Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Our Happy Warrior

Before Monday 12:30 P.M. I had a very different idea of what this week’s blog post would be about. A Toronto press conference put paid to the posting on a policy argument I was going to make. As many will already know NDP Leader and Leader of Opposition Jack Layton announced that he would be temporarily stepping down over the summer months to take the necessary time to beat a recently diagnosed second form of cancer. As Mr. Layton put it, “So, on the advice of my doctors, I am going to focus on treatment and recovery. I will therefore be taking a temporary leave of absence as Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada. I'm going to fight this cancer now, so I can be back to fight for families when Parliament resumes.” The full statement Jack Layton gave can be found here.

The reaction when the NDP entered the room was palpable. A collective gasp from media at Layton’s changed appearance could be heard. As I watched the live stream from CBC I was stunned to see how thin, and sick Mr. Layton appeared. It was shocking. I struggle to put into words the emotions I felt, and I feel Chris Selley from the National Post did a marvelous job of saying what that moment was like for him inside the press room. Selley did a good job in highlighting the unending fight in the Opposition Leader, not just his apparent health problems.

Jack Layton’s health has created a real impact among Canadians. I feel like that is tied to the fact that Mr. Layton just isn’t another politician. Mr. Layton is at present our second longest serving federal leader, only Stephen Harper has served longer, and only by a few months. Since 2003 Jack Layton has been a key fixture in Canadian life, and he has grown to become a part of our public life and consciousness. Consistently, over the past few years, Mr. Layton has routinely polled at the most popular, most well-liked of our federal leaders. The May 2nd election translated Jack’s long held popularity into votes for the first time. When Mr. Layton took over the NDP the NDP were stuck below 10%, this spring they won over 30%.

The Vancouver Sun had some speculation about Mr. Layton’s health yesterday.What some of the doctors suggest may be very serious, but Mr. Layton is entitled to his medical privacy, especially since he has stepped down as leader temporarily. As Jack undergoes treatment and care an interim leader, Nycole Turmel from Hull-Aylmer riding, Quebec, will act as caretaker. Ms. Turmel was a national labour leader and is a new MP elected in May.

Jack Layton has been a principled, vocal leader for all Canadians, and his party. He is our happy warrior. Our smiling, cheerful leader who will not quit. What the NDP leader is going through is something all Canadians can sympathize with. Cancer has touched every Canadian family, and to see one of our great leaders experiencing a very human problem naturally draws in our own histories. Let us not eulogize Jack Layton because his career is far from over. I look forward to his return this fall. I wish you a speedy recovery, Mr. Layton, good luck and don’t stop fighting.

If you would like to send Jack Layton a message of support follow this link.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Moving on Two Wheels

Given a confluence of events in my own life and media it seems appropriate to discussing bicycling this week. For as long as I can recall, as long as I have known how to bike I have been using it as one of my primary forms of transportation. I remember a few instances in middle school where a particularly stubborn friend and I rode our bikes to school with snow on the ground. Frost bike and black ice ultimately put a stop to this practice.

Even today during the warm months my primary form of transportation, whenever possible, is cycling. About three weeks ago my bicycle was stolen from my home. To be fair, I share about half the blame for not properly locking it up. Regardless, the centrality of cycling in my life didn’t really become truly apparent until I was not able to do it anymore.

Cycling culture has grown considerably over the last ten to twenty years. While I was back home in Brampton, and over the last few weeks in St. Catharines I have paid more attention to the people around me using bicycles to get around the city. A great cross section of society employs them for different purposes. Different social classes, age groups, and cultures employ them with no obvious bias, and their use as leisure activity, transportation and exercise makes the bike far more than a narrow activity with limited appeal.

When people talk about bike culture the image of Lance Armstrong-wannabes riding down a suburban side street like the Tour de France comes to mind. One website I’ve come to great appreciate is Cycle Chic. Cycle Chic, originally from Copenhaggen (which has a GIGANTIC cycling population), focuses on photographing everyday people using bicycles and making the bicycle a personal accessory and improving the aesthetic of cities.

My personal favourite contribution of Cycle Chic is their manifesto. Some of my favourite items include “I am aware that my mere prescence in said urban landscape will inspire others without me being labelled as a 'bicycle activist'.”, “I will ride with grace, elegance and dignity.”, “I will choose a bicycle that reflects my personality and style.”. But by far, my favourite is this: “I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of 'cycle wear'.

