How do you solve a problem like congestion?

Here are four things that I know about congestion in Toronto:

  • First, congestion is a problem. We hear over and over again that billions of dollars are lost annually as a result. Whether that number is true or not, we can certainly see that it exists.  
  • Second, congestion is created/worsened by vehicles that block traffic lanes regardless of posted no parking/standing/stopping signs.
  • Third, a lot of these vehicles are either delivery trucks or associated with our booming construction industry.
  • Finally, as much as our politicians make noise about the cost of congestion and vow to ‘keep Toronto moving’, this problem isn’t getting any better.

Press conferences and photo ops are lovely, but if we really want to make a dent in this problem, it’s time to start taking action. Real action, that is, beyond the occasional blitz.

But here’s the thing — even if Toronto Parking Enforcement were given a mandate to get serious about writing these tickets, the delivery firms and contractors are conditioned to treat them as just a cost of doing business. Sometimes, they pay them. Other times, they get them tossed in court or find a way to have them cancelled. And at no time does the behaviour change.

So, what to do, Sean? What’s your solution? Well, since you asked…

There’s this idea that I’ve been advocating for years when it comes to suspensions in sports. A hockey team dresses 18 skaters for each game. If one of those players goes and plows someone into the boards from behind, they might get kicked out of the game, possibly fined, and perhaps even suspended for a handful of games. That hurts their team, since they lose access to that player, but it’s a limited impact because they just slot another player into that spot in the lineup.

What if, instead, they didn’t get to replace that player in the lineup? What if for those four games the player’s suspended, the team was only allowed to dress 17 skaters? Maybe not a big deal for one game, but it’s going to take a toll on everyone else if they have to pick up the slack over a longer period of time. Peer pressure starts to come into play. The pain of the infraction is being felt more broadly, and the player’s teammates and their coach are likely to suggest strongly that they not play like such an idiot in the future.

What does this have to do with parking? Well, if ticketing the people directly committing the infractions isn’t achieving the desired effect, maybe it’s time to give Toronto Parking Enforcement and bylaw enforcement officers the power to punish the people benefitting from the misbehaviour.

Example 1: Every condo construction project in the city goes through a lengthy approval process, full of zoning variances and building permits and site plans. Implicit in all that is that while construction is ongoing, the builder is going to conform to all applicable laws; noise bylaws, for example. Violate those laws and you’ll get a warning or a fine (not nearly often enough, of course, but that’s a separate diatribe). So why doesn’t that obligation to obey the law extend beyond the building site itself, to the people who are servicing the project? If the dump trucks are going to line up and block Yonge Street during rush hour while they wait their turn to get on site, then write the driver a ticket, sure. But write the contractor one, too. Heck, write the developer one.

Or, and bear with me here, maybe shut the site down for the day. And if it happens again, shut the site down for two days, and so on.

No, I’m not even kidding. Do it just once, and it’d send shockwaves through the development community. You don’t have to play the big club every round — it’s enough for them just to know it’s in your bag.

Example 2: Every weekday, there are trucks lined up along Adelaide Street West during morning rush hour, waiting to get into the loading docks at First Canadian Place. They hit the daily double, because they’re both illegally stopped in general and they’re blocking the bike lane. Again, write the driver a ticket, sure. But let’s try something stronger. Take a big-ass tow truck, hook it up, and impound the truck. And while you’re at it, ticket the businesses to which they’re delivering. Ticket the building property management company.

Or, and again, bear with me here — why not force the building to keep their loading dock closed during the hours when it’s illegal to have the trucks staging outside? Under the current setup, the building is basically facilitating the delivery companies breaking the law.

It’s simple, really. If we truly believe that congestion is a problem, then we need new ways to solve it, ’cause the current ones aren’t cutting it. And if we’re all suffering these huge financial costs due to lost time and productivity, then maybe we need to start offsetting those costs out of the pockets of the people who are benefitting from the status quo.

