Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Myth of the Cyclist as Urban Warrior

(this article was originally posted on Spacing Toronto's website on March 25, 2011)

Hell hath no fury like a biker scorned. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy learned this the hard way after his blog post, "Battle of the Bike Lanes", criticized the recent proliferation of New York bike lanes under the city’s current Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Kahn. This initial post sparked a flurry of comments and rebuttals from such heavy weights as The Economist, and prompted Cassidy to follow-up with a second and then a third post.

Of course, hell hath no fury like a motorist scorned, too. Here in Toronto we've witnessed Rob Ford proclaim that streets are for cars, trucks, and buses, while Don Cherry gleefully gave the verbal middle-finger to all those bike riding pinkos. In Vancouver, the construction of the Hornby Street separated bike lane in October 2010 prompted a flurry of media that opined the state of the beleaguered driver, which continues even as the City releases information stating that traffic remains unchanged along Hornby except for a one-minute delay during rush hour. In New York, the bike lane debate has even concerned the courts.

The rhetoric around the bike has reached untenable heights. Not only is it completely unproductive, but it works to make both motorists and bicyclists unsafe by stoking anger and fear. By positioning it as a war between two clear sides, we reduce our ability to compromise, to work together. Spittle flies from both sides of the debate, as cyclists rush to label car drivers as gas-guzzling, suburban, earth-pigs and motorists respond by calling cyclists pretentious, militant, holier-than-thous (albeit with great calf muscles). Just reading the comments on blog posts and newspaper articles on the subject is enough to turn my hair white.

How did we get to this point? But, more importantly, how do we get away from it?

First, let's ditch the war metaphors. Between Cassidy’s bike lane “battles” and the omnipresent “war on the car”, I feel like we might have lost some important perspective. A recent letter sent by Councillor Adam Vaughan to BIAs and resident associations in his ward, used the word “barricaded” in place of “curbed” to describe Denzil Minnan-Wong’s separated bike lane proposal, going on to say a bike path would “carve” through Grange Park. While respecting Councillor Vaughan’s work to increase bicycle infrastructure in the city, it’s this kind of unnecessarily value-laden language that contributes to an antagonistic atmosphere through positioning the cyclist as the urban warrior vs. the rest of the city. We would hardly refer to the curb on the sidewalk as a barricade for pedestrians.

And let’s also remember that if we insist on calling this a war, then most of us are constantly switching sides. An interesting thing happens when we walk, bike, or drive around the city. We seem to forget that we ever use any other form of transportation other than the one we are currently using. I've been in cars with people who impatiently drum their fingers at pedestrians taking too long to cross the street, while witnessing those same people deplore the lack of patience drivers have while they are crossing the street themselves. Drivers are bikers are pedestrians are transit users. We do not exist in easily separated categories, pitted against each other in travel statistics. Most of us use at least more than one way to get around, even if it’s just walking from the car to the restaurant. Splitting the debate into an Us vs. Them dichotomy is too coarse, a point which Dave Meslin picks up on in his Toronto Star editorial where he argues that Rob Ford may not be the be the harbinger of the bicyclepocalypse as originally thought.

Cyclists, let’s tone down the environmental angle. Arguments about the environmental and economic benefits of cycling are all well and good, but by over-focusing on these elements we run the risk of alienating a lot of people while missing out on the greater point. Increased bicycle infrastructure should ultimately be about safety and allowing everyone to feel comfortable riding their bike, including the timid. This is, after all, mostly who bike lanes are for. There are plenty of us out there now, with the bicycle network as pitiful as it is, pedaling away everyday. While I would love to ride in a bike lane along Spadina, the absence of one is not enough to keep me off the street. As do many others in this city, I feel confident enough to — as Rob Ford says — swim with the sharks. The important point, however, is that you shouldn’t have to possess nerves of steel just to get to work. Cassidy writes about how in the 1980s when he biked around New York he would frequently arrive shaking with fear — if that’s not a good argument for increased bicycle infrastructure, I’m not sure what is.

Let’s stop demonizing everyone based on the actions of a few. There are certainly bad cyclists out there, and I’ve almost been hit on the sidewalk several times by a few of them. But I’ve also almost been hit crossing the street by terrible drivers talking on cell phones and running stop signs. This doesn’t mean that every motorist is a negligent jerk, just as every cyclist isn’t a law-breaking hooligan. Taking every opportunity to point an indignant finger and proclaim “Aha! See?” gets us nowhere fast.

As StreetsblogNYC pointed out in a handy pie chart, even in a city that has taken a very proactive stance toward bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the allocation of road space in New York has barely budged. I’m sure a similar pie chart of Toronto or Vancouver road space allocation would show a similar trend.

