Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Last night, turning onto Bloor, I rode past two people at the corner waiting to cross the street when the light changed, and failed to see the person behind them, walking the other way. She started to cross the street, I saw her to late and braked, but not in time to avoid her. We bumped into each other, not hard, and neither of us lost our balance. I apologized, she assured me the collision had not hurt her, and we went our separate ways.

Two observations:
  1. As I do more cycling, I have to stay sharp, and not just look out for vehicles.
  2. An apology and a willingness to admit when I make a mistake go a long way to resolving tense situations.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Number two man

In the field of candiates for mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford now polls in the number two spot among decided voters. Since only about half the voters have made up their minds so far, it doesn't do to take these polls without a large grain of salt, but his performance should definitely wake up those who snickered that a man with his body mass index and antediluvian ideas shouldn't even think of running for mayor. It doesn't do to underestimate Rob Ford.

It doesn't do because behind the well-known personality, Rob Ford has a coherent, consistent theory of government. All the public positions I have seen him take point to a belief in a minimally intrusive government, service oriented and responsive at the local level. Thus, for example, he supports or at least tolerates bike lanes in the downtown and inner suburbs, where people manifestly want them. If he has changed his previously expressed opinion about urban cycling, that would mean he has changed his opinion in light of voter sentiment; a rare attribute in a politician. I have no reason to doubt his commitment to service oriented government, either. Any time I have had cause to contact him, I have received a reply the same day.

So what kind of mayor would Rob Ford make? He would do some things well. He would clear bureaucracy out of the way of local initiatives in public parks, particularly self-funded ones. He might well set new standards for responsiveness in Toronto's government. On the minus side, Rob Ford's belief in minimal government would mean that without either a regional authority or a public-private partnership to get the work done, he wouldn't expand the TTC. Transit City would stay on hold. Mr. Ford's reliance on local initiatives and opinion in policy making makes coordinating city-wide initiatives difficult, if not impossible. Mr. Ford's record in council also makes it difficult to see how he will put together the majorities he will need to govern effectively. And some of his ideas, like trying to bring back Julian Fantino as Toronto's police chief, simply don't make sense.

The time has come, in fact it has long passed, for those who do not want to see Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto, as well as those of us who simply think someone else could lead the city better, to stop trying to make Rob Ford into a joke. The audience has stopped laughing. We have to engage seriously with Mr. Ford and his ideas, and present better ones.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

To an unknown motorist

Last Thursday, I rode downtown to see an art exhibit at OCAD. The daughter of an old friend of mine goes there, and has a picture up in the exhibition. You don't know that, of course. Because of the location of OCAD on McCaul Street, it made sense for me to ride back west along Queen Street. You know that much, because you encountered me just outside Trinity Bellwoods Park, near CAMH.

You might not even remember the rest. I rode in the right lane, close to but not hugging the kerb, in the right tire track. The middle lane had a left-turning car in it, and you couldn't get past me, so you blew your horn, and as soon as you could you sped past me, too close for comfort. Since the left turn lane you wanted had cars it it already with the light turning, you only made it about 100 meters ahead when I caught up with you without much difficulty. You probably don't remember starting straight ahead, avoiding eye contact.

You ran a very small but definite risk of hitting me, with very unpleasant results for us both. Maybe you just saw me as a slow object in front of you, and didn't notice that the cars at the intersection you needed to get to had stopped moving completely. You beat me to the red light, but you didn't save a single second.

Before you got your car, you probably watched a lot of car advertisements. And most of those those advertisements told you an enticing story: of personal freedom in time and space, of figuratively and sometimes literally flying, of empty roads and open space and speed. And if you compare the experience of driving in Toronto or any other city with the car advertisements, you can't help but see that when you buy a car, you buy a pack of lies along with it. Maybe you simply wanted to make a tiny part of the promises you paid so much for come true.

