Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Selling Ice Cubes to the Northwest Territories

And now for what we found the most startling figure of all: three times as many people are concerned with crime as with transportation—this after Transit City, streetcar purchases, bike lane disputes, and the apparently civilization-ending decision to sometimes, every so often (but not oftener) allow non-drivers to, you know, get around too. Transportation has been the centrepiece of Miller's second term in office, and Transit City is intended to be his major legacy project. Yet people simply aren't biting.

This is taken from a good article by Hamutal Dotan on Torontoist that argues Miller does good things but is unable to sell his vision for the city effectively. My only fear is that people aren't biting because they don't want what Miller is selling, regardless of his perceived lack of salesmanship. I just got back from Montreal, where I am always impressed with not only the bike lanes (and the new Bixi rent-a-bike setup) but the general culture surrounding alternative transportation. I've house-sat in Montreal three times, each time for a month, so I feel as though I have some handle on the place. And there is clearly both a push for alternate forms of transportation, but also a demand for it. A psychological predisposition toward it. Yes, taxes are higher, but you can also see (or at least I can see) where that money is going.

I find this not to be the case in Toronto. While I suspect that an effective system of protected bike lanes would encourage more people to bike, which in turn would help make the case for spending money on biking, Toronto is a horrendously car-centric city. Any attempt to infringe upon the car brings the embedded car entitlement to the surface. And that is bred into the culture of the city, through a process I'm not entirely clear on. One of the best examples I can give is a June 2008 article by Philip Preville in Toronto Life. (I should mention I've met him a few times.) It's a smart, well-researched article about the tensions between bikes and cars in Toronto that concludes by suggesting instead of more bike lanes, we need to redesign intersections along the naked streets model proposed by some Dutch dude, wherein traffic lights and other markings are stripped away and commuters, be they bike or car or pedestrian, must establish eye contact to negotiate who is going to cross when.

The problem with the article, (which I've read and re-read a few times) is that it essentially leaves the reader feeling as though there is no actual solution to the bike problem. Montreal's protected bike lanes are a hassle to maintain according to Preville, but he also admits that the naked streets idea is unlikely ever to be implemented. For now, the status quo will have to do.

Spacing and the like are doing excellent work (I'm probably biased, since I contribute occasionally to Spacing), and the bike union is a great step forward too. But from my unscientific and occasional skimming of CBC and Toronto Star article comments, there is definitely a contingent of the city (how large, I'm unsure) that doesn't care about cyclists in the least, and lacks the psychological leanings to support anything new or different or communal. The individualistic ethos of the city is very clear as compared with Montreal and Vancouver, which results in a different relationship with the environment, etc. Amalgamation doesn't help.

The lesson, sadly, is to follow the Lastman approach: promise not to raise property taxes much and funnel money toward the cops. For a selfish city allergic to change of any kind, this is the ideal platform, as it allows people to buy more stuff, and ensures that stuff is less likely to get stolen.