Monday, June 18, 2012

Electoral Co-operation and a New Kind of Liberal Leadership Contest

Of all of the things which have been on my mind over the past few weeks, tonight I find myself writing about the Liberal Leadership campaign. Why on Earth do I think that’s important enough for a blog post, when there are no announced candidates, and the vote won’t be held until next spring? I’m not even a member of the Liberal Party.

Well, frankly, what happens with the Liberal leadership contest is important to me, as a Canadian, as former member of the Liberal Party of Canada, and as a current member of the Green Party of Canada. Events which have transpired over the past week have meant that the Liberal leadership race is going to start to get very interesting. First, the Party changed its rules in order to allow Interim Leader Bob Rae to run for the leadership. And then Bob Rae announced that he would stay on as Interim Leader and not run, but he didn’t clearly state why he came to that decision. The political pundits had a field day with his announcement.

With Bob Rae out of the contest, the race to become the next leader of the Liberals is on, and frankly rather wide open. Justin Trudeau hasn’t declared one way or the other, but the pressure will be on him now to jump in. Marc Garneau and Dominic Leblanc are two other MP’s currently sitting in the House who have expressed an interest in becoming the next Leader. And Martha Hall-Findlay and Gerard Kennedy, both of whom challenged for the Leadership in 2006, may be back again.

But why do I think it’s important for Canadians and Greens to pay attention to a race which hasn’t even started yet? Well, tonight I’m spending a few moments to craft this blog entry, as I’m inspired by a few items which I’ve stumbled across this evening.

Electoral Co-Operation

First, this excellent editorial from Tim Harper appeared in today’s Toronto Star (“Liberal leadership race needs a co-operation candidate”, Toronto Star, June 18 2012). Harper argues that a Nathan Cullen-like candidate who promotes electoral co-operation or an outright merger needs to be a part of any serious Liberal leadership race. What can I say other than I agree whole-heartedly with this sentiment, as did a significant number of NDP members (and not just those who endorsed Cullen either).

Credit has to go to Nathan Cullen as the elected Member of Parliament who kicked off the conversation about the need for the NDP, Liberals and Greens to get their (our) act together in time for the 2015 election, in order to oppose the ruling Conservatives. Cullen proposed that in those ridings held by Conservative MP’s, the NDP, Liberals and Greens jointly nominate a single candidate to take on the Conservatives. I’m not certain that I found myself in complete agreement with Cullen’s proposal (in fact, I think that it such an agreement was to be made between the three parties, it likely should be broader in scope; but, I’m also not completely sold on the notion of depriving voters the opportunity to vote for a Party of their choice. Although I did really like the idea of a joint nomination process for local candidates). But kudos to Cullen and many NDP members who want to put the interests of Canada ahead of the interests of their own Party.

Over time, I think its fair to say that I have started becoming a convert to the notion that it may be necessary to co-operate with the NDP in the 2015 election. As a former Liberal, I’ve always been very aware of the policy short-comings of the Liberal Party, but I’ve also had a pretty good feel for its strengths, and I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been much more comfortable with the Liberal policies than I have been with the NDP. Don’t misunderstand me: I think that both the Liberals and the NDP have a lot of policies which would be good for Canada. And I think that they’ve got a number of things wrong, too. But the NDP’s policies on a number of (important to me) environmental initiatives would be, in my opinion, quite dangerous if they were ever to be implemented.

However, I can’t help but acknowledge that the Conservatives are proving to be disastrous for Canada’s future, and after witnessing the completely unaccountable and undemocratic passage of Bill C-38, I guess it’s fair to say that my own priorities have started to shift from creating the Canada that we need for the future to trying to save the Canada that we have today. In short, Stephen Harper must be stopped before the Conservatives transform Canada into something unrecognizable. If that means that I’ll have to put away my partisan banners and flags for a while and work with the NDP, so be it.

Of course, the NDP has to want to work with the other parties. I appreciate that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has a lot on his plate right now in terms of establishing himself as a Prime Minister-in-waiting. But the backroom operatives who might otherwise want to broker a co-operation deal appear to be silent. Perhaps they’re waiting for the Liberals to pick a new leader. If that’s the case, well, I guess there is still time.

The Green Party – Grassroots Democracy in Action

We Greens do things a lot differently than the other parties do, though. The conversation which the NDP had around electoral co-operation largely manifested itself through leadership contender Nathan Cullen. And likely the same will be true with regards to the Liberal Party, once a Co-operation candidate declares his or herself. The politics of co-operation, however, shouldn’t simply be personality-driven, the will of a Party’s membership should not be arbitrarily disregarded by a Party Leader. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Tom Mulcair has ignored those NDP members who want electoral co-operation, because first of all, it’s not clear that he has ignored them, and second of all, it’s not clear what percentage of NDP members favour co-operation over a go-it-alone approach.

