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One of the nice things about having a blog is the ability to share your opinions and start conversations about topics that are of interest to you. It’s also nice to hear back from readers and get their comments and opinions on posts.

Yesterday, I published a post about my concerns about e-bikes. It didn’t take long for me to hear back from e-bike riders, some of whom seem to be very vigilant about defending e-bikes from uninformed criticism.

Many of the comments on my post pointed out that I had very few facts and only anecdotes to support my complaints about e-bikes. I can only plead guilty to offering an opinion, based on my observations. I am clearly not equipped with the knowledge and expertise to make technical, fact-based safety comparisons between bicycles and e-bikes.

I got many vigorous comments in defense of e-bikes. I won’t repeat them – they can all be found here. I encourage you to read them.

But I want to put up a video that several of the commenters suggested I view.

My views have softened from reading the comments, but I still think that many e-bikes are closer to motorized scooters than bicycles. On the other hand, I can also say that e-bikes offer a level of mobility to some people that is beneficial to them and to the environment.

Whether you accept my opinion or not, here are a few things I hope we can agree on:

  • Any clean alternative to cars is a good alternative, whether they are e-bikes, bicycles, pedal scooters, unicycles, roller blades or skateboards – as long as they are operated in a safe and legal manner.
  • It’s critical that we teach people how to drive safely, take proper precautions, wear helmets and be aware of those with whom they share the road or bike path. I think it’s safe to say that governments, schools and other institutions could be doing more to ensure that anyone who wants to drive on our roads is as prepared as possible to do so in the safest possible way. And if you want to prioritize, start with drivers education – cars are still the biggest and most dangerous things on the road.

 

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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?

I used to work for the Ontario Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. So I have first-hand experience in knowing that there are some things you don’t want politicized. Public security – including policing, corrections, emergency management and anti-terrorism activities – is a special area of public service. People with guns, people who have powers of arrest, detention and investigation should be shielded from political interference in operations. Their independence is absolutely fundamental to the most basic concept of justice. Additionally, how their work is communicated to the public should also be free of political interference – as this is at the core of the trust that citizens need to have in their police and public security services.

With this in mind, some recent events are worrying.

First thing: Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, recently overruled a prison warden (and, in doing so, apparently broke the established rules) who approved a media interview with Omar Khadr. Why? There was no real explanation from Toews or his office. That story, by the way, was only told because the Canadian Press filed an Access to Information request. I suspect that it was because Vic and Stephen Harper do not want us hearing from someone convicted by a military tribunal of terrorism, even if they are Canadian, even if they have the right to speak and even if they happen to be appealing their sentence. Otherwise we might lose focus on how the government – not the police – are keeping us safe from terrorists. But regardless of what I suspect, this is political interference in an operational decision for decidedly political reasons.

Second thing: Recently, CBC News revealed that RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson circulated a memo that outlined a new process for approving meetings between senior officers and MPs and Senators. The new system? All meetings have to be approved by Vic Toews’s office.

Why this new process?

At first, only the RCMP would respond to this question, saying it “wanted to ensure that all information being sent to parliamentarians was co-ordinated through the strategic policy and planning directorate which manages the ministerial liaison function.”

Then, when a reporter asked why, Toews said (the underlines are mine):

I don’t clear as the appropriate[ness] of any interview. Interviews are done all the time with the RCMP without them clearing it but there is a communications protocol that does take place between the RCMP and my office, absolutely. I’m responsible for the RCMP. I need to know exactly what the RCMP is doing and saying because if I go into the House of Commons and I have no idea what is being said, I’m at a distinct situation where it appears that I’m not carrying out my responsibilities to the House of Commons. So the communication discussions that go on between us, I think are quite normal and certainly were in effect under the prior Liberal government as I recall.

When asked to clarify, Toews said:

Well they don’t clear it with my office but essentially what happens, especially if it’s MPs from my party, they’ll come to me and say, look I want to talk to the RCMP and I’ll refer them to an individual and that’s the end of it. I don’t see any more of that.

So, Minister Toews and his office don’t clear meeting requests, but they do enforce a “communications protocol.” I have no idea what that means, but I wonder why the Minister sees the need to have that degree of oversight and approval over meetings and communications between our national police force and elected MPs.

We should all be concerned about how the hot hand of politics is reaching into parts of the government that should be stone cold objective. Because trust is a difficult thing to build, and we all need to trust those who are tasked with keeping us safe.

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.

I love the idea that Toronto can build a cycling infrastructure that will encourage more people to bike to work.

I also love the idea that city council can bypass Rob Ford’s screw-everything-that-is-not-a-car approach to city building. Such as the $1.2 million bike station  with 380 secure parking spots and shower facilities that the city’s government management committee approved on Monday of this week.

