Thoughts on the debate (and Sun newspapers)

Last night was the leader’s (English) debate– the one and only– of the 41st Federal General Election. I watched it in its entirety, though I admit I zoned out once or twice–like when Duceppe and Layton had their one-on-one debate (irrelevant but for a few small pockets of Quebec).

Stephen Harper did what he had to do: he stayed mostly calm in his defence of his government’s record, and looked the most “Prime Ministerial” out of the four (as he should– he’s the only one that has been PM). Jack Layton had it fairly easy as the leader of the third party– able to attack the Liberals for supporting the Conservatives numerous times (even though not supporting them would have meant bringing down the government) and attacking the Conservatives for everything else. Gilles Duceppe was his usual obnoxious self, in his 15th debate, cracking jokes about Harper answering questions from the public and talking as if he represented all of Quebec. The increasing irrelevancy of having a separatist leader in a federal debate should be discussed. Perhaps the consortium that makes the rules of the debate should consider changing it so that only leaders of parties that have a minimum number of candidates in each province should be allowed to participate.

Michael Ignatieff, meanwhile, in his first debate, struggled a little bit. At times, it seemed he was straying from the formula that had been working for him in this election and in his tours around the country– freely speaking without notes or a reliance on sound bites. Because of this repetition of sound bites in the debate, he came across as a bit ingenuine. However, it’s too early to say if that hurt him or not, as most people in the country didn’t watch all two hours. Perhaps some of his soundbites didn’t come across that way to the casual viewer.

While he struggled at some points to come up with the right words, I think he did have the best “clippable” remarks (like “It’s not bickering, it’s democracy” and (to Harper) “You are a man who will shut down anything you can’t control”). He also came across as angry with Harper, which might not have helped him win any votes on the right side of the spectrum, but certainly must have hardened the Liberal vote.

It’s too early to say if this debate will change anything. But it was certainly refreshing to see the leaders actually talk to each other and even stray from talking points.

Meanwhile, the Sun newspapers have run an editorial comparing Ignatieff to Chairman Mao, the murderous Chinese communist dictator. You should read it, if only to make clear to yourself that you should never take the Sun seriously, and you might want to ignore the new Sun TV News channel.

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Could hydro corridors be used as high speed rail corridors?

I am tempted to think so. As a supporter of a high-speed rail system for certain corridors in Canada, I am familiar with the usual arguments against such a project. Whether it is “too expensive”; “won’t work in our weather”; or “impossible to get a right-of-way”– most of them do not hold much water. The last argument– that right of way is unavailable or too difficult to acquire– to me is the strongest of the arguments. It got me thinking: what would be the easiest way to solve this problem?

Hydro transmission corridors are huge swaths of mostly clear land that slice through our cities and countryside, allowing electricity generated in one part of the province to be transferred great distances over high-voltage lines. Because they respond to demand for electricity, many of the corridors blaze a trail from major power producers to major power users (i.e. large urban centres). In fact, if you look at a map [PDF] of these corridors, the system looks quite similar to our other large infrastructure right-of-ways– highways, railways and the like. In some cases, the corridors are almost “as the crow flies” from city to city.

One of the major reasons they are so straight is that these corridors do not have to respond to variability in the terrain like highways and railways do. This obviously does not work for high speed rail, which requires mostly flat terrain. However, there’s no reason that surrounding land could not be acquired in order to avoid significant topographical features. Using existing hydro corridors would probably reduce expropriation by 90% (no evidence for this number, that’s just my opinion).

What if Ontario Hydro agreed to a lease of its property for such purposes? Would it actually work? Would the removal of such a significant barrier (right-of-way acquisition) change our governments’ current reticence to pursue such a project?

Note: I am definitely not the first person to think of this. I have found at least one example: the Maryland Department of Transportation studied the suitability of hydro rights-of-way [PDF report] for transportation infrastructure in 2002. If you know of any other examples, especially in the Canadian context, please let me know in the comments below.

Cambridge mayor blasts planners for alleged bias

Tensions are growing ever higher in the Region of Waterloo’s debate over the future of rapid transit in the region. The October municipal election, during which politicians got an earful from residents, triggered the anger over the apparently large portion of the cost of a rapid transit system that the Region will be on the hook for.