What I am saying is that the Green Party of Canada continues to be a leader when it comes to implementing grassroots democracy. We Greens continue to walk the talk. The second item which came to my attention today has to do with motions to be voted on by the Green Party’s membership. Greens will be gathering in Sidney, British Columbia in August for our Biennial General Meeting. Prior to this meeting, all Green members in good standing will have the opportunity to vote on numerous policy, constitutional and directive motions. Two motions in particular caught my eye, as they have to do with electoral co-operation.

Both motions are actually very similar, and if approved by the Green Party’s membership, they will have the effect of directing our Federal Council (the Green Party’s governing body) to enter into discussions with the Liberals and NDP about electoral co-operation in the next election. Both motions allow for an incredible amount of freedom for our Fed Council to negotiate with the other parties, insisting that the implementation of electoral reform by a new government be the only caveat.

If Greens support these motions, we will do so with the knowledge that these negotiations could potentially lead to very few, or zero, Green candidates running in the next federal election. We will essentially be giving our governing body the right to negotiate away our Party’s ability to participate in the next election, based only on a political promise made by the NDP and Liberals to implement electoral reform.

I, for one, will be supporting these motions. For all of the risk they pose to my Party’s continued relevance, and frankly, to its very existence, I firmly believe that the risk to Canada posed by another Conservative majority government is far greater.

I just hope that the Liberals and the NDP decide to come on board.

A New Kind of Liberal Leader

The Liberal Party of Canada in particular now has an opportunity to demonstrate some real leadership. Electoral reform has never been a priority of the Liberals; they’ve generally been satisfied with the anachronistic first-past-the-post electoral system which we rely on to elect MP’s in this country. Of course, the Liberals have also never found themselves as the third Party in parliament.

While the media has been very focussed on which big-name Liberals might step forward to challenge for the leadership, let us not forget that the Liberal Party recently changed the rules regarding who is able to vote for the Liberal leader. Now, anyone who identifies themselves as a “supporter”, and fills in a form on the internet will be able to vote in the Liberal leadership election. The old days of sending delegates to a convention to represent individual ridings – gone. Now, all voting can be done at home in front of a computer, by any Canadian who is interested in casting a ballot (as long as they’ve pre-registered, and are not a current member of another political party).

Bluegreenblogger Matthew Day refers to this as a “game changer” for the Liberal Party of Canada (see Day’s excellent blogpost “Complete Game-Changer for the Liberal Party: Supporter Votes for Leadership”, June 15 2012). I agree. What this change in voting rules does is it allows for a non-traditional candidate to emerge amongst Liberals. Potentially, this non-traditional candidate could be one whom relies less on traditional media to get the message out, and more on social media. Rather than being focused on personality, this non-traditional candidate can choose to focus on ideology. The candidate can focus on motivating new supporters to lend them a one-time vote, potentially with the promise of electoral co-operation with the NDP and Greens, at the price of electoral reform.

In the past, Liberal leadership candidates have had to raise significant dollars to remain viable. We keep hearing that money tends to win elections, but with the changes made by the Liberals, it is quite conceivable that a non-traditional candidate would be able to exploit users of social media networks with a conversation about ideas. Day says that Liberal Bloggers may find themselves on the frontlines in a tussle of opinion, rather than traditional media sources. I think that there’s some merit to that assertion, especially if a candidate who champions issues important to youth can emerge.

After all, how many votes will it take to elect a new Liberal Leader? The NDP elected Mulcair with what? About 60,000 ballots. Conceivably, a successful Liberal leadership challenger would want to shoot for about the same number. Is it not conceivable that NDP and Green members (or supporters) might opt in to becoming Liberal Party “supporters” in order to cast a ballot for a non-traditional candidate promising electoral co-operation and reform?

I think it’s very likely we’ll see this happening (and very likely too that the mainstream media won’t catch on until near the end of the leadership race). A new Liberal Leader, even one with significant non-traditional support, might not be in a position to become Canada’s next Prime Minister, but he or she would be in a position to make a strong case to Tom Mulcair that electoral co-operation between the Liberals, NDP and Greens makes sense for his Party too.

And it could very well lead to the NDP forming the next Government of Canada. And as much as I find that idea a little scary, I can tell you that I would find that prospect immanently preferable to four more years of Conservative destruction of my nation.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads, Part 4: Towards a Green City

What kind of City do we want to inhabit in the future? If you ask that question to 20 different people, you’re likely to get 20 slightly different answers. However, studies have shown that generally speaking, there are really two different and competing visions which shape our perception and desires about a City of Tomorrow.

