions add up to a single effective demand: impunity for bad or even homicidal drivers. As a rule, you can expect that no matter how egregious the driving behaviour and no matter how many innocent people it endangers, someone will come forward and defend it.

I believe the time has come, for the sake of all road users, and to promote some kind of responsibility within automotive culture, to demand an end to impunity for dangerous and irresponsible drivers. Committing mayhem with a car should draw the same penalties as mayhem with any other lethal instrument, and the penalties should reflect the harm done, not the tool used. That means we should punish dangerous driving pretty much the way we punish dangerous shooting, and dangerous driving causing death the way we punish dangerous shooting causing death. I believe we need to start seeing the wheel of a car as an awesome responsibility, rather than a quick ticket out of the consequences of misbehaviour.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Ride blogging, First Day of School

With the first day of school for my young hopeful safely underway and errands to do on the waterfront, I took my bike out. The map below shows my route; click on the placemarks to see pictures and comments about where I went. For best results, click here to enlarge the map first.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

To explode a myth...

From one point of view, Jim Kenzie shoves the viewpoint of the entitled driver in my face so clearly and effectively that he ought to raise my blood pressure. But in the current cycling environment, I mainly feel a sense of relief when I read his most outrageous arguments. Because he clearly shows the real face of Ontario drivers, not the imaginary drivers we see held up as the opposite numbers of cyclists every day.

Which imaginary drivers? The perfect ones. The ones who would never break the law, the ones who react with hurt puzzlement whenever a cyclist fails to come to a full stop at a four-way stop sign, the ones who react with justified outrage whenever a cyclist blows a red light. Where do we find these drivers? If you believe what you read on the web, you can expect to find them just about everywhere.

Read Mr. Kenzie, on the other hand, and you get the reality of drivers in this province and this city. You get a clear picture of those who speed in public, in the city, and then justify their recklessness on the grounds that people don't use the streets for anything but driving, as though the lack of a lively street life had nothing to do with their behavior. You hear the voice of drivers who will accept no limits on the speed they drive. You see the arrogance of the drivers who demand that we take their disrespect for the law as votes for changing it. What you see in columns such as Mr. Kenzie's defence of speeding, we see on the street, up close and uncomfortably personal.

Update: I see I have a fair bit of company here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ride blogging: last day of summer

I have decided to try an experiment in ride blogging. I provide an introduction explaining the purpose of the ride, and a map of my route, with the places I visited or photographed along the way. Click on the waypoints to see the story of my ride. You may find the map much easier to read if you enlarge it before trying to follow the line. Oh, and the ride starts at the bottom and goes to the top. Enjoy!

This first ride celebrated the last day of summer. I rode the Toronto bus and then my bicycle up to Canada's Wonderland in Vaughan Ontario. My family met me there, and together we spent a last lazy afternoon before starting on the fall round of school and more school.

I welcome comments on everything I write, but I would especially like to see any reactions to this way of telling the story of a ride.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


MSNBC quotes a Jason Goldtrap as calling the practice of locking up people with mental illnesses and neurological variations “ important element of trying to maintain civility." They then go on to quote him as saying "There is a place for mental institutions.”

Obviously, I disagree. I hope most people disagree. While I agree that many people with neurological variations such as autism need and benefit from supportive communities, those communities exist to serve and support those who live in them, not maintain what Mr. Goldtrap calls civility. I do not just disagree with what Mr. Goldtrap reportedly wants to do with people who have neurological variations and mental illnesses; I disagree with his very notion of civility. Long ago, my mother taught me that true civility has nothing to do with some magical realm where nobody ever harshes your mellow; civility, at its base, means concern for other people. When people make noises or act strangely out of neurological variations, they haven't behaved uncivilly themselves, since they have little if any control over their behaviour. But they do need us to act civilly, with concern and empathy, toward them. If we do that, we will have no need to institutionalize people with neurological or cognitive disabilities. If, on the other hand, we adopt a version of civility that makes comfort more important than empathy, we will all find ourselves under the care of big nurse (or big nanny) in time.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Bad Idea Makes for Worse Policy

The early nineteen eighties saw the rise of a phrase to public prominence that most of us had not heard before: moral equivalence. Over the years, the users of the phrase back-formed it into a verb: moral equivalencing. Whatever form it takes, I consider this term one of the worst examples of the political abuse of language.

Moral equivalence, in its current sense, arose as a scornful label for the notion that moral standards apply to everyone equally, and therefore the crimes in the name of "anti-communism" ought to concern us. In the late 1970s, the phrase had a coherent idea behind it; some neo-conservatives developed the idea that Marxism had a uniquely corrupting effect that eliminated the possibility of any reform. This meant nations ruled by corrupt despots who took the American side could evolve into democracies, while nations ruled by despots who favoured the Soviets could not, and therefore we should not judge "friendly" dictatorships, and the atrocities they commit, by the standards we apply to "hostile" rulers. The events of 1989 to 1991 pretty well refuted this claim, but just as the Cheshire Cat disappeared leaving nothing but the grin, the idea behind moral equivalence has left the phrase as its only trace.