It was expected that the provincial and federal governments would foot the majority of the cost of the system. For whatever reason, expectations were raised to this level somewhere along the way. (The “norm”, if there is one, for funding large infrastructure investments, is commitments of one-third from each level of government.) To expect that the Region could get a state-of-the-art rapid transit system for almost no cost to the local taxpayer was unreasonable in the first place.

In many ways, it is this unmet expectation of federal and provincial funds that brought on the debate the Region’s councillors and residents are now having. Local cost burden for the Kitchener-Waterloo LRT & Cambridge BRT is now estimated to be $235M, with property taxes to be increased over six years to pay the difference.

Cambridge mayor Doug Craig has become the most outspoken regional critic of the LRT + BRT scheme, saying it would shortchange taxpayers in his city, who would have to ride buses while those in Kitchener-Waterloo ride on modern trains. He, and voters, convinced regional council to reconsider a system of consisting entirely of buses in January. Planners presented a list of 10 options to the Planning and Works Committee on February 15, a list that consisted of one train-only option and one bus-only option, with the others being combined options. This list will now be subject to public consultation before the question of technology is put to council one more time.

LRT's capacity is a huge advantage

It would seem that the list is a fair account of the options before council and the Region, given that almost two years ago, the same council nearly unanimously approved the LRT + BRT scheme (exception being Mr. Craig). Yet Doug Craig and some other councillors do not see it that way. Commenting on the list, Mr. Craig said, “I expected this to be biased. I didn’t expect it to be over the top.” Other Cambridge councillors complained that the list was titled too much toward trains. In response, a councillor from Waterloo accused councillors from Cambridge as being affected by “Cinderella syndrome”, a false sense of being overlooked and neglected. Clearly, a formerly unified council and Region has become fragmented by differing visions of the future.

What disturbed me most as a not-quite-professional planner was the allegations of bias Mr. Craig made towards Regional planning staff. In comments he made after the meeting (rather than in it), Mr. Craig said:

“The whole report is awful… It is a sell job for LRT (light rail transit), plain and simple. And it’s embarrassing. They haven’t done it properly or without bias.”

My guess is he did not allege bias in his comments during the meeting because it would be much more serious if he did so. However, the comments are still of concern to the planners, as they attempt to take a fair and balanced approach to the issue.

The "biased" slide

That being said, Mr. Craig wondered aloud why planners chose to show an over-capacity Ottawa BRT system instead of empty LRT trains in Buffalo during the presentation. Perhaps he is right: planners should have let the facts speak for themselves rather than making the apples-to-oranges comparison of a dying, rustbelt city like Buffalo to a recession-proof government capital.

I have read the presentation, and apart from the pictures, it is mostly full of facts. BRT is a system that would only last for 20 years for the fast-growing region before it is clogging the roads with trains of buses, like Ottawa’s system. LRT costs more than BRT. LRT has a greater positive effect on property values, attracts more riders and employers, and has more benefits to the user. And perhaps most importantly, the number of existing or projected riders “south of Fairview Park Mall” (read: Cambridge) is far below that of Kitchener and Waterloo.

One could fault planners for trying to gussy up a presentation with photos. But one can hardly blame the planners for submitting a report that lays out the facts pretty clearly. Another fact that was in the planner’s report: Mr. Craig’s all-BRT option would cost only 15% less. For a system that would only last 20 years, selecting the all-bus option clearly sacrifices future budgetary concerns for short-term political and budgetary concerns. While Mr. Craig rejects LRT on the basis that it is unfair to Cambridge, clearly what is best for the long-term health of the Region is the proposed LRT + BRT.

You can see the slides the Region’s planners presented to the Planning and Works Committee here and the full report document here [both PDF].

Make a judgement of your own: is the report biased in favour of LRT?

Wytold Rybczynski’s “Makeshift Metropolis”

“The public actually knows what it wants or, at least, recognizes it when it sees it.”

