Toronto, We Have an Über-Problem

An illustration picture shows the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign

An illustration picture shows the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign

Über is the only game in town when it comes to ridesharing applications.  Hailo left town several weeks ago. Now that the City of Toronto wants to take Über to court over its operation, I wonder if closing its operations based on financial difficulties was the real reason.  It seems very timely.

This is not the first time Über run into trouble with other cities.  Administrative courts in Hamburg and Berlin decided to uphold the ban on the company because its drivers “lacked commercial licences to charge passengers for rides.”  The Toronto court challenge is based on safety concerns, which the German courts also mention.  Other cities like Paris, Seattle and Chicago are also taking the taxi app company to court.  Also taxi companies are protesting against Uber

We are at a crossroads between innovation and regulations.

I was at an Institute of Public Administration (IPAC) event on Social Innovation with Paul MacMillan presenting points from his book “The Solution Revolution.”  In his presentation, a graph was shown where consumer demand was increasing more than government action creating an ever increasing gap.  Social enterprise companies like Kiva, Hailo, Über and more recently, Line Six or Bridj in Boston are filling the void.  Social enterprise applies commercial strategies to improve the well being of consumers instead of profit maximization.

Ian Black from Über Toronto was at #innov8TO, an event discussion the latest in tech innovation.   Black was on CBC’s Metro Morning on November 10 explaining what UberX is and the regulation of ridesharing. Black responded to Toronto’s court injunction last night on CP24:

http://www.cp24.com/video?clipId=494185&binId=1.1127680&playlistPageNum=1

In this Forbes article from last month, Über might have precedent on its side.  Christian Sammito, who teaches legal history at Boston University, referred to a Supreme Court case from 1837 where a private company wanted to build a toll bridge which went against a Charter for another bridge located several hundred metres away.  Economic development was the reason the operators of the original toll bridge lost its case.  While the Divisional Court may not use this as an example for Uber’s existence, it is relevant.  Innovations causes disruptions.  Quoting Sammito:

The lawsuits and demonstrations against Uber remind us of the strains innovation can create for some people. The technology that creates a new job opportunity – driving a car through Uber – also challenges the monopoly of taxicab medallions and stands to transform that industry.

We are in a challenging time.  Consumers are frustrated at the pace governments are delivering services.  All levels of government must look to innovate to drive improvements to our infrastructure, transportation network and other services.  Cities are becoming the hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship says Bob Graves from Governing Magazine.  These are the creative cities that Richard Florida has spoke of for almost two decades.

Mayor-elect John Tory supports the continued operation of Über.  It is a complete waste of time and money to have to go through the court system to regulate the taxi app company. Über has already self regulated itself with personal vehicle owners who use ÜberX.  Reading several tweets from some Toronto councillors who don’t support Über are fearful of change and I would go so far as to equate them with climate change deniers.  Let’s all think about that for a moment.

Canada used to be at the forefront of innovation and now we have fallen severely behind.  These innovators are loudly knocking at the door.  Consumers are desperate for change.  Let’s settle this debate at Council and set some policy standards as well as be leaders in tech and innovation instead of being the dinosaurs.

My Own Conundrum: Does the planning profession in Canada reflect my interests?

For the last few months, I have been deliberating on renewing my planning membership.  Although I already visited the OPPI website several weeks ago to check how much it would cost, I received the e-mail reminder to renew.  Being a full member costs $727.40 and a non-practicing member is $270.87 with insurance and $233.85 without insurance. Considering that I am currently not working in the profession, the latter would apply.  Compare that with maintaining a professional engineering licence,  it costs $248.60.

Over the years, I staunchly defended the planning profession within my blog posts.  My confidence has waned considerably.  planningjournos

I looked to a recent post by Charles Marohn titled The AICP Renewal Conundrum.  I reposted it in various social media platforms with minimal.  His post mentioned several “rewards” of being a member of the American Planning Association.  Some of those points mentioned are relevant being a Canadian planner.

  1. Publications.  The CIP and OPPI Planning Journals are only sent to me as part of my membership.  I always wondered why members need both an online and printed version.  Kinda redundant huh?
  2. Certification.  I’ve already mentioned about the cost.  But as a fellow professional member pointed out, the only benefit would be if a professional planner had to appear before a board, like the Ontario Municipal Board.  Having worked in the United States, several coworkers were not certified planners.  Having reviewed many of the job postings, certification is not mandatory.  Just an undergraduate or graduate degree sufficed.  I agree with Charles that there isn’t much prestige in being a professional planner.  It kind of reminds me of this survey done by the Ted Rogers School of Management where politicians are the least trustworthy.
  3. Membership Directory There is no value in an excel spreadsheet of listed planners when all I need is to visit LinkedIn or Twitter.  You have to be a member to see this list as well as the job postings.  At APPI and other provincial chapters, you do not.  I don’t see the benefit of a paywall for either.
  4. Education Opportunities.  Other than the occasional event where planners can obtain professional credits, the same courses are offered in rotation.