The first vision looks backwards in time to a romanticized notion of suburbia. Parents can feel safe with the kids playing outside in the large backyards of single-family homes built in low-density subdivisions (which are still quite close to employment, recreation and shopping opportunities). For many of us, this is the sort of City in which we grew up, or continue to inhabit. Indeed, had I been asked this question 20 years ago, I probably would have described my ideal future city in this way too. I would have based my future hopes and expectations upon an idealized version of my past experiences.

For others, though, the City of Tomorrow is a much more complicated place, mixing the old with the new. Often, this competing vision offers a more vibrant alternative, one with more options for just about everything. Usually, the built form environment is more diverse and perhaps a little more crowded. There is a healthy balance between the familiar and the unknown. Still, for all of that, the vision is pleasing to the senses, and exciting to think about.

This vision looks ahead towards a romanticized notion of what an ideal City could be if we started building what some have called a Green City. It’s romanticized, of course, because we often don’t envision how the sunk costs of yesterday’s poor decisions might effect the shape of the City itself. As much as we might want to build and inhabit a truly Green City, there is no denying that Suburbia, both as a built form and as an aspirational construct, is a constraint.

Complete Communities

Complete communities are those which can best support public transit, cycling and walking. They are characterized by mixed uses and have compact development at higher densities. They are the most economically viable form of development currently available to us, costing taxpayers less per capita to maintain than suburban and exurban sprawl. Aside from Greater Sudbury’s downtown, there are few areas within the greater City which can lay claim to being “complete” (and even the downtown is hampered by hard-edged geographic barriers like rock faces and rail road tracks, and a lack of housing opportunities; however, things are starting to change).

Our resources are only going to get scarcer over time. With only modest growth expected over the next 20 years, existing taxpayers will be the ones on the hook to shoulder the majority of the City’s public expenses (whereas other communities might experience more of a winfall through development charges, something which Greater Sudbury would be wise to embrace to a more significant degree than has happened in the past). The intensification and redevelopment of existing urban areas which does not require the extension of servicing or the creation of new transportation routes should therefore be a priority for new development.


For too long we have relied on greenfield sites on the fringes of our communities for inefficient and economically ineffective low-density development. Largely, rationale has consisted of the notion that the market has demanded this form of development, but increasingly that’s not the case, if it ever was. To a large degree, the suburban development form has been shaped by the developers themselves, due to costs. In short, it has always been (and continues to be) less expensive to build single family dwellings on large lots in suburban subdivisions. Many of the real costs of suburban development (such as road maintenance and service delivery) are actually paid for by municipal taxes, and not directly by developers/homeowners. In these situations, profits are privatized while costs are socialized.

But there is obviously some truth to the idea that the market plays a role when it comes to determining where people will live. If the demand wasn’t there, people wouldn’t be buying these homes. Housing demands, however, have started to shift, especially as our population ages, and as recognition of our changed economic circumstance takes hold. It is no longer affordable for people living on fixed incomes, or families with less purchasing power, to continue to live in a suburban setting, particularly when motorized transportation costs are high, and alternative transportation options are low or non-existent.

And municipalities are discovering that it’s no longer economic to continue to ask taxpayers to further subsidize residents of sprawling low density subdivisions. The argument that property taxes derived from new subdivisions will more than pay for subdivision upkeep over time has been discredited. Instead, many municipalities have begun promoting more intense, economically sustainable forms of development in preference to suburbia. Development does not always pay for itself, and this is particularly true for suburban and rural residential development.

Howard Kuntsler, author of “The Geography of Nowhere” and “The Long Emergency” described today’s suburbs as becoming tomorrow’s slums, because he believed that in a low-energy future, only the least economically well-off would choose to live in areas where getting around is difficult. Kuntsler pictured the poor hiking for kilometres from the shambling suburbs into the heart of an intensified city centre to work, shop and potentially sell their wares (agricultural goods grown on what used to be front and back lawns, which would possibly be the only advantage the ‘burbs would have over intensified city cores in a low-energy future).

I’m not sure that I completely agree with Kuntsler’s vision of the future, as I think that some suburbs will continue to be viable, particularly those inhabited by wealthy elites. However, for the most part, our experiment with suburbanization has proven to be a significant sunk cost challenge to creating a healthy and vibrant City which will meet our future needs. I’m not, however, suggesting that we can abandon the suburbs, but I am suggesting that Greater Sudbury’s suburbs will need to change if we are going to position ourselves for economic success.

Champions of Change?

Change, of course, poses a threat to anyone who is directly impacted. What should not be lost, however, is that change can also create opportunities. Those suburban dwellers who worry about decreasing property values as a result of intensification projects in established low-density areas may very well be surprised to discover that studies show, generally speaking, the value of their properties actually tend to increase. Still, it’s hard to make this point when strong emotions are in play.