This quote is one that forms some of the basis for urbanist Wytold Rybczynski’s newest book, Makeshift Metropolis. Throughout the book, Rybczynski makes the argument that, while the 20th century was all about planning ideas and concepts shaping the built form of cities, it is the market that today and in the future will shape our cities. Of this he is quite convincing, and as other urban thinkers have pointed out before, the latest planning ideas have shaped our cities the least out of all of them. Think of New Urbanism, for example– embraced by many in the early 1990s as a solution to cookie-cutter suburban communities– now, for the most part, is relegated to being a movement mainly about the aesthetics of homes. It also barely made an impact on our cities; a non-planner or urban designer would not be able to distinguish it from regular suburban planning.

Makeshift Metropolis is one of those books that will begin by being very familiar to those who have studied urban planning. Rybczynski takes the reader through the history of planning theory and practice, focusing on “three big ideas”– the City Beautiful, Garden City, and Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park”. The author’s writing style is highly readable, and he manages to spruce up otherwise dry planning history with anecdotes about the often larger-than-life personalities behind the theories. While it makes for an interesting read, it by no means is a comprehensive history of planning theory– that is not the purpose of this book.

What is very striking to me is that almost all of the members of the “planning Parthenon”, so to speak, were not professional planners by any stretch. Charles Mulford Robinson, father of the City Beautiful movement, was a journalist and freelance writer. Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Garden City concept, was a clerk and a parliamentary stenographer. Le Corbusier was a slightly eccentric and mostly egotistical architect.

Initially I was hit with the thought that perhaps this reflects poorly on planning as a discipline, that individuals from mostly unrelated occupations could simply pick up a pen and change the face of cities. Perhaps planning is not something that can be taught, but has to be learned and gleaned from inspirational encounters with urbanism. However, reflecting on those thoughts, I am more inclined to believe that planning as a discipline is by its very nature multi-disciplinary. Even today in Ontario, as the Ontario Professional Planners Institute moves to more stringent qualifications and ethical standards, the OPPI’s membership includes people from all kinds of occupations– lawyers, writers, architects and engineers to name a few. Planning thrived on the ideas of non-planners in the 20th century– but maybe they were planners.

Rybczynski does nice work relating the history of planning theory to the shape of cities throughout North America today. Nothing is new about this approach, but he does bring some new ideas to the subject. In particular, I like his approach of weeding through the planning ideas and finding out which ideas worked and which did not.

Rybczynski seems to have a soft spot for the Garden City– and who wouldn’t, with its generous parks, large-sized lots and generally definitive town centre. While people generally enjoy a high quality of life in these places, they are not, and never will be, cities. They are suburbs, plain and simple– but foster a more community-oriented environment in which to live.

Personally I found that Rybczynski fails to conclude his book effectively. Essentially what I gathered from his points, if I were to put it simply, is this: the market is not always right when it comes to city planning, but yet it is more right than “willful urban visionaries” such as Le Corbusier. I think this conclusion is correct, as recent emphasis on public participation in planning has shown. Where this point gets confused is the author’s oft-repeated admiration for Garden City– the idea of a “willful urban visionary”.

That being said, as a reader, it stimulated my planner mind. I found myself so stimulated that I took notes immediately after finishing the book, even though it was a late evening on a work night. Despite the sleepy haze I was in, I think I came up with some interesting questions:

  • How would a “regular” citizen design a city and/or neighbourhood? For anticipated traffic volumes and safety? Or for aesthetics? Convenience? Walkability? Connectedness? Environmental Impact? Where are our priorities when it comes to the city?
  • History has shown “trendy” planning to have some good results but mostly bad. Which “trends” should we be careful to avoid? Are there any “tried and true” planning concepts that we should embrace as gospel?

Most of all, I was inspired to think again about a way of planning cities that I have often found myself thinking about. It involves reverting back to the planning of streets and city plans by governments and very large scale (city-sized) developers. Earlier in the 20th century, this resulted in a systematic (some say boring) grid of streets, and systematic parcelling. The result of this (in a different planning climate, obviously) was structures tailored to the street and the needs of the immediate surrounding residents– not just the financial needs of the developer.