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The power of music

You’re only as old as you feel. That’s the expression, right? That’s a thing that people say?

Last weekend, I went out on Saturday night. On Queen Street West. To hear live music. At a club.

That’s a very strange combination of words for me. I’m a 47-year-old man who’s spent most of my life living more like an 80-year-old. The last time I was in a club on Queen West, it was an intimate little CD release with about 70 people in attendance. I’m pretty sure it was on a weeknight. I’ve very sure it was over and I was on the way home already long before 11.

This time, I wasn’t even getting to The Horseshoe until 10:30, to see an act that wasn’t starting its set until 11:30. I haven’t been in The Horseshoe since I can’t even remember when. And when did they add the A&W glory hole beside the bar? It’s kind of amazing, or it would be if it were something better than A&W.

But you see, when you’re a 47-year-old shut-in, going to The Horseshoe at 10:30 on a Saturday night is the sort of thing you do for an old friend, and Michael is an old friend. I don’t mean that he’s old chronologically, although, yeah, that too. I mean that, post-university, Michael is probably my longest-standing friend. For more than two decades now, Michael and I (and our friend Bonnie) have been getting together for dinner every single month, like clockwork. Michael is an old friend. And he’s had a hell of a life. A great career, that he walked away from to chase a passion, which turned into another great career. A 40+ year marriage — no, a partnership — and three kids (one of whom, if you’ve ever been on the internet before, you probably already know) who turned into pretty awesome adults.

The baby of the family is son Zach, who’s a musician. Apart from being a part of one of Toronto’s most in-demand formal occasion bands, he’s also the bassist in a group called Weaves. Which is why I found myself arriving at The Horseshoe at 10:30 on a Saturday night. The show was the release party for their first full-length LP, appropriately titled “Weaves”.

You know how there’s a moment for a band? A moment where they’re starting to develop some momentum, some critical buzz? A moment where they’re not widely known, but those who do know know that they’re in on the ground floor of something special? Where when they play live, there’s something just hanging in the room that you can almost reach out and touch? Now, I don’t pretend to be a music critic, or a seer, but for my money Weaves is at that moment. Right now. Last Saturday night.

Look, again, I’m 47 years old. I’ve become a person who doesn’t listen to new music, unless I’m in a rental car on a trip for work or I happen to have it foisted upon me at karaoke. The last time I was buying new music regularly, Carlos Santana was probably playing guitar on Rob Thomas’ love song to his wife. The Dixie Chicks were several years from being shunned. Ja Rule was just entering his Pitbull v1.0 phase.

All of which is to say that there’s no earthly reason why I should like Weaves. They’re most often described as “alt-punk”, which I believe is French for “get off my damn lawn”. Their songs are unconventional and challenging, like Jackson Pollock canvases of sound. I’m used to albums that are streetcar rides, bumpy at times, but ultimately rolling along a set of tracks to the destination you knew they were headed to when you got on. “Weaves” is… well, “Weaves” is the 1:30 AM Yonge bus from Bloor, when the subway’s down, and you don’t know if they’re serving the local stops or not, and the guy across from you looks like he might turn the aisle into a vodka-and-Red-Bull biohazard, and… oh, hey, how’d we get to Eglinton already? Which, incidentally, is also a pretty good description of my trip home from the show.

There’s no earthly reason why I should like Weaves, or “Weaves”. And I don’t — I love them. I haven’t felt that charged up after hearing a band play in forever. I say this not because Michael is one of my oldest friends, or because I remember when Zach was just a rugrat with his arm in a black cast in my living room, and now he’s a grown-ass man realizing his dreams. And I say this not because, like some excellent bands before them, they managed to find a way to make a Beatles’ song listenable. I say it because I bought the CD at the show, even though I have Spotify on every electronic device and who needs physical media anymore. I say it because I listened to the album at least once a day at work for the week afterward. I say it because I playlisted the concert in order to recreate it for my wife on Tuesday night.