It's time both sides put away their swords and focused their energy on implementing "complete streets" that provide space for cars, transit, pedestrian and bikes. Let's tell a different story.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I Don't Believe in Earth Hour

Last night for Earth Hour I did nothing.

The event began in 2007 in Australia and now spans the globe, urging everyone to turn off the lights for one hour in an effort to get people thinking about energy conservation. If it had the whiff of a symbolic gesture in 2007 it certainly reeks of it now.

The Toronto Star published a story lamenting that Toronto only saw 5 per cent power drop for Earth Hour, noting that people gathering in Yonge-Dundas Square were disappointed to see retail stores in the area still brightly lit. Have these same people been to Yonge-Dundas Square any other hour of the year? You can practically read after dark by the light of the jumbotrons. Flying in to Toronto Island at night, the square looks like the dance floor to some wild urban nightclub--one that never closes.

Once for Earth Hour I went to a bar in downtown Vancouver. The entire place was dark and we drank beer by candlelight. Despite being a surprisingly romantic moment in what is normally a semi-dingy sports bar, it seemed nothing beyond that. As soon as the hour ended, the bartender flipped a switched and on zapped six giant plasma screen TVs all playing the same thing just from slightly different angles so you could practically be lying on your back in the corner of the bar and still manage to see the game.

Then there is everyone deciding what Twitter hashtag to use to tweet their Earth Hour experiences, which just shows how completely divorced we have become from how much electricity all our devices truly use. If it's not plugged in we're not really using power, right? Or is it just OK because it is power borrowed from another hour? All our Earth Hour tweets drain the power on our iPhones or Blackberrys, which we will inevitably be recharging later that night at home. You can't participate in Earth Hour and tweet it, too.

And Skype got in on Earth Hour by using twitter to advertise their group video calling feature, so you can share that great Earth Hour moment with your friends and family all around the world. Except that you need your computer to do it. And your internet plugged in. Oh, well.

I would say Earth Hour has been hi-jacked by companies and people who want to show they are environmentally friendly by doing something once a year, but then I never thought it was anything more than that in the beginning. I know there are those that make the argument that even though it is obviously a symbolic gesture, it gets people to think about their energy use the rest of the year. Maybe it does. But my suspicion is that the people most affected and legitimately interested in Earth Hour are those that were already thinking about their environmental impact.

The question is: does Earth Hour do anything to reach those that don't normally care and don't do anything to reduce their energy consumption? Unfortunately, I think it gives people, and especially businesses and corporations, a chance to participate in a big global greenwashing event, then go back to their regularly scheduled programming.

It's easy to think about our energy use one hour a year. The problem is all those other hours.

photo taken from the top of the CN Tower

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Guide to the Recent Flurry of Bicycle Articles

You can thank John Cassidy for starting it all.

His blog post, "Battle of the Bike Lanes" went up on the New Yorker website on March 8 2011 and sparked an immediate flurry of counter-arguments and fist-shaking from the pro-bike lane crowd. The next day, Adam Sternbergh, over at the New York Times Magazine, responded by comparing Cassidy line-by-line to Tea Partiers in his article "'I Was a Teenage Cyclist,' or, How Anti-Bike Lane Arguments Echo the Tea Party".

The Economist responded with an article titled "The World is His Parking Lot", in which the idea of the tragedy of the commons is invoked to explain how motorists are getting a free ride while off-loading the externalities of driving onto the environment.

Felix Salmon attempted his Cassidy take-down by fixating on his use of the word 'bipeds' in his article "John Cassidy vs. Bipeds", something Cassidy himself addressed in a follow-up article he published on the New Yorker titled "The Condemned Motorist Speaks". Ezra Klein at The Washington Post attempted to turn Cassidy's argument on its head when he argued that New York's proliferation of bike lanes can be seen as pro-car in his article "Love Driving? Buy Your Neighbor a Bike."

Olaf Storbeck, a self-professed admirer of John Cassidy, performed an erudite economic oh-snap in his blog post "The Economics of Bike Lanes - How Can John Cassidy Get it So Wrong?" in which he explained the problems with free parking written about by Donald Shoup.

John Cassidy felt the need to respond a third time in his own defence in "A Closing Word", which spurred Felix Salmon at Reuters to write another post, which then spurred John Cassidy to write an addendum to his closing word, reminding me of kids who vow to stop speaking staaaaarrrttting now....OK now......OK now.

It is now, by the way, only two days later at this point.