Currently, developers of “subdivisions” plan street networks. These networks are disjointed from the “arterial” roads around them, and even the neighbouring subdivision developed by a different company. I have found the main impetus behind this sort of planning to be traffic engineers, as well as concepts of safety accepted by developers and the public as gospel. Engineers say that entry points to the subdivision need to be limited so that residential streets are “safe”; and arterial roads are separated for safety reasons– but the only reason they are unsafe is because they are deemed to be arterials. My own hunch is that non-planners and non-engineers would not plan their city in this way, simply because it does not make common sense.

If we are attempting to design new developments in a most livable way, Rybczynski is right to look at past development that has worked, and to suggest that we embrace these ideas in a market-based. However, we should always, always be careful not to accept some woman’s or man’s thoughts outright. History has shown many times over that ideas become “what the people want” for a short time, only to leave semi-permanent scars on our cities. What history also has made certain is that cities are the largest experiment humans have ever conducted– and will continue to conduct.

Fascinating transport of beer tanks

One of the more interesting stories I have come across recently is this about the planned transport of six giant beer fermenting tanks from Germany to Molson’s Toronto brewery near Pearson Airport. It is difficult to comprehend just how huge these stainless steel tanks are– 7 metres tall (lying horizontally) and weighing 43 500 kg or more.

Toronto Star graphic

While the way they got from Germany to Canada– by boat– is interesting enough, the part of the journey that really fascinates me is the final leg, from the Port of Hamilton to the brewery on Carlingview Drive. From the Star story:

“[The] plan, which will be put into action on Friday, is a feat that involves moving 250 traffic lights, manoeuvring around 1,614 service wires, and slowing down nighttime traffic for four nights as a 40-vehicle convoy crawls through a meticulously planned route through five municipalities. All this for beer.”

There are other numbers that illustrate just how difficult a task it is to plan a shipment like this. 75 people met in a boardroom in November and took all day to figure out the route; the route was surveyed 70 times; and 20 different service providers will have to help the convoy manoeuvre around 1 614 service wires along the route.

Frank DeVries, who has the job of co-ordinating all this, has to be admired for his commitment to the job. Surely at around 6:00 a.m., January 11th, when the shipment is due to arrive at the brewery, Mr DeVries and his crew will be able to feel a great sense of accomplishment.

You can follow the convoy’s progress via Mr DeVries’ Twitter account.

Gordon Chong’s Fantasy Transit Land

The Toronto Star published an editorial submission today from former chair of GO Transit and vice-chair of the TTC, Gordon Chong. You should also know to start that he was a prominent member of newly-minted mayor Rob Ford’s transition team.

In this editorial, Mr Chong attempts to outline how Mr Ford’s vision for transit in Toronto can and should be accomplished. He, like the mayor, declares that Transit City needs to be altered and that Toronto should aim higher (not those congestion-causing “streetcars”, but subways). For someone most would consider an expert on these sorts of issues, he makes some glaring logical leaps and avoids current political and fiscal realities.

One glaring logical error is the much-ballyhooed “one-seat ride” for Scarberians. This has been a common salvo of critics of Transit City, who like to call it “Transfer City” because of the switch a rider may have to make from LRT to subway and vice versa. However, while it’s not clear how a Sheppard subway would work for Scarborough (because it’s not been planned), it is reasonable to assume that the Sheppard line would function separately from the Yonge line and the Bloor-Danforth line (and the SRT, assuming it either remains something other than subway). Hence, unless a rider is going from Scarborough Town Centre to North York Centre or somewhere right along Sheppard, they will not have a one-seat ride. A ride from Scarborough Town Centre to Yonge and Finch, for example, will still require two seats.

Without presenting the numbers, Mr Chong also tells us that before the Yonge Subway was built, the ridership numbers were not there to support it, and yet here we are today. Perhaps Mr Chong is not as experienced in the field of urban planning as he is transportation, because Sheppard Avenue of 2011 is not Yonge Street of the 1950s. Yonge street was an is an urban street, full of shopping, residents and entertainment venues. The majority of Sheppard Avenue’s

Much of Sheppard Ave. looks like this

surroundings are low-density residential subdivisions, zoned as such, and protected from development by the City’s Official Plan. This is why the LRT was such a pragmatic choice for Toronto’s suburban streets: only some of Sheppard is available for more intense population growth. To project that Sheppard would equal Yonge would more than likely mean a paradigm shift in north Scarborough’s planning landscape.

