Aug 11

It’s always Sunny in Toronto: three questionable ideas to “improve” our city

The venerable Toronto Sun — now sadly down a relatively sensible voice — has been going full bore all week, writing article after article on their three ideas that they say will improve Toronto. Reporter Don Peat kicked things off with an article published on Sunday:

But despite the looming budget, Ford could tackle three things in the last four months of his first year that would make Toronto a better place.

Pushing city council to ban panhandling on city streets, moving forward on a cyclist licensing system and scrapping the bag tax are improvements many would welcome.

While the budget is still the big beast facing city council, there are other issues that stick in the craw of many Torontonians.

It’s time for Ford to deal with them.

via How Rob Ford could improve T.O. | Toronto Sun.

So there you have it — city building as envisioned by the Toronto Sun: free plastic bags, a bike licensing bureaucracy and making poverty less visible. Let’s take these one-by-one.

The five-cent plastic bag fee is a proven success. It’s resulted in a reported 70% to 89% drop in the number of plastic bags distributed by grocery stores in Toronto. Even if you discount the environmental benefits of fewer bags littering our parks and assorted bodies of water, this policy still remains a significant money-saver for the city, as over the course of the year the solid waste department is undoubtedly now processing far fewer plastic bags at recycling centres and landfills.

And here’s the secret, which should be spoken about only in a whisper as it might be spoiled if too many small-scale retailers catch on: no one has been charged for distributing free plastic bags since the bylaw came into effect in 2009. If the city were to further reduce their level of enforcement — from the minimal level it seems to be at now to, well, none — we’d continue to derive the economic and environmental benefits that come from reduced plastic bag use while not spending money on administrative and enforcement overhead. It would appear to be a win-win policy for the city.

A splashy political fight over repealing the fee would — assuming the item passes — assuredly lead to more plastic bag use, especially at convenience stores as some consumers would again feel entitled to free plastic bags. Any spotlight given to this issue will have immediate negative environmental impacts. And for what? For a nickel?

Bicycling licensing is a complete non-starter. The City of Toronto actually maintains a page on its website documenting the three past occasions the City has explored — and rejected — the idea of a system for licensing bikes and riders. The cost of the bureaucracy needed to manage such a program would mean an annual fee daunting enough that a percentage of cyclists would simply opt not to bother. They’d put the idea of a bike out of their minds and return to their cars or public transit.

But ultimately that seems to be what this is about: despite the fact that every person commuting via a bicycle results in a net savings for the city, some would rather there were fewer bikes on the road.

Lastly, banning panhandling. It’s hard to understand how some people can spend hours attacking the efficacy and competence of governments and then turn around and propose that those same governments could be limitlessly effective at eliminating something they don’t like. If we’re going to pretend like we can, with simple law and order policy, ban a symptom of poverty, why not just go whole hog and ban poverty itself? Let’s ban not having money and a job. Let’s outlaw being poor.

What any so-called plan to ban panhandling would really do is result in a wave of antagonistic police behaviour toward the homeless and the destitute downtown, which would serve to push these people away from Bay Street and into already marginalized neighbourhoods. If you’re not working to eliminate poverty, you’re just working to move it.

Jun 11

Public Health Nurses? No fun

The Toronto Star kicked off the week with a bizarre article by Robyn Doolittle, grouping together a collection of existing city bylaws that Ford is seeking to repeal and positing that the ultimate outcome might be a city that’s more fun:

Toronto: The Town of No Fun. The City of Rules.

Well, that might be changing thanks to Rob Ford, “Mayor of Fun,” as Councillor Michael Thompson jokingly dubbed him during a recent interview.

Before Ford came to office in December, this was the city that sent you a bill for $60 on your birthday.

Since repealing that vehicle registration fee, the mayor has talked about scrapping numerous regulations, which critics of the previous city hall regime would claim represent a nanny-state mentality.

via Will Mayor Ford put some fun into rule-obsessed Toronto? – thestar.com.

