Jul 11

First Core Service Review report: cut snow-clearing, street-sweeping, fluoridation and recycling programs

Cast your mind back to when Rob Ford, then a candidate for mayor, ran on a platform of austerity and service cuts, highlighting a need for Toronto residents to sacrifice things like regular street cleaning, water fluoridation and snow-removal in order to maintain Toronto’s lowest-in-the-GTA property tax rates? Remember that?

You might not, because it never happened. Instead, Ford ran on a platform that called for an end to “gravy train” waste. He told voters he would be able to save them $230 million on the 2011 operating budget, and ultimately produce a $1.7 billion surplus over his first four years in office, all without cutting services. The city doesn’t have a revenue problem, he was fond of saying, but a spending problem. And he could fix that.

Today, the campaign-era theatrics and slogans all came crashing down, as the Rob Ford administration revealed the first phase of their Core Services Review report. The initial release relates to programs that fall under the purview of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee. It concludes that a  full 96% of the services provided by these city departments are absolutely essential. Nearly all the potential avenues for savings are listed as “small.” They include things like cutting down on the frequency of street sweeping, changing our standards for snow-removal, setting less ambitious targets for recycling and green bin programs and discontinuing the practice of fluoridation for the city’s water supply.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, Chair of the Public Works & Infrastructure committee, seemed to agree with media reports that claimed very few — basically none — of the report’s areas for consideration are actually plausible cuts, telling the Toronto Star’s David Rider and Paul Moloney that PWIC was not “a sweet spot” for easy savings. Which is decent enough logic, but if that was so obviously the case, why lead the multi-stage announcement of the Core Service Review reports with this document? Why not come out swinging with a report that highlights real areas for savings?

It might be because there is no such a report. This PWIC document identifies only $10 to $15 million worth of savings, which means the remaining seven reports — relating to committees like Economic Development, Parks & Environment, and Executive — need to contain considerations that average out to approximately $100 million in savings each to even begin to approach this year’s budget shortfall of $775 million.

As Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan points out, the most glaring failure of this report is that it doesn’t even address the fiscal efficiency of how services are delivered, but instead jumps right to listing things that could be cut:

Which is to say, the administration directed its consultants to look for which programs it was allowed to cut, and by how much, without ever asking it to look at how it could maintain service levels by delivering them more efficiently. The underlying message of today’s report: if we want to cut the size of the budget, it will be, in the first place and not as a last resort, by cutting the scope of government.

via Waste Diversion, Fluoridation, and Cycling Infrastructure in First Round of Potential City Hall Cuts | Torontoist.

In other words: they’re skipping the gravy, and going right to the meat.

Jun 11

What we talk about when we talk about Jarvis

At yesterday’s meeting of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee, while discussing Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s new bike plan, Councillor John Parker moved an amendment to kill the bike lanes on Jarvis Street.

Here’s the text of Parker’s amendment:

City Council rescind its decision related to the bicycle lanes on Jarvis Street.

via Agenda Item History – 2011.PW5.1.

Council will debate the item at the July council meeting. If approved by a majority of council, the lanes will be removed.

No Justifiable Reason

I’m going to have lots to say about this over the coming weeks, but let’s get some stuff out of the way. First, the big one: as far as city planning, traffic engineering and economics go, there is seemingly no justifiable reason for removing the bike lanes on Jarvis.

The city’s own numbers tell the story. Since the lanes were installed, traffic levels for cars has remained at the same level as previous. Travel times increased by about two minutes in the morning, and three to five minutes in the afternoon. If that latter figure seems a tad high, staff agree, and are taking steps to correct it:

Much of the increased travel time could be attributed to the delays and queues experienced at the Jarvis Street/Gerrard Street East intersection, particularly in the northbound direction during the p.m. peak period.

The introduction of an advanced left turn phase in the northbound direction at this intersection, scheduled this summer, will reduce the delays at this intersection and the overall travel times between Queen Street East and Charles Street East.

via Bikeway network — 2011 Update. (pg 17)

Most notable, however, is that the total number of vehicles (cars + bikes) using the road in both directions during daily peak eight hour periods increased from approximately 13,290 to 14,180 after the installation of the lanes. 100% of this increase comes from bikes.

In other words: a $63,000 one-time investment in infrastructure increased the daily utility of a Toronto roadway by about 7%. That’s an incredible value-to-dollar ratio.

This isn’t some hippie pinko gut-based opinion. This is black-and-white fact. The Jarvis Street bike lanes aren’t preventing people from moving through the city. They’re enabling people to move through the city.

Let’s ignore cyclists in this debate

But, on this issue, we might be best to ignore cyclists. I have a very real concern that if we let this debate spiral into the same tired car-versus-bike war we’ve seen a dozen times before, bikes will lose. And lose bad.