“But what about the money” you say? Mr Chong has a solution for that too:

We should beg, borrow or steal to finish what was started instead of settling for second best simply because it was on sale.

Financial constraints have been cited ad nauseam by various levels of government… However, funding then miraculously appears for some other vote-getting initiative.

Worse still, an auditor general reports on the enormous sums that are wasted or mismanaged annually, leaving the mendacious politicians with egg on their collective faces.

We should “steal” from those latent pots of money identified by the auditor general to build the Sheppard subway to the future.

Mr Chong has come up with an idea so brilliant that no one has ever thought of it before. Take all that money being wasted at all levels of government, throw it into one pot, et voila, a Sheppard Subway with no pain to you! This is such a problematic proposal, it’s almost impossible to know where to start with it. If this money is so easily attainable, why hasn’t this method been used to build all sorts of other goodies for us? For one thing, I would be willing to bet that Mayor Ford will give a tax cut with those savings before he builds anything. It is also very interesting to see a key member of Mr Ford’s transition team declare that the City should increase its debt level in order to build a Sheppard subway (remember that thing about “stopping the gravy train”?)

Don’t fret, disadvantaged people at Jane and Finch, Mr Chong has a solution for you too. Instead of a quick, reliable LRT line along Finch, Mr Chong proposes that we “settle for second best” (Mr Chong’s own slanderous words) in a big way by building a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line through the Finch hydro corridor. It’ll be like a three-seat ride to get downtown, and it will be isolated from the street, but it will be dirt cheap and you get to ride on comfortable highway coach buses! (Now I’m getting snarky.)

While I can agree with some of Mr Chong’s sentiments (visionary subway building, helping captive riders, practical transit systems, and more for Scarborough), it is when his philosophies meet up with cold, hard reality that he loses me. One cannot simply ignore the fact that governments have chosen not to spend money on these types of projects. We all like to dream, but one also cannot flippantly make plans for transit without conducting studies to back it up (Mr Ford likes to do this, too). While Transit City has been studied to death, a Sheppard subway has been deemed unworkable before, and BRT lines have been built selectively due to the public’s distaste for buses of any kind.

Instead of dreaming up unrealistic financial schemes and dictating transit planning from the mayor’s office, Mr Ford and his team should be committing to the long-term vision that was (and is) Metrolinx’s Big Move. It is the only vision that has been put through its public paces and has met with political and fiscal realities.

We should beg, borrow or steal to finish what was started instead of settling for second best simply because it was on sale.

Toronto’s municipal election, the day after

If you don’t live in Toronto, or you live under a rock in Toronto, you may not have heard that last evening we elected a new mayor and 44 members of council (as well as school trustees). The big news is the changeover in ideology and personnel at City Hall, with many incumbent councillors being upset and a fully right-wing mayor being elected after two terms of left-of-centre David Miller.

While many in my circle (which is young, and generally more liberal) are outright shocked and appalled by the result, especially in the case of mayor. But we shouldn’t be shocked– polls have been predicting either a really tight race between George Smitherman (the progressive runner-up) and Ford, or an outright victory by Ford. So if we shouldn’t be shocked, should we be appalled? Perhaps.

Rob Ford has been described as many things. But I have not once heard him described as “progressive”. His platform reads like the basic conservative-minded handbook: he’s promising to cut taxes, cut spending, reduce the size of council by half(!) and, one of his favourite flourishes, “stop the gravy train at City Hall”. These points were repeated over and over and over again during the campaign. Political analysts are pointing to this as an example of how staying on message, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, can win an election. Rob Ford was able to frame the debate of this overly-long municipal campaign around frivolous expenses and disrespect for taxpayers (the slogan on his campaign signs was “Respect for Taxpayers”). Once he got started on that solid footing, it was an easy row to hoe. Despite his lacklustre and Stephane Dion-like platform videos on YouTube, which featured him reading his full-of-gigantic-holes policies stiffly and awkwardly, he still seemed to win the hearts of the majority of Toronto’s electorate.