While Cycle Chic is great because it highlights that we can be appealing on the roads and bicycling doesn’t have to be something you’re embarrassed, about it does highlight a bit too much of the fashion aspect for my liking. I greatly appreciate that while on our bicycles we contribute to the vitality of our urban environment. When possible, we should put our best foot (or wheel) forward. The site has enjoyed such popularity it now has chapters for major cities, including Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal (follow links from Cycle Chic website, link above).

Cycling provides a similar level of freedom that car-ownership does. Perhaps the greatest feature of owning a car is the ability to travel whenever you want. Public transportation necessarily forces its users to obey its schedules. This can be particularly frustrating on holidays or Sundays when bus services is normally dramatically curtailed but it is the most convenient day to run errands for people working on the weekdays. A bicycle, like a car, allows the owner to set their own schedule.

I think it is important for cities to facilitate biking in their urban areas and on their trails. Now, I do not believe that every strip of road needs to have a bike lane down it. Bicyclists do need to feel safe or they will not bike. Ideally, most cities should offer bike routes that stitch together their entire urban fabric if they are so large that sharing the road may be dangerous at parts. A threshold of 100,000 people is probably a good benchmark.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Mayor Ford and City Council have voted to destroy bike lanes. Having read the media coverage there is some justification for the destruction of the bike paths in Scarborough. They were rarely used. However, major bike infrastructure was destroyed in the core. Generally, I think this is pretty stupid policy. Once something is built you need a good reason to destroy it. It cost the city of Toronto $80,000 to put in these bike lanes and will cost them an additional $200,000 to take them away. So after $300,000 the city of Toronto will be back at where it started with marginally better traffic movement and worse biking infrastructure.

One thing that I find confounding about bicycling in virtually every city I visit is a lack of bicycle parking. Businesses are required to have a certain amount of parking for cars based on their size, but the same courtesy is not extended to bicycles. I think that is an issue that should be examined in the case of every municipality’s planning code. Cities could even bulk buy a couple hundred bike racks and sell them to businesses cheaply, or give them away.

Before parting I’ll leave you with this article, a Typology of Toronto’s Cyclists, which even as a non-biker might give you a knowing-grin. Happy biking!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Canada on Dangerous Seas

Before I begin to write this I have the feeling I will constantly be in deep danger of mixing my metaphors. Please be patient, and do your best to follow along my winding rhetorical trail.

During the spring 2011 federal election the Conservatives campaigned for re-election largely on the economy, or more specifically their management of it. The Canadian ship of state had weathered the storm of the 2008 recession and was/is pulling ahead of competing nations. Canada’s economy has done well, but I do not believe the Conservatives had much to do with it. First, our resource economy (principally oil) is fuelling a robust growth spike across the country. Second, effective budget balancing in the 1990s under Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Finance Minister Paul Martin put us on a path of success. It also left us a lot of options and a lot of freedom to respond to the recession.

Aside from what I listed above how is Canada doing so much better than European countries, Japan and the United States? Well, before we begin to pound our nationalist chests I would like to point out we are not ahead – the world is behind, dramatically behind.

Japan, a historic economic powerhouse, has been crippled in the wake of the tsunami of 2011 and subsequent, and on-going, nuclear disaster. Occasionally we hear on the news how some of Japan’s major businesses in electronics and automobiles have suffered because the country cannot export. If Japan can recover at all at pace with the world it will be a miracle of sort.

Europe is, in reality, in the midst of a slowly evolving crisis. You have likely seen on the news images of Greece, where the Greeks are rioting in the streets against government actions. Greece is undergoing a debt crisis. The Greek people have enjoyed considerable benefits for a nation of its wealth. With a staggering debt Greece is on the verge of defaulting. If it did default it could spell the end of the European Union.

However, Greece is the tip of a very frightening ice berg. Portugal and Ireland are not that far behind Greece on the crisis spectrum. And behind them are the much larger economies of Spain and Italy. These countries, in short, have spent too much, taxed too little, and have sluggish, inefficient economies.

For us in Canada we only need to cast our eyes southward to American inability to deal with their debts for problems in our future. America, much like Greece, spends far more than it collects in taxes. Its debt is about $14.5 trillion. In the United States at the moment the Democrats and Republicans are struggling to negotiate with each other before a deadline. On August 2nd the United States’ credit card reaches the limit. The Republican controlled Congress refuses to pass an increase on the limit without substantial cuts, and NO TAXES – of any kind. The Democrats are fighting to protect spending and want some taxes. Thus – impasse. A deal must be reached by mid-to-late July for it to take effect in time. This is not something that can wait for 11:59 PM August 1.

