Friday, January 29, 2010

Excuses and misdirection

Dylan Reid has a post up on Spacing Wire, arguing that the law doesn't actually say you can't cross a street in the middle of a block. Since I have neither a law degree nor the facilities necessary to research this, I'll take his word for it, but I'll still make an effort to cross at the crosswalk.

Of course, that does not mean I'll feel safe at the crosswalk; I've seen too many cars sail through crosswalks, and, honestly, I have to admit I've gotten distracted and done it myself. The same goes for a multitude of other driving mistakes; they all endanger other road users, particularly pedestrians. The infuriating aspect of a blitz ticketing "jaywalkers" right after collisions with cars killed eleven pedestrians in as many days has less to do with the legalities, and more to do with the way a blitz ticketing pedestrians reinforces the motoring culture of excuses, entitlement, and impunity.

Like everyone in this city, I walk. I also cycle, like most of us, I take transit, and I drive. When eleven pedestrians die in as many days, and the police and the media lay a large part of the blame on the victims, that makes everyone less safe. Pedestrians do not have the same responsibility as motorists do. When I take a two-tonne steel bomb into a public place, I have the responsibility to ensure that I don't kill anyone with it. When I haven't had enough sleep, or I have alcohol, any alcohol or sedating drugs, in my system, that means I let someone else drive. The rest of the time, it means I use all my skills and concentration to make as sure as I possibly can that the convenience I get from driving does not come at the cost of someone else's life. I consider what I do the bare minimum that any responsible person who takes a motorized vehicle on the roads has a duty to do.

When the media promote the line that pedestrians always lose in a collision, presented as a concern for pedestrians rather than a dire responsibility for drivers, we all get a lot less safe. Because even if we didn't have to get out of our steel cages, even if we could live behind our crumple zones and air bags, we know car safety features will not protect us from the recklessness possible with a car. Everyone can lose loses in a crash.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

This way lies madness...

actually, I think we passed madness a while back. Sanity lies back the way we came. Well back.

Consider just one example. Toronto has a mayoral election this year, and the candidates include one Mr. Rocco Rossi. Mr. Rossi recently gave a speech in which he highlighted his transportation policy. In that speech, Mr Rossi vowed to cancel all the transit city projects he could, and "review" the bike lanes on major "arterial" streets. It would have made sense to ask whether or not this would work. How many streets does Toronto have going through the downtown core that planners have not classed as "arterial"? Given that Toronto already loses three billion dollars' worth of productivity to traffic congestion, what choices for moving people around to we have? Questions such as this have some actual relation to the needs of the city.

In fact, very little of the response to his speech addressed practical questions. The Globe and Mail's headline sums up what they focused on: "Rossi woos centre-right". This way of looking at politics has two things wrong with it. First of all, it detaches politics and political positions from any kind of practical reality. In fact, some policies work and others do not, some proposals make sense and others do not,and we can determine the difference by careful analysis and reference to the facts. Take for example Mr. Rossi's proposal for bicycle lanes; in Toronto, virtually no minor thoroughfares go straight through for any distance, so Mr. Rossi's proposal, as he reportedly made it, simply won't work. Thinking about policy ideas in practical terms keeps us in touch with the realities which policies have to address. Anchoring proposals to the political spectrum, which by definition people disagree about, creates a situation in which policy proposals inhabit an indeterminate world like that of Schroedinger's cat, nether alive nor dead, neither true nor false, neither sensible nor ridiculous. We all get to believe what we want. But the defects in pure partisan analysis go even deeper than this implies, because not only does our policy analysis end up with no relationship to reality, it also ends up with no discernible relationship with any political principle.

Twenty years ago, two colleagues introduced me to the idea of advocating for cycling and cyclists' rights; that cyclists did not and do not have to accept a road hierarchy in which we come well below cars and trucks. They also thought of Preston Manning and the Reform Party as a bit too liberal. Nobody then associated bicycle activism with either the left or the right. As a position, you accepted or rejected it on its own merits, and it had nothing to do with balanced budgets, or social morality, or anything but practical transportation. Some time in the last two decades, someone decided that bicycle advocacy belonged on the 'left'. And despite the overwhelming evidence that people from all over the political spectrum ride bicycles and advocate for cyclists' rights, we too often just accept that fatuous, nonsensical classification.

Accepting a prix fixe ideological menu, in which we get to pick a single point (left, centre, right) and have all our ideas and opinions instantly decided for us may save some mental effort, but that saved effort inevitably comes at the expense of a sane world view. In the end, if people vote for Mr. Rossi, not because they agree with his position on bicycles on the merits, but because they see it as "centre right", they will have thrown away one of their most precious rights: the right to cast an informed ballot.