Archives for category: Public transit

I’m all in favour of getting people out of cars and getting more cyclists on the road, but what if your “bicycle” is a 120kg scooter that goes over 30km/h and makes no noise?

I’m not the first person in Toronto who has noticed a growing number of scooter type e-bikes driven dangerously, by people who are not only new to driving but who think that they can drive anywhere, anytime. I’m happy to share the road with anyone, but you must act in a safe manner.

Yesterday, while on a routine bike ride to get groceries, I noticed e-bike drivers riding on sidewalks, not wearing helmets, running stop signs into heavy traffic and generally not showing any awareness of the danger they are posing to pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Last week, I was hit by an e-bike that decided, at full speed, to move from the right-hand lane of the street into the bike lane. There was no bell, no horn, no warning.

Image: Now Magazine

Of course, the same behaviours I noticed are the same ones motorists frequently observe among cyclists. The only difference is e-bikes weigh much more, have more velocity and take longer to stop than bicycles. They are essentially motorized scooters that have pedals – which, from what I’ve seen, are merely useless appendages.

The pedals are a convenient loophole. They province’s oversight of e-bikes makes it clear that having pedals means e-bikes are considered bicycles under the law and e-bike drivers do not require a licence. And, according to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, e-bikes “do not have to meet any federal safety standards.”

I find this odd. If regulations exist in part to ensure the safety of those who operate cars, bikes, motorcycles, scooters and those around them, then why is simply having pedals enough to remove e-bikes from further oversight and regulation? Why not use weight, size or a similar measurement to determine the appropriate safety and regulatory approach?

If there is a bigger debate taking part in Toronto about how to balance the needs of cars, public transit, cyclists and pedestrians, then e-bikes should be added to this list.

New shops selling e-bikes are popping up everywhere, offering mobility to those who are not able to ride a bike – but e-bikes should be treated as what they are: heavy, motorized scooters.

Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa was on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Monday, talking about the spat with Ottawa on funding for the Big Move transit plan. On one side, Ontario – through Metrolinx – has raised the idea of hiking the HST in the GTA to pay for transit expansion. On the other side is the federal government and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s letter to Sousa, which basically says you can’t have different HST rates across regions in Ontario. Sousa had a great opportunity to define the issue, but his approach was the wrong one.

Flaherty’s letter was simply an opportunistic political message (“We did not lower the GST to have it taken away from Ontarians by the Wynne government with a news sales tax hike.”) meant to put the Ontario government on the back foot. Sousa’s response – as manifested during this radio interview and elsewhere – was to engage in the debate on Flaherty’s terms and avoid talking about the bigger imperative: making sure the public understands that taxes are how we’re going to pay for badly-needed transit expansion.

Charles Sousa (Image: National Post)

In taking Flaherty’s bait, Sousa’s strategy seemed to be made up of two key messages:

1. Backing away from Metrolinx’s recommendations and saying “we didn’t ask to raise the HST,” or “That’s not what we’re suggesting,” over and over. This is an understandable minor message, but one that – as it was constantly repeated – started to take on the tenor of a recreational athlete complaining to a referee.  Maybe he was worried about how Ontarians were feeling after media coverage of a list of possible “non-tax revenues” generated by Ontario bureaucrats.

2. Avoiding any mention of transit and instead promoting partnership between levels of government, getting everyone at the table – Flaherty in particular – and having a conversation about making the lives of Ontarians better. In fact, Sousa did not once mention the word “transit” and only made one passing reference to the Big Move. Instead, he threw out the words “gridlock” and “competitiveness” and talked relentlessly about “capital infrastructure”. He sounded less like a smart guy trying to explain to a mostly liberal and urban radio audience why we need to consider all possible sources of revenue for transit, and more like a typical politician regurgitating his talking points. He even used the term “going forward”.

I was left with the impression that Ontario’s finance minister was more interested in making nice with Jim Flaherty (low odds on that succeeding) than he was in reinforcing the idea that we need to find a way of paying for transit. Too bad Sousa missed the opportunity to more clearly explain what he was asking for, and what benefits citizens would get in return.

Sure, getting voters to understand and engage on taxes for better transit and less gridlock is not an easy task. It carries political risks, but the alternative path – shying away from any mention of taxes and benefits and letting growth overwhelm us – is the same path to nowhere we’ve been on for decades. And isn’t that what Kathleen Wynne has been saying for months?

The discussion on transit in the GTA has moved past the “what to do” stage and is now in the “how to pay for it” stage. And that’s where it should be.

