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The Reason for my current Unemployment

Rather than starting a different blog, I thought I’d simply digress from the topic of urbanism to explain how I became unemployed. I will not lie. I chose to leave my last job in car sales. However, I feel that there were enough unfavourable circumstances that my departure was a rational decision and rather than a ‘quit’, amounted to what most employers would fairly call a mutual parting of ways.

First, let me say that I pursued car sales as a fallback position but one that could possibly grow into a career if I found that he work was fun, enjoyable and something that I could do with a reasonable expectation of success. While no ‘Joe Girard’ I do believe that an average of 5 sales per month, in a depressed local economy, and in my first year of major sales, was not insignificant or a complete sign of failure. In my best month, I sold 11 cars. I can say that by the end of my tenure, my closing ratio was among the highest within the dealership.

There were two major events of what I consider to be managerial failures and de-motivating factors. First, as a social media advocate, I had proposed fairly early in my time at the dealership that I be appointed the Social Media director, potentially with some stable pay related to the time it would take away from the sales floor. Knowing that Social Media must be a two-way communication system, and CAN be a force for Corporate Social Responsibility, I proposed that we begin a significant campaign to draw new followers and earn ‘likes’ on both Twitter and Facebook. Since the Car industry is struggling to identify how to increase the cost-benefit of Social Media, I believed some outside-the-box thinking was in order and that the most successful campaigns on Social Media offer all participants some benefit – Social Media is not simply another way to advertise and the best companies know this. (Thanks, Trojan UV for sending me a water bottle for re-tweeting during Canadian Water Week.)

Sadly, the dealership chose to hire a Toronto firm to manage its social media – an act that I find misses the point completely and in a City struggling with unemployment, could serve as a major turn-off for potential Social Media-loving customers. London has a thriving communications sector with many qualified tech firms that could be retained at the very least to provide advice and technical support. Unfortunately, this dealer chose to import those services from Toronto. And they had an employee knowledgeable about social media, with experience in sales and marketing on a larger scale, with community organizing and development, that they chose to overlook.

The other major de-motivator was the decision to bring in a new fleet specialist when that position came open. Rather than surveying internally to determine interest in the position, the dealer chose to run an ad in the Free Press to seek someone new. Rather than promoting a talented individual with experience in Business Development, who clearly offered talents greater than typical salesmen, the dealer chose to bring in someone with more industry experience but with no knowledge of Ford’s line-up. As someone who’s been a manager, I firmly believe that promoting internally is a critical part of a progressive approach to Human Resources. By the time I had discovered the opening and that changes were occurring in middle management, the dealer had already hired someone and I was told to accept it.

In the slow months of January, a more recent hire decided to start making ‘walkaround videos’ of Ford’s cars and posting them on YouTube. Rather than providing any information about what differentiates this dealer from any other Ford dealer, the salesman chose to produce very biased demonstrations, of which there are no shortage on YouTube and which, informed customers just won’t look at since they are not produced by an independent, non-biased 3rd party. To me, this was a critical flaw. Come to early February, after 16 months without a vacation, working every single Saturday and not having 2 consecutive paid days off, except those I took off to get Dental procedures done (needed because of lack of benefits) I was feeling burned out. I took a few days off and went to Ottawa for a weekend.

Upon my return, the YouTube walkaround video production was in full-swing. I was sitting at my desk when I noticed my colleague filming directly in front of my desk and perhaps immaturely, but mostly out of fun, I erected my middle finger, which resulted in this 23-yr old, first-job employee having a hissy-fit and yelling at the top of his lungs “I’m doing this to draw traffic in which is more than you’re doing.” “This is about you getting your own name out, not about the dealership or anyone else” was my retort. My manager emerged from his office and waived me (rather rudely) to his office.

Having not been given an iota of respect regarding my, frankly (if somewhat egotistically-stated here) superior knowledge of marketing and sales and Social Media, I didn’t take kindly.

Within a day, I received a write-up, telling me all about MY bad attitude and abdicating any responsibility for my lack of morale. “You had a vacation, I was hoping you’d come back with a better attitude.” I replied that I had taken “2 unpaid days off and had a four day vacation after 16 months without two days off in a row.”

The conditions of my write-up were as follows. Even though it was February, that the date of the write-up was the 6th, that I had taken the first weekend off, and had 20 days left, I was expected to sell enough cars to earn the monthly bonus – 8 cars. Given the terribly inadequate pay when one doesn’t make bonus, I didn’t think adding any pressure was necessary, nor an adequate response to what was clearly a dissatisfied employee. It’s difficult to sell 8 cars in the busiest months of the year, let alone in February, with a gun held to one’s head.

Making it even more de-motivating, the write-up included a threat to revoke my ‘privilege’ to a demonstrator vehicle – something I paid for most months and paid to park at work and without which, I’d face a 40-km round trip each day by transit, bike or foot.

The 23rd arrived and with no sales, I could see the writing on the wall, at least if the letter were serious and that I’d face consequences. With my colleagues similarly facing a month well below bonus, I decided I would do them a favour and defer, thereby enabling them to have a real chance to meet their bonus. I even ‘conditionally sold’ a fairly good lead to a colleague who was within a sale or two of hitting his bonus. With eyes on better jobs in a more fulfilling environment in Ottawa, I decided I was going to be the bigger man and gave my two-week notice.

I met with my boss to give him my letter of resignation. My only request was that, given the write-up and the lack of foot traffic, that the dealership and I would formally part ways – that any record of employment submitted to government would indicated that the reason for my leaving was a mutual decision based on “Lack of Work.” Completing the Record of Employment in this manner would entitle met to Employment Insurance benefits of bout 1500 per month and was critical to my being able to pursue a new life in Ottawa.

By lunchtime, I was directed to clean-out my desk. I went home and began to pack, purchased a train ticket and started to make plans to move to Ottawa.