The phrase has persisted mainly as an indirect way of reinforcing or enforcing political identities. It implies, since a direct assertion would make the absurdity of the proposition unavoidable, that "we", however the speaker defines "we" cannot err. This kind of expression abuses words to prevent, rather than express, thought. It has serious effects on the quality of decision making in politics wherever people use it. Historically, the assertion of the moral equivalence of individuals and their actions underpins the rule of law, which asserts the wrongness of an action such as murder, regardless of who commits it and against whom they commit it. As a result, the use of the phrase "moral equivalence" when speaking of international relations denies the possibility of the rule of law in an international context, and more broadly denies the possibility of a coherent international policy at all. After all, to make a rational guess at what the government of another country may do, you have to first appreciate that they belong to the same species you do, with motives and calculations you can in principle understand. But I can see no clear boundary between a recognition of common humanity and the dreaded "moral equivalencing".

We can see the results all around us. In 2003, Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien warned that he could see no legal basis for the United States to invade Iraq. An international system can only work on one of two basis: the rule of law or power politics, and we have recently seen what power politics looks like, as the Russian government moved to quash what they saw as a threat from the Republic of Georgia. If the policy makers involved had kept a clear view of international relations, they might have seen that absent a consensus based on international law, extending NATO to all the borders of Russia would look very aggressive, and risk provoking a violent reaction. Nothing, perhaps, could blind decision makers as effectively as a complacent sense of moral superiority, exactly the sort of outlook I would expect the unthinking acceptance of a phrase such as "moral equivalence" to foster.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bob Deluce Conquers Cool

I like Robert Deluce. The few times I have met him, he has struck me as shrewd, genial, competent, and a businessman who does something, in this case aviation, because he cares about it.

Bob Deluce has done a lot of things right recently. When he started Porter Airlines, he gambled that buying the most modern and fuel efficient turbo-prop planes available would enable him to offer attractive service from Toronto City Centre Airport. The recent rise in fuel costs has hobbled his competitors, especially Air Canada, who suddenly find the cost of feeding their jet fleet growing at an unexpected, and uncompetitive rate. Porter Air has steadily expanded, and looks set to fly to Boston as well as New York, and possibly Chicago. Robert Deluce has built something; he has moved a great many people while burning less fuel and emitting less pollution than most of his competitors. He has helped make a superb, and superbly efficient aircraft design viable.

But Bob Deluce has done more than that. He has conquered cool. When he first proposed flying from Toronto City Centre Airport, he stirred up strong opposition from an articulate and wealthy downtown community. The airport he proposed to fly from turned into a political issue. His opponents basked in their media depiction as a group of hip players, pivotal in the election of a new mayor. What a difference success, branding and time have made! The opponents of Bob Deluce's airline still gather that the foot of Bathurst Street on a Friday evening for protests, but media reports dismiss them with one of the ultimate kisses of death: ageing hippies.

I have no sympathy for Bob Deluce's opponents, because under their counterculture exterior I see a hard-edged elitism. One of their proposals artlessly referred to park they hoped would (at great expense) replace the airport as a place for "people in Tilley hats". I found it telling that anyone could, with complete lack of any apparent self-consciousness, call for the city to build a park specifically for the tiny fraction of the world's population that can spend fifty dollars on a hat. Worse, the opponents of Toronto City Centre Airport and Bob Deluce bolstered their claim that Toronto should concentrate air traffic at Toronto's main airport, Pearson International, with the claim that no residential neighbourhoods exist in the vicinity. At one public meeting, when I showed picture of the neighbourhoods that sit directly across from Pearson Airport, and a map showing the noise these neighbourhoods experience, I heard a wave of nervous laughter from the benches behind me where the opponents of the airport and Bob Deluce sat.

So expect no sympathy from me for the opponents of Bob Deluce. Still, I cannot help but wonder what "cool" has done to the process of debate. The opponents of Bob Deluce and his airline ought to lose, I believe, because they have a bad case, not because of branding, or cool, or because of their ages. I congratulate Mr. Deluce on a well earned success, and I believe in celebrating his achievement as something more than fashion and branding.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mass: With All Its Faults, Still Critical to Cyclists

Sergeant Mark Tonner of the Vancouver Police force asks a number of questions of his readers on the subject of the Critical Mass bike ride. I think all cyclists, whether they ride Critical Mass or not, have their own answers. I thought I would give mine. What I have to say pertains to Toronto and not other cities with a critical mass ride; as a cyclist who sometimes rides with Toronto Critical Mass, I can comment on the things I have seen. I only know about events around Critical Mass in other cities from news reports and comments.

