Toronto Councillor Minnan-Wong argues that because the car is the most viable way to travel - given Council's lack of investment in alternatives - we should continue to invest in our roads other modes somehow become available.
By Ben Bull
Published May 23, 2009
Toronto's car-friendly Councillor, Denzil Minnan-Wong, continues to discredit the recently proposed downtown traffic calming measures. Minnan-Wong introduces the oblique metaphor of a clogged drain to explain his blanket opposition to two-way street conversions, lane reductions and banning right turns on red lights.
"Imagine you have a clogged sink in your kitchen," he suggests. "Do you try to unclog it using Drano or a plunger, or do you pour a quart of gooey lard on top of whatever is causing the clog in the first place?"
What's a glob of lard got to do with traffic congestion? you may ask. Well, I'm not too sure. Sadly, the confusion doesn't end there. The councillor goes on to over-elaborate on the proposed Jarvis Street lane reduction.
The discussion underway concerning Jarvis St. typifies what is happening in our city. While it is well-known that some 28,000 citizens rely on Jarvis St. each day to get to and from work, consultations on removing one of the lanes is open to residents only. Road users and suburbanites do not have an effective say on the use of an important arterial road – one that was intended to be used precisely by people who did not live nearby.
The argument here appears to be that all road users should have a say in how this neighbourhood street is developed. Also, Minnan-Wong appears to be saying that because Jarvis is currently being used as a downtown expressway, it should always be so.
But Jarvis Street is not supposed to be an expressway. Just as the Spadina Expressway was canceled back in the 1970s, Toronto City Council has determined that downtown thoroughfares are not the places to be nudging the dial over 70 (the typical speed for this street).
This is exactly why the road has to change. And this is exactly why the desires of suburban residents is not relevant. After all, we all know what they want. They want to drive fast!
As RTH Editor Ryan McGreal pointed out in response to my recent letter to the editor of the Toronto Star:
When a city stops twisting itself inside-out to cater to motorists and invests instead in wider sidewalks, street trees, bike lanes, and more convenient transit, the result is a reduction in overall driving - and a reduction in overall net vehicle emissions.
That is what we want!
Minnan-Wong goes on to suggest a new approach to traffic planning:
Transit is only part of a bigger solution – mobility. Our city doesn't need a transit policy – we need a mobility plan. A mobility plan recognizes that many people who drive in our city have to do so because of a host of life circumstances that transcend mere preference. The city's undeclared but very active war on cars is really a war on people who, for the most part, lack alternatives.
Hmm... What is a 'mobility plan', exactly? Minnan-Wong does not explain. He implies that the plan would take our driving habits into accounts, rather than 'declaring war' on the car. He seems to suggest that we should accommodate the status quo rather than re-jig the transit options currently available.
But, remarkably, in the very next paragraph, he goes on to acknowledge the need to provide more transit alternatives. "Do we need more transit?" he asks.
Yes. Do we need more bike paths? Yes. Would it be better if more people could walk to work or take transit? Yes. But in the real world, biking from Malvern or Rexdale to King and Bay works well in theory but a little worse in practice. And a lot worse in the months of November through to March. Given the city's lack of progress at installing bike lanes, it is no surprise that many suburban cyclists make different choices about how to get around.
Confused yet? Let me see if I get this: Because it's impossible to walk and bike around Toronto we should ... suck it up and hop in the car?
Minna-Wong's confusion spirals onwards and downwards in his latter paragraphs. Mercifully - or not - he finally gets around to explaining what his 'mobility plan' will entail.
A mobility plan includes measures to expand the use of transit and bicycles, and – critically – practical means to substitute public for private methods of transport over time. Until the supply of transit is adequate (and we're a long way from there) or until our downtown is bike-friendly, the city has a duty to enable its citizens to enjoy the benefits of mobility, including trips taken by car.
That means not only expanding consultations to include roadway stakeholders, but by making a core premise of transportation policy the pragmatic idea that until we have viable substitutes, the city cannot pursue its war against suburban drivers either by reducing the amount of infrastructure available to them or by neglecting its upkeep.
Clearer now? Yeah, me neither. What I believe Minnan-Wong is proposing here is that, because the car is the most viable way to travel at the moment - given Toronto City Council's lack of investment in transit alternatives - we should continue to invest in our roads until such time as other modes are available.
However, what Minnan-Wong fails to understand is that the various traffic calming measures being proposed will increase the viability of other traffic modes.
Furthermore, it is hard to envision a walking, biking, TTC transit friendly future without a reduction in our car carrying capacity.
You can't treat transit planning like a new software project where you keep two systems running at once until such time as the new package can be proven to be working effectively. You can't build two transit systems at once - one for the car and one for everything else - then flip a switch and watch the lights go on.
Toronto's transit plan calls for a careful reconfiguration of our busiest intersections and thoroughfares, and a complementary increase in alternative transit modes at the same time. This is not a chicken and egg approach, it's everything, all together.
Minnan-Wong signs off his convoluted commentary by resurecting the nearly-dead dismantling of the Gardiner. The Gardiner tear down is suffering a slow death-by-committee - it will never be completed in our lifetimes. But Minnan-Wong brings it up anyway.
Tearing down part of the Gardiner is tremendous political theatre, but will only make our air quality worse and lengthen the commute times of citizens who already believe it is unnecessarily long. In practical terms, this means we can choose to spend tax dollars on symbolic acts or substantive ones. To me, this is as simple a choice as reaching for the Drano or for the lard.
There's nothing simple about Minnan-Wong's 'logic'. Here he brings up his well-worn - congestion will increase air pollution idea. Again, more congestion does not automatically mean more pollution. As McGreal points out:
It's a common, and understandable, error to assume that the best way to improve air quality is to improve the efficiency of traffic flow. The problem, as Amory Lovins might put it, is that by optimizing a given street, you end up pessimizing the city as a whole. When streets are very efficient for drivers, what happens is that more people choose to driver longer distances more frequently. The result is an *increase* in overall air pollution. Those cities that commit the most resources to improving traffic flow end up with the worst air pollution.
As for Minnan-Wong's nonsensical metaphors - I have no idea what the councillor is doing with his Drano or his lard. When it comes to traffic planning, I suggest that he consult with a city planner.
And when it comes to un-plugging his drains, please, Councillor Minnan-Wong - call a plumber.