I am deeply concerned that American commonsense will not prevail. That the idea that someone will blink will blind them. Someone has to give in, it’s too important. If both sides think that and stick to their guns we will see a debt crisis in the world’s largest economy. An economy we do 70% of our trade with.

Returning to the ship metaphor, Canada is not the Bluenose racing in front of inferior peers. The ships we are racing against are taking on water, have holes in their sails, or are on fire. Canada could do everything right in the next few months and Harper and the Premiers could act responsibly, but the actions of other countries could wreck us. If the American behemoth goes off course and rams our ship it won’t much matter if we have sharp uniforms and fresh paint.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Way We Move

People in Southern Ontario are changing the way they move around. It’s no secret that the suburbs of a great many cities are automobile dependent. The argument has gone that these places are too low-density to support public transportation. The dense cores of our major metropolises such as Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto are the ones that can support “real” public transit. Transit has been typically the domain of the socially disadvantaged.

Here’s what we know about public transit. It’s for the poor. It’s for the inner city. It’s expensive. It eats huge subsidies. It doesn’t work in the suburbs. Or so people have believed.

The Ontario Government has introduced a program called Metrolinx to revitalize public transit in the Greater Toronto Area. But why?

Google the phrase “congestion in Toronto costs” and the first page worth of hits should give anyone pause. In January 2011 the Toronto Board of Trade issued a study that estimated the cost of congestion (or traffic) to the city of Toronto to be $6 billion per year. Toronto is also ranked with the longest commute in the world. On average Toronto’s commuter class spends 80 minutes a day sitting behind the wheel trying to get home or work. We’re worse than other severely congested cities, such as Los Angeles. If that doesn’t put things in perspective, I don’t know what will.

So, what can we do? More freeways are not the solution. Freeway construction is slow, and has only marginal benefits in reducing congestion. In addition, the people of Toronto, and elsewhere are not interested in having their neighbourhoods demolished so that people from further away can shave 10 minutes off their commute.

That’s where Metrolinx comes in. Metrolinx is in not charge, it just helps coordinate the efforts between municipalities and the province. It appears to be paying off dividends. Bus Rapid Transit programs in Brampton, Mississauga and York Region are proving to be quite successful. Brampton has seen a nearly 18% increase in public transit ridership. Transit systems in York, Durham and Halton have all seen increases around 10%, which is quite dramatic in one year.

Brampton, my hometown, has seen dramatic growth, and this is in part due to the ZΓΌm initiative I’ve discussed in previous blog postings, a rapid transit link that connects Brampton to Toronto.

Brampton is an excellent test case. As a city it is wealthy, middle-class and automobile-centric, and definitely, definitely suburban. However, it is difficult to get out of the city. Aside from Mississauga Transit, and GO it is not possible to get out of the city, really, without a car.

An automobile culture is becoming increasingly difficult to perpetuate. Rising gas prices, increasing costs of borrowing, insurance premiums, and environmental considerations are inclining people to abandon their vehicles for alternatives, but the alternatives have to be there. Brampton was a transit-poor city, there is no doubt of that, but once it was built people have flooded to use it.

The traditional stigma of transit is waning, or so I hope. It is not strictly the “loser cruiser” and only for the young, the elderly and the underclass. Ontario universities offer transit passes in their tuition encouraging a growing number of young adults to become more familiar with the positive aspects of transit. In Toronto, and other major cities, using transit is for everyone, and I believe increasingly in the Greater Golden Horseshoe transit will become a normal part of life. I feel I should add transit is be far a less stressful way to travel, you’re not personally responsible, and you can sit back and enjoy the paper, or talk on the phone, or play games on your personal device.

Transit shouldn’t become a bigger part of life in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, it needs to become a bigger part. If you did that Google search I mentioned above you’ll see that the estimated cost of congestion keeps going up over time. How long before businesses decided Toronto isn’t the place to do business. If we reduce 2011’s congestion by 10% we’ll save $600 million. Imagine what we could do with that?

A holistic solution is the only way forward. We need to improve how we move on a local level, on a citywide level, on a regional level and out-of-region (airports, and rail out of Southern Ontario). The better we get at this the better off we and our cities will be.