The Friday before I was set to depart I received an envelope in the mail from my former employer containing the Record Of Employment as submitted to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, the agency that administers Employment Insurance. I was again disappointed by the lack of professionalism of the dealership but not totally surprised that a Car Dealership would NOT honour a handshake agreement. The form in the envelope indicated that I had “Quit.”

My former manager made some pathetic excuse that, this was the only way to fill out the form. Having worked in numerous environments, I know this not to be the case. This manager simply has a fragile sense of self and enjoys flexing dominion and power over his employees, since his moral authority and motivational abilities are non-existent having never sold a car in his life without the title of Sales Manager behind his name.

Now I wait to see if my appeal allows me to access the full benefits of Employment Insurance or whether I will only be able to get access to Ontario Works. The difference is significant. EI benefits are nearly $1000 per month more than Ontario Works, which isn’t even enough to pay rent, buy food or do anything else and which in essence, requires people to take any job they can get. EI respects that people face sudden changes for reasons not entirely within their control and that it takes time to find a job, hence giving benefits for an entire year.

EI enables better access to skills development, enables mobility to get to interviews and enables a reasonable lifestyle while searching for good employment. Ontario Works submits its beneficiaries to esteem-busting processes that rob applicants of dignity, or privacy and which are based in the resentment of the poor, taking a cynical view that those who don’t work, or can’t find meaningful, soul-rewarding work, are simply lazy and would rather sit at home. At $600/month, I’m not sure what home one is even supposed to sit at.

Next blog – back to Urbanism, Transportation, EcDev and City-thinking. 🙂 namaste


How Zoning Kills Jobs

Disclaimer: I left all my Jane Jacobs books in boxes stored in London Ontario. So please forgive me if some of the things I write should include citation. My writings come from Jacobs, Florida, from various Transportation research papers and from their influence on the way I view Cities and the experiences I have while living in them. (Hence my overuse of ‘I’ and ‘my’ when Cities aren’t about me or individuals but about collective living and opportunity.)

On recent walks I’ve been given the opportunity to think again about what it is that makes a City a City, rather than just a settlement or collection of towns. As I’ve written, while not a quality unique to me, when I visit Cities I try to get the local flavour. When in Seattle I always tried to stay in the Queen Mary district (where much of the movie Singles was shot) to get a feel for the vibe of a City’s residents. Too often, large hotels are located in districts that have been spit-shined for tourist consumption. A good long walk or transit ride to nowhere can provide a lot of, at least observational ‘data’ about the form of a City.

The predominant difference, it seems to me (and as I recall, sources like Andres Duany writings on new urbanism, Howard Kunstler’s on sprawl and car-dependence) between the dense urban neighbourhoods that people are increasingly beginning to embrace, and the neighbourhoods that we find still being built today is …

Single-Use Zoning.

The very idea that communities ought to segregate is, if anything at all, ironic and perverse. What I’ll call ‘pod-zoning’ may actually be one of the biggest factors in what is increasingly becoming a hurdle for communities struggling with a post-manufacturing, service and idea-based economy.

I’ll post some pictures shortly that show exactly what I mean but most people know the difference between the kind of built-form that enables innovation and entrepreneurship and those that freeze it out and kill ideas before they are even generated. Zoning, in its very essence is an exclusionary tool and from its very invention has been used to attempt to pervert organic growth of Cities due to economic factors. While no one should have to live next to an abattoir, everyone in a City should be able to walk to a butcher shop. Sadly, people are still not convinced that isolating every possible nuisance from our lives through zoning does us more harm than good.

While I’m not a huge free-market advocate, and believe that government intervention is required to thwart the worst of human behaviours, I do believe that economic factors play a huge role in how people do things and why they do things the way they do. In particular, I believe that businesses need to be more concerned with their ability to understand their market space and their customer than with placing blame on government policy (which is shared as a burden by all businesses in any particular sector.) I’ll try to provide examples.

If a person decides they’d like to open a day-care in a neighbourhood, they’ll be successful if a) they provide a service needed in that community and b) there is a critical mass of customers and c) customers perceive a convenient and safe service. (Perhaps without children I should pick Day Care but I’ve seen how much trouble can be caused by proposals to create a local Day Care in an existing house/neighbourhood.) Part of the safety part includes the parents’ ability to get their child to the day care in a safe manner. The convenience part means that a day care must be close to home, to work, or to a school attended by other children in the family. Most convenient is a walkable Day Care within a neighbourhood or an at-work day care, though those are few and far between. The least safe or convenient is likely one confronted by traffic and parking lots, which increase the chance of an accident. Likely the more transportation is involved and the longer distance traveled, the less safe and convenient.

If there is not a critical mass of customers that find the service safe and convenient, then a Day Care will not survive for very long. The complaint about a day care in a neighbourhood of course is driven by traffic and parking concerns, which while understandable simply don’t add up to a huge problem in the overall scheme of things. Consider the absolute worst outcome that could result from having a Day Care and it would be that perhaps you could not get out of the driveway because someone had blocked it for 5 minutes on one or two occasions, making you late to a job you possibly aren’t that eager to get to. A) that’s not big stuff to sweat – a disruption rate in the thousandths and B) it’s a reason for meliorative measures like better indication of your driveway, or a discussion with the owner of the facility. It’s not a reason to ban Day Cares from neighbourhoods, which many zoning by-laws come very close to doing, through size limitation, parking requirements and through use-based zoning provisions.