But there is one area of interest that Charles mentioned – Divisions.  The American Planning Association offers its members an opportunity to join a division. OPPI has chapters based on jurisdictional boundaries. The Canadian Institute of Planning does not offer divisions and I believe they should.  Hear me out.

CIP is going through a major revamp starting with its name changing it from Canadian Institute of Planners to Canadian Institute of Planning.  I also looked at their Strategic Plan 2012-15.  Nowhere does it mention the social challenges the planning profession must address.  flemingdonpark___Content

During this last municipal election, voters continued the trend of voting for familiar incumbents rather than those contenders who best represented their communities.  Ryerson Professor Myer Siemiatycki called this the Diversity Gap in a 2011 report. Race and gender are issues within the planning community, especially in our major cities.  There is a very small sample size of planners that work on project that represent their communities.  Sure planners rely on community engagement and input, but there are trust is involved.

Other than an article I wrote in the OPPI Journal on Reverse Commuting and Spatial Mismatch in 2005, there have been a handful of articles on race and gender in planning.  The most recent article was one year ago by Sandeep Agrawal, a former professor of mine from Ryerson.

I have attached a video of Rodney Harrell from the 2012 APA conference discussing race, class and age and the tools planners need to address diverse needs:

Are we having these types of discussions in the profession?

The American Planning Association has divisions that represent Black, Latino and LGBQT communities.  CIP only has an Indigenous Division.  If the planning profession is going to be inclusive and truly representative, then diverse communities should be represented.

My experience has also included policy and legislative updates from not only APA but as well as from the state chapters.  OPPI and APPI have not provided updates on their advocacy efforts with our civic, provincial and federal leaders.  If planning and politics are strange bedfellows, then we need to be sleeping in the same bed.

How is the profession representing our interests?  Has the profession been challenged enough and is it really reflecting current trends? Are planners of visible minorities or gender classifications effectively represented in the profession? Members need to ask themselves those questions.  I have over a month to decide whether I retain my membership or not based on these questions I posed.

Thoughts from the municipal elections and beyond.

It has been over two weeks since the municipal elections have been over.  It was a fun ride while it lasted.

As many of you know, I supported David Soknacki until he bowed out in September.  But I managed to take a part in several other campaigns.  During this time, I met many wonderful people from the volunteers I worked with, to the members of the mainstream media, and to the people I knocked on doors with.

This was the first time I participated in a political campaign.

Prior to that my experiences at political events were minimal. I was part of a bus trip to Montreal to help support the NO camp during the 1995 Quebec referendum and partook in a couple of Liberal party events in Edmonton and in Brampton.  I can’t also forget my experience in Los Angeles during the 2008 California Democratic Party Primaries where I was invited to celebrate with Barack Obama supporters.  That night Obama lost California to Hillary Clinton.  If you ever take part in the primaries, it is an experience like no other.

Lessons learned

After the municipal election, Royson James wrote a post-mortem on why progressive candidates lost.  Although two points resonated with me.  James said:

Name recognition is still a powerful election weapon.

Unless you are backed by a political party, have long and deep roots with a community association, and take a year off without pay to campaign while the incumbent continues the self-promotion while being paid, and, finally, are able to have almost all the challengers give up their ambitions and join your campaign — try provincial or federal politics.

Here is a third.  Promoting yourself over social media doesn’t do jack!   Social media is a powerful communication tool.  I used it to promote candidates or even debunk what other candidates have said.  It didn’t work as many progressive candidates failed to resonate with voters.  It proved Royson was right in the two aforementioned points.

And a fourth.  Torontonians are just too nice.  I provided advice to one of the challengers I was working with and to differentiate himself with the incumbent based on his voting record.  Sadly, going negative just seemed to be a no-no.

I spoke with former and current councillors after the election to get their thoughts.  One mentioned that if I am not one of two ethnicities, I should not even bother running.  He suggested I run in another ward, which leads me to a pet peeve.  I am appalled by candidates who campaign on the notion that they live in the ward.  He agreed.  You can represent the ward from wherever you are, as long as you are listening, communicating and working to represent the interests of the constituents.