Rob Ford car-friendliness isn’t just a part of his character. It turns out it’s also what drives some of his most bedrock support. In a post at OpenFile yesterday, John Michael McGrath took a look at an academic paper by doctoral candidate Zack Taylor at UofT, which laid out the strong correlation between people who commute by automobile to work and those that supported the mayor:

The other strong predictor in Taylor’s paper was car ownership and use. No surprise, the man who ran against “the war on the car” picked up the support of Toronto’s most car-dependent areas. “Toronto isn’t the only place you’re seeing this happen. Once you own a car, once you experience the street as a car—a car driver—you experience anything that impedes you as an annoyance,” says Taylor.

via Why suburban motorists voted for Ford, and why this is news | OpenFile.

If the Jarvis lanes are simply held up as a key battleground in the ever-ongoing war between cars and bikes in the city, Rob Ford likely still has enough clout on council and enough popular support to kill the lanes. It’s as simple as that.

You bike guys had your way with the previous council, they’ll say, but things are different now. We have to give the people what they want.

What Jarvis Street means

Jarvis Street was, for much of Toronto’s history, a place for Toronto’s well-off. One of the richest thoroughfares in the city, it was lined with trees and huge mansion homes setback from the roadway. To illustrate, BlogTO’s Derek Flack compiled a beautiful-then-sad series of images that sets the scene.

Spacing’s Shawn Micallef described the old Jarvis in an Eye Weekly column as “once the most beautiful street in Toronto” that “has been reverse-gentrified and turned into a fat arterial traffic pipe between North Toronto and downtown.”

The widening of Jarvis street and the installation of a reversible centre lane — one that flowed south in the morning and north in the evening — immediately changed the character of the roadway.

During the first debate over what to do with Jarvis, a local resident told the National Post’s Allison Haines that “many consider Jarvis Street to be a freeway and it’s not – it’s a downtown city street.”

Yes, Jarvis is a downtown city street. It’s a street with numerous homes — and more coming, with a recent condo proposal for the once-thought-uninhabitale Dundas intersection — businesses and institutions. The National Ballet School calls the northern part of Jarvis Street home, as does a public high school and a large downtown Toronto park and conservatory.

The Jarvis bike lanes were not part of the original plan to revitalize Jarvis Street. The thought was to instead improve the pedestrian realm with wide sidewalks and landscaping. The idea was that the street would look like this:


via Jarvis Street Streetscape Improvements Class Environmental Assessment Study (2009) pg 13

That may have been a better option in the long-term than what we got — further improvements to the streetscape on Jarvis seem to have stalled out after the bike lanes were installed — but the two approaches carry one thing in common: both called for the removal of the reversible fifth lane.

Removing that lane under any context was a huge win for Jarvis Street.

It’s unclear at this point whether Parker’s motion means that the fifth lane will be reinstalled if council approves his amendment, but it is important that councillors understand that Jarvis Street about far more than just travel times. It is a downtown city street with all that entails: a place for people to live, learn and work.

Any further discussion about what to do with Jarvis must take that into account. It is not and should never be again thought of as a mere urban arterial, where speed is king, and nothing else matters. Not only does that sort of argument shortchange the growing number of people who call the area home, it also ignores the huge economic impact a revitalized Jarvis could have.

Jun 11

‘Construction chaos’ is chance for new administration to prove effectiveness

Councillor Ana Bailão made the rounds this week for the latest “Oh no! Road Construction!” story, this time focused on Dundas West. I’m not always sympathetic to those who immediately complain about so-called construction chaos. It happens sometimes, and we must persevere. Still, though, it seems undeniable at this point that the city has a real problem when it comes to the coordination of utility work, to the point where construction delays are far more common than they should be.

Soon after the media jumped on Bailão’s story, Public Works Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong joined the party.

The Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle:

Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the public works committee, said this is yet another example of shoddy planning that leads to over-budget spending, lengthy delays and city roads being ripped up, rebuilt and ripped up again across the city.

“We are told time and time again, over and over again, that things are coordinated and then we find out after the fact, when things go wrong, that they weren’t,” he said.

via Fed up with sidewalks being ripped up everywhere? So is the city – thestar.com.

This an area where the new administration has a real chance to prove their effectiveness. It’s an identifiable problem, and has been for years. It might even be a case where a more stereotypically conservative approach — involving yelling and threats — is kind of appropriate.

It’s not a simple problem, however, and there’s a great danger in oversimplifying. This isn’t about lazy unions or inept city staff. It’s about a bunch of agencies — some private and some public — trying to coordinate communication and requirements to one another across a very large and very busy city.