Finally, not necessarily part of this dialogue, Dave Meslin wrote a piece in the Toronto Star called "Rob Ford: Cycling Advocate" where he made the case for getting rid of the "Ford Nation Vs. Left-Wing Pinko framework" in an effort to actually work together.

What a novel idea.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Toronto City Council Channels Harry Potter, Graffiti Blitz, Tree House Cities, and Facebookville

In a long, torturous special meeting of council scheduled to decide whether to fire the rest of the Toronto Community Housing Corporations board members, it was ruled that speaking of the auditor general's report that had caused this whole snafu was out of order. This led to what can only be described as the Harry Potterfication of council as The-Document-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named became the preferred way of alluding to the forbidden report. Not allowing council to reference a report that was being used to fire board members is almost as ridiculous as not allowing them to talk about 2012 impacts of the 2011 budget at the 2011 budget meeting. If this keeps up, by the end of the year council will only be able to communicate in a combination of increasingly vague hand gestures and blinking.

Steve Kupferman over at OpenFileTO has done some investimagating and found out the incredible numbers of graffiti violations that have been issued under Rob Ford's reign. In fact, in a little over three months there have been almost the same number of violations issued as in the previous twenty months under David Miller, leading some to wonder about the clean-up costs associated with this for small businesses. But Shawn Micallef, over at Spacing, has found some graffiti that even Rob Ford may not want to scrub off.

Have you ever found yourself wandering the streets with a pen and notebook and way too much time on your hands? At least two people in New York City have, and they've decided to do something about it dammit. One is drawing every building in NYC while the other is drawing every person in NYC. Too bad by the time they finish, pen and paper will be a thing of the past and they'll have to complete their project by digitally downloading their drawings into their iPad 58 through Apple's new-fangled mind-reading app.

A Vancouver architecture firm is experimenting with the idea of wooden skyscrapers as the way to a sustainable future, sparking a furious debate over the gender equality of a future city possibly overtaken by No Girls Allowed boy's clubs.

Facebook as Urban Planning? A bunch of architecture students are rounded up to try to make Facebook's new digs feel more like a neighbourhood, with one student saying that they wanted to make the "edge of the campus more permeable and remove the line between public and private land". No word yet on how much control Facebook employees would have over these privacy settings.

And, the non-sequitur: a Chilean man who has 82 tattoos of Julia Roberts on his body, proving that, yes, you can have too much of a good thing.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dance Like Everyone is Watching

If you're like most people, when you're in a public place you'll do almost anything not to stand out too much. You certainly wouldn't dance around crazily to music only you could hear while someone filmed you and then post that video on the internet. So I guess that makes Phil Villeneuve not like most people.

I was first exposed to the antics of Villeneuve when a friend showed me the video of him whirling and twirling to the Scissor Sisters in a No Frills grocery store. I was slightly horrified as I watched the video, the same kind of stomach-cringe I get when I watch people on American Idol or when a certain beauty pageant contestant stumbled through an answer. I'm embarrassed for them. I literally sweat watching.

But I feel there is something important about dancing and being silly and spontaneous in public. There can be a tedium to the day-in day-out rhythm of urban life that causes us to switch to autopilot. We've all seen that glazed over look as people push their shopping carts down an aisle or stare straight ahead on the subway. You feel as though you could bounce a tennis ball off their forehead and they wouldn't blink.

The reason things like flash mobs and crazy dancing people are so compelling is because of the way they play with the tedium of that urban routine. They force people to snap back into reality, because suddenly reality has become, well, surreality. This is shown best in the New York Grand Central Station freeze, where a group of people all froze at a predetermined time to the amazement of everyone else. It's hilarious to watch everyone's reaction as their boring commute is suddenly hi-jacked and turned into a Twilight Zone episode. It turned a completely forgettable act into something impossible to forget, which I'm sure is the goal of Improv Everywhere, the group that organized it.

Flash mobs, however, have become almost tedious in themselves. They all seem to have official websites and predetermined dates and times. There's the No Pants Subway Ride and the Zombie Walk, and the Pillow Fight and on and on it goes in countless cities around the world. I feel like, by reducing it to virtually one person, Villeneuve sheds all the weight built up by these mass events and gets back at the core of what it's all about--the delight of the unusual.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Villeneuve video is that everyone around him is trying so hard not to care. But it's clearly impossible to deny a grown man swinging around the pole of your subway car like a stripper. There's a few turned heads, some smirks, but mostly people are just attempting to ignore him like you would ignore that crazy man who corners you on the bus and won't stop ranting about U.S. foreign policy. He knows this too, which is why he grabs people's hats or puts his arm around them.

