Getting past the ‘War on the Car’ | #TOpoli #ClimateChange


(This grew out of a Facebook discussion with the divine Septembre Anderson, so it’ll be a little abrupt. Indulge me. Tips of the chapeau are also due to Rosalind Robertson, Breeyn McCarney, and Daniel Cowans.)

A lot of this is boilerplate, and it’s already been tackled by folks like Daren Foster and Ed Keenan, but what the hey. I’d also recommend a necessary and illuminating piece by the indispensible Steve Munro, who’s forgotten more about transit than I’ll ever know.

The context was a juxtaposition of revenue from city recreational programs, and a proposal that those programs should be free, and the loss of municipal revenue from the Vehicle Registration Tax, regularly caricatured as part of the Leftie Downtown Elitist War on the Car. This isn’t really intended to get into the specifics of that; it’s more of a step back, let’s look at the big picture and try and see this in historical context (oh Christ, there he goes again — ed.) kind of thing.

Anyway, someone on Septembre’s FB feed was talking about the way we “penalize” car owners whenever the city needs revenue. I jumped on it, perhaps a little more intemperately than I might have:

The idea that you’re being “penalized” by having to pay a tax is where the debunking begins. I’d suggest a review of Alex Himelfarb‘s Tax is Not a Four Letter Word for starters. And if you do something as fundamentally self-centred, anti-social and environmentally destructive as driving a private automobile on a regular basis, then quite frankly I don’t have a problem with you being required to pony up more …

I’ve never met a group of people more obsessed with their own privilege — and less willing to acknowledge it — than motorists. Their sense of entitlement to absolute primacy on the roads is boundless. I don’t care about other users, and why do I have to stop for that goddamn streetcar, and get the fuck out of my way cyclists because I just wanna go wherever the fuck I want as fast as I can. And it’s my god-given right to park my private car directly in front of my destination, as opposed to actually having to walk a block or two from a bus stop or something. Angry, aggressive, impatient, and selfish. Ford is just an extreme and grotesque example.

Bluntly, I’m out of patience. Don’t like gridlock? Don’t like road tolls? Don’t like scrambling for parking spots (which are also heavily subsidized, BTW)? Get out of your fucking car and take transit. Or ride a bike. Honestly, just stop whining and grow up.

The discussion continued, with the same participant arguing, not without justification, that he couldn’t rely on public transit to get where he needed to go in a timely manner. He also complained, again with some reason, about the wasted time and lost productivity due to service interruptions, overcrowding, poor service, and all the other problems besetting public transit in Toronto. (I’m paraphrasing, and in truth, it would be fairer for me to allow him to speak for himself, so in that regard, if he wants to respond here, I’ll commit to publishing whatever he wants to say, unedited, at as much length as he wants.)

At any rate, that prompted this additional outburst of sanctimonious wankery:

… if you find public transit inefficient, perhaps you should work to improve it, and support public initiatives that will do the same. (Ruinously wasteful subways that will never justify themselves in terms of ridership might be a good place to start.) Honestly, where is it written that public transit has to be slow, inefficient, dirty, overcrowded, poorly maintained and unreliable? It doesn’t have to be that way at all. There are jurisdictions all over the globe where a well-maintained and functional public transit system is recognized as the Public Good that it is, and in fact it’s the preferred method of getting around. Private cars are well down the list.

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s not necessarily the best or fastest way to get around in the GTA. It’s no secret that our current urban form has been built around private automobiles: large highways, single-family homes on large lots, huge malls with large parking lots, low population density have all combined to make public transit very difficult to operate efficiently. And we’ve structured our lives and jobs and communities accordingly. You drive to work, you drive the kids to school or daycare, you drive to the mall to get groceries, you shlep all your stuff around in a car. It’s just the way it is.

Problem being, that’s simply not sustainable. I don’t need to get into greenhouse gases or climate change or emissions control; suffice it to say that our addiction to private automobiles is one of the biggest sources of smog and air pollution in North America, so there’s the impact on health and productivity to consider, never mind the environmental impact. Factor in the advent of peak oil and it becomes clear: we simply can’t structure our cities and our lives around cheap gasoline and abundant energy and inefficient land use any more. Sadly, we’re stuck with infrastructure and urban form that’s built around that, so it makes efficient and low-impact transit that much harder to achieve. But that also makes it that much more imperative. It’s not a question of cars being evil so much as a recognition that reliance on them as the primary means of getting around simply doesn’t work any more. And part of fixing that includes getting motorists to assume a greater share of the costs they’ve been offloading onto the rest of us. Whether you want to admit it or not, private automobiles are subsidized up the yingyang. As those subsidies are phased out, more and more people will make the rational economic choice of opting for other ways of getting around.