I’m sure there are other issues that I’m not considering but when one considers the total impact of any nuisance activity in the overall to-and-fro of life in a City and the fact that a community Day Care operated by a sole proprietor IS human existence and the ongoing survival of communities. Mixed Use is what creates dynamism AND it creates Economic Development opportunities. It truly drives the creation of jobs from the entrepreneur up. Economics determines the rest. If a business started in a neighbourhood attains a certain size of economic success, its volume increases to a capacity that bothers neighbours and residents and becomes a nuisance, it is likely that business will also not serve its customers very well and will A) close or B) move locations. A resident opening a café on a neighbourhood street by placing a few tables on their patio, and selling instant coffee made with warm garden-hose coffee won’t thrive.

Perhaps there’s a small chance that businesses may move in and create undesirable outcomes but again, the likelihood that uses that don’t ‘naturally’ mix will survive in a neighbourhood for very long is, at least to my economic pondering, very slim. Even in the case they do move in, many businesses are only open during business hours and so impacts are again reduced by the market.

Building codes and other zoning that relates to visual impact, materials and paving/landscaping are regulated which further the chances that nuisance uses would be prevented from moving in. Public consultation requirements could be triggered through other mechanisms aside from the ‘Variance’ from use-based by-law which would stimulate public discussion and involvement and allow the market of ideas to get to work. In other words, if someone wanted to open a restaurant, in a neighbourhood, they’d likely require building permits to enable them to do so. Nuisance uses, like a noisy Bar can be limited however this still suggests that the market doesn’t regulate itself in terms of consumer/entertainment activities AND is based on an assumption that the activity won’t create a benefit by adding vibrancy and activity to a street, or economic success to a community and the perception that any negative issues are, in the overall scheme of things pet peeves rather that problems.

I’m going to take some pictures of Hintonburg and Mechanicsville to demonstrate what I’m talking about – as well as the kind of main street opportunity and critical shopping mass that Suburban communities fail to provide. This does not mean that any business in a local neighbourhood, or even on a main street will survive regardless of economic factors, but again, those are shared by businesses in a sector. People ought not be restricted from opening a small accounting office, or lawyers office in their own home – once successful enough they’ll likely seek more convenient locations for their customers to get to and present a more successful image. And the increasing role of electronic communications have reduced the number of face-to-face interactions considerably. These may seem like large measures but communities without these opportunities are in employment crises. New ideas are needed.

The way we currently zone for use, thereby restricting economic activity and requiring built-form and number of parking spaces to match business purpose, we provide a legalized framework and economic subsidies that provide a competitive advantage to those businesses that can afford to enter the market physically. In this way, we favour large corporations and entities and eliminate grassroots, community economic development. So not only have we created boring, car-dependent neighbourhoods and zoning-pods but we’ve codified anti-competition and attend meetings to oppose economic development. I’m not talking manufacturing or industry, or toxic uses – those must all stay separate.

Green Garden Hose Coffee Café could be a great thing for Greg. He got laid-off from the manufacturer that just left town and from what I hear, he makes a killer crepe. Feel free to comment – I don’t know everything.


My love affair with Cities

I was born and raised in London Ontario, a community my parents chose to move to when they immigrated to Canada from Gloucestershire England in 1965. My dad’s best friend had encouraged them to move to London (that friend decided to move back to Gloucester shortly after.) My parents stayed and in 1967, around the time of the birth of my brother, my maternal grandparents decided to follow their only daughter to London where for a time, they all lived on Stanley Street. Soon after, my parents moved to the new subdivision of townhouses in Berkshire Village built by Sifton Homes and my grandparents moved into a house on Ridout Street in Old South.

My early years were spent in those neighbourhoods as well as a vibrant downtown. Nana worked at Simpsons at Richmond and Dundas, I went to Montessori on Craig Street. My Granddad and Dad started the Home Doctor and often I’d go along with them to siding jobs, minor and major additions and the like. I saw a lot of different areas of London growing up, as well as the surrounding communities. And I developed, I think, an appreciation for old homes, for craftsmanship and for architecture and design.  Berkshire was bounded by Old Wonderland Road, prior to its expansion which also meant lots of time with friends riding bikes around the orchard that used to be there and in the creek that is long since buried under the major engineering of Wonderland Road. Westmount and beyond exploded as did all the areas in between and out to Byron.

I’m eternally thankful that I grew up where and when I did, in a safe community with honest working people and a sense of hope that embodied the spirit of Canada in the 1970s. Sadly, Berkshire would, to my understanding of Urban Planning, represent the last of pre-planned communities almost in the spirit of Don Mills, with a Public School on one end at Woodland Heights and Westminster Secondary School, opened in 1962, on the other. London has since boomed as a City. The predominance of London’s growth in the North, South and West has been over the past 30 years, meaning an overwhelming proportion of car-based infrastructure and road networks, that are now strangled by cars with no decent public transportation alternative. London is predominantly a use-pod City, with land-use zones separated rather than being tightly integrated. It’s a City that was built on the hubris of 1980s consumerism and the booms of the 90’s and 00’s. Sadly, while urban design has improved in London’s new communities, the predominant densities are downright sprawly.

I moved to Toronto in 1998 to follow her career. With the help of a dear friend from University, I got a job with Councillor Michael Walker, were I was able to put my Political Science degree, my passion for the underpinning philosophical ideas of government to work. The marketing and communications skills gained in my year as Music/Promotions Director CHRW helped me greatly. Councillor Walker, or Michael as you knew him at all, was a fierce local politician who seemed to instinctively take solid, unyielding,  populist positions on policy that would represent the position that the most vocal and likely to make trouble would take, if at all possible. More than anything, he never ‘waffled’. You knew where Michael stood. His brand beyond all others were consistency and community consultation. He likely stayed a term or two too long but he felt it his responsibility, after his years of serving the community, to leave it in the hands of what he saw as his heir. (there’s a tangent here I’ll leave for later.)