Sergeant Tonner repeats two arguments against Critical Mass: that "corking" cross streets to keep the ride together violates the law, and cyclists on the ride engage in various forms of aggression against motorists. I don't accept the first argument; often when a large number of people take to the roads at once, private individuals or the authorities direct traffic to assure orderly and safe movement. Since cyclists have the right to use the roads in Ontario (under the highway traffic act) and the right to assemble (under the Canadian Charter of Rights), I believe we can, and should, direct traffic to make sure we can ride as safely as possible and with minimal disruption. However, on recent Critical Mass rides I have seen deliberate halts at major intersections, that do not make the ride safer or more comfortable. Those actions celebrate bicycle culture and the freedom to ride; they protest against automotive culture by disrupting it.

I have no objection to civil disobedience. I have engaged in a number of acts of civil and religious witness in which I risked arrest. And I believe a reasonable person can see in automotive culture, with its social isolation, environmental pollution, and careless carnage, something badly in need of protest. But I would not advise anyone to bring pre-teen children on a civil disobedience action, and I would strongly advise anyone at Critical Mass wishing to engage in civil disobedience to allow a clear separation between their challenge to the law and the families out for a ride and a celebration.

With all its faults, all the tension at the corks, all the push and pull about whether to turn Critical Mass into a full anti-automobile and anti-pollution demonstration, or into a celebration of cycling, the mass remains a critical celebration of the cycling community, and a reminder of its solidarity and strength. Because the cost of riding a bicycle on the streets of Toronto includes an endless round of daily, petty, and often dangerous harassment: the motorists who feel free to honk their horn and tell you what to do, the driver who tries to take your right of way at a four way stop and curses you out, the automobile passenger who thinks it a great joke to yell at you out of a window to see if you'll jump. We need reminding, and our tormentors need reminding too, that we belong to a community. We stand for something. They can make us angry, they can make us frightened, but they cannot make us give up. And as long as an ugly minority of motorists keep trying to push us off the roads, the celebration of Critical Mass will include an element of defiance; it will celebrate endurance and survival as well as all the things we gain for ourselves through that simplest of machines we choose to add to our lives.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Shania the cat...

Biking down Bloor on the way home, I saw a young cat step out into the side street. A Jeep Cherokee approached. The car stopped, the cat looked at the car. The driver honked. The cat remained still, as if to say: "So you got a car... that don't impress me much." After another moment, the driver gave up and drove around the cat, and a moment after that, the cat moved on across the street.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

From such roots

...does cyclist militancy grow.

Yesterday, riding down High Park Boulevard, I stopped at the four-way stop at Sunnyside Avenue. I stopped, the vehicle to my left went through the intersection, then I started across in turn. The vehicle on my left, second in line, pulled into the intersection. At first I thought he intended to turn left, but he made straight for me. I rang my bell, and he slowed, shouting something that sounded like "you're not a motorcycle". I replied sharply telling him to pay attention. He passed through the intersection behind me, yelling an obscenity at me, to which I replied by giving him the one-fingered international salute.

Every cyclist who uses public roads has to worry about encounters like this, and we can only hope we get out of it with nothing more than a minor feeling of irritation. Most of us have experienced much worse things than this. The whole experience left me feeling three things:

  1. Cyclists have a right to use the road. If motorists don't feel like waiting for us, as the law requires, tough. I don't always feel like sharing the road with cars.
  2. No motorist has any business taking the behaviour of some other cyclist out on me. I try to keep the rules as a cyclist and a driver. I expect others to do the same.
  3. I have no patience left with anyone who tells me I can solve the problem by giving up my right to mobility, or by driving and adding to the pollution problem like a "normal" person.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Safety first!

The Ontario Highway Traffic Act covers a lot of detail, but neglects to state its prime objective clearly. Does Ontario regulate traffic to ensure the safe movement of people, goods and vehicles on Ontario roads, or do we regulate traffic to facilitate speedy movement? The Highway Traffic Act should clarify this, first because of the number of influential voices insisting that we have roads so that cars and trucks can move fast on them, and because those voices, coupled with the lack of clarity in the Highway Traffic Act, lead to the harassment of lower speed traffic; not only bicycles, but as anyone who does it knows, cars that actually obey the speed limit.

In aviation, the laws make a clear statement: safety comes first. The pilot has absolute responsibility for the safety of the passengers and the flight, and nothing moves until and unless everyone with a responsibility for safety agree that the flight can proceed. I strongly suggest the Highway Traffic Act should say the same thing. It won't change the attitude of the drivers who believe they have a right to push their cars to the limit on public roads, but it may affect enforcement if the rest of us can point to a law that says, without ambiguity, that our safety comes first.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Blind drivers, invisible cyclists

Driving my kid into Toronto from Mississauga, I turned southwards at a major intersection. I saw three or four pedestrians at the corner to the right of me, checked the cross walk and the traffic, and turned. As I headed south, I looked in the mirror and saw three bicycles in the cross walk. It brought home to me how quickly a bicycle can travel from outside the range of a driver's scan, and how cyclists make it difficult for drivers to see us when we act as pedestrians do.