We saw some of those strong emotions last week, when the residents of Alice Street and environs attended a Planning Committee meeting to oppose the construction of a 11-storey (shortened to 7-storey) residential condominium project fronting on Long Lake Road. The lands in question have long been an area designated for intensification and redevelopment, and the proposal which was submitted to the City was determined to be in keeping with the long-term goals and objectives of the City’s Official Plan. In short, this was the right development in the right location. Yet, Planning Committee voted 4-1 to turn it down.

Why did our decision-makers vote to favour the status quo in that circumstance, despite the clear evidence that the Alice Street condo is exactly the sort of development we need in our future? Well, earlier I wrote about the need for political champions and fostering political will. Right now, when it comes to building a Greater Sudbury which meets the needs of tomorrow, champions and political will are both in short supply in this City.

It’s fair to say that there have been a number of recent development proposals which were recommended by municipal staff as being in keeping with the City’s Official Plan which have been turned down by our elected decision-makers. A medium-density subdivision on Howey Drive near the Carmichael Arena in Minnow Lake which would have seen the creation of 600+ dwellings was refused in the fall of 2011. When a lower-density version returned for consideration this past spring, it too was refused. While it may be that environmental considerations hadn’t been fully explored, the fact is that traffic on Howey Drive was cited as the primary reason for refusal.

Roundabout Decisions

Lately, there has also been a lot of talk about building more roundabouts to facilitate the flow of motorized vehicular traffic. Indeed, the original proposal for the Minnow Lake subdivision would have seen the creation of a roundabout on Howey Drive in front of the Carmichael Arena. We’ve also been hearing about roundabouts proposed on Maley Drive. Last week, the Minnow Lake CAN held a meeting to discuss access options for a subdivision which included a roundabout proposed for the Second Avenue/Bancroft intersection in the heart of Minnow Lake.

Roundabouts may be good at facilitating the continuing flow of vehicular traffic, but they create significant barriers for pedestrians and safety risks for cyclists. Along high volume corridors, pedestrians tend to rely on signalized intersections or crosswalks to access the other side of a busy street. Since the whole purpose of roundabouts is to facilitate the flow of traffic in all directions by removing stoplights, pedestrians are offered fewer safe opportunities to cross streets.

In short, roundabouts are exactly the worst kind of intersection one could design if the priority is building Complete communities which are walkable and which support alternative forms of transportation. Since Complete communities are what we must strive for to best meet our future needs, it only makes sense that we facilitate development which promotes their creation. And installing roundabouts does the exact opposite!

Building Complete communities does not mean that we have to throw open the door to high-density development. There are often legitimate issues which need to be addressed (or which can not be appropriately mitigated) which may stand in the way of a particular development proposal. Looking back at the Minnow Lake subdivision, two issues in particular were identified by the public and Planning Committee as being problematic to its success, despite the fact that the lands had been set aside for development for decades, as acknowledged in the City’s Official Plan (the “public promise” document).

The Minnow Lake Subdivision: A Case Study

First and foremost, there were concerns made with regards to traffic along Howey Drive. The second issue had everything to do with the development’s proximity to Ramsey Lake, and the perceived unknown effects that it would have on lake water quality. Were these real issues, or just manufactured by residents and others who opposed the subdivision? In my opinion they were clearly real issues, because they hadn’t received the benefit of a complete assessment. In short, the impacts of the development on traffic and lake water quality were unknown at the time when decisions were made.

That’s just my opinion, though. The developer did everything which was required by the process, and provided reports related to traffic and water quality and quantity. Why then do I think it’s fair to say that the anticipated impacts of that development proposal were unknown when it went in front of Planning Committee for a decision?

Well, let’s look at traffic. Yes, a traffic study was prepared and reviewed by the City’s traffic experts, and it was determined that the subdivision’s impacts on traffic would be within acceptable limits. Yet, with other vacant lands having received development approvals in the recent past (3 17-storey towers between Howey and Brady) and with new applications moving forward elsewhere along the corridor proposing connections to Howey/Bancroft not included in the developer’s study (which isn’t to fault the developer, because there was no requirement to do so), the true impacts from traffic generated by new development remain unknown. This was disconcerting to area residents, the Ward Councillors, and ultimately to Planning Committee.

With regards to lake water quality, the Official Plan establishes a regime that promotes looking at water quality and quantity on a watershed basis. The Plan calls for the preparation of a subwatershed plan for Ramsey Lake, in order to map out how lake water quality is being negatively impacted, and how those negative impacts could be mitigated in the future. As one of the City of Greater Sudbury’s primary drinking water sources, it’s fair to say that Ramsey Lake’s water quality is an important issue for a significant number of Greater Sudburians.

Of course, studies were completed by the developer to determine that any impacts on water quality would be within acceptable limits. But again, the real issue here is bigger than any one development proposal. As with traffic on Howey Drive, is it perhaps more appropriate to look at water quality impacts in a comprehensive way, given that Ramsey Lake is a drinking water source?

