Monday, 7 November 2011

The Two Solitudes

The Public Works and Infrastructure Committee might be the most spiteful and rancorous at City Hall. Chaired by Denzil Minnan-Wong, the committee has so far featured surprise motions on the Fort York Bridge, Jarvis Bike Lanes and Yonge-Dundas pedestrian scramble. 

The disputes between the left-wing councillors, Gord Perks and Mike Layton, and the Ford allies, Minnan-Wong, David Shiner, John Parker and Mark Grimes, have been strong and frequent.

Thursday was shaping up to be different. With four major items on the agenda, it looked like consensus might be found on each of them. But when it got down to details, problems arose:

·         On a motion to put in separated bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide, Adam Vaughan requested research to be done on making the streets two-way so as to avoid congestion from constantly circling the block. He was concerned that with the number of developments and parking garages he was familiar with in the corridor, feasibility and implementation needed further study. Vaughan’s request did not pass.

·         Shiner introduced a motion forbidding dwelling on a sidewalk or street, ostensibly a downtown issue. Perks amended it (which Shiner supported) to incorporate this with the Streets to Homes program. In effect, the bylaw had no change whatsoever, as the existing law forbade obstructing sidewalks or streets and transitioned individuals to Streets to Homes. Now, rather than proving 'obstruction' police will have to prove 'dwelling' in order to move homeless people. More on this at Inside Toronto.

·         Shiner introduced a motion to ban ‘things’ from being locked to post and ring locks, streetlights, bus shelters and other street furniture for more than 24 hours. Layton objected to this, pointing out that it would make it a crime for bicycles to be locked to anything but post and ring locks and those only account for 5% of bike parking. Shiner was not amenable to Layton’s amendment to exclude bikes, reasoning that they should not be allowed to lock onto bus shelters. More on this at Torontoist. 

·         On the Fort York Bridge item, Shiner and Layton had worked closely to bring it to committee. At the last minute, Minnan-Wong introduced a motion that would send it to the executive committee, stipulate that the bridge use ‘as little debt as possible’ and look at selling 53 Strachan Ave. to pay for the bridge, which includes a community garden and shelter. The amendment failed and the bridge passed. More on this at Ford For Toronto.

Each of these items has a common theme, and it’s a failure to communicate. During the campaign a refrain heard often was that downtown just doesn’t understand the suburbs. To an extent, it’s true. There are very different needs and ways of living downtown and in the inner suburbs and the two probably don’t appreciate the differences as much as they should.
It would be nice if that would change easily, but people have lives to live and jobs to work. 

But for city councillors, this kind of understanding is their job. It’s their job to extend empathy and intellectual understanding to what makes various communities work and identify how exceptions should be carved out to ensure needs are taken into account. Just like downtown councillors can’t impose one-size-fits-all solutions on the inner suburbs, the inner suburbs should not do that to the downtown area.

So when a law comes up that completely ignores the impact it will have on bicycles, that’s a failure to understand that bikes are a common mode of transportation downtown and finding appropriate parking can be tough (Only 5-10% of bikes are parked using post and ring locks).  
It’s a failure that extends to the other issues. 

When Minnan-Wong suggested selling 53 Strachan to help pay for the bridge in addition to using Section 37 money, he didn’t know what the local consequences were. Layton picked up on this and asked , ‘what’s on this property?’ To which the Chair responsded, ‘some buildings and land.’ This vague non-answer highlights the lack of connection Minnan-Wong has to the area, including the community garden and successful shelter that are on it. He eventually withdrew the 53 Strachan portion of the motion, leaving it to be sent to the executive committee that has no connection to downtown.

For the bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide, they’re likely a genuine effort by Minnan-Wong to improve cycling infrastructure. However, he also genuinely lacks the knowledge of the area to appreciate the complications that come with his plan. When Vaughan offered to slow down the process to study the option of making Richmond and Adelaide two-way streets, Minnan-Wong dismissed it out of hand. Vaughan offered a detailed development map, knowledge gleaned from campaigning in the area twice and working there for years, but this did not matter. Minnan-Wong has a plan to foist on the downtown core, and things like consultation won’t stop him.

This is how we have Toronto’s two solitudes, through a failure to communicate and a lack of understanding of the needs and desires of local constituencies. It’s a failure that was cited as an indictment of the Miller administration by the current mayor’s inner circle, but it’s one that continues to this day. And it’s a big problem. Successful governance isn’t based on spite; it’s a two-way street.  

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