The next four years and beyond…

I have plenty to think about.  While I am continuing to push forward in advocating for urban social issues and transportation,  I will be looking to volunteer within the community and serve on boards to better prepare myself for the eventuality that I may put my hat into the ring.

In the meantime, gathering with other progressive minded people with in the cities is something that should be considered. Brainstorm and develop strategies in order to think about getting elected in four years time.   Even if some do not think about becoming a candidate, it is good to have the discussion.  At first, I was leaning towards a group similar to the “Responsible Government Group” that got Karen Stintz elected in 2009.  But the person leading this group should have some financial backing alongside plenty of community support.

Although ranked ballots are well on its way for the 2018 candidates, and I am supportive of the initiative, I am wondering how many voters will look past incumbents?  Name recognition will still be a deciding factor for voters.

I am suggesting the municipal electoral system move towards a parties similar to that in Vancouver.  But some questions remain.  Can a party system work with the current ward system or does it become at-large voting for 44 candidates?  Could this type of system eliminate the downtown versus suburbs conundrum that has plagued the last two municipal elections?  Would this advocate for a strong mayor system like that of Calgary?

I hope to have an answer in three years time.

Enough is enough. SmartTrack is a big marketing flop.

It is time I addressed John Tory’s Smart Track.

John Tory may win the Toronto election based on other ideas and the ability to have a consistent message.  But with the biggest issue being transit, I don’t know how someone can make claims simply based on selling this idea as bold and finally getting to yes.  I agree that the region is far behind in transit planning.  I have been extremely frustrated myself.  Financing SmartTrack using tax increment financing, which was low on Metrolinx’s Investment Strategy and within the Transit Panel goes to show that his team will do anything to sell ideas on a tired and frustrated, yet naive public wanting transit to be built now.

The voters already know there are deep concerns with large infrastructure projects being financed by this mechanism.  San Diego and Brooklyn’s Hudson Yards have been known failures.

I will throw out another quote which stemmed from the Edmonton arena debate.  TIF, which was aptly named a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) was addressed by then Councillor (now Mayor) Don Iveson in 2013:

..the success of the CRL is contingent on the surrounding development going ahead, and I will say that if the surrounding development does go ahead, this will all work out.

But there is a bet here – because if the development doesn’t go ahead then regular taxpayers will wind up on the hook. So that billion plus dollars better be invested tomorrow.

Iveson was one of several councillors who voted against the CRL.

Edmonton isn’t exactly a hotbed for development.  So there is even a greater risk there.  The Rogers Arena will go ahead as planned and be built by 2016.  But will the financing be there?  The risk will be there.  Truth be told, this is a low risk politically but there are plenty of unknowns.

The Tory campaign has laid off showing the map because of its structural flaws, but also its references to Stapleton Airport’s TIF.  Even the right wing think tank Cato Institute has some serious concerns about TIF funding large infrastructure projects. TIF in the United States has been used to redevelop blighted neighbourhoods.  This is a known fact.  Some of the questions I would have as a concerned resident of eastern Toronto (refuse to say Scarborough) looking for immediate transit relief would be:

  • Which areas along the SmartTrack corridor are blighted?
  • Who will be displaced?
  • Will there be any upzoning and rezoning of industrial lands? Where will those jobs go?
  • What will be the financial risk to developers if this financing plan goes ahead?
  • Why haven’t other revenue tools been addressed to fund SmartTrack and where is the financing plan?

This should not be about favouring one transit mode or another nor is it about not taking risks.  GTA’ers, not just Torontonians, want a viable transit plan with the financial certainties.  This is what the Big Move and the Investment Strategy were all about.  This is the plan what we should be moving forward with.

Metrolinx is already studying the operational feasibility of a Regional Rail service. But does eastern Toronto deserve faster service over the regional GO Lakeshore Line?  Does Eastern Toronto deserve better service than the transit ghetto of Northwestern Toronto, better known as Rexdale? This is just merely playing politics where the Fords controlled the message and the Liberals won on during the by-election.

It should be the collective leadership of Toronto and the other cities and regions, as well as the province to come up with the best financing plan possible.  Not something that has low political risk that can get you easily elected.  Leadership is about taking risks.  SmartTrack is a plan that’s setting up as a leadership fail.  It is also just a big marketing flop.