Is it enough to look at the expected impacts from a specific development in isolation of other proposals, and/or in absence of “big picture” technical information, such as a complete corridor traffic study or a subwatershed study? The Official Plan says, for the most part, that it is ok to look at development proposals in isolation of this bigger-picture frame of reference; as long as the specific technical details are covered off, we can move forward. Of course, residents and others impacted by this fairly narrow approach clearly didn’t agree, and ultimately convinced Planning Committee to prefer their point of view over the Official Plan’s.

The Importance of the Official Plan

With the need to look at development as part of a larger picture in mind, how then can decision-makers move forward towards sound decisions on any one particular proposal? The answer is that decisions should be guided by sensible development policies. In Greater Sudbury, the policy document which is used to guide development is supposed to be the Official Plan. But where does following the Official Plan leave decision-makers when plan policies appear to no longer make sense (traffic on Howey Drive precluding further development), or are not being implemented (as in the case of the Lake Ramsey subwatershed study)?

The Minnow Lake subdivision fell victim to the legitimate uncertainties raised by the public regarding the issues of traffic and water quality impacts. The developer did all that was required to receive a favourable approval (and indeed, municipal staff recommended just that), and the lands were determined by the Official Plan to be suitable to the form of development proposed. Yet Planning Committee refused the applications. Twice. They broke the public promise contained in the Official Plan on which the developer had invested significant resources with the expectation of a promise being kept.

It’s a good thing, I think, that the City’s Official Plan is now being reviewed, as it’s clear to me that the policies of the Plan aren’t doing all that they could and should be doing to guide development. Indeed, I believe that to a not insignificant degree, the promise which the City’s Official Plan has made to the City (residents and developers) is becoming harder to keep by elected officials because the promise itself is, in many cases, wrong. In many respects, the City’s Official Plan is more of a snap-shot of the past, and where it does look ahead, it offers largely a status-quo-supporting vision of the future. It is not a comprehensive framework for building the Green City of Tomorrow.

I sincerely hope that the 5-year review of the Plan will produce a more useful document which will assist with guiding decision-makers to make decisions which lead to the creation of a more Complete and Green Greater Sudbury. To do so, though, the Plan will have to recognize that not all locations which have been historically set aside for development remain viable today. Hard decisions should be made regarding development opportunities. But if we truly want to outcomes which deliver the best benefits, those decisions are going to have to be made. Decisions which promote development at all costs usually have hidden costs attached which are picked up by taxpayers.

Breaking Promises

Of course, the Official Plan could have all the best policies in the world, but if decision-makers continue to ignore those policies and break their public promise, the Plan itself isn’t going to matter much. That’s not the way decisions are supposed to be made with regards to development, but all too often it’s the way they are made in reality (and not just in Greater Sudbury).
However, to provide a Greater Sudbury example, there is an outright prohibition for new development to occur within floodplains. Yet application after application which would see development in floodplains receives approval. Based on an analysis of long-term trends, we know that we can expect more frequent and stronger flooding events to occur in the future. Why, for goodness sakes, armed with this knowledge, do we continue to allow development in floodplains? Particularly when taxpayers are going to be the ones to pick up at least a part of the tab to rebuild infrastructure harmed by flooding?

Why do our elected officials continue to break sensible promises about not allowing development in floodplains?

Seizing the Day

Greater Sudbury is truly at a crossroads. Trends have been identified at local, regional and global levels which will impact the shape of our City, the lives of residents, and the economic prosperity of our businesses and industry. The decisions which are made today will have lasting effects on us and on our children. We can choose to continue to make decisions in an ad hoc manner, favouring the existing status quo. Or we can begin to make decisions as if the future really mattered to us, and strive to create a more Complete and Green City, better equipped to meet the needs of tomorrow.
It’s important to do things right the first time, as decisions lead to the investment of sunk costs which, once made, can be very difficult and expensive to un-make. Decisions should be guided by comprehensive planning which requires the assessment of all anticipated impacts as a starting point. Decision-makers need to become champions of a Green City and begin the process of building political will amongst the electorate. Elected officials will need to be assisted in this task by other community leaders and advocates. Public opinion can shift over time, especially if concerted efforts are made to do so.

Budgetary priorities must shift in order to keep pace with the changing needs of the community. The prioritization of motorized vehicular traffic must take a back seat to building complete communities for people instead of cars. The needs of transit riders, cyclists and pedestrians should increasingly become the focus of decision-making. Decisions, once made, should be implemented, and promises made to the public should be kept.