Why was this? Some suggest it really was about ending the “gravy train” at City Hall. Others, meanwhile, suggest that it is part of a greater Conservative movement sweeping across the country (Ontario in particular) like the Tea Party in the United States. However, results in other Ontario municipalities, and Calgary last week, would suggest otherwise. The most common thing I heard about Ford is that he was “human just like us”. Early on in the campaign, Ford admitted to a DUI charge and posession of marijuana in Florida nearly a decade ago. For any other candidate, like Adam Giambrone, a scandal of that magnitude would have likely scuttled his or her campaign. However, for whatever reason, Torontonians saw it as not something that put into question Ford’s ability to lead a large city, but rather, evidence that he makes mistakes just like us. From then on, Ford’s handlers were able to write a story that included trials and tribulations but also dedication to service of community (Ford has famously claimed to have answered 200 000 calls from constituents during his time in public office).

Smitherman and Joe Pantalone, the other competitive candidate, were unable to make similar personal stories stick and connect with voters. Smitherman was easily framed as the former provincial cabinet minister that helped waste $1 billion on an electronic health records initiative; Pantalone, as a decades-long councillor and deputy mayor in the outgoing administration, was more of the same. As a result of his early lead in the polls, Ford was subjected to attack by Smitherman and Pantalone, taking them off-message, and giving more press to Ford in the process.

If so much of Toronto is pleased with Ford’s victory, what does that say about my circle of friends and colleagues? Are we out of touch? “Toronto Elites”? Or are we truly in the minority in terms of progressive thinking? I have thought about this, and it may be too quick to judge, but I have a strong inkling that Toronto’s seniors and baby-boomers were the ones who by and large voted for Ford. These are the folks most concerned about money– seniors are living on fixed-income pensions, baby boomers are trying to raise a family in the city, and the city’s taxes (seemingly) pile up while their own income does not. They are concerned about the future, but that future falls within the existing framework of the city. Everything “progressive” is seen as extra and frilly: green roofs, social services, waterfront revitalization, bike lanes, Transit City, and streetcars, as a few examples. Whereas I would tend to see these things as investments in the future, seniors and baby boomers are more concerned with their immediate future. They are less concerned with the general direction of the city in the 21st century, and more concerned with getting their fair share of services and keeping elected representatives on a short leash.

I am not saying that almost no one below the age of 30 voted for Ford. What I am saying is that I believe the numbers will show the vast majority of people under 30 did not. We know from previous elections that seniors tend to vote in greater number than young folks, which means the results become even more skewed toward Ford. It was interesting to see television coverage of the Twitterverse reaction to the results– hosts reacted with shock that, by their estimation, 90% of the Twitter reaction to a Ford mayoralty was negative. After last night, I am even more inclined to believe that Twitter in the Toronto context is mostly an orgy of liberal-minded people, that is nowhere near representative of the city. (After all– who is the average Twitter user? Certainly not your 58-year old baby boomer nearing retirement). Whereas Twitter and Facebook were seen as crucial to Calgary’s election of Naheed Nenshi by getting out the youth vote, social networking did not seem to affect Toronto’s election in the least.

So if progressives want someone to “blame”, who or what should it be? Is it Pantalone, who by staying in the race to the end, split the progressive vote? (Smitherman would have defeated Ford if all of Pantalone’s votes went to Smitherman, but that is a big if.) Is it the Liberals of Toronto, who failed to draft a suitable candidate worthy of defeating Ford? Is it David Miller and his so-called “gravy train”? Or is it simply an anti-incumbency attitude? To me, it could be a combination of these things. But my initial reaction is that Toronto’s seniors and baby-boomers, who are short-sighted, ideological rather than idealistic, and grumpy, have shown up in droves and shown the door to progressive thinking in the mayor’s chair in Toronto, for at least four years.

I am now wondering what an ageing population means for future elections. Are we youth, who are mostly progressive, going to be suppressed in future elections by the senior majority? Or is this just a flash in the pan?

It will be interesting to see how Ford as Mayor plays out. He has got a council with a lot of new faces, but the ideological balance remains mostly the same. Upcoming battles with the province over Transit City in the context of the 2011 provincial election will be the most interesting thing to watch in my opinion. More on that in a later blog post.