Michael assigned me heady files on Urban Planning where I was able to use the I’d experience gained working with my father and grandfather in the renovation business and Transportation which I quickly found was an area I was quite passionate about, I love driving and had grown up riding transit in London which is similar in many ways to that in North York or Scarborough except without the futuretrain.

I studied these files hard, embracing work that routinely and easily added to 60 hours a week. It didn’t matter, since I got to play West Wing at Toronto City Hall. I was exposed to big City thinkers like Paul Bedford, Jane Jacobs, Jack Layton, David Crombie, Robert Fung and met with influencers like Stephen Diamond and his clients who were increasingly shaping our City, and that’s just brushing the surfac. At one time I managed files for 35 development applications in the communities surrounding Yonge and Eglinton. With multiple boundary changes, we represented communities from the CPR tracks crossing Avenue Road and Yonge Street, from Mount Pleasant to Spadina. Eventually rising to Executive Assistant, I was ultimately responsible for understanding, analyzing, leading consultation and strategy development on files ranging the incredibly wide array of City responsibilities. Michael was an outsider for many years which meant that we had to form and research policy from perspectives outside of City Staff.

From Michael’s lone opposition to the Olympics, to his fight to restore Rent Control, from seeking inquiries on the redevelopment of Union Station, to leading the charge for an investigation of the deal surrounding the MFP computer contract, we were often on our own. Michael described himself as an extremist of the centre and for my colleagues and I that meant independent research and policy development. Michael gave me room to grow, to think, to consider the political philosophy and theory I’d read in University and to work with our outside consultants to polish our policy into shining examples of rabble-rousing.

I worked on notable files. I proposed that Michael become Council’s John McCain (pre-angry McCain) and lead a fight for Campaign Finance Reform and for the elimination of Corporate and Union Donations to Candidates and for stronger rules and penalties for those who broke rules. We developed planning policy to protect stable neighbourhoods and I worked with high-achieving constituents including former Prime Minister John Turner, MP Carolyn Bennett, fameless bankers and bureaucrats, lawyers, judges and other high-income earners who required that I constantly be well-versed on every single issue facing residents of Canada’s largest City. We fought for fair Property Tax policy. We fought for consultation. We fought for OMB reform. We fought. Eventually, for a short-time, Michael even became part of the inside and I was able to manage our oversight of the powerful Administration Committee, which gave me the opportunity to work with Toronto’s top bureaucrats who I know were impressed by my thoughtfulness, skill and by the fact that while I represented Michael very adeptly, I maintained my own views (shared from time-to-time in deep secrecy.)

When Michael decided to part ranks with the progressive yet pragmatic Mayor Miller, I decided to part ways with Michael. I was relieved when, within a day of making my decision known, I was asked to cross the aisle and join Shelley Carroll. A rookie Councillor at the time, Shelley was soon earmarked by Mayor Miller to take over from Jane Pitfield as Works Chair. Chairing the Works Committee, Shelley placed her trust in me and soon I was working with an amazing Group of City staff on issues of Water, Transportation, Waste Management (including managing shipments of household residential waste to Michigan, through my hometown London) and issues like Street Furniture. Works Committee handled the largest files, with the largest scrutiny, the most complex labour relations and the highest dollar value. I loved the work and gained a massive amount of knowledge in a very short time.

At this point, nearly 7 years into my City Hall career, I was ready for new challenges, was enduring severe personal pain of a divorce resulting from my personal pain-related issues and decided it was time to take some time off, and to seek work of a slightly different nature.

A few years after leaving City Hall, and having toured North America speaking and learning about the world of Transportation Economics, Financing and Demand Management using a ‘disruptive technology’ for a company located in the amazing MaRS Discovery District, I returned to London to reflect on my successes and failures, my strengths and shortcomings and to stop financial bleeding.

After 3.5 years talking loud about transportation and urban theory, about free parking’s effects on London’s economy and the reason for stagnant population and never finding full employment, I realized that the problems that I’d identified with the City affected people like myself the most and decided I’d just need to leave if I wanted more success in my career, and more enjoyment from life in a vibrant City. The period of development, the age of the largest City-forming views determine the economic feasibility and its ability to support new ideas and community development. Pod Cities rarely do that. I picked up and came to Ottawa within a month of deciding to do so, knowing that without risk, there is no reward and older Cities provide a greater rate of return on risk.

That’s the background about why i have so many areas of knowledge when it comes to Cities. I’ve also been exposed to other Cities and I’m now just starting to learn about Ottawa, though I’ve been here numerous times in the past. I’ve also been fortunate to travel extensively and been paid to study and propose solutions to the transportation issues affecting nearly every major City in North America – New York City, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC and Northern Virginia, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg are all Cities to whom I pitched Skymeter’s solution. I always stayed in downtown areas on business trips because I hated the idea of the airport hotel strip. Might as well find out about a City while there. In Los Angeles, that meant going back to Santa Monica. I never sat in my hotel room either. I’d get out and see what I could see, notice how a City put its sidewalks together, what level of care they gave to urban design and of course, the design of their street furniture.

So, if I speak in an arrogant tone at times, or come off as a know-it-all I apologize but also state that I do not speak from opinion, but from knowledge borne of research, of consultation, of reflection, writing and learning. I love Cities. I love equity and social justice too and I find Cities are where that happens best. Particularly in successful Cities that replace imports, that have a mix of different aged houses and incomes dispersed, that worked for people and not cars. I have a deep passion for the environment and a growing level of alarm about the state of Climate Change and the impacts of current systems. I believe that the answer to these issues is efficient and resilient Cities. I know I’m not alone.


Explaining the name @CityThink

Having taken a hiatus from all things political for a couple of years while I refreshed myself after dealing with a divorce, a lay-off, a frustrating job search at the height of the 08/09 recession and the slow recovery that followed, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about the name CityThink and the lucky stroke that made it my Twitter handle. I haven’t been around Twitter much – I sold cars and really didn’t want to clutter the webesphere with too many pictures and tweets about the vehicles I was selling, unless they might be of a certain appeal to urbanists. Hence, you’ll still see a few odd pictures of Hybrid and Electric Fords.