Chicago’s bike station (Image: Toronto Star)

Having biked to work in six different cities on three continents, knowing your bike will be parked safely and having a place to shower before work is pretty much nirvana for bike commuters. Most of the media coverage of the story mentions the popular and successful bike stations in places like Chicago.

However, from a communications perspective, I wish that the city government management committee and City Council’s biking advocates had done a better job in explaining and defending this project (which is part of a larger Nathan Phillips Square revitalization plan and which has been on the back burner for a few years).

Because, once again, this served up a grapefruit for Rob/Doug Ford and Ford Nation. We heard the usual “gravy train” comments and questions about political judgement in the context of strained budgets and many other urgent needs. I don’t buy any of the Ford’s arguments on this issue, but I haven’t yet heard a comprehensive justification for the bike station as the smartest use of resources for Toronto cyclists.

I think we need to hear exactly why this is $1.2 million well spent, who benefits and why did it not get spent on existing cycling infrastructure.  I would like to hear why the $1.2 million wasn’t some subsidy to 380 of City Hall’s elite bike commuters. Will there be full cost-recovery user fees for the facility? Is there not a better use of this money for cycling infrastructure in Toronto? One that would perhaps benefit a broader group of cyclists?

I’m not saying the bike station is a bad – far from it. It is simply that if cycling advocates in Toronto want to more effectively articulate why investing in cycling is a net benefit for the city, they need to do a better job. Hopefully we’ll get to hear that when the issue goes to a full City Council vote.

Bathurst Station bakery, included in the recent sole-source contract (photo by Marium Matti, BlogTO)

When a political announcement arrives badly wounded, you have to wonder how it managed to get that far without being humanely put down. Here, I’m thinking about of the recent  announcement by TTC Chair Karen Stintz to go forward with a $50 million sole-source contract for the company that currently runs 65 newsstands in TTC stations.

How could the TTC Board have thought that it would be ok for a cash-strapped agency to give out a $50 million sole-source contract? For business reasons, maybe the contract is acceptable, or maybe not. These things can be complex and technical; who can easily understand the basics of the contract and assess whether it is a good and fair deal for the TTC and for Torontonians? On a first reading, it’s clear that there is something not quite right with the deal – but that’s not my point here. I’m suggesting that the contract should have been shot down from the start, but from a communications perspective, not a business perspective.

Why? Because:

  • The process to award the contract was not particularly transparent and lacking total credibility
  • Most people, on first reading, would think that the contract doesn’t pass the logic test (Huh? A $50 million contract, untendered? Doesn’t the TTC need money? Surely there is a rule that contracts that big have to be tendered?)
  • This is a clear “Gravy Train” issue for Rob and Doug Ford and allows them to play their favourite role of angry defender of taxpayers’ interests. Plus, they have a history of suggesting these types of deals are, ahem, kinda corrupt — all of which should have been easy to predict
  • The contract went against TTC staff advice – which naturally will be made public
  • It’s actually expected that the TTC would make a strange decision like this – it fits in with current public perceptions of the organization

How this issue traveled through the debate and announcement process is particularly relevant in the larger context of an ongoing and increasingly public debate over how to fund needed transit expansion in Toronto.

Any decent communications person would have flagged all of this while Stintz and TTC Board made their decision. Suggesting that it will be a very difficult deal to defend in the present context. In fact, this may have happened – but if so, the advice was ignored. Despite any possible merits of the contract, it is blindingly obvious that it would have the stuffing kicked out of it as soon as it was made public.

Sure enough, after it was announced, a competing newsstand company made an unconditional offer for the contract, worth an additional $4.5 million more than the sole-source contract – hardly a surprising development. Stintz continues to defend the decision, saying that critics, including Rob Ford, don’t understand the contract (I should add that being patronizing is also on the list of communications mistakes).

The way this issue was handled suggests that Karen Stintz is a poor decision-maker, has bad political radar and is maybe not the reliable and credible person we need right now as the city starts to have a big, badly-needed conversation about how we are going to pay for a decent public transit system.

It has since been announced that the deal its being “reviewed”. If it goes to an open tender, good; if it doesn’t, then Stintz and members of the TTC Board will have to spend more time and energy defending this decision when they could be making better use of their time and reputations to tackle the bigger issue of how to pay for the transit we need.

My advice? Involve communicators early in the process of debating and deciding on policy options and ensure those options are examined in the context of how they will be communicated. After all, you can’t sell what doesn’t work.

UPDATE, February 25: The review of the deal is out, and it recommends an RFP — which Stintz says she’ll support. So… that’s that.

It’s interesting that the announcement of the review’s findings and Stintz’s decision to accept it came on Sunday night. And not just any Sunday night, but Oscar night. I know most people don’t care about this, but putting out a press release/announcement at that time is sad an strange. Toronto reporters working Sunday night — particularly those who have no affection for the Oscars — likely saw this news as a ray of light on an otherwise dark night.