Accidental Activist

Minnan-Wong's Driving Defence: An Ingeniously Self-Fulfilling Plan

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?

Great idea!

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.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted May 23, 2009 at 17:44:09

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2009 at 18:42:24

^ Hamilton faces a virtually identical problem, and suffers in some quarters from equally dough-headed city leadership.

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By Hopeful (registered) | Posted May 23, 2009 at 21:21:49

I'd suggest that Hamilton suffers from this attitude even more than Toronto with a Council heavily weighted to suburban representatives elected by vote-thin constituencies wanting to get home (away from the big bad downtown) quickly.

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By C. Erl (registered) - website | Posted May 23, 2009 at 21:37:16

Ballin' argument on behalf of a municipal representative that seems to fit the typical "pro-development" mould very well. It sounds so coherent and logical, it could almost have been presented by a Hamilton City Councillor! Well...almost. One of our boys would have used "puke" in reference to congestion.

I'm sorry for the sarcasm, but I find the only way to deal with mind-numbingly backward arguments is to simply highlight their fundamental failing: logic.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 23, 2009 at 22:42:37

If this guy ever gets defeated in an election, he should move here. He'd get re-elected in Hamilton until the day he dies.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted May 24, 2009 at 10:24:36

Gullchasedship - I submitted this to RTH because I believe it is helpful for Hamiltonians to keep abreast of other cities progress and challenges. Often Hamiltonians think of Toronto as a model of city management to follow, but we are just as backwards, if not more so, on many issues. Also, the 'arguments' presented by Councilor Minnan-Wong are worth examining. I suspect they will be raised as Hamilton moves forward (or not) with the expansion of it's own bike lane network.

Hopefully this perspective is informative.



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By arienc (registered) | Posted May 24, 2009 at 21:59:14

The Star has run a piece the last couple of days about the "war" between the car and the bicycle which has gotten a lot of response from the public, both for and against. Seems bike lanes are a hot button for some people. A lot more focus on the cyclists who run reds and don't stop at stop signs, and very little support for adding bike lanes, although the voting seems to be somewhat in favour of progresive change towards encouraging more cycling. Can't believe there's actually people out there who think cyclists have no place on the streets at all. With an attitude like that, you shouldn't be allowed to be anywhere near our shared roads.

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By Mike (registered) | Posted May 25, 2009 at 11:13:26

I read those Star articles as well (Mean Streets and the licensing one). Some of the comments are scarier than the cycling! Agreed, that is so mean, how can you exclude anyone from city streets on which people live and work and shop ... Cars have some highways for efficient high speed access, the remaining streets we have to either co-exist in or kill each other. It is sincerely a bit frightening to hear some of this ... people live in cities (gasp!) and a bike is the most efficient transport possible so many of us use them, what are we supposed to do, fold into another dimension?

After reading the conversations though, my sense is that although engineering is a big factor, the attitudes are the primary reason the situation is so bad. Lots of hurry and bad moods = human roadkills. Also I think some of our neighbors are absolutely terrified that a different way of thinking could work and start to spread. Just my humble opinion of course ...

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted May 25, 2009 at 12:23:06

I'd like to agree with Ben's earlier comment about keeping abreast of what Toronto is doing. As an ex-Torontonian and Hamiltonian by choice, I often compare the two places in my mind-- and which one comes out on top depends on the specific issue under consideration. Then again, as Jason indicates in his comment, they can both be pretty bone-headed places.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted May 25, 2009 at 12:37:19

Further to their 'war' series, The Star seems to be waging a bit of a campaign to get suburbanites agitated. Today's editorial cartoon is a great example...basically insinuating that the city is heading towards making the 401 primarily bike lanes. Add that to the editorial stand for the status quo on Jarvis, and it would seem they are trying to make a very minute, but necessary change in dealing with the realities of peak oil, climate change and gridlock into a massive controversy.

Very strange that they are doing this, especially since they have two of the most progressive minded columnnists, Royson James and Christopher Hume.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted May 25, 2009 at 12:43:50

It is 'strange' that the Star is taking this stance. I thought I'd opened up the Spec by mistake this morning:

Could it have something to do with all those Star car and homebuilder advertisers...? :)

I just attended the council meeting for this item and submitted a blog update (should be posted soon). In response to Gullchasedship, I think the outcome of this proposal will provide some useful lessons for Hamilton. Who would have though Toronto could be this regressive?! I'm moving back to Hamilton!


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By jason (registered) | Posted May 25, 2009 at 15:36:02

I knew you would eventually. Welcome back Ben.
I hear there's a beauty of a place for sale on Balmoral. You'll LOVE all the nice trees....

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted May 25, 2009 at 17:01:18

The 'War on Cars' spin is a few choice words that are guaranteed to stir indigdnation in the common reader because it pits the (presumably small) urbanist contingent against everyone who drives - clearly a false dichotomy.

If they called it a war on accidents and presented as background some of the recent car/pedestrian collisions and their outcome, I'm sure the ensuing discourse would be different.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted May 27, 2009 at 22:08:03

Oh how I wish somebody could ask DM-W on the record:

What's the average occupancy of those cars on Jarvis and can you define 'efficiency'?

Like Jon Stewart said, 'reality has a left wing bias'!

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By Lefty (anonymous) | Posted June 01, 2009 at 11:56:36

Reality doesn't exist. We live entirely in manufactured worlds. "In the real world" simply means the manufactured version of the world the narrator has chosen to live in.

You may choose your reality, but it must accommodate my choice of reality. For some this means others must accept the dominance of their choice of reality. They believe the real reality was chosen some time ago, by democratic election or market conditions, and cannot now be altered by other choices.

Tough luck for you, for instance, if you weren't around to choose when Ford first built assembly lines to manufacture automobiles, and governments began building roads for them to drive on. The result is an automobile-based economy and life-style. Even when that economy and lifestyle is breaking down, as it is now due to congestion and demographics, the first reaction of the true believers in reality is to shore up the dominant vision of reality. The solution is always more of the same. No other choices seem real.

Thing is, whether lard or grey-water, I didn't notice a proposal that automobiles be banned from Jarvis St. Only that the street be shared with bicyclists. Autodrivers still have other real choices: to walk, use the TTC, ride a bike, drive other routes, or possibly spend a little longer driving on Jarvis St. As cars are so wonderful, the ideal and only way to travel, really, I can only wonder why so many drivers balk at spending a few extra moments in them each day. This irony alone should suggest the consideration of other choices.

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