This is a total adaptation of city space for something other than what we've all decided is appropriate for that space. Subway cars are for commuting. Grocery stores are for buying food. Dancing is something you do when you've had that third drink and your favourite song comes on and the dance floor is just crowded enough that no one will see you jerk about. But it's good to challenge what we can do in different areas of the city and push people's comfort zones, if just for the simple fact that it keeps things interesting.

I often think about what I would do if I encountered Villeneuve dancing in my subway car or grocery store or bank. Maybe I would laugh, engage with him, and give him a twirl. But most likely I would avert my eyes and pray he picked on someone else.

Oh well. I can always watch him on YouTube.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ford Nation, Jane Jacobs Dissed, Vancouver's Modern Treehuggers, and a Concert Hall that Doubles a Bomb Shelter

"It took a while, but for Mayor Rob Ford the reality check is no longer in the mail: It has arrived." I wish I could take credit, but leave it to The Star's Christopher Hume to come up with that zinger in discussing Rob Ford's plea for money from McGuinty. But if Ford has indeed received his reality check, he certainly hasn't cashed it in as it emerged last week that Ford has threatened to unleash Ford Nation on McGuinty in the next election, causing people all around the city to throw up a little in their mouths. But, as it turns out, Ford Nation is a real thing. Only it won't be called Ford Nation. It will be called the Respect for Tax Payers Against Gravy Trains Above Ground And Also Those Wasteful Spending Pinkos Action Group.

There must be some megalomania in the water, as the Conservatives have also decided to create their own moniker and rebrand the Government of Canada as the Harper Government. In keeping, I have decided to rename my neighbourhood Jaketown. I mean, the Annex, who thought that one up?

Speaking of the Annex--I mean, Jaketown--Edward Glaeser, author of the book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier had the nerve to come to Toronto and diss Jane Jacobs. Oh, no you didn't! He says that tall buildings are good for cities and that Jacobs had it wrong when she said that old, low-rise buildings were important to keep in the housing stock to ensure affordability and street activity. He also said she was wrong about books with shorter titles conveying their meaning in a more concise way. Like, really, The Economy of Cities, what's that even about?

Just don't ask a Canadian about the economy. A recent Globe and Mail article mapped the huge disparities in Canada's math skills--but don't worry, the report uses pretty pictures and colours so we can all understand the information. Like, for instance, did you know that twelve out of every seven Torontonians can't do basic addition or subtraction? It's scandalous!

In other scandalalous news, Toronto has recently been focussed on the fall of the Urban Affairs Library and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, but for resident's of Vancouver's Sixth Avenue it's been all about the proposed removal of thirty giant Elm trees from their street. The Park Board decided to hold off for the time being, but look unlikely to budge on the issue. Yeah, I bet those tree-hugging Vancouverites are gonna channel their inner hippie and chain themselves to those Elms, just like old times! But it looks like they've decided to go the more modern route and form a Facebook protest group instead.

Vancouver architect Bing Thom has proposed an idea that buries a concert hall underground in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which sounds like a great idea! What could possibly go wrong with building a giant theatre deep in the earth in a city holding its collective breath waiting for The Big One? No word yet on whether the concession stand would also stock a variety of canned goods, flashlights, blankets, and a wind-up radio.

Lastly, someone has been giving out $5 bills to cyclists in Toronto as a thank-you for riding. But what about the car drivers? Who's going to give them money for driving?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Mess is in the Eye of the Beholder

[This article was originally posted on the Torontoist, February 24, 2011]

On February 22, 2011, the Annex Gleaner reported that the Bloor Annex Business Improvement Area intended to end the prolific postering of the stretch between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue with specially made light pole covers that are supposed to repel both tape and staples.

Just like digital locks on CDs could never stop determined pirates, it’s almost certain that some street hacker will figure out a way to affix a poster to these supposedly poster-proof sheathes. It’s almost as if the BIA is challenging them to find a way.

Still, coming on the heels of the ongoing debate surrounding Rob Ford’s plans to expunge all traces of spray paint and sharpie marker from Toronto, the announcement by the Bloor Annex BIA raises concerns over the sterilization of the city’s surfaces. Not only is a certain amount of messiness and visual clutter to be expected in any city of a certain size, but it should be welcomed as a sign of vibrancy—to a point, of course.

Dylan Reid, in a piece from the Summer 2010 issue of Spacing titled “Bless this Mess,” wrote about Toronto’s messy urbanism, noting that it is the city’s hodge-podge of architectural styles and general visual disorderliness that makes it so appealing. Posters and flyers contribute to this messy urbanism by cluttering our visual landscape. As Reid says, “The instinct for order and beauty has its place; the problem comes when it is dominant. It needs to be constantly challenged and questioned by the push for vibrant messiness.”