Now that I decided to stop hiding myself away from the world, to take a leap of faith, to place my trust in the wonderful ways of the universe and to take action, rather than reacting, I moved to Ottawa with the help of a friend who lives here and offered me half her tiny apartment and bed. Ahem.

I’ve started tweeting more and while the first couple of months back in action have seen some vitriolic battles of words, a few falling-outs and a ton of new and influential friends, followers and retweets, I’m really excited about being back and sharing my views. Over the last few days I’ve had a chance to be critiqued on my Tweeting style, to step back, re-examine, delete tweets, block negative trolls and cynics and generally re-learned to be more positive and realize that I do not hold a monopoly on good ideas. But perhaps people are wondering where I’ve popped-up from.

In 2006, after 7 years at Toronto City Hall, I decided to enter the world of government relations, also known to some as lobbying. It took a long period of interviewing before I was able to completely decompress from my tenure in politics – all jobs require a cooling-off period. However, I was soon in the midst of what would turn out to be a 6 month hiring process that ultimately led to the firm I’d been interviewing with to fold their municipal practice on the basis of one of my answers. Within that time though, I’d already established a g-mail account under the name , which remains my address to this day (of course.) I started working on a few writing and policy-advisory projects for a couple of clients and perhaps mistakenly in retrospect, worked for the ill-conceived Mayoral campaign of my friend and former constituent Stephen LeDrew. We had no chance against Mayor Miller who was heading into his second term after a very well run first term.

After that, I was able to secure a major client. Skymeter was so impressed by the work I’d done for them, they asked if I’d become their 4th team member, Business Development Manager for North America and represent them at the January 2007 meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington DC. Citythink would be put to bed for a while. Twitter was still in its infancy, and I certainly wasn’t using it for Business Development as much in those first days. But at some point I decided to create a Twitter account and the natural choice of course, was @Citythink, which had not yet been taken. Seeing all the urban-based Tweets, quite a stroke of luck.

Beyond wanting to create a name that represented the business I wanted to offer – City Hall government relations, it represented my fierce dedication to Urbanism and to what I then already knew would become what Brent Toderian has called ‘the Urban Century” or the “Century of Cities.” After having worked with both residents and developers, homeowners in dense neighbourhoods surrounded by vibrant commercial activity and ongoing redevelopment (at one point, I had 37 active development files to monitor in just one ward) and the neighbours of businesses abutting residential neighbourhoods who often wanted things like patios or easier access ways. I’d grown tired of the objections that many call “Nimby” but I prefer to call, being an active and engaged citizen. While I had always agreed with homeowners needs and rights to adequate public consultation, my concern about the environment, and the need to reduce our impacts and make better use of existing infrastructure, meant that I was destined to work on reducing the conflict between homeowners and their neighbours who were often companies and/or small businesses looking to do exactly what business does in a capitlist democracy. CityThink was to be the name of my business as a subtle way to remind people that they lived in a large City and that the main objective of their thinking should be to be part of a City that is growing and thriving. Having read OMB decisions and numerous Council discussion papers, I felt there was a need to bridge the gap between applicants, homeowners and tenants, and the professionals at City Hall, all of whom required some amount of cover from politicians wary of supporting difficult or unpopular actions.

I wanted to send a message about the need to consider the needs of a City of 1.5-2 Million people living on the edge of a climate crisis. We could no longer sit still, sprawl to the ends of the earth and expect to maintain our lifestyle much longer. We’d either choke to death from sprawl, strangle ourselves to economic death in traffic gridlock, or starve ourselves to death by paving over arable farmland, forcing production further and further away from markets, requiring even more carbon to be burned to feed the Big City markets. Sadly, we’re not quite there yet and many people still can’t see beyond their own self-interest.

Tonight though, I’m happy to report that I have just been reminded by former US President Bill Clinton that “Selflessness is really about selfishness if you understand how the world works.” This is exactly the point I make or try, less poetically to make every single day. This world is bigger than our self interest, its bigger than individuals and we are so interconnected that we all do better when all of us do better collectively. You’ll see more about this in recent posts.

So that’s it. It’s 2013. The Century of Cities. The continued sustenance of the human race and of the very sources of food that enable it, requires us to think about Cities and to all be CityThinkers. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about the people that might try to live where we do, 100 years from now. We’re currently not doing very well with it. So when you think of the building on the corner of your street and how tall or dense it might be, consider what stood where your house was 100 years ago, or 200 if you live in an old City. Think about how long the buildings of today will stand. Think about our growth over the past 50 years as well as the acceleration of the damage caused by the outputs of our lifestyles. And join me in CityThinking. I’ll do my best to listen.


Free isn’t Free. Mobility Needs, Rights and Privileges Pt 4

Continuing on this train of thought, building on my previous notions that transportation, its funding and pricing structures should provide the greatest benefits to the greatest number of people and ought to price higher self-actualizing behaviours on a progressive scale, I’ll turn to externalities both negative and beneficial of various transportation choices.

In terms of external costs, those of single-occupant vehicles are perhaps the most externalized with the least benefit accruing to society as a whole. The benefits of cars and personal mobility are conversely limited when we fail to put a price on the externalized costs of choice. In other words, since many of the costs are external to a driver (costs of pollution for air quality and water run-off, traffic-related policing and health-care, extra road widths to accommodate parking, poor land-use due to lack of sharp pricing signals) drivers are very much subsidized. This is compounded by the presence of flat fees associated with ownership and licensing of a vehicle. Once paid for, most users will use a good more, to get the highest return on investment possible – in terms of cars, owners want to pay the least per kilometer charge possible. While distance driven is factored into insurance pricing, it is not a very sharp or significant saver and has nothing to do with which roads are driven on, and at what time of day – which can change risk.