It put me in mind of another time, driving through a wall of rain in the late evening, straining to see, a shadow passed in front of me. I braked. Of course, I had come close to a cyclist riding at night and in filthy weather without a light or much of a reflector. Once again, when cyclists do that, we make it very difficult for drivers to see us.

Of course, cyclists have to worry that even when we do everything right (lights on, signalling) drivers will either not see us, or else act as though they do not. This affects me as a cyclist most when I go to change lanes; when I signal for a lane change, I always have to wonder if the cars behind me in the lane I want to change to will slow down for me. I have certainly had cars speed past me while I signalled and tried (in vain) to shift lanes.

As cyclists, we need to make ourselves visible in traffic. As drivers, we need to make an effort to see all road users.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Unexpected blessings

We vacationed last week at a resort at Honey Harbour. On the last night of our holiday, I went out on a canoe with a guide to learn a bit more about the history, human and natural, of Georgian Bay and its 30,000 islands. I had expected to see birds; Georgian Bay has huge flocks of Geese. The loons who let us see them up close as they beat the water with their wings on takeoff came as an unexpected gift. So did the mallards as they slipped off a rock into the water of an inlet colourful with water-lily blossoms. Then a Great Blue Heron surprised us taking off from the shallow waters of the inlet, and at the end of the evening, we came upon a group of turkey vultures picking the skeleton of a fish.

Today, home in Toronto, I went on the everyday errand to buy a gallon of milk. The sun had sunk behind the clouds, and filled the streets of Bloor West with golden light. The houses, with the tapered porch pillars that distinguish the architecture of Bloor West, stood out beautifully. The light somehow gave the neat houses, their lawns and brick pathways and even their parking pads a special beauty and distinctiveness. It took no more than a time of day and some dust and clouds, to turn the city I see passing by nearly every day into an unexpected beauty.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Memorial Ride Announcement

Thursday night, June 7, 2007, I rode home from North York. I rode down Bayview from Sheppard, and noted the alarming speed and indifference of the motor traffic. The morning after that, a dump truck killed Alan Tamane in the same place I had ridden down. If I possibly can, I plan to join Toronto's cycling community on a memorial ride.

We belong to a community. Cyclists ride together, organize together, fight for our rights together, and when one of us goes down, we mourn together. See you there.

I append the announcement from Toronto's Advocacy or Respect for Cyclists (ARC).

Help finish Alan’s ride.

On the morning of June 8th, 2007 Alan Tamane left for work. His family was expecting to see him again that evening. They never did. He was killed by a City of Toronto truck while riding his bicycle to work.

Alan’s loss was devastating to his wife Amanda and four children along with being a huge loss to the community. Alan was the epiphany of devotion to family, friends, co-workers and the community.

Alan devoted more time to his family than there was time in a day. When his daughter was diagnosed with Kabuki Syndrome he became an advocate for her and the disabled. He became a soccer team coach when he found out his son wanted to play soccer. During each of his wife’s four pregnancies he gained weight in sympathy. Alan supported his wife in her demanding career as a police officer, together they offered a free Judo program to community children at the Police College. He devoted some of the same energy for his co-workers, becoming a vocal union steward in his workplace. His devotion to anything that he was involved in was apparent to anyone that met him and it made him many friends. When Alan thought about the future for his children he knew he had to work at helping the environment. That is when he decided to ride his bicycle to work year round.

On June 8th, 2008, family, friends and cyclists will ride together to symbolically complete Alan’s final ride. This is both to commemorate Alan’s life and in his spirit bring attention to the risks faced by cyclists on Bayview Ave.

The ride will leave the Bayview Arena (Finch and Bayview) southern most parking lot at 11am and follow what is believed to be Alan’s intended route that day to Sunny Brook. Alan’s employer has arranged for an area for cyclists to gather after the ride where a few words will be said by friends and family. Alan’s 10-year-old daughter Michiko will conclude the ride with a song for her father.


June 8th, 2008. Main ride leaves Bayview Arena (north west corner of Finch and Bayview) southern most parking lot at 11am expecting to arrive at Sunnybrook at approximately 12 noon.

From the Finch Subway station the start location is about a 10 minute

For cyclists riding from the Downtown area we will meet at Spadina and
Bloor St for a 915 am departure.

For more info on the ride - Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists - Darren 416-707-4744

For info on Sunnybrook ICES Bicycle Users Group Brandon - 647-887-0633

The ICES BUG is advocating for a Bayview Avenue bikelane from Sheppard to Eglinton and is actively engaged with Councillor Jenkins as part of the of the Ward 25 Cycling Advisory Committee.