The Urban Strategist Reinvented

Yes I know.  I haven’t kept up my blog posts for some time now.  The world has been reading my older posts and have been waiting on baited breath for my next post to arrive.  Ok, well not baited breath. But I’m sure you’ve all been waiting nevertheless. 

Times have changed.  So here’s the story!

I was at a crossroads in what to do with my career and this blog. I am a professional urban planner with a background in transit planning.  You were all aware of that.  But some were probably not aware of my burning desire for politics, policy and advocacy.  

You see, many urban planners are technicians.  Just like engineers, planners speak a certain language. Sometime they bicker but eventually come to a compromise.  I had proudly defended the planning profession in the work I did.  I just knew something was missing.  Something was held up inside of me.  Something just wasn’t right.  

Several months ago, I met with a friend for coffee and realized something needed to change.  I had a negative attitude, not confident, depressed, anxious and was extremely frustrated. My business was a failure. My long term relationship had ended. I was asking for advice from others who really didn’t know me. I was confused and didn’t have the answers. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do.  I hadn’t had a job interview in several months. I needed a change fast.  

I learned a lot about myself during a leadership course I completed while in Edmonton. I read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. I had bought What colour Is Your Parachute, but was not fully engaged in the exercises?  I resorted to the True Colours Test as an answer to my problems within my career.  I still felt all the questions weren’t answered and my attitudes were still present.

My friend advised me to see a career coach to get back on track.  It took me several weeks to let it sink in.  After some research I found one within proximity.

I went into the coaching sessions with an open mind.  I learned about animal resemblances, stress management and HeartMath techniques.  I’m not going to elaborate on all of these to bore you.  What I learned was that I wasn’t really being me.  Which career paths suited me?  

In the midst of these sessions, I had lectured a second year geography class on transportation policy. I was in my element.  I taught a 90 minute class with ease.  So I know teaching was something I enjoyed.  

Many of my colleagues at my previous jobs knew I had a penchant and a desire to get into politics. Debates always happened at work. I even was cocky enough to say that I would defeat someone if him and I ever ran against each other for office.  I always wanted to run for office but didn’t want to do it until the time was right.  My ex-girlfriend didn’t want me to get into politics because she saw all the attention Rob Ford was receiving, albeit for the wrong reasons.   She was holding me back and I convinced myself this wasn’t the direction I should be going. I realized I let other people control my life.  I needed guidance to get me back on track. Another career path solved.  Now I am working to get myself into a government relations or public affairs career.  This has started by involving myself with the Soknacki for Mayor campaign.  Even at a recent event, another colleague of mine texted me afterwards and said she also noticed I was in my element.  

Finally, it was about regaining the confidence I once had.  Learning to think positively was critical.  Many of us always revert to the negative because it is easy to deflect attention away from yourself by putting down someone else and in turn making yourself feel good.  I have begun to train myself to think in a more positive light by re-reading written communication or taking a step back and rephrasing how I want messages to come out verbally.  

So what happens now with my planning career?  I am gracious for what I had learned and able to apply professionally.  Going through several interviews or not even receiving any, I had come to the realization that the planning profession isn’t for me. I had become really frustrated with technical work and mundane number crunching.   My interests now lie in urban affairs, advocacy, policy communications and networking.  What I will do with my professional planning designation is still unclear at this point and I don’t have to make a decision for another three months. 

I have decided to pick up where I left off by reading “If Mayors Ruled the World” and maybe I will re-read “The Element” afterwards for good measure.  I just finished reading David & Goliath and learned some valuable lessons which could be applicable in my career.  

So from now on, much of what I write in this blog will have less urban planning content and more about general policy issues. 

The only way is to go up from here.  Nothing is insurmountable.  The journey has begun and I am looking forward to seeing where I end up.  

 

 

 

Random thoughts…

1. Redesigning our gas stations

wpid-20140607_185202-1.jpg

 

While there are very few remaining single bay, mostly self-serve gas stations in Toronto, the standard multiple bay gas stations have been around for decades.  The footprint at these gas stations are quite extensive.  Sometimes they take so much space, bus stop locations are not placed in ideal locations because automobile access is necessary.  Take for instance this photo taken at the Petro Canada Gas Station located at southwest corner of Jane Street & Finch Avenue in Northwestern Toronto.

 

wpid-20140501_141827.jpg

A near side stop on Finch Avenue in the eastbound direction is not placed because of access to the plaza and the gas station, therefore a far side stop is necessary.  At Jane Street in the southbound direction several metres south of the intersection making eastbound to southbound transfers not ideal.   The reason why a larger footprint is necessary for this location is because it is located close to an industrial area and larger trucks would require access.