One of the greatest invisible subsidies involved with driving, that by Donald Shoup’s estimation accounts for anywhere from 1-4% of the US GDP, is the subsidy for parking, much of which is used for ‘free’ by drivers and absorbed by everyone else through increased prices for housing, goods and services. Shoup estimates that every single American pays something close to $3000 annually in parking subsidies. If a government suggested a program that we all pay an extra $3000 in taxes so that drivers could park for free, we’d go nuts but we actually not only live with this system, some people ferociously defend it.

Part of the problem lies with zoning codes that were largely introduced on-masse in the 1950’s and 60’s and which had compounding effects over the years, meaning that suburbs built in the 2000’s were often required to have 3-times the developable land used for parking as were for the building being built. Restaurants for instance often require 10 spaces per 1000 sq feet of dining room space. Malls are built with ‘free’ parking based on the 5th busiest traffic day of the year because the belief apparently is that every person must shop at the same time and do so while parking for free – not being able to find a space and returning at a slower time is apparently not an option in our convenience-driven culture. Paying for good access to the shop you want to go to is also apparently a price politicians don’t think people can handle, bear or see as easier to pay than the hours lost cruising for a perfect spot.

There are any number of things from a perspective of ‘common good’ outcomes that would be more appropriate for higher subsidies with respect to capacity allocation and yet we currently subsidize something that benefits those who are able to pay, at the expense of those who can’t pay. The costs associated with parking also neglect to include the opportunity costs of providing parking – we lose park space, sidewalk space, funding for transit, funding for all kinds of things so that people who can afford to own and drive a car can do it as cheaply as possible.

Certainly widespread mobility has a benefit. Neighbourhoods are more stable since people can drive to a job that isn’t well-served by transit and we can locate harmful industrial uses further away from housing. However, the vast acreage of free parking means those who can’t even afford a car are thus less mobile. This is the concept of car dependence, where price not only is a foundational block for creating car dependence but a reinforcing factor that makes other modes of transport less viable. Why would someone leave a car at home when they practically need a bus to get from the front door of their apartment building to the bus stop? So we now see, in small communities, intense buildings being built further away from road frontages and further away from convenient transit stops. Instead of building on the underused land left from the accidental result of poorly priced transportation, we compound it by still requiring loads of parking which is often free or, when priced, results in complaints about pricing and/or the act of spillover parking – the solution to ‘spillover parking’ actually makes the situation worse.

Why we still believe that central planners can dictate to a private market the provision of their goods to the market is a bit of a mystery and one that most people don’t see as inefficient. Certainly, zoning ought to ensure the rational development of lands and planning is done to mitigate the impacts of the choices that private property owners make but it ought not to ‘control the means of production’, at least not in a capitalist economy. As odd or ‘red-scare bating’ as it might sound to suggest that we have a soviet system, that is the cold and harsh truth of our transportation networks. Planners plan how much parking (bread) should be made and largely how much the price should be regardless of the laws of demand and supply. In this instance, every property owner is required to provide parking regardless of demand. While I was with the City of Toronto I had the opportunity to see how many spaces existed in Toronto, particularly in rental buildings, that had gone unused for the vast majority of time the building existed.

If tenant advocates don’t believe that parking, and particularly free visitor parking, is a part of the cost that a tenant pays as part of their lease, if parking is not an isolated, stand-alone cost based on the use of parking, then we have a difficult time in discussing anything related to rents, land-values and subsidies. Why any tenant who never has a visitor, or who has visitors who arrive on foot, or by transit, should pay a portion of the cost for the provision of 15 parking spaces required by the municipality, while not having a place to lock their bike, or a lawn on which to enjoy a sunny day because of the amount of space required for a parking stall (7 feet x 20 feet = 1400 sq feet), is beyond my reasoning. I don’t suggest that landlords will gladly forgo rent in-lieu of new parking revenues but in an open market, these types of charging systems a) should reduce rents over time and b) provide tenants with more choice in the housing market, not less.

I pick on rental apartment buildings only because this issue is currently in front of Toronto Council, at least from what I’ve seen on Social Media. I know its not easy for politicians to tell people like it is and that many people will shout that white is black, even when it’s clearly white, it’s truly sad that such a basic concept of economics as ‘there are no free lunches’ is particularly lost on a vast majority of the population. I appreciate that individuals will face hardships but public policy is NOT about the individual but rather about the collective. Some people will pay more for parking and for roads if we price the system more rationally but that shouldn’t prevent us from making changes that ensure greater efficiency and give people more choice, not less.

I left politics because I’ve always been more a policy-purist than a position-marketer. In other words, I’d rather do the right thing than stay elected or sell a spin that I know to be untrue or at the very least, a position I know to be anecdotally-based rather than science/fact-based. Some visitors will have to pay more for parking when a landlord introduces parking fees. This disregards however the unseen benefits – those who will combine visits and reduce individual trips, those who will choose transit thereby reducing traffic and the ultimate more efficient outcome of the better use of land, enabling everyone to have better mobility on our common conveyance; our feet (or mobility-aiding device.)

If tenants are going to subsidize anything, perhaps it should be taxi-trips to/from transit stops and shopping stores, or bike parking, or better access to fitness equipment. But there is no possible way any rational, honest person can suggest that free visitor parking is an appropriate good to be subsidized by poorer, lonelier tenants. That’s a flawed argument that starts and ends in one’s own wallet.

Building on utilitarian goals, that all citizens should be given the tools to succeed, its easier to start seeing that hidden subsidies for car ownership are perverse and from a fairness viewpoint, ought to be eliminated.