Among other things, Doolittle lists the following as things that might get in the way of fun:

  • Vehicle Registration Fee
  • Rules against cutting down trees
  • Obstructing sidewalks
  • Ban on bottled water sales in city buildings
  • The five cent plastic bag fee

The city certainly has some bylaws in place that are too restrictive — the requirement to have a paid duty police officer at a neighbourhood barbecue, for example — but it seems quite the reach to equate Rob Ford’s lazy libertarian approach to government with any kind of policy that might lead to fun.

Rob Ford dismantles government because he dislikes government. Most of the restrictions Doolittle lists were put in place as environmental safeguards. If a more fun city is the end result of their elimination, it’s not by design. It’s just collateral.

Case in point: Soon after this article was published, Rob Ford’s Executive Committee voted to defer indefinitely item BU12.7. The small item would have made an net-zero adjustment to the 2011 Approved Operating Budget of Toronto Public Health to account for the addition of two permanent public health nurses, paid for entirely by the provincial Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

Free nurses working in the city! No cost to the Toronto taxpayer! Not happening, says the Mayor. Because nurses and public health are, I guess, not fun.

Jun 11

Ford’s approval rating down, weak support for Sheppard subway

The Toronto Star’s David Rider has details on a Forum Research poll regarding municipal issues:

Asked if Ford is doing a good job as mayor, six months after his upset victory, 57 per cent agreed, down from 60 per cent in a late-February Forum Research poll. An early-May Toronto Real Estate Board survey pegged Ford’s support at 70 per cent.

As a whole, the new results aren’t great news for Ford, said Bozinoff, who said he did the poll independently to gauge opinions on civic issues.

“Ford’s support appears to have plateaued and these trial balloons being floated on how to solve financial problems, like road tolls and cutting the number of police, have no real support,” he said.

via Road tolls to pay for Sheppard subway a non-starter, poll finds – thestar.com.

A 57% approval rating is actually remarkably low for a sitting mayor less than a year into his first term, especially because Ford hasn’t had to make any unpopular decisions.

The big news springs from the two questions asked about road tolls. When asked if they would support road tolls to reduce traffic congestion, 43% of people approved. (With a strong majority of 58% in Toronto & East York.) On the other hand, when asked specifically about road tolls to pay for the Sheppard Subway, support drops to 35%. A loser of an idea anywhere in the city, apparently, as the mention of the subway doesn’t even draw increased support for road tolls in Scarborough, where the new subway line would go.

The full report detailing poll results is available as a PDF. Other findings:

  • Privatizing garbage collection is still popular with residents, with 52% approval. This is down 2% from Forum Research’s last poll, in February. I’m still surprised that this doesn’t poll higher. Interestingly, a majority opposes privatization of garbage in Scarborough.
  • The five cent plastic bag fee enjoys a majority of support with 52% in favour. Not sure how this squares with the populist mayor continuing to push the idea that people hate paying a nickel for a bag.
  • A strong majority — 57% — oppose “reducing the police force to help freeze property taxes.” We are unlikely to see either a property tax freeze or a reduction in the number of police officers this year.
  • A whopping 72% of people support “physically separating bike lanes from car lanes.” I wonder if this question is too vague, however. Phrased as “adding a new, fully separated bike lane on Richmond Street”, would the results differ? Either way, this is an encouraging result.
  • In the most ridiculous question in the poll, 65% express support for “having public festivals, marathons, marches and walkathons in city parks, rather than closing city streets and expressways.” This would appear to suggest that moving, say, the Toronto Marathon to High Park is feasible when, of course, it isn’t. These events don’t happen on the street just for the hell of it, but rather because they require the space.


May 11

Having achieved his vision for Toronto, Ford looks to abolish ‘bag tax’

The Toronto Sun’s Don Peat reports that Ford is mulling over getting rid of the mandatory five cent fee for plastic bags:

“I think we’re going to deal with that but again there was more important things to do,” he said. “Obviously, contracting out garbage and everything we’ve done in the first six months, I think, and again I can’t say for sure, I think we’ll get around to it this year.