We’ve already made some good efforts to find a sustainable way forward. The City’s Downtown Master Plan and Brownfields Community Improvement Plan represent innovative and cost-effective ways to altering our built environment in line with Green City ideals. Bringing the Laurentian University School of Architecture to the City’s downtown core will add to growing vibrancy of the heart of our City. Housing initiatives in Chelmsford and other outlying areas which allow seniors to continue to live in their home communities while receiving appropriate services present opportunities for residents to age in place.

We need to continue building upon the successes we’ve achieved so as to maintain the momentum forward. Armed with the knowledge that tomorrow will not be like yesterday, the way forward is clear. And the time to plan for a low-energy future is clearly at hand.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads, Part 3: Planning to Get Around in the City of Tomorrow

Here in Greater Sudbury, we know full well that there are a number of things which we must do in order to create a city which will meet our future needs. Our ability to do so, however, is limited by a number of factors, including a lack of leadership, and a lack of public demand for change which may deviate from the way in which things happened in the past. Physically, the shape of the City is impacted by the sunk costs of our existing built form, including our public service infrastructure and transportation routes. However, there’s no way around working within the existing built context, so what we must focus on now is how best to move forward based on the past decisions which have shaped our City.

One of the macro trends which we will need to address has to do with transportation. With fewer people driving less often, due to rising fuel prices and reduced purchasing power, we can expect the way that we get around the City to begin to change. Over the past 5 or 6 decades, it’s fair to say that the Car has been King in Greater Sudbury. That’s going to change, although there will continue to be a need to plan for vehicular traffic. Cars aren’t going to vanish off of our roads any time soon.

But more of us will be choosing alternative forms of transportation in the future, to get us to work and to school, to recreational opportunities and for shopping. Transit, cycling and walking will increasingly play more important roles for getting around the City, even for those who own personal vehicles. This change to the way we get around will certainly create some challenges for us, based on our past investments in transportation infrastructure which tended to favour cars over people.

Roads Roads Roads…and Traffic!

We know that there is a need for change, based on local, regional and global trends. With this knowledge, it’s time that we started taking a close look at investing in the sort of infrastructure which will best meet our needs. Right now, there are a number of significant road improvement and creation projects which, taken together, will likely cost several hundreds of millions of dollars to complete. Building the Maley Drive extension alone may cost upwards of $100 million. The widening of Howey Drive and building the Barrydowne Expressway linking New Sudbury and Hanmer aren’t even identified as being in the top 5 road priorities of our current Council. Who is going to pay for these upgrades and new roads?

A better question is, are all of these new projects really necessary given the future in which we are likely to find ourselves? This is certainly a difficult question to answer from all but a rational viewpoint. With only modest population growth projected over the next 20 years, and with an anticipated decline in personal vehicle use, Greater Sudbury’s traffic circumstance will not substantially change over the next 20 years. If anything, there’s an outside chance that vehicular traffic flow might actually improve, even with a modest increase in population.

Of course, it’s not politically expedient to tell Greater Sudburians not to worry too much about roads and traffic. You see, many residents suggest that traffic is already pretty bad in our community, and that we need to be doing a lot more to address existing issues. Generally, I don’t agree with that sentiment, although I have to acknowledge that my own opinion is influenced by having grown up in the suburban Greater Toronto Area, to which I can’t help but constantly draw a comparison. In that light, trust me, we’ve got things pretty good here.

But all perception is relative. What we can expect, though, is that certain areas of the City will continue to be more adversely impacted by traffic than others. Take, for example, the recent approval of three 17-storey residential towers located between Howey Drive and Brady Street. The influx of future residents into this area will almost certainly have impacts on local traffic circumstances, and indeed those impacts will likely be felt as far away as Bancroft Drive and the Kingsway.

Shifting Transportation Priorities to meet Changing Transport Needs

Building new roads, or expanding additional roads, however, is not always the answer, and indeed, it should not be the answer for Greater Sudbury. While we can not simply ignore problem areas like the Howey Drive/Bancroft corridor, or the Lasalle/Notre Dame intersection, there must be a shift in the sort of investments which we make in transportation infrastructure. If the future needs of the community are going to see a rise in the number of trips made by transit/cycling/walking, we need to up the investment ante for infrastructure which supports mobility which doesn’t rely on personal vehicle ownership.

There will be significant challenges. While we must start thinking about more and better bus routes as part of a comprehensive and sustainable transportation system, creating a robust public transit system will be difficult due to Greater Sudbury’s geography and the sprawling nature of our communities. Truly sustainable public transport relies on densities which are much higher than those currently present in our community. As a result, Greater Sudburians may need to subsidize transit at a higher level than our tax dollars have been doing, in order to create a system which serves a greater number of users.