So why are public officials like Karen Stintz, Glenn De Baeremaeker and Glen Murray not thinking about how it looks when they try to reopen the transit agreement signed last year? Did they not consider how citizens might perceive it when yet another politician tries to revisit a transit deal (Sheppard East, Finch West, the Eglinton Crosstown and replacing the Scarborough LRT) that the region has been waiting decades to see?  I can just imagine the thousands of people, who upon opening the paper in the morning and reading the headlines, saying “Jesus! Enough already! Get on with it!”

Image: Ontario Government Archives

From a political communications perspective, the discussion over transit needs to have a rational and human element to it. This means anyone who advocates for further study, revisions or new ideas needs to explain very clearly why this would be of tangible and practical benefit for transit users and why we should wait even further.

In the case of Stintz and De Baeremaeker, we are wondering why they would be motivated to agitate for a subway to replace the Scarborough LRT? As the Grid’s Ed Keenan wrote in taking apart Stintz and De Baeremaeker’s suggestion, they have ignored the fact that a transit system should primarily serve its users; convenience of service is therefore a key consideration – not, as Keenan points out, the type of technology used.  For example, if a donkey and covered cart pulled up at a Queen streetcar stop and got me to my destination faster than the streetcar, then my needs have been met.

In the case of Glen Murray, he seemed to be thinking aloud about revisiting the entire transit plan. Thankfully for us, he had the poor communications judgement to do it on the same day as the provincial budget – when the government is really only focused on one story – thus pissing off the Premier and forcing Murray to climb down.

Both these cases should be a warning sign to any public official who wants to tinker with the transit deal. Whether for political points, a higher profile, more media coverage or other reason, anyone who decides to indulge themselves by suggesting fundamental changes to the transit plan will be judged harshly.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Rob Ford.

A Toronto Star story on a recent poll shows a slim majority of GTA residents reject the various taxes, fees and levies proposed to pay for the Big Move, the plan for long-term transit expansion.

No doubt there is value in a pollster asking the question, and absolutely it deserves to be covered as a story, but I honestly can’t completely trust a poll that isn’t more transparent. As a reader, I’m given the sample size, the geographic spread of the respondents and the date of the poll, but not the questions (A similar poll in late March by the same pollster generated similar results). The details of the poll are not available to the public.

Why do I consider this important?

This was an “interactive voice response telephone poll”, or IVR, which means respondents aren’t talking to a human, but a pre-recorded voice that asks them to push a button to indicate their response to specific prompts. Without knowing what exactly was asked and how the issues are defined to the respondent, it’s easy to imagine that respondents can be guided into a certain kind of response or perception.

Image: Megasat.de

IVR polls favour simple questions; it’s not the ideal method to capture opinions on complex public policy issues – such as various types of taxes and fees on everything from road use to property development to payrolls.

This is where the journalist’s job comes in. Without having the poll script dropped into the story, it is the journalist’s job to ensure the poll is not misrepresenting public opinion or not skewing opinion by presenting subjective or leading information to the respondents.

I’m not saying I don’t believe the results of the poll. And I have absolutely no reason to doubt the professionalism of Forum Research, the company that conducted the poll. But consider this: we’ve been bombarded for years with messages that tell us that taxes are bad, so it’s not hard to imagine that a robocall from a pollster asking if you want to pay more taxes for transit generates an automatic negative response.

A poll can be a quick and easy story to do, with results that make for tasty headlines. Consumers of news media should be confident that they are getting fully transparent and objective coverage of opinion polls.

I hate the word “taxpayer”. Why? Because it puts the word tax front and center, as if our identity revolves around the fact that we pay tax – as opposed to, say, the fact that we consume public services like health care, pensions, roads, utilities, etc.

The discussion over how to fund the needed transit expansion for the GTA has me overjoyed for a variety of reasons. First, we’re having a discussion about transit. Second, it’s participatory; the discussion is relatively broad and it includes various levels of government, business and citizens’ groups.

And finally, it appears we are having an adult discussion about taxes. Although the vague phrase “revenue tools” has been used frequently,  I think that most people understand we are talking about taxes, full stop. Even if we’re all clear on what “revenue tools” means, I wish Premier Wynne and Metrolinx would stop using it.

Express Tax Route? (Image: Globe & Mail)

Road tolls are a tax. Parking fees are a tax. The other oft-mentioned solutions are dedicated sales and fuel taxes – which are both, of course, taxes.

What I like about this – no, what I love about this – is that citizens are being treated with respect and honesty. You want good transit? We need to raise money to pay for it, through taxes.  So, let’s talk about which taxes we can pay to get something that will increase the quality of life in the GTA.

I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but I rejoice in the fact that all citizens – whether they want better transit or not – are clear in what they are debating. Isn’t transparency a great thing?