ARC (Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists) is a group which formalizes the principle of cyclists standing up for each other.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Report from the Annette Street Bicycle Lane Meeting

View Larger Map

Yesterday, April 17, I attended the meeting to discuss the installation of bicycle lanes on Annette Street. Bill Saundercook, councillor for ward 13, hosted the meeting. Questions and concerns about parking for the retail businesses on Annette between Jane and Runnymede dominated the meeting.

The merchants worried about the effect the bike lanes would have on access for their customers and deliveries, and angrily protested against what many of them saw as the inadequate notice provided for the meeting. Participants in the meeting suggested narrowing the bicycle lanes, narrowing the sidewalks, and routing one of the bicycle lanes by way of St. John's Road. I proposed bypassing the part of Annette between Jane and Runnymede, where most of the merchants need parking and delivery access, using two local streets: Ardagh to the south (see map) and St. John's Road to the north. While this will require changes to the traffic calming measures on these streets (Ardagh in particular has four way stops at every intersection), it will spare the merchants in an important local retail cluster.

Some participants in the meeting required a little education about bicycle lanes. While most participants did not actively oppose them, one local lawyer suggested that providing for cycling would "cater" to a "small minority", and several people seemed not to understand the concept of cycling for transportation, asking why cyclists who had north-south bicycle lanes on Runnymede also needed east-west bicycle lanes on Annette.

The next proposal to install cycling lanes will probably include routes along Ardagh and St. John's road. That means, unfortunately, that we have to make sure the measures taken to make Ardagh and St. John's Road into effectively bike-friendly routes actually work.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Peeking over the fence...

I don't have much, specifically, to say about the American presidential race. I wish our neighbours well, whoever they choose, and I greatly admire the oratory of Barack Obama, a speaker who leaves me reassured that the art of political rhetoric remains alive and kicking. But the combination of the ongoing decline in the American economy and the ongoing slugfest of the Democratic party nomination leads me to draw a connection. In short, unlike an increasing number of American commentators, I believe that Hillary Clinton's candidacy, and even her most desperate tactics, actually serve a solid purpose for the Democratic party.

Going back 28 years, in 1980, Americans had a choice between Jimmy Carter, a man who told them it would take hard work and sacrifice to carry on the American enterprise, and Ronald Reagan, a man who told them they could have everything they wanted without the tiresome matter of paying for it. Since the American people voted for Ronald Reagan, the United States has run a solid trade deficit (yes, even during the boom years of the Clinton presidency), and a government accounts deficit (what we think of when we talk about a government running a deficit) for most of the period. At the same time, a combination of government policies and economic trends generated greater and greater economic inequality.

To make this system work, or at least look as though it worked, American and international governments and financiers engaged in repeated maneuvers to keep the money flowing in the "right" direction. First came the Savings and Loan bubble, crash, and scandal. A few years after the savings and loan dust settled came the tech bubble. Analysts told us the rules of economics had vanished in a puff of silicon, until the resulting crash and scandal blew away the smoke and mirrors, and left the tiresome realities of accounting and limits to wealth intact. Then, through the Bush years, the propaganda for the fading illusions of "Reaganism" grew increasingly shrill, desperate and vicious, and nakedly unjust tax policies steadily directed wealth to the wealthiest. Middle-class Americans had no way to preserve the illusion of increasing personal wealth and "good times", except to tap the value in their houses, leading to the real estate bubble and the latest crash and scandal. This time, most of the pretenses have disappeared completely. Much of the money in this latest disaster has come from international investors, which means when we speak of tightening credit in the United States, we mean that teacher's pension funds in Canada and mutual funds in Europe will no longer agree to keep up the capital flow that finances the American trade deficit. To fill the gap, foreign governments, especially the Chinese, have moved in to buy up large parts of the American financial system.

The United States has lost its financial independence, in a way it has not since the Civil War. Even the American media have started to notice the huge debt the American government has accumulated, much of it held by the rising rival of the United States, China. As part of the fallout from this financial meltdown, Americans have lost their houses and other assets in record numbers.

In this context, Hillary Clinton's campaign makes a lot of sense. I suspect that intelligent democrats appreciate that in order to make real change, they will have to dismantle large parts of the legacy of Ronald Reagan, and they cannot do that unless the majority of Americans realize how badly those policies have failed them. As Harriet Tubman famously said,

I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.
The democratic party cannot save the American middle class until they stop listening to people like O'Reilly, Malkin, and Coulter, and face up to the reality of their situation. To have a Democrat in the White House without the support needed to make real change would mean disaster for the party; without real change, the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania will simply sputter along as things get worse for the average American. If Barack Obabma can't win with the head of steam it will take to overhaul the system, then the Democrats would really do better to run Hillary, let McCain win, and let the Rebublicans deal with the unfolding mess. If Barack Obama can't overcome the slings and arrows of Hillary Clinton, I see no way he can overcome the larger crisis in American public and financial life.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Entitled and helpless...