But those of us you speed by have stories too. They have less romance, fewer open roads and sunsets and happy endings than the stories in the car commercials, but they have the advantage of truth. I hope my story would have changed your mind if I told it to you. I have a spouse and a kid. I design and write software to manage fund-raising campaigns. I work on First Nations justice, I have spent seven years doing literacy work (tutoring) and five years working at suicide prevention. Whatever you do, you can't make the stories in the auto commercials come true. Don't bring my story to an end trying.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Statistical nonsense about bikes

Opponents of bicycle lanes in Toronto have repeatedly argued that nobody uses them. The statistics on cycling contradict this, but even if true, their claims would have no relevance.

Motorists appear to grossly underestimate the number of cyclists on the roads. Bob Hepburn wrote that
I saw only 15 bicyclists during the entire commute, even though all these roads have bike lanes and the weather was perfect for riding.
This seems to imply that if a driver, presumably focused on driving rather than counting took note of only fifteen cyclists, only fifteen used the roads that day. In fact, according to Statistics Canada figures, helpfully mapped in the Toronto Star's web graphics,between 5 and 10% of all commuter's in Toronto's downtown core ride bicycles. According to a study done by Ipsos-Reid for the City of Toronto, over a third of the downtown residents use bicycles for commuting, shopping, or visiting at least some of the time. So all the complaints about catering to a tiny minority fail on the facts; cyclists do not constitute a tiny minority, and we actually get less than our share of road space.

But the numbers don't really matter. Our motorized culture promotes an inactive lifestyle which causes many life-shortening, debilitating, and painful illnesses. Public policy has no more business pressuring people into a motor vehicle centred lifestyle than the government would have pressuring people to smoke cigarettes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A secular heaven that looks like hell

Artificial wetlands
The Green Central blog of the Times online has some bad news:
The war for hearts and minds over climate change is fierce and the sceptics are winning the communications battle.
Given the possible consequences of catastrophic climate change, that does look like good news. The article goes on to argue that climate change activists compromised their message by "selling hell". I think they have that half right. From my perspective, climate change activists actually want to sell their version of heaven. Unfortunately, to many of the rest of us it looks like hell.

Climate change activists like George Monbiot have made no secret of their hope that the austerity they see as necessary to save the planet will also promote the kind of culture they favour. The loss of easy access to energy will promote equitable, egalitarian, and communitarian values; the need for conservation will enhance the power of the state at the expense of business corporations, and the loss of cheap travel will produce a spiritual reconnection with the land.

While I consider these romantic fantasies, and highly unrealistic, I consider it even more unrealistic to try to sell a policy based on this approach. It misleads the public in ways too obvious to miss. When a public figure raises a scientific issue, then abruptly dismisses any talk of a technical solution, it doesn't take a bloodhound to smell a bait and switch. When the aviation industry, which accounts for two percent of the actual emissions, gets over half the attention, most of us can tell the priorities involved reflect something besides concern for carbon emissions. We can tell that many climate activists want to dictate the way we live. A public that suspects climate activists of making an issue this important a means rather than an end will probably not trust the activists, and that mistrust may well spill over into skepticism about the science.

For the sake of the planet, we'd better get to work on effective solutions to greenhouse emissions, and quickly. The current crop of climate crusaders can help by taking a hard look at their priorities.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Craving affirmation: a bad root with many branches

Diana West doesn't like American efforts to win the trust and cooperation of the people of Afghanistan. The American military, tasked with finding ways for two profoundly different cultures to share one planet, have evidently decided mutual respect will work better for them than mutual contempt. Ms. West writes:
...the U.S.-drafted Afghan constitution (like Iraq's) has recognized Sharia law as supreme since ratification in 2004. What seems different now, or maybe just more noticeable, is an unseemly American pandering before such law -- Sharia law, tribal law, any law but our own -- increasingly manifested by official U.S. military policy.
The US military seems to understand that human societies get to choose their laws, and that traditional Muslim societies will tend to choose Islamic law. It seems to me that anyone familiar with the principles of the US Declaration of Independence would reach similar conclusions. So why does this offend Ms. West? Does she really want American troops to embark on a millennium long project to force the Afghanis to accept American values? To what conceivable end? It appears the notion of mutual respect, in and of itself, raises Ms. West's ire. But once again, why?