Consider this ideal against a city like Vancouver, where posters are corralled into specially designed poles and removed every Tuesday afternoon. Vancouver’s manicured streetscapes lose some of that explosive spontaneity that can be found in Toronto.

Designated postering spots are coming to Toronto too, albeit slowly. The City drafted a bylaw restricting posters and flyers in 2006, but enforcement has been lax and will continue to be so until enough official posters boards and columns, provided by Astral Media, are installed around the city. A June 2010 report by the City [PDF], requested by Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) noted that 261 posters boards and thirty-four columns have been rolled out, but they are insufficient for the bylaw to be fairly enacted. Eventually, Astral Media will roll-out two thousand posters boards and five hundred columns across the city.

Postering and flyering have long been used not just by businesses, but also by citizens to advertise services, support political causes, or simply make announcements to their community. Today, when much of the community message board's function has moved online to sites like Craigslist and Kijiji, it’s refreshing to walk down the street and see someone advertising their ugly, thirty-year-old couch, or their services as a piano teacher. If these anti-poster sheathes are put up all over the Annex—and if they spread elsewhere in the city— how will certain notorious gay porn websites, without the lure of those hot pink posters, entice men aged nineteen to twenty-six to audition? Won’t someone think of the porn?

No, not all posters are works of art. In fact, many are poorly designed, grammatically incorrect, written in Comic Sans bold, and rife with incorrectly used quotation marks and italics—but they are part of the neighbourhood. Posters are not just a form of community expression, but a sign of a lively, exciting place to live, of a city that has stuff going on and things to do and people with opinions to share. This city’s posters are like weeds: you can keep removing them one at a time, but they will sprout back if you don’t get at the root. And if the root is a community’s desire to express itself, do we really want to destroy that?

Posters and flyers can be found at varying degrees all across the city, but perhaps the best case is on St. George Street on the University of Toronto campus, where the posters cause light poles to bulge out in the middle, giving them the appearance of snakes who have only half-digested their meals. When was the last time these poles were stripped of their wheat-pasted second skins? One has to wonder at the layers of cultural history plastered to them. Peeling them back, one by one, would be an archeological dig uncovering concerts, roommates needed, and political rallies of days-gone-by. Imagine those same poles sans posters, empty and exposed and naked in their slimness.

There are worse things than a little mess.

Ford's I-Told-You-So Moment, a Provincial Oh-Snap, and Vancouver's Casino Conundrum

It looks as though spring has finally stuck her cute little button nose out between the heavy drapes of winter as temperatures rise above freezing and the skating rink that was my back alley now resembles a very nice, gray swamp.

The Toronto Community Housing Corporation is on similarly thin ice after an auditor general's report about inappropriate spending, which has the Brothers Ford barely able to contain their glee as details emerge about expensive chocolates, massages, and lavish Christmas parties (however, there have been no reports of actual, non-metaphorical gravy). Rob Ford seems to be basking in his I-told-you-so moment, biting his lip in the effort effort to stop himself from jumping up and down chanting: nah nah nah nah.

In a well-timed oh-snap moment from the Province, it emerged that Dalton McGuinty has shot down Ford's request for $350 million in funding. But don't expect Ford to be out taking too many questions from media about this, or any issue at city hall, as it seems his ability to answers questions runs to an average of, oh, say three minutes and twenty-three seconds. Maybe that's because when he does speak for longer than this it unravels into a confusing, cringe-inducing mess. leading everyone to wonder if we have, in fact, elected a mayor who's taken his public speaking advice from an Abbott and Costello routine.

But Toronto's not the only city with spending woes. Vancouver's much criticized construction of a new 680,000-square-foot waterfront casino to replace the current Edgewater Casino that will see, among other things, the number of slot machines rise from 493 to 1,500, will be before council on March 7, 2011 at 7:30pm. This is after council pushed back the hearing not once, but twice. The official line was that it was because so many people had signed up to speak in opposition, probably due to Vancouver Not Vegas, a vocal non-partisan group in opposing the project. The Vancouver Sun reported a few days ago that if the casino didn't get approved, funding for the new retractable roof/crown on BC Place stadium could fall through. Keep in mind that this roof is already nearing completion, which brings up the question: didn't they possibly maybe kind of see this problem coming?

And if all that has left you in a steaming pile, here's a video of a cat who steals things to cheer you up. Look at the klepto kitty!