Bill Bean of Take the Lane linked to this diatribe against winter cycling. Leaving aside the mistakes the writer makes about the highway traffic act, the rant against winter cyclists displays the combination of entitlement and helplessness often seen in the excuses abusers come up with.

The letter at issue contains this revealing passage:

If they fall they deserve what they get for being stupid -- and no helmet is going to save them -- but how about the poor driver who runs over them? The driver is going to feel guilty when they shouldn't -- not to mention being made late for wherever they were going.

I have written before about the lack of responsibility in automotive culture, so I guess it shouldn't surprise me when a driver has no sense of their obligation to drive prudently. Driving prudently includes leaving sufficient room to stop when any vehicle ahead of them, whether a bicycle, scooter, hummer or semi-trailer, stops suddenly for any reason. The above quote shows a blended sense of entitlement, of having the right to operate a two-ton steel bomb in public with no obligation to do it safely, and helplessness; drivers do not only have the right to operate recklessly, they have no choice but to do so. Drivers have a choice. They don't have to drive recklessly, they don't have to drive impaired, they don't have to drive in cars, or on days, in which their ability to stop safely comes into question. Drivers who make these excuses deserve the same answer we give to abusers: no, you had a choice. "She" didn't "make you mad", you chose to let yourself get angry, and you chose to express your anger with abuse. Adults in this society have an obligation to control themselves, and that applies to the way they behave in control of a road vehicle. No driver has to run over a cyclist, least of all a cyclist that has fallen in front of them. They can leave more space, they can slow down, and if they really doubt themselves or their cars, they can leave the car in the garage and take the bus.

Going back to an article I discussed before, from the January 26 "Wheels" section of the Toronto Star and other papers, I noticed this interesting argument:

...if radar is supposed to be a traffic safety measure, why would they run it on a bright sunny Saturday morning, on a three-lanes-each-way bridge, [the Bloor Street Viaduct] with excellent visibility in all directions, without a single intersection, store, home, school or in fact much human activity at all?

This context, too, links the excuses offered for irresponsible and dangerous driving, and those offered for various forms of abuse. Abusers have an agenda, and often the excuses they offer provide a clue to that agenda. Consider: the author of the article in "Wheels" justifies speeding on the grounds that the Bloor Street Viaduct, one of the major links between East and Central Toronto, has "no human activity". Well, except a subway station at each end, and sidewalks, which speeding cars will make more dangerous and less pleasant to use. In other words, this argument calls for two things: the restriction of large areas of public space to cars and drivers, and also the right of drivers to behave in ways that informally, or illegally, enforce this restriction. Things like speeding, which both ignores and discourages those pesky pedestrians and cyclists. Or to take things that revealing little bit further, as the author or that letter to the Waterloo Record does, driving recklessly and actually running people over.

Abusive drivers have a choice. But so do the rest of us, and the rest of us include pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers who take their responsibilities seriously. We can accept this kind of attitude from reckless and abusive drivers, and we can accept the actions this attitude promotes, or we can say no to it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Reflections on New York

On a brief visit to New York last week, we went to two museum exhibits: one on Camille Pissarro the Impressionist painter, and one on the late 19th century case of Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer whose false conviction on charges of treason exposed widespread antisemitism, and split, among many other parts of French society, the impressionist movement. We went to an Off-Off-Broadway play, ate very well, and, thanks to a decision to stay in Weehawken New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, we got in several ferry rides on the Hudson River.

Anyone visiting a big, impressive city such as New York risks falling victim to the allure of the new. The magnificent classical public architecture, the Beaux-Arts mosaics announcing the station names in the New York Subway, can provoke an awe that makes us forget the spare elegance of Toronto's modernist design.

But some of New York's recent improvements to its public spaces provide models that Toronto ought to consider. For example, consider the dog park at Chelsea Piers. I have no doubt that New York has its share of conflicts between dog owners and parents, just as Toronto (all too often) has had. And one small dog park will hardly suffice for the exercise need of the huge number of dogs in New York. However, the designers of this dog park have taken a small space and transformed it into an interesting, even delightful way for New Yorkers to exercise their dogs. Nor should parents feel left out; close beside the dog park, a small but beautiful and imaginative little park serves the children in that part of New York.

Or consider the bicycle path that runs beside the West Side Highway: Toronto's waterfront bicycle path runs through a prettier setting, but the path in New York has more room, better markings, and bollards less likely to injure a cyclist at night. These details make the bike path safer and easier to navigate, and thus appealing, despite its location between two concrete walls that separate it from a busy highway to the east, and the Hudson River Piers to the East.

Bicycle paths on at least some New York streets and avenues have more space and better separation from the motorized vehicle lanes. Unfortunately, cars still get in and block the lane, but the space marked off around the bike path and the poles installed discourage traffic from getting into the lane, and make cars less likely to block the lane when they do.