When we talk about intensifying existing neighbourhoods, we often neglect to look at one of the quickest ways to do it and to reverse the trends that are harming home ownership prospects and keeping the poor poorly served. That mysterious way, is to start charging for parking everywhere (except private homes) and at all times of day to start recouping the costs of parking that we all currently pay whether we acknowledge it or stick our heads in the sand. Those who would ‘hug the poor’ seem to neglect the glaring fact that the poor don’t drive and those that do, are often forced to pay a high percentage of income on an unreliable, polluting clunker because transit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure currently doesn’t present itself as a viable alternative.

Next up perhaps I’ll tackle why those who suggest that better transit is needed prior to the introduction of road pricing are wrong – mostly.


Mobility Needs, Rights and Privileges Pt 3.

Progressive forms of taxation reflect Maslow’s scale. Graduated rates of income tax, for instance, take a greater percentage of incomes earned at higher levels after basic rates are collected at lower rates. Sales taxes are less progressive but are consumption based. Excise and sin taxes, while at times seeming unfair, are largely based on choice and in capturing some form of user-based fees. Property taxes are somewhere in the middle since they are based on the value of an asset, rather than being based on impact or purely based income since the value of an asset can increase considerably giving someone a high paper wealth, if not a high income. In other words, taxes try to subsidize our basic human needs while placing higher taxes on luxury items. This seems fair unless one takes a ‘consumption view’ of basic services as we often hear argued in America, that the wealthy don’t consume any greater share of basic services.

So governments appropriately use income taxes to build systems and offer services that are used by all together, cooperatively and without any greater proportional use based on income and that offer a general benefit to all citizens. In Ontario, we all contribute towards a public health care system, for instance. We share the costs of policing rural areas of the Province and provincial highways. Natural Resources, parks and other ‘commons’ in which we all share enjoyment. It is important to distinguish between paying for infrastructure, and paying for the use of the infrastructure which helps to ensure the efficient use of that asset.

In Ontario, local property taxes are a significant part of the transportation equation since Canada lacks a national transportation vision and leaves the transportation policy and funding space largely vacant for Provinces and their incorporated municipalities. Since property taxes and City budgets are highly regulated, cities have little ability to apply rational taxes to transportation. The value of a property may change based on the amount of parking spaces but it doesn’t change based on how many of those spaces are used. Since everyone in a City benefits from a transportation system, some sharing of the costs of infrastructure regardless of the amount of direct use, is appropriate. We all eat food and the highest and best use of roads, that carries the most benefit, is for food trucks bringing goods to market, notwithstanding the unallocated external costs which form a positive subsidy for food pricing.

A purely value-based taxation system however, doesn’t do anything to assess or allocate an appropriate price or cost of behaviour. The blunt pricing of property and land-use impacts are compounded by minimum requirements for parking which have had the unintended consequence of creating poor allocation of spaces and a perverse subsidy for ‘free’ parking, road use and inefficient land-use patterns. A single-family home in a dense urban environment thus costs much less to provide services to but because it is close to amenities and surrounded by land of higher value, subject to greater zoning-speculation and the organic forces of cities, highly subject to market fluctuation and to being unaffordable except for redevelopment or for parsing into rentable spaces.

One can argue that gas taxes are more progressive than other taxes since they are more related to use. However, the gas tax is still somewhat regressive in that it is based on both choice and behaviour while being effected by fuel efficiency and vehicle maintenance. In addition, the relationship between the payment of the tax, the use of the good, its impact and the marginal cost/benefit both real and perceived and the allocation of tax revenues are very opaque and blunt. The tax is paid at the point of consumption and not at the point of use so payment and consumption is largely unrelated and compounded by use of internet banking and gas cards and mystery/confusion about which government gets what revenues to pay for which infrastructure and services. In Canada, the Federal government collects about $6.6B from Gas related taxes and the combined Provincial revenue is $8B not including provincial sales taxes which could be substantial based on individual provinces. A few Cities add a local sales tax, presumably dedicated to transit and transportation. (Vancouver, Victoria and Montreal)

Since pricing and revenue and funding of infrastructure are all so unrelated to each other in Canada, while being based on consumption, pricing changes have almost no impact on use or demand, other than those naturally felt due to the laws of demand, that as price increases, demand decreases. The relationship for gas is fairly inelastic so that there is very little drop in demand as price increases. This is in part due to lack of alternative modes of transportation that result from a poor legacy zoning/pricing policies but also due to the lack of choice provided by such poor pricing signals.

In Canada we use fare box revenues to fund public transit by a higher proportion than most other developed nations if not all. (subject to research, later editing.) We fund infrastructure through a Federal-Municipal grant agreement, through City capital budgets and debt financing, and through provincial infrastructure programs. These are among the lowest share programs and most reliant on property taxes as any in most other developed nations.

This results in a large portion of operating costs being funded by an incremental, per-trip, use-based price and resultant pricing signal for public transport, notwithstanding the availability of transit passes (though those are increasingly being used for revenue rather than for user-realized savings per-trip.) The resulting per-trip or annual pricing signal is much sharper than those of gas taxes. One pays then rides immediately instead of filling a gas tank that can be used for between 250 and 800 kilometres for trips made between 1 to 3 days and 30 or 45 days.

Most transit users, particularly of low-income, likely know exactly how much they spend on transit. Based on my own experience, I often have no idea how much I’m spending on my car though when I do work it out, I often include a per-kilometre cost, which I’m sure not many transit users can calculate. These different pricing signals make establishing understanding in transportation costs, a difficult prospect. Most people don’t know how much they pay or conversely, how much government takes-in, spends and fewer still know the external costs of their choices.