Opportunities for Cycling Infrastructure

We must also invest in safe and accessible cycling infrastructure, primarily on existing public roads where expenses could be minimized. We often think about the need for the physical expansion of existing roadways to accommodate bike lanes, but the reality is that’s not always the best, or least expensive option. It’s always best to look for opportunities which make the most economic sense when it comes to creating/expanding infrastructure, and there are significant opportunities for increasing cycling capacity in Greater Sudbury which will not cost very much at all.

Interestingly, it was our past desire to make the car King in Greater Sudbury which created a low-cost opportunity to significantly enhance cycling infrastructure in the City today. In our desire to facilitate an ever-faster flow of vehicular traffic, many of Greater Sudbury’s major and minor arterial roads have centre-turning lanes. These lanes have allowed for the flow of traffic to continue unimpeded by left-turning vehicles. As a driver, I can attest that these lanes are a wonderful luxury, and that they probably save a couple of minutes off of any trip which I make in my car. I can also attest that the profligacy of these lanes is quite unusual. While many cities do have centre turning lanes on their busy thoroughfares (Kingsway-equivalent streets), it’s unusual to see find them on so many streets within a city. Here in Greater Sudbury, we’ve come to think of these centre-turning lanes as normal, but the fact is, they’re not. They are a unique luxury.

And they truly are a luxury in more ways than just the experiential. Indeed, our tax dollars have long been supporting their maintenance and upkeep through line painting and snowplowing. In other cities, a Walford Road-equivalent street likely would not include centre-turning lanes, yet we here in Greater Sudbury have chosen to use our tax dollars to maintain a centre-turning lane on Walford, largely for the benefit of a small number of homeowners who may save 30 to 60 seconds of time exiting and entering their driveways. Are these left-turning lanes returning good value for our taxpayers dollars?

In some cases, such as on the Kingsway and maybe Lasalle, the answer is probably yes, or certainly it feels like it should be. However, as the needs of the public begin to shift, we must look for cost-effective opportunities to build transportation infrastructure to better address tomorrow’s needs. And many of these centre-turning lanes represent low-cost opportunities for the creation of cycling infrastructure.

It’s actually not a far-fetched idea at all, and indeed there is local precedent. What little cycling infrastructure we have in the City on the Howey/Bellvue/Bancroft corridor came about by removing centre turning-lanes (really, just stripping off paint and painting new lines elsewhere). There was no costly physical expansion made to these existing corridors to achieve the outcome of providing marked cycling infrastructure.

As our priorities shift, Walford Road, Falconbridge, Regent Street, Barrydowne and Lasalle are all prime locations for the installation of bike lanes.

Cycling infrastructure, however, must be connective and comprehensive, and attitudes towards on-street cycling must change (and here I am not just talking about the attitudes of those that drive cars; I also am referring to the attitudes of those who ride bikes). As more people choose to cycle in our community, I am confident that as a critical mass of cyclists on our roadways is achieved, attitudes will change.


Pedestrian infrastructure has long been ignored in our City. New subdivisions have often been constructed with sidewalks on only one side of the road, or none at all. There are many parts of the City where getting around on foot feels dangerous. Even where sidewalks exist, they are often in a state of bad repair, or they have been designed in such a way that they are difficult to walk on (especially by the elderly) because of slopes which favour vehicle ingress/egress over walking (I’m sure you’re familiar with these camel-humped sidewalks).

Walking is impeded throughout the City by the continued prioritization of vehicular flow over all other means of transport. Intersections are primarily signalized to favour cars over pedestrians. Indeed, there are many intersections which restrict where, exactly, pedestrians are able to cross. In some cases, pedestrians may be required to traverse an intersection up to three times, just to carry on their journey forward! Traffic engineers may argue that these restrictions have to do with safety, and that may even be true to a degree, but it’s only because we have prioritized the needs of fast-moving cars ahead of walking.

As our needs and priorities shift, we will assuredly slow down the flow of traffic in our City. Cyclists and pedestrians are able to get around more safely when traffic is moving at a slower rate. As much as it may gall those like me who drive a car, the fact is that we are going to have to get used to lower speeds in the future. We can at least take comfort in the knowledge that we are trading a few seconds of our time as vehicle drivers for what will likely amount to minutes worth of time for pedestrians and cyclists.
And since the vast majority of us are also pedestrians and cyclists at times, we may actually be saving ourselves time by slowing down.

The maintenance of existing and installation of new sidewalks should also become a priority, particularly in locations where pedestrians may be accessing transit. Far too often we see bus stops on the side of a road opposite a sidewalk, with those waiting to ride the bus forced to figure out the safest place to wait. Further, cross-walks which provide pedestrians with a safe means of accessing the opposite sides of busy streets between intersections are also needed. They will, however, have to be designed much more efficiently than the crosswalk on Lasalle Boulevard, opposite the Wal-Mart, at which pedestrians are often forced to wait for minutes to cross after pushing the button.