I don't view New York as a model for Toronto, but certainly we should consider the things the New York city government gets right. And when it comes to amenities for cyclists and pedestrians, New York clearly gets a lot of things right.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cars, guns, and the social contract

Do a Google search for the phrase "law abiding gun owners" and you will get "about 46,500" pages back. Do the same search with "car" substituted for "gun", and Google will return "about 264" hits. To understand why, consider this quote:

Okay, so speeding is speeding, and speeding is against the law everywhere. But seriously.

Seriously? OK, then, as seriously as anything gets: this website calculates the stopping distance for an average car, given the speed, from the moment the driver steps on the brake. Adding in a two second reaction time necessary to see a situation (say a child racing into the street after a ball) developing and hit the brakes, and we arrive at the following table of stopping distances at various speeds:

Speed (km/h)Stop distance (meters)
70 101.79
60 79.13
50 59.58

Put bluntly, if a child darts out after a ball less than 59 meters in front of a car doing 50 km/h, the car will probably hit them. That grisly number defines the social contract between urban drivers and urban parents: a car traveling at the general urban speed limit can stop for a child in about 60% of the distance of a football field. Suppose an inattentive driver lets the speedometer creep up to 60 km/h; the child now has only about 20 meters of the football field left. An impatient driver who believes their time matters more than other people's lives, and speeds up to 70 km/h? It will take over a football field's length for that driver to stop.

Around every technology a culture will inevitably arise. The measures of that culture will include its adherence to the larger social contract. In this respect, automotive culture falls decidedly short; to judge by the quote above, which I believe represents the linked article, the characteristics of car culture include a sense of entitlement, impatience, and disrespect for the law and other road users. Reason Magazine has an article comparing the restrictions on gun ownership with the restrictions on car ownership. Despite some problems with their logic, the article makes one valid point: society expects, and to some extent gets, at least more respect for the social contract from those who speak for gun culture than they get for the people who speak for automotive culture.


CTV has a story about the man ticketed for warning other drivers of speed monitoring ahead. They quote a police officer saying that the law doesn't prohibit anyone from flashing their lights to warn of speed radar. The story makes this person's contention that the police have no business enforcing the speeding laws quite plain. If this truly constitutes the state of automotive culture today, I want no part of it.

Update 2:

Spacing also has a post up which, sad to say, retails the same old car culture excuses.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pennies from heaven

...if Ottawa feels flush enough to lower the GST, that money should have been handed over to cities.

So said Christopher Hume; based on the context, I can only assume that he meant the federal government ought not to lower taxes, and instead write a big cheque to the governments of the city of Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and perhaps a few other municipalities.

Pennies from heaven, taxes that someone else levies and takes the heat for, make some politicians very happy. The idea of one level of government (the "bad guy") taking the heat for taxes, and then cutting a cheque to the "good guy" level that provides the services also appeals to ideologues and advocates. But the process of justifying taxation by providing services provides one of the few assurances of good government we have. A politician who can shower services on the electorate without specifying the cost will enjoy a spurious popularity and a license to indulge in mismanagement or outright corruption; a politician forced to justify raising taxes will have to ensure the public gets value for its money. Moreover, the process gets the public involved: debates over how to spend our money focus the attention like few other things.

Recently, Hume has written about the high cost of car addiction and the ways it skews our priorities, as well as the reluctance of drivers to pay their share. In this sense, Christopher Hume gets it. So why, in his article calling upon the federal government to fund the cities, does he say of the finance minister: " fact potholes are his concern." If we demand that the federal government pay to fix the damage to our roads caused by drivers, then how can we ever expect to change the habits of people in our city? Making it the responsibility of the federal government to pay for fixing potholes sends precisely the wrong message to drivers: it defines their auto habit as something so important that the federal government has a responsibility to pay for it. If we eve hope to reduce automobile use, we have to send the opposite message, and define driving as a private indulgence, for which the individual has the obligation to pay the full cost.

Cities do currently pay the cost for some services that the federal government has an obligation to at least share. These include immigrant services and services for urban First Nations people. However, fixing potholes does not belong on this list. As someone who disagrees with Canada's current government, and will work hard to defeat it in the next election (roll on the day) I hate having to agree with anything the minister of finance has to say, but in this case, has has simply told the truth. Moreover, he has provided us with an opportunity. The prospect of having to raise taxes to cater to the demands of drivers might change the minds of people such as Rob Ford and Case Ootes. Goodness knows, the sneers of progressives haven't affected them.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dignity and homicide...

Another gun battle in Toronto has claimed the life of another passer-by, and Mayor Miller has again called for a comprehensive ban on handgun ownership by Canadians. Handgun owners may feel unfairly singled out: after fatal car accidents, hardly anyone calls for a ban on the private ownership of cars. But if gun owners want to understand why almost 50% of their fellow citizens want to take their guns away, they might take a look at the widely disseminated essay A Nation of Cowards, in which the author, Jeffrey R. Snyder, writes

How can a person who values himself so highly calmly accept the indignity of a criminal assault?