I'd suggest that behind this position lies a bad habit that corrupts our decisions in matters both important and trivial: the habit of seeking conformity or submission at every possible opportunity. Behind this habit lies the unspoken position that other people must affirm my choices, either by imitating them, or by admitting the inferiority of their own.

This habit of thought creates all manner of conflict, both profound and trivial. It kept the battle between national mythologies going in Northern Ireland for forty years, and it keeps the battle going in Israel to this day. It has led to cultural genocide and political repression. Its poison leeches into our streets, as unemployed and marginalized young men lash out in bids for "respect", and motorists honk in resentment of cyclists' refusal to affirm the supremacy of their cars.

The idea that we can force people different from us to break down and admit their errors tempts all of us. We as a species have never needed to resist this temptation more than we do now.

An (almost) equitable sentence

(via take the lane)

Casey Meads partied most of the night; well into the small hours of the morning, he drove his truck home. On the way, he fatally hit William Timothy Korol, throwing him off his bicycle 25 meters into a ditch. Since the police found no evidence Mr. Korol had lights at the time of the crash, the prosecution would have found it difficult to prove the defendant's conduct led to Mr. Korol's death. However, since Meads drove home instead of stopping, attempting to help Mr. Korol, or reporting the crash, the authorities had no difficulty making a case for hit and run against him. He claimed he thought he had hit a deer, and could not tell he had hit a cyclist because his airbag had deployed. Even if you believe this claim, driving after a crash serious enough to deploy airbags endangers all other road users, because your vehicle may have suffered enough damage to compromise its safe operation.

While a two year sentence fits the facts the crown can prove well enough, the three year driving prohibition seems a little light. As the provincial governments frequently remind us, a driver's license confers a privilege, not a right. I do not believe that anyone who fails to take responsibility for their actions should have the privilege of operating a two tonne bomb in public. Actions such as those Meads confessed to do not usually result in a lifetime driving prohibition. But maybe if they did, fewer people would drive home after partying, or tell themselves they just hit a deer without looking around their airbags.

Friday, April 09, 2010

...we have to think about this?

When the major users of parks in Toronto, the local communities, organize and put sweat equity into building innovative programs suited to their own needs, how long should we think before giving the process our enthusiastic support? A computer would take about a nanosecond to make a choice this obvious. The City of Toronto seems to need considerably more time than that.

I think the city should allow any neighbourhoods willing to manage their own parks to do so. To make this work, I propose the following principles:
  1. Inclusion: any community event or activity in a park must welcome anyone from anywhere in the city.
  2. Accountability: money raised at any activity must return to community activities. The central parks and rec authorities can help here by exercising some basic financial oversight.
  3. Environment: the Department of Parks and Recreation has the right and the responsibility to prevent any harm to the park environment. This applies in particular to the building of permanent facilities. The department should also oversee planting, to prevent the introduction of inappropriate non-native species.
  4. Governance: every local resident and group should have access to their local parks, and the opportunity to have an equal voice in facilities provided. The exact mechanism for this may vary; in some situations, it may suffice to allow different community groups to reserve time in a park for their own activities. In others, a formal governance structure in which every resident of the area served by the park has a right to attend meetings and vote, may prove appropriate.
However we accomplish it, the local management of parks in any city makes sense. It makes particular sense in Toronto, the world in one city. Trying to manage parks from Thorncliffe to Bloor West, from New Toronto to Malvern, from Kensington Market to Rosedale, using just one set of rules chosen at 100 Queen Street will produce nothing better than a bland parks system and an uninvolved public.