But it got me thinking, what if gas stations were turned from this:

wpid-img_20140606_143014-1.jpg

to this…

Sidewalk gas station in Europe

Sidewalk gas stations are located in urbanized areas across Europe and in some parts of South America.  Where retail is a separate use at North American gas stations, these European locations are incorporated in ground floor retail.

With this image, a cyclist can easily and safely get air to pump their tires.  Normally air pumps are located at the back of the station away from street and cyclist compete with cars.

Given space is becoming limited particularly in the downtown core, it is time planners take a hard look at incorporating on street gas pumps with ground floor retail being incorporated.  Do you think these gas station designs can work in neighbourhoods such as Liberty Village, Leslieville or Garrison Point?

2. Transit maps reimagined

As TTC is preparing to release its new system map in time for the Spadina Subway extension to Vaughan in 2016, it still runs the same mistake of separating modes by different colours.  While the various streetcar routes operate in mixed traffic, the TTC has three new LRT type routes that operate in exclusive rights-of way with signal priority – Spadina (510), Harbourfront (509) and St. Clair (512) .  While this is deemed rapid transit, the TTC does not portray it as such on its transit maps.

Courtesy of TTC
Courtesy of TTC

While the new TTC system map is focused on distinguishing service levels as explained here, the streetcar and LRT routes are treated the same.

Given the current debate of subways versus LRT is crippling Toronto in progressing towards viable transit options, TTC is definitely at fault here.  As I have experienced working in transit agencies, business development and marketing is an afterthought to transit planners, who are predominantly engineers.

My suggestions are:

  1. Change the rapid transit system maps to reflect the LRT service.
  2.  Separate the Harbourfront, Spadina and St. Clair routes from the streetcar routes on the system map with different colours.
  3. As with other transit systems, namely in Brampton, Mississauga, York Region and Durham Region, rename the routes and recolour the vehicles away from the TTC red. The new LRVs will be in operation on Spadina later this year.  Nevertheless, this re-imaging would go a long way.  Understandably a marketing study would be required that would cost several thousands of dollars.  Isn’t repairing customer service a priority for the TTC?

3. A new regional governance structure is necessary for the Greater Toronto Area

I spoke with several urban policy leaders several weeks ago regarding the need to develop a new regional governance structure beyond what currently exists.  While I commend the  Neptis Foundation recently released a report on seamless travel within the GTHA, I believe we can go a step further.

While regional governments in Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa were abolished to create megacity structures at the turn of the century, regional municipalities that were established in the 1950s still remain.  I strongly believe the old regional municipalities model should be eliminated and develop a regional governance structure.  Geographic boundaries and political makeup would have to be determined by the cities and province.  This idea had already been floated in the Golden Report in 1996.

Economic development, infrastructure and transit are very critical to cities, let alone regions. While there are separate agreements for hard services between cities and regions are made, soft services such as governance, health, and emergency services are equally as important and require collaboration.  For example, suburban poverty and affordable housing are looming issues.  These are not Toronto specific issues, but issues in both cities and suburbs.

While policy isn’t sexy enough for voters, it was important to get the message out that it is necessary moving forward. During the provincial election campaign, uploading of rapid transit to the province has been raised by the Progressive Conservatives as part of their Great Cities election platform.  While I generally disagree with anything on the right side of the political spectrum including the majority of their plan, I do agree with this idea for transit except that it should be a regional special purpose body structure with funding tied to it, similar to Translink in the Metro Vancouver.

In The Metropolitan Revolution and If Mayors Ruled the World, the authors outline the importance of cities on the world stage while downplaying the importance of senior levels of governments to accomplish anything.  In the GTAs case, instead of cities competing with each other, city leaders should be collaborating as a region to not only promote, but also to bring new companies to the area.

Unfortunately, populism is a dominant force in the Toronto area.  A recent example of this was at the 8-80 Cities talk with Charles Montgomery promoting his book The Happy City.  A question from Linda Weichel from Civic Action  was posed to the mayoral candidates Bonnie Crombie, Olivia Chow and Fred Eisenberger in how would we pay for building future transit infrastructure.  While Chow and Crombie passed the buck to the province, Eisenberger rightfully stated that we cannot continue to pass the buck and revenue tools are on the table.  While these are only campaign promises, leadership is about taking risks instead of being the popular kid in school just to make friends.  A regional structure would bring light to the importance of revenue tools to building new transportation infrastructure.