Snyder specifically proposes handguns as the most convenient way to protect your dignity. We saw the problem with that idea on the streets of Toronto recently, when a young man fired a shot from a handgun at a bar bouncer, killing a passer-by. I doubt that Snyder had the shooting of bar bouncers in mind when he proposed the use of firearms as an expression of dignity, but bouncers physically propel people out of bars, which compromises the personal dignity of those they expel. If handgun violence serves to protect or restore human dignity, then bouncers, and people walking near them, can expect to get shot at. Snyder's essay does mention the obligation on those who use lethal force to do so competently, but another gun-related site dodges this issue:

Shooting accurately under stress is often difficult and more than one shot may be required to stop each attacker.

As we have seen twice in one week, bullets do not come with brakes that engage when they miss their intended target. By the law of averages, 50% of all the bullets that kill bystanders unrelated to a dispute will come from the guns of people who can claim to have fired in self defence.

Gun advocates, or at least responsible gun advocates, understand the dangers of gun battles in public places. So why do we have a gun culture dominated by the voices of people who consider using lethal weapons to protect their dignity not only a right but an obligation?

Handgun owners may reasonably protest that politicians have singled them out unfairly; automobile culture arguably fosters even more irresponsible attitudes, with some people still finding excuses for drunken or otherwise homicidally reckless driving. Whatever the pitfalls of lawful self defence, few people in the gun culture excuse outright criminal violence; indeed, they demand harsh punishments for it. Unfortunately, our society has run out of patience with reckless shooters before it has run out of tolerance for homicidal drivers. Responsible Canadian target shooters and collectors who want to keep their handguns might consider answering the irresponsible voices in the gun culture, before more gun battles push the number of Canadians calling for outright bans and confiscation to a majority that federal politicians can no longer ignore.

Friday, January 18, 2008

So who really did kill the electric car?

The idea that someone 'killed' the electric car, both in the early years of the 20th century, and in more recent incarnations, has lasted a long time. Distrust of oil and automobile companies, based on real history helps to keep idea going, but it also draws strength from a desire to believe that the technology for a low-cost, pollution-free form of luxurious personal mobility already exists. If the perfect, non-polluting car really exists, and only a conspiracy by "evil oil companies"™ and other vested interests (cue Dick Cheney) keeps it from us, then we can hope to drive cars and breathe the air as well. I have written before about some of the fallacies involved in such thinking. I now want to suggest a more disturbing possibility: we may never have an economically or politically viable electric car, simply because an electric car would have to use a fungible energy source.

By fungible, I mean that you can use electricity for a wide variety of purposes: home heating, cooking, powering appliances, and powering vehicles. Gasoline, on the other hand, only works for one purpose: powering light duty engines. That makes it very useful for cars and light trucks, and essentially useless for anything else. When you fill up your SUV, you don't have to wonder if you (or anyone else) could have used that energy for cooking or heating. That matters, because the energy a car uses can power a lot of air conditioners, stoves, and washers. According to a report on the US Department of Energy web site, in 2001, 107 million US household used 29 kilowatt hours per day. An average car uses about that much energy in a single hour of driving. That means a two-car, two-commute family will see its electrical consumption triple or quadruple when it tries to charge two electric cars.

We can, in theory, operate central power generation systems that emit less pollution than gas-powered cars do, using carbon sequestering systems, geothermal, wind, and nuclear power. But to do that, we have to build a huge amount of infrastructure. To power automobile traffic in Toronto alone would take something like 10,000 windmills. It would cost a lot less to build a "green city" based on active (human powered) and public transit.

Maybe we already have most of the electric cars we need. They just run on subway (and trolley) rails, rather than on rubber and asphalt.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

A post I did not want to write...

I read a number of web logs, but for thoughtful comments on American life and politics, I look very often at Obsidian Wings, a group weblog designed to span the (American) political spectrum. On of the posters there, Andrew Olmsted, an officer serving in the American army in Iraq, died in Iraq at the beginning of this year.

In a wretched irony, my most recent comment to Obsidian Wings responded to the graphs of casualty figures by pointing out that you can never understand what casualty figures mean unless you know someone who has died, heard the voice now stilled, remember the friend now absent. I will miss the voice of Andrew Olmsted, a straightforward and decent man who always had something worthwhile to say.

Whether you believe making peace requires making war, or whether you believe, as I do, that the time for war has long passed, you cannot address the great issues of the time without taking personal risks. I work with people who have faced the lawlessness of occupied Baghdad and the horrors of civil war in the Congo and Colombia. Neither peacemakers nor soldiers can hope to change the world without the honour, courage and grace in the midst of misery that they (and Andrew Olmsted) showed. My condolences and prayers go out to his family.