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.

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