UPDATE: No, this is not an April Fool’s joke. Seriously.

The wind energy sector was abuzz earlier this week, with news of a new study that sheds some light into the thorny issue of how humans perceive the health impact of wind turbines.  The study suggests that people who claim to suffer health problems from living near turbines could actually be suffering from a psychogenic response, prompted by anti-wind farm campaigns – or, to put it less delicately, scaremongering – that say that noise and vibration from wind turbines cause health problems.

More specifically, the study finds that the vast majority of those who live near wind farms in Australia suffer no related health problems (frequently cited complaints like sleeplessness, headaches, and stress  are grouped into “wind turbine syndrome”) and that those who do claim adverse impacts mostly live near five specific wind farms that have been targeted by anti-wind campaigns.

Feeling sick already? (Image: London Free Press)

The study comes from Dr. Simon Chapman, a public health professor at the University of Sydney. Dr. Chapman has been questioning the “science” used by anti-wind groups, and looking at the issue from a risk communications angle. Chapman calls wind turbine syndrome a “communicated disease”.

His study, the conclusions of which imply that this is an area worthy of further work, sets out the case that communications – through such activities as media and public information campaigns – could be one of the strongest determinants of how humans perceive wind turbines and their impact on health and quality of life. Thus far, the scientific work done on the topic continues to find no link between wind turbines and adverse health impacts.

Given the opposition to wind farms in Ontario, the study should be very relevant to the debate here. For wind energy advocates, this study promises an interesting new direction in the challenge to better understand and manage the interaction between wind turbines and humans and to build a fact-based regulatory approach. It also supports the need for the wind energy industry to be more communicative and transparent about the annoyance issues associated with wind turbines.

Copenhagen metro: no driver, happy riders (Image: Pacsafe.com)

I used to travel a lot to Copenhagen. From the airport, you can take the metro to the city centre in about 15 minutes. The trains are fully automated; there are no drivers or similar staff. The trains run very well, and the system is efficient and safe. It’s called Automatic Train Control, and it helps to provide more frequent and reliable service in public transit systems in Barcelona, London, Paris, Washington, Hong Kong and Singapore – just to name a few.

So when I saw a newspaper story about how the TTC is moving toward this more automated approach, I thought it was an encouraging sign of progress. That was until I read a quote from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 leader Bob Kinnear (who represents TTC workers and in October was acclaimed to his fourth term). He said, “I have almost no concern that the TTC would to a fully automated system, cause I do not believe that the general public, never mind the pushback they’ll get from us, I do not believe that the public in Toronto would accept that.” The union will even oppose reducing the current two-man crews on each subway train.

Two bits of advice, Mr. Kinnear: First, don’t pretend you speak for transit riders. It’s quite clear by now that the average level of customer service provided by your members – mostly unfriendly, uncommunicative and generally resentful for having to deal with riders – is not acceptable to riders.  Second, if your union is so interested in being a credible and active advocate for transit in Toronto, then what kind of message does it send when your first response to a reasonable proposal is not to engage it, but to dismiss it?

Why does he make me think that he will fight against every suggestion that would make the TTC more efficient or more customer-friendly? Most certainly, he’s talking to his membership through the media – but that’s just union politics. He could have the union participate in public transit policy discussions, but maybe that’s too long-term for him. After all, he is an elected official accountable only to ATU members. I get the impression that the Kinnear is not too interested in improving transit or even transit policy. He’s only interested in his members’ jobs – right now.

That’s too bad, because the nature and number – and the future security – of those jobs is being shaped by debates about new transit technologies, new fare systems, new equipment, new approaches to transit and myriad other issues that will be with us much longer than this news cycle.

All this reminds me of last autumn’s Protecting What Matters campaign from ATU Local 113. Remember those transit ads profiling TTC maintenance workers? Or the slick video that played before movies? The campaign – which clearly wasn’t cheap – was meant to remind all of us about how ATU workers keep transit moving and convince City Hall and us that privatizing public transit is the wrong path.

The point, I admit, was lost on me. Ok, so your union members maintain buses, streetcars and subways? So what? I’m more interested in what the union thinks is the most sustainable approach to transit in Toronto.  If I were a union member, I would be asking what was that campaign meant to achieve? And was the goal achieved?

That money would have been better spent on promoting and sharing the voices and ideas of the people who know the TTC best – its employees – and being more actively involved in the bigger debates on public transit. That, to me, is a more practical and effective communications approach and a better way for the union to push for a future that will secure long-term jobs for its members.

I hope the members of the union think about how their president represents them in debates on transit. They should aim higher: to be seen as a modern, flexible and informed group of workers who care about public transit and where it’s going, if only because their jobs are on the line.