I didn’t get home that Saturday night (Sunday morning) until close to 2 AM, and I wasn’t able to wind down and get into bed until well after 3. It’s many days later as I write this, and I can still feel the tweak in my throat from bar-loud-talking. I was still dragging just that little bit from getting into bed hours later than usual, five days later.

But you’re only as old as you feel. And if it’s possible to feel simultaneously 24 again and every bit of my 47 years and then some, well that’s how old I am right now. Which seems like it’d average out much younger than normal, if only for a little while. So thanks for that, Weaves. That’s the power of music.

Do you wanna play some foosball? (Updated with correct photo)

If you joined us at last week’s Movember Challenge Karaoke event — and, if you didn’t, why the heck not — you would have heard the news that we’re going to be having ourselves a little auction this Friday night. In case you weren’t there, or in case you forgot, let me lay it out for you.

Thursday night was our 5th annual #MoChaKaTO, where we leverage Jason Rolland’s weekly #loserkaraoke show to raise some money for Movember. Once again, it was a great night. We had some of the usual painful and fantastic challenges and some great raffle prizes, adding up to just shy of $1,800 raised. Not quite as much as we brought in last year, but better than we’d actually expected.

But this year, the event alone isn’t our only source of fundraising. See, our fine hosts at the Marquis of Granby have very generously donated a bar-quality, Guinness-branded foosball table to the cause. Very generously. It’s a big get. While we don’t have a picture right now — we’re working on it (it’s in a box) — we think it might look like this [Update: This is now a picture of what it actually looks like!]:

 

Rather than just throw it into the pot with our raffle prizes, we thought there might be a better way to maximize the value of this item while also broadening our reach, and we landed on an auction. A Twitter auction, in fact.

So, here’s the plan. This Friday night, November 28th, we’re going to put the foosball table on the auction block starting at 8 p.m. Eastern, using the #MoChaKaTO Twitter hashtag. We’ll have a reasonable starting price (I mean, we’re not going to give this sucker away). And for as long as people are willing to bid it up (within reason), we’ll keep taking your bids. The winning bidder can make their payment through the Tilt we ran to make Jason Rolland sing Celine Dion last week (video of which can be found here), so that you’ll be able to pay with a credit card. Jason has graciously agreed to deliver the table to the winning bidder, as long as they’re within the GTA. If you’re further away than that, sadly, you’ll have to be willing to come pick it up.

So, if you’re interested, follow the #MoChaKaTO hashtag and join in. And please, tell your friends. Feel free to spread the word far and wide.

The story of a “Wicked” good time, and a heartfelt thanks

So, as you may be aware, Erin and I had started up a Tilt several weeks back, with the goal of getting my mother-in-law down to Toronto to see “Wicked”. She loves the music but had never seen the show, and we wanted to give her a boost as she’s been working her way through some health challenges over the last year. We thought that if we could raise enough to buy her a ticket to see the show and cover her train fare down and back, it’d be pretty incredible. Enough for two tickets so she could take someone (Erin) with her? Well, that’d be beyond amazing.

Despite some fantastic support, the Tilt expired without, well, tilting. We figured it was a good try; nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that. But then a couple of days later, I got a note from good karaoke buddy Wendy Koslow. She apparently knew someone working for the production, had told him what we were trying to do, and they’d offered to comp a couple of tickets. Amazing! And with one of the biggest cost factors handled, we were able to restart the Tilt at a lower goal and have it tilt to cover the rest.

This week was “Wicked” week, and a great time was had by all. Heather came down on Monday and, well, I should let her explain…

“Dear “Wicked” tilt donors,

Thank you for your kindness and generosity towards making my dream happen.

I arrived in Toronto on Monday late afternoon. Tuesday, we went to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a warm up to Wednesday.

“Wednesday, we got up early. Erin did my hair and we left for “Wicked”. My donor, Tom, gave us box seats to die for. What a dream come true. The performance was amazing and I cried throughout most of it.