“I’ll try, I can’t guarantee it, but we’ll try to get rid of that five-cent bag tax.”

via Ford targets bag tax | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

There’s something almost endearing about this. The mayor feels, six months into his term, that he’s coming to the end of his mayoral to-do list. His vision achieved, he’ll turn to the “small stuff” like the Jarvis Street bike lanes and the five cent fee on plastic bags.

And after that? Well, I guess there’s still the land transfer tax and the fair wage policy. And, if there’s still time: Moving marathons to parks, replacing streetcars with buses, eliminating 22 city council seats, and getting us that NFL team.

But first: removing the so-called bag tax. Priorities.

Mar 11

Ford enjoys a 60% approval rating, says terribly misleading poll

Kelly Grant with the Globe & Mail:

Rob Ford enjoys a 60-per-cent approval rating, according to the first public poll released since he took office Dec. 1.

However, Toronto-based Forum Research, Inc. found that urban and suburban Torontonians remain deeply divided about Mr. Ford: His approval rating was highest in Scarborough (71 per cent) and North York (65 per cent) and lowest in the old cities of Toronto and East York (46 per cent.)

“That puts him higher than his vote, so somehow he’s got the approval of some of his opponents’ supporters, which I think is quite a task, especially given how polarizing the election was,” said Lorne Bozinoff, the president of Forum Research. “My gut feel is that’s a good rating.”

via Rob Ford more popular now than at election – The Globe and Mail.

Always fun to see pollsters going by their “gut feel.”

Grant points out that while a 60% approval rating isn’t bad by any means, David Miller’s approval rating was 82% six months into his first term. Quick googling reveals that Miller’s approval ratings stayed very high until the garbage strike in 2009. In 2005, well into his first term, Miller sat at 69%.

More troubling is the nature of the poll questions. Forum Research asked respondents 11 questions about various policies. Of those, several of the questions are incredibly misleading, generally skewed toward pushing support for the mayor’s initiatives.

Here’s a quick breakdown, I’m assuming all questions began with “Do you agree with…” or “Do you support…” but that’s been omitted in the report.

  • “The privatization of garbage collection for parts of the city” – A fine question. Notable that only 54% of people agree with this. I’d have pegged popular support at a higher level.
  • “The mandatory 5 cent plastic shopping bag fee” – Another appropriate question. It’s hilarious how much older people hate this fee.
  • “Declaring the TTC an essential service that would ban strikes and lockouts” – I don’t have a huge problem with this question, but I’d guess that rephrasing it as “Declaring the TTC an essential service, increasing labour costs related to transit” would see very different results.
  • “Tearing down the eastern end of the Gardiner expressway” – Why even ask this? Has it come up at all? Was there more context given? A weird question.
  • “Providing jobs for life for city employees” – This is where these questions go off the rails completely. They might as well have phrased as this “Do you support fatcat union members?”
  • “Using private sector financing to pay for the Sheppard subway so it can be built sooner” – What the hell is this one? No one is proposing that private sector funds will get transit built on Sheppard faster than originally planned. The Sheppard East LRT would have been open in less than three years.
  • “Spending $3 million to hire an outside consultant to look at ways to make the City more efficient?” – If there’s bad news for Ford in this poll, it’s this question. Only 38% of people support the move to hire an outside consultant. A fair question. (Interesting, too, that the $3 million dollars only become public knowledge at council on Thursday, February 24  – this poll went into the wild on Friday, February 25.)
  • “Relaxing liquor regulations so that you can walk around with a drink at licensed events instead of having to stay in a beer tent?” – This is a provincial issue that doesn’t have anything to do with the City’s government.
  • Licensing bicyclists so that traffic laws can be enforced with them?”Oh, screw off. I love the implication that traffic laws can’t be enforced with cyclists currently because of the lack of some kind of licensing program. Cyclists already are subject to the rules of the road. A municipal licensing program wouldn’t do anything to change that and would cost a ton of money.
  • “In order to improve public transit, do you think more below ground subways or more above ground light rail streetcars should be built?” – No one is proposing more streetcar lines as Toronto knows them. A ridiculous question in the sense that even diehard Transit City supporters would probably be forced to answer for below ground subways. In an ideal world we’d have below ground subways everywhere.
  • “Should the City build more City owned social housing units or should the City provide rent subsidies so those needing social housing can rent privately owned units instead?” – Not as egregious as some of the other questions but, again, there’s a clear skew here. The subtext is “Should the city keep spending YOUR TAX DOLLARS on public housing or should we just let the awesome private sector deal with it?” As I noted yesterday, Section Eight housing subsidies exist across the United States and still lead to the same issues we see with our public housing system — slumlords eagerly accept the subsidies while “nicer” market rental buildings refuse them.