As we start to move beyond the basic construction and maintenance of infrastructure, we get into more complex arrangements and assumptions (as is natural to macro-economic discussions) and we attempt to move beyond specific, personal, anecdotal or anticipated outcomes that social science models have difficulty capturing. Often the result is unintended – as is the case with our current transportation system and he way we’ve priced it. Flat Water rates have been proven to be inefficient in regulating demand. The users subconscious thinking is that I’ve already paid for it, so I may as well use it. That system resulted in perverse subsidies, with homeowners maintaining a pool subsidized by those who’s homes have one bathroom. While we should all pay for the provision of infrastructure, in accordance with our means, we should not all pay the same amount for the use of the good that is conveyed by the infrastructure. Hence the move to Water metering to reduce system use and gain capacity.

Ontario has also recently moved towards demand-based pricing for Hydro and while this move has not been without some degree of controversy and public upset, it has meant that discussions of crises and rolling brown-outs has largely subsided in Ontario. The pricing system has worked to better allocate demand based on the cost/price of supply.

We haven’t yet gotten there with roads. I’ll try to get there in the next blog, as well as discussing the external impacts and benefits whose pricing is completely perverse in relation to the desired outcome and the efficient use of assets and capacity.


Mobility Needs, Rights and Privileges Pt 2.

Building on my contention that all humans have a basic right to walk, I’ll explore what I consider to be a hierarchy of transportation needs, rights and privileges. To my mind, privileges are those things whose enjoyment results in Maslow’s Self-actualization while rights relate to our basic physiological needs. We all need to be able to walk; our poorest citizens need to be able to walk to attend to the programs and services that sustain them and put them in a position to access higher rungs of the hierarchy of needs. Self Actualizers need to walk from where they park their car, to those places they need to go to attain higher levels of happiness and satisfaction. Recreational walking is also important to many in order to achieve higher levels of esteem. At least that’s my contention if the desired outcome is a raising degree of happiness and satisfaction – not to suggest that a Ferrari climbing a mountain road can give one that, but I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt either.

So the organization of our communities and investment in infrastructure, from a utilitarian view at least, would suggest that serving pedestrians is of the highest order, since government’s goal ought to be to create the greatest common benefit. These are the concepts of ‘highest and best use’ that frame so many public policy discussions.

When we consider the elevation of the greatest number of individuals to the highest rungs of Maslow’s pyramid, as the goal behind transportation and the provision of infrastructure, we can see the rungs of the goals of government, particularly at the local level. This is often where, whether acknowledged or subconsciously we define the difference between hard and soft services. Conservatives often argue that local governments job is to stick to the ‘hard services’ and yet fail to consider the prioritization of spending within these services.

If the right to walk satisfies our most basic ‘physiological’ need and the fulfillment granted by employment falls within the second level of happiness grouped as ‘safety’, giving our walk an objective, then enabling people to live far away from employment and to drive a personal conveyance to that source of employment which grants a higher level of ‘esteem’ ought to rank fairly low on the hierarchy of municipal spending.

When we consider spending priorities from this perspective, funding of cycling infrastructure ought to be considered of similar importance to that for public transit, since the environmental impacts of cycling are still much lower than public transit, which when run efficiently (ie, not including buses stopping in intermingled traffic) have lower impacts than individual cars. And conversely the pricing of these choices ought to reflect their higher per-need-satisfying cost.

One can argue for hours on end as to how to apply taxation to a collective in order to achieve the greatest results. Some will argue that less taxation and intervention create the best results and that markets have a way of sorting themselves out and those are valid arguments. Others view the degree of flaws and faults in markets as higher and more in need of correction and regulation and hold varying degrees of skepticism about the laws of economics and its inability to capture the full, if unintended consequences of policy both of intervention and non-intervention and there are acknowledged flaws about the inability of social scientists to build accurate models and to test theory – there are too many variables and uncontrollable factors.

I set aside these arguments because one man’s Ford fiesta is another person’s Hummer. We can consider the benefits and objective goals of making government decisions to enhance mobility which results in a greater number of people achieving higher levels of satisfaction, while ensuring all people have the same best basic rights and infrastructure. I don’t believe that providing great and wide sidewalks is a drag on an economy if those sidewalks are used. However, the same wide and great sidewalks would be greatly underused in suburban neighbourhoods, at least given our current development patterns in North America as dominated as they are by 8 parking spaces for every 1 car.

I hope this train of thought is logical. I acknowledge that I do make some assumptions and set aside rather large factors and likely leave thought-strings open for consideration and further discussion. In essence I am building a stage to argue that our current system is largely a result of accidents, of carry-forward budgets, of assumptions made previously that have since proven wrong and that collectively our objectives in transportation construction, financing, operating funding and pricing ought to reflect more closely, a rights and privilege-based system. Doing so I argue, would result in better outcomes for communities, neighbourhoods, cities and our environment.

There’s more to follow on this line of thought as I move up the ladder of need and how to create higher levels of personal satisfaction through public policy. For those thinking I’m simply advocating against cars I’ll remind readers that I actually love cars, love their design and love the mobility that they DO provide notwithstanding the physical barriers we’ve created by misallocating land for their driving and storage and the dependency that creates. What I hope for is equitable transportation options and pricing that better reflect the external impacts of personal choices. I seek better outcomes for all citizens and society and a transportation system that serves all users for the least amount of investment possible.

I also point to recent efforts of economists to include ‘happiness’ within measures of Gross National Product which often doesn’t reflect such subjective measures of the success of a nation. Interestingly, societies that enjoy less wealth often hold higher ‘happiness’ ratings – things don’t make us happy and very often, thriving, stretching and reaching and the public pressures of attainment can make people very unhappy. In transportation, while I am happy when I have access to a car, I’m freed of a lot of stress and financial strain when I don’t own one and feel inherently better about my own ‘footprint.’ Happiness doesn’t necessarily come with higher insurance premiums, a red paint job or a drop-top.

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