“After the show, Tom met us and we sat in on a question-and-answer period between several schools and cast members. The students all cheered when they found out my donor, Tom, was the techno guy who ran the Wizard of Oz. After that, we did a backstage tour, then a nice supper at Fran’s downtown.

“No amount of thank yous to Sean and Erin Boulton and my Tilt donors can convey what an amazing thing this was for me. I start my next phase of life encouraged and strengthened by the support and love you all have shown me.”

Heather xxxxoooo

That’s my mother-in-law, ladies and gentlemen. Really an amazing thing to have happen and truly a dream come true. Not just tickets, but tickets in a box? And a backstage tour? I mean, I’ve never had a backstage tour…

So, thank you to the “Wicked” touring company for making it possible. Thank you to Tom for putting it together. Thank you to Wendy for putting me together with Tom. And thank you to everyone who donated to the tilt — if you’re reading this, either our message reached you or serendipity brought you here. But, sincerely, thank you.

Acclamation is not the end of the world

I like democracy. I’m a big fan. I think it’s important.

But a key piece of democracy is choice. Giving people a choice in who they want to represent them. Giving people a choice in whether or not they care who represents them. And, not to be forgotten, giving people a choice in whether or not they want to represent others.

What am I rambling about? Well, let me explain.

It’s September 8th. The Toronto municipal elections are less than two months away. And the deadline for filing nomination papers, if you want to be a candidate in those elections, is at the end of this week.

Now, there’s plenty of healthy competition ahead — 68 candidates for mayor and 317 candidates for the 44 council wards (people run for school board trustee too, I hear, but I don’t have kids, so…). But there is one ward — ward 22, St. Paul’s — where there’s currently only one candidate registered to run for city council. And that’s incumbent ward 22 councillor Josh Matlow.

At this point, I should probably declare an interest under the MCCoIA (Municipal Commenter Conflict of Interest Act). I live in ward 22. I know Josh Matlow. I’ve worked on stuff — condo development applications, the Sam the Record Man sign — with Josh Matlow. I like Josh Matlow. More importantly, I think Josh Matlow is good at his job.

But if nobody else files papers to run for council in ward 22, he’s going to win the election by acclamation. Is that ideal? No, of course not. Democracy is at its best when the voters are presented with a choice (there’s that word again). But it’s not the end of the world either. There’s a notion out in the Twitterverse that somebody elseanybody else — needs to sign up to prevent this, and I just don’t get it.

What are some of the reasons why someone running against Matlow might be in for an uphill battle?

  • History — among rookie councillors from the 2010 election, he had the third-highest margin of victory and was one of only three newcomers to draw a majority of votes cast.
  • Name recognition — prior to this term of council, Matlow spent seven years as the ward’s Toronto District School Board trustee. And it’s not exactly like he’s kept a low profile in the four years since.
  • Politics — St. Paul’s is a solidly liberal riding. Liberal federally. Liberal provincially. And while we don’t have political parties at the municipal level, Matlow’s middle name might just be ‘Liberal’. No, not really. But maybe. But no.

So you have an incumbent councillor, who received majority support in the last election, who’s built a name from 11 years of public service in the ward, and who’s solidly in line with the ward’s politics. Specifically, centrist politics.

Can you run against that? Sure, if you’re a hard-right or hard-left candidate who thinks there’s a vast base of voters whose voices simply haven’t been heard yet. I suppose you could. Or maybe if you’re a centrist who feels you can deliver on that agenda and message in a more compelling manner. I guess, yeah.

But maybe — just maybe — you have the sense that a lot of voters in ward 22 are happy with their current representation. Maybe you can’t see a clear path to victory, regardless of what you’d bring to the table. If you’re serious about wanting to do city counselling for a living someday, is there an upside to having a losing effort on your resumé? Just because democracy demands voters have a choice at all costs?

And failing that, should we hope for a joke candidate? Or a name on the ballot just for the sake of having a name on the ballot? Is no real choice really a choice?