In summary, this poll reveals primarily that Ford is currently a semi-popular mayor and little else. Anyone who can read some of the questions contained within this poll and feel like they’re an accurate representation of anything is kidding themselves.

Jan 11

Plastic bags

The Star writes an editorial:

Eliminating the bag fee would be a mistake. It costs the city nothing, but it produces tangible benefits. Pre-fee, it was estimated that Torontonians used about 460 million retail plastic bags a year.

According to merchants, with the fee in place there has since been a marked reduction — 71 per cent by one count — in the circulation of these bags.

via Plastic bags: Keep the nickel fee – thestar.com.

Ford’s sudden decision to attack the five-cent bag fee is ridiculous both because it’s clearly a successful program and because it’s so unimportant. What kind of person gets so fired up over paying a nickel for a bag that they call the mayor about it?

Jan 11

Sports Analogies and Exaggerations

The National Post’s Natalie Alcoba got to do a Q&A with Ford to mark the end of 2010. She actually handles things pretty well, which is a nice change from the “Why are you so popular?”-style of questioning he’s been getting from some reporters.

Best parts:

Q For 10 years as councillor you were, as you say, fighting for the little guy, and also fighting with your colleagues. So, how does being in charge change the way people react to you? Does it?

A Not really. When I go to the gas station or the restaurant, people still come up and say hi. I’m friendly to everyone I meet and people are friendly to me. My life hasn’t changed or my personality towards people hasn’t changed. It’s just a different position, but it’s still the same team. Except now instead of playing defence I’m playing centre, or something.

Sports analogy! Or something.

Also (and, I know, this is just the way he speaks) I really like how he cites the ‘gas station’ and ‘the restaurant’ (singular!) as places he runs into people.

Q What is the most important thing you want to do in 2011?

A Just continue watching how money is spent, and save the taxpayers money. I want to get the subways built and I want to get rid of the land transfer tax and this 5¢ bag tax. Although I never campaigned on it, that’s going to be something we’re going to propose doing, abolish the 5¢ bag tax. Get the city cleaned up, and make it a more liveable and prosperous city.

Alcoba doesn’t press him on the bag tax thing, but that’s likely because it’s a total holy-shit-did-he-just-say-that moment. More on this later.

Then there’s this admission that, hey, Scarborough and Etobicoke are really far apart:

Q What is the strangest request you’ve had since you’ve been mayor?

A I’ve had people ask me to do their shopping for them. I said ‘‘I don’t mind doing home visits, but I’m not going to do your groceries for you.’’ This one person called me, an elderly man, and I sort of felt sorry for him and he was just talking about how he can’t get to the store and would you mind picking this up for me. Honestly, if he lived a little closer to me, but it was way out in Scarborough. I was thinking, man if I was around the corner I don’t mind dropping in the store and buying it for him but I’m not going to go buy a bag of milk out here in Etobicoke and take it all the way up to Scarborough.

I’ll ignore the weird idea that the mayor would even consider doing some random dude’s grocery shopping and instead mention that, hey, wouldn’t it be great if someone proposed a transit line that ran from Scarborough to Etobicoke?

You’ve have to be crazy to be against something like that.

Source: Q&A: Mayor Rob Ford looks to 2011 | Posted Toronto | National Post.