Robert Prichard — Image: Toronto Star

You want to know why so many people don’t trust politicians and the political class? Because of cases like Robert Prichard.

Since July of last year, Mr. Prichard, who is the Chair of GTA regional transit agency Metrolinx, has been a registered lobbyist for MGM in its efforts to build a casino in Toronto.

Prichard is also the Chair of Onyx, which is also fronting a casino proposal.

MGM hired Torys, the law firm Prichard chairs, to lobby relevant provincial ministries and agencies. He is not lobbying Toronto City Councillors, who will decide if there is to be a casino in the city. Prichard says there will be no lobbying if Toronto turns down a casino. Still, is this not a perceived conflict of interest?

Prichard went to Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner, Mr. Justice Sidney Linden, who said there’s no problem if Prichard leaves the room when Metrolinx discusses the casino issue and its impact on public transit.

Here’s what I wish the Integrity Commissioner had said: “Sure, Bob – there is no law against this, but consider how this looks to Ontarians. Wouldn’t it be better to sit on the sidelines on the casino issue? Do you really have to do both? Surely it’s more important to build public confidence and trust than it is to wear your lobbyist hat and your Metrolinx hat?”

Later, Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray predictably said that Prichard did the right thing by going to the Integrity Commissioner. Sigh.

Prichard is a very qualified and experienced guy – former Dean of University of Toronto’s Law School, President of UofT and CEO of TorStar. But is it too much to ask that people choose between their private and professional interests and their duty to the province? Is it more important that Prichard have the opportunity to both head Metrolinx and lobby the province on a casino, or that Ontarians have unshakable trust in their public institutions and those who lead them? Is this a naïve and unrealistic perspective?

I don’t think so. The perception, for me, is that there is a conflict – and I don’t understand why this isn’t more apparent to Prichard, Linden and Murray.

Here’s the thing: this is all about trust. Most people aren’t going to trust someone who intuitively thinks that it’s acceptable to resolve this conflict simply by leaving the room when the word “casino” gets mentioned. Political and policy influence is a more complex and nuanced process than that.

In the end, this story confirms the widespread perception that public sector appointees, politicians and the circles around them are not really in it to make Ontario better – but to enrich themselves and protect their web of influence. The result is less trust in the people who appointed Prichard, less trust in the Integrity Commissioner and less trust in the political class.

That’s why the story was on the front page of the Globe and Mail, and that’s why this issue will further erode confidence in public oversight.

I see that Toronto City Council is being asked to remove a little-known by-law that obliges cyclists in the city to ride in single file LINK. The by-law is a holdover from Etobicoke, and was extended to the rest of city during amalgamation. No side-by-side riding, you lane hogs!

I’m sure I wasn’t the only cyclist in the city to be caught by surprise. Are you kidding? We are legally required to ride in single file? And some cops actually pulled cyclists over for this?

toronto cyclists

“The Commute Home” by happy d/blogTO Flickr pool.

Legally, bikes are treated like cars under the Highway Traffic Act, so cyclists have every right – if they think it’s safer – to ride two abreast or take up a lane of traffic (a cop quoted in the Toronto Star article agrees, making me wonder why some of his colleagues continue to pull over offending cyclist). Two things non-cyclists might want to know here: no cyclist wants to get any closer to cars than absolutely necessary; and riding a bike in traffic requires very careful attention to what you are doing (where you are riding, what is around you and how you fit into the flow of traffic). Most cyclists don’t need to be told how to ride their bikes around cars. In fact, I would say motorists have a stronger need to be better informed and educated about how to drive around cyclists (hint: do a better job of this in Drivers’ Ed) The Ministry of Transportation agrees with me; it’s draft cycling policy makes lots of smart suggestions, many of which were taken from a 2012 Ontario Chief Coroners’ Office review of cycling deaths.

This by-law, for me, perfectly encapsulates the Rob Ford/Don Cherry “bike-riding pinko” school of thought. I’ve spent most of my time on the other side of the debate, biking to work year-round and wincing at the many, many drivers in this city who have no idea how to safely operate a large fast-moving piece of metal around bikes driven by other human beings. How to get around Toronto safely is a more complex topic than this by-law suggests, and laws for cycling should reflect that.

If, as it appears, Torontonians can start to have a mature debate over pubic transit (which is really a larger debate about how liveable we want the city to be), then surely we can include the roles of cars and bikes in that debate. And surely we can start by getting rid of the type of by-law that is as unnecessary as it is paternalistic, and recognize that a city that makes room for lots of people to get around by bike is a city with healthier air, healthier citizens and a higher quality of life.