It’s entirely possible Toronto’s already made its choice. And if nobody chooses to run against Josh Matlow this October, it just means that choice happened a month-and-a-half earlier than scheduled. And democracy isn’t going to collapse as a result, even if we do get only 132 of the 133 election races we expected on October 27th.

Re: Open Streets Toronto…

Here’s what I don’t understand about Open Streets Toronto.

Maybe I should set the stage first. I wasn’t on board originally. As an ex-car owner, my knee-jerk is “What, another reason to close streets downtown?”. There are so many parades, and marathons, and 10Ks, and street festivals, and, and… in Toronto that it sometimes feels like there’s scarcely a weekend that some chunk of the city isn’t inaccessible by car.

But then I remind myself that I’m no longer auto-enabled. And that, generally speaking, I can work around most weekend road closures using the TTC. So I warmed up to the idea. 

And then, when I heard that the ‘open’ part of Open Streets TO included keeping intersections open to cross-traffic? Slap a big old sold sign on it, ’cause I’m bought in. 

As I was saying to someone earlier today, that decision is the key to converting the soft skeptics. See, the frustration when major streets are closed isn’t really about the closure itself. If Yonge is closed, there’s always Bay, Church, or Jarvis to get north/ south in the core. If Bloor’s closed, there’s College or Dupont. No, the frustration comes when a closure cuts the city in half. If you’re at Church and College, and you have to go all the way down to the Gardiner or all the way up to Eglinton just to get to Spadina and College, that’s not cool. Yes, I exaggerate, but only slightly. Try getting by car from Wellington and Scott to Yonge and Eglinton even five hours before the start of the Santa Claus Parade. It’s a lovely chance to see what Port Credit’s like in the fall.

Sorry; I digress. As I was saying, keeping major intersections open for through traffic is a nice plus. Certainly, keep open streets carrying TTC vehicles, at least. I’d argue you don’t need both Ted Rogers Way and Church open when you have Sherbourne, but this was the kick-off. They’ll figure it out. 

But here’s what I don’t understand. As far as I know, the point is to open the streets up to uses normally excluded from them. So, walking, jogging, and running? Absolutely. Dog walking? Sure. Rollerblading and skateboarding? Why not. Street yoga? Yeah, you don’t get to see that everyday. Chalk art? Go for it. 

But why bicycles? While they’re unquestionably treated like second-class citizens, bicycles do get to use the roads day in/day out. And when you look at all the activities that could be happening, it’s the one that sticks out. It’s also the least safe to mix into a crowd.

We’re at a really delicate point in getting mainstream support for cycling and cycling infrastructure in Toronto right now. Again, it’s those soft skeptics who I think we need to convert. And key to that conversion? Bicycles are vehicles and need to be treated like them. 

So, please, let’s build bike lanes on major streets and include physical separation to keep it safe for everyone. But at the same time, where there aren’t separate lanes, cyclists need to take a lane. And stay in it, unless they signal otherwise. No riding up the curb when traffic’s stopped, or in between lanes of traffic. Yes, riders deserve to expect cars to be watching for them so the driver doesn’t turn in front of them or door them. And, in turn, cyclists have an obligation to not blow through stop signs and traffic lights, forcing pedestrians to scatter in their path. And everyone – cars and bikes alike – needs to keep the heck off the sidewalks. Not for you.

Bicycles are vehicles and need to be treated like them. Bicycles are vehicles and deserve to be treated like them. Bicycles are vehicles and need to act like them. 

And so, when we closed the streets to vehicles today, and opened them up for people to use in unconventional ways, I don’t understand why bicycles weren’t verboten too. If we want people to believe in cycling as a mainstream usage of the roads, we might want to stop treating it like it’s an alternative one. 

My deputation to North York Community Council, August 12, 2014 (part 2)

Speaking in opposition to NY34.85 – Final Report – Official Plan and Zoning By-law Amendment Applications – 2384-2388 Yonge Street and 31 Montgomery Avenue (Ward 16 – Statutory: Planning Act, RSO 1990)

Thank you, Madame Chair, and good afternoon. My name is Sean Boulton.