What I’ve impatiently characterized as selfishness and entitlement on the part of motorists, in that context, has to be seen for what it is: privileged distress. When you have a group of people who’ve enjoyed preferential treatment for so long that they’ve come to see it as the natural order of things, they’re going to see any revisiting of the arrangement as an attack on themselves. Suddenly they’ve become victims. It’s like MRAs who see feminism as a giant conspiracy to attack men, or bigots who whine about Political Correctness. It’s where you get idiotic memes like the “War On The Car.”

And so on. Again, nothing that hasn’t already been said, previously and more eloquently, by better people than me, but given the way things are likely to be framed over the next twelve months, worth emphasizing.

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On Rob Ford and generosity of spirit | #TOpoli #Jack

Bear with me for a second.

I’ve been indulging in some rather unseemly woohooing, both here and on the Tweeter, over the results of this week’s transit debate at city council. And yes, I’ve been just as guilty as the next progressive tweeter of doing an in-your-face happy dance. And even more: I’ve succumbed to temptation and taken my share of cheap shots at Rob Ford. God knows, he leaves himself open to them with everything he says and does, as a matter of policy and everything he stands for. If I were a better person, I’d resist the temptation more successfully.

I know, I know. Sanctimonious wankery. I’m guilty of it more often than I want to admit (like maybe all the time …). 

And in fact, I’m probably never more insufferable (hence the request that you bear with me) than when I start on about generosity of spirit. It ain’t the way the world works, much as I would wish otherwise, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for. 

Once again: true generosity of spirit seeks no external validation. It is its own reward. It doesn’t look for applause, it doesn’t seek affirmation, and it is extended with no expectation of any quid pro quo. Moreover, it is extended to those who do not deserve it precisely because they do not deserve it. That is what makes it what it is.

I don’t claim to have a unique understanding of it. And I don’t pretend to have any special insights or window into people’s hearts. But to the extent that anyone can have such insight, I choose to believe that it flows from an essential decency. 

Which leads me to this:

I’ve said some nasty things about Rob Ford. But in this situation, I think he’s speaking from the heart. Without a script, without handlers, without talking points. And he’s expressing genuine sadness, setting aside political disagreement, and remembering Jack as a decent and honourable man.

I’m posting this now because I think it’s worth noting: for all his missteps, for all his wrongheadedness, for all his faults, Rob Ford is capable of just the sort of generosity of spirit I’m describing. (I know there is good in you … the Emperor hasn’t destroyed it … )

Perhaps the challenge for progressives is in finding that, and in making it possible for him to express it.

I’d like to wind up on that note, but I can anticipate some of the reactions: accusations of naivete, simplistic thinking, even suckiness. And those accusations wouldn’t be entirely wrong. It’s easy to point out that those on the other side don’t have that. They’ll take advantage of it, so why give them ammunition? That’s why we’ll always be at a tactical disadvantage when we’re engaging with people willing to do Whatever It Takes to Win, and that’s why our victories are always going to be more nuanced.

I can’t honestly suggest that this is the right path for everyone. I just need to be able to like what I see when I look in the mirror when I’m shaving in the morning. If that puts me and the people I work with at a tactical disadvantage, then so be it.

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Really, @IAmDavidMiller? #TransitCity can be brought back to life if we just wish hard enough? | #TOpoli

You know, it’s the kind of thing I’d reeeeeeally like to believe. That’s how David Miller is quoted in the Globe today:

With a election camp unfolding now in Ontario, and the potential for an NDP-Liberal minority government in Queen’s Park, it would be possible to better finance public transit, Mr. Miller, saying that his old proposal could easily be revived.

“The plan’s there, the environmental assessments were done. You could turn it on like a switch. If you wanted to, you could start construction on Finch in two months and Sheppard probably next week.”

And again in the Star:

The entire Transit City network could have been delivered by 2020 with the first line ready by 2015, Miller said. But it’s not too late to turn back.

“The plan is there, the environmental assessments are done. You could turn it on like a switch. If you wanted to, you could start construction on Finch in about two months and Sheppard probably next week.”

This is almost like watching Peter Pan, and thinking you can bring Tinker Bell back to life if you just clap hard enough. It’s got that kind of intuitive and emotional appeal.

And you want to think, having seen Team Ford’s essential venality, childish vindictiveness and uncompetence (once again, h/t @IvorTossell) on full display in the waterfront debacle, that enough councillors in the Mushy Middle are ready to abandon the Clusterfuck Cabal and embrace sane, rational, evidence-based decisionmaking. It’s what adults do, after all.

But, as we’ve seen, wishing really hard doesn’t necessarily make it so. Which is why we can’t spend too much time high-fiving over the waterfront. This bunch has still got plenty of time and plenty of scope to find new ways to wreck our communities, waste our money, and turn us against one another, and they’ve got powerful friends. We can’t let that happen. 

To paraphrase Joe Hill: Don’t exult — organize.

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