You know, the problem with all four community council meetings happening at the same time is that you can’t be everywhere at once. So today, I had to choose. I could go to Toronto-East York, and speak against an egregious development that’s going to be approved two blocks away from me in ward 22 where I live. And it’ll be approved because a few weeks ago, the Ontario Municipal Board cut the City’s legs out from under it on an even bigger project a block north. Or, I could come here, and speak against both a boulevard café across the street from me in ward 25 and this development that you’re surely going to approve across the street from me in ward 16. Well, here I am.

First of all, I quite like the look of the building as planned. And given how rarely we see rental construction in Toronto, it makes me very uncomfortable to argue against it.

Ordinarily, this is where I’d start talking about how Yonge and Eglinton is already past its breaking point with development. I’d use the analogy of our having moved the equivalent population of the city of Kenora into an area of one kilometre square over the course of a decade. I’d tell you about how you can’t just keep adding housing stock without ensuring that infrastructure is built in parallel. That I can’t get on the subway in the morning, or get in and out of the only grocery store in the neighbourhood in a reasonable time. But even if you’ve never heard me say these things before, you probably already know them. So for this project in particular, I’ll offer you two alternate objections.

First of all, for where this building is planned to go up, I feel it’s too big. The ward 22 project that I mentioned earlier is at least within the Yonge-Eglinton Urban Growth Centre, and it’s within an Apartment neighbourhood. So there are some arguments for the height and density being requested. This site, on the other hand, is outside of the urban growth centre. And it’s partly on an Avenue and partly within a Neighbourhoods designation.

Last year, the city went through a very lengthy and detailed block planning study for the area bounded by Yonge, Duplex, Helendale, and Orchard View. There was extensive community consultation and planning to determine Urban Design Guidelines for this area, resulting in an official plan amendment that was approved by City Council in December. If they haven’t already, city planning staff should be taking a bow for their work on that project. And that plan amendment, taken together with the recent Midtown in Focus study, has the chance to be a real positive force for change within our community.

Now, one piece of that plan amendment was that the appropriate built form for development along the Yonge Street side of the block is midrise. This site is just north of that plan amendment, even further away from Yonge and Eglinton. It’s also directly beside a neighbourhood of single-family homes. I don’t understand how this is all of a sudden the right spot for a tall building. In fact, the city is at the OMB right now arguing against two tall building applications that fall within that plan amendment area. How will you seriously be able to argue against tall buildings on those sites if you approve one on this site?

And if we’re going to just throw up tall buildings everyone on this stretch of Yonge, aren’t we invalidating much of that work last year? The city either believes that Avenues like Yonge Street are best served by midrise development, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, then the Chief Planner’s Twitter feed is about to get a lot less interesting.

Secondly, I believe we shouldn’t be talking about development on this site period. I love the idea of getting some use of the Station K building, which the City has quite rightly designated as heritage. I’m excited by a nicely-designed public space out front of that building — I mean, the community’s already made the space out there public, but the nicely-designed part would be a real improvement.

But 89 years ago, this corner was designated as a National Historic Site. It has the plaque, and a flag, and everything. It’s the one-time home of Montgomery’s Tavern and, almost 177 years ago, was the grounds for a famous battle in the Upper Canada Rebellion.

These are things that every Canadian kid learns about in school, or at least they did when I was growing up. The corner needs to be a focal point in the community. In fact, Station K would make an excellent location for a Toronto museum. So yes, please, by all means — show this site the love that it deserves. It’s a place where people should meet and gather and even celebrate our history. What it’s not is a place where we should throw up a tower that’ll overshadow everything around it.

What we’re talking about here are the very building blocks of responsible government. To my mind, building an apartment block here would be very irresponsible.

This is the full version of my remarks, as written. Due to the size of the agenda NYCC was dealing with, I pared down the front end by quite a bit when I got to the microphone.