Looking Ahead

The decisions we make today will continue to impact us years into the future, as we sink investments into new projects. Once those costs are sunk, it’s very difficult to justify a change in course. In many respects, we are today still trying to come to terms with many of the less-than optimal development decisions which were made in the past, particularly those decisions which favoured personalized motor vehicle transport as a means of getting around. Looking ahead, as our priorities shift, we will need to start making different decisions which facilitate alternative means of transportation. We must start making those decisions today, or risk paying more in the future to correct the mistakes we’ll now make. Armed with the knowledge of what the future is likely to hold for us, there really is no longer any reason to think that pedestrian and cycling infrastructure can continue to be treated as an afterthought.

Starting today, the needs of pedestrians and cyclists must be taken into consideration at all times when transportation-related decisions are made. For too long, we’ve justified ignoring the needs of pedestrians and cyclists because there hasn’t been a particularly high number of either using transportation infrastructure, mainly because of the relative affordability of car ownership, and the development decisions which were made which lead to the creation of very low density subdivisions on the fringes of urban areas. We know now, however, that tomorrow is not going to be like yesterday, and we should planning for tomorrow’s needs.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads, Part 2: The Importance of the Decision-Making Process

Looking backwards and moving forwards to identify significant trends at local, regional and global levels, we can make some assumptions about the future in which we are likely to find ourselves. Locally, Greater Sudbury is poised for moderate growth, particularly due to continuing investments in the mining sector. With an aging population, there will be a demand for more modest, affordable housing in our community. Based on global trends related to the rising costs of energy consumption, and increasing economic inequality between the rich and the rest of us, we can expect a decline in real purchasing power which will effect just about every decision that we make related to spending.

Therefore, it’s fair to say that the future needs of our City are, to a significant degree, fairly well-known. Of course, outside forces (such as war, economic downturns, etc.) can cause disruptions to these trends which we can not always plan for. Those potential intrusions, however, are not enough to make the case that we should therefore not engage in planning for our expected future.

Sunk Costs – Getting Things Right the First Time

The choices we make today in Greater Sudbury are going to reverberate throughout our collective future like ripples from pebbles tossed into a pond. Many of the decisions which will be made in Greater Sudbury over the next few years will see considerable dollars invested in our community (from public and private sources). Investments will be made in infrastructure, housing, new employment opportunities, the health and well-being of residents and of our natural environment. Investments almost always act as “sunk costs”; once investment decisions are made, it is very difficult to change direction.

To further illustrate, take for example the significant investment which the Province of Ontario is making in four-laning highway 69 north from Parry Sound to Sudbury. This multi-million dollar investment started to be made at a time when the price of oil was relatively low, and there were expectations that future demand for highway use required increasing the highway’s capacity. Since four-laning began, however, it’s become apparent that demand will not materialize, and the costs sunk into increasing the highway’s capacity would have been better invested in more sustainable forms of transportation infrastructure, such as rail. However, the public continues to expect four-laning to proceed, and indeed there remains significant public support for four-laning, in part based on expectations. Redirecting dollars at this time with the project half-complete would be difficult politically, to say the least, even if the economic case to do so only gets stronger every day.

It’s therefore important that we get things right the first time, at least as best as we can. Decisions should be made based on the best information available at the time. Ideally, decisions should lead to the creation of the most benefit for those making the decision.

Making Decisions

However, we all know that decisions are rarely made in such a manner, whether they be personal decisions or those made by public bodies or private enterprise. Indeed, short-term gains often win out over long-term benefit, and decisions can be fuelled by a number of factors, including perception, emotion, misunderstanding and even the desire to compromise. None of this makes a particular decision “bad”, but certainly in terms of deriving the most net benefit, some decisions are more ideal than others.

Here’s a quick example. I was hungry today at lunch time as I often am. Anticipating my hunger, I could have packed for myself a healthy lunch, including a salad and juice, which would have addressed all of my nutritional needs, with the added bonus of being “good for me”. In fact, all of the necessary ingredients for a healthy lunch were already purchased by me, and together the costs might totalled around $5. But instead I went out for a meal at a fast food restaurant, and spent $10 on food which generally speaking, isn’t particularly good for me. Why did I do this? Well, maybe I was thinking that I wanted to save the $5 worth of good food for dinner tonight. But we both know that wasn’t the case! My decision was based on my desire to eat junk food, because I enjoy the taste. Was it a bad decision? No. I’m certainly not hungry any more. Was it the most ideal decision I could have made, the one which created the most benefit for me? Uhm…likely not.

We like to think that most decisions made by our elected officials aren’t made in a similar manner to my lunch choice decision, but the reality is that decision-making at all levels are influenced by numerous factors. We can plan to take healthy lunches to work every day of the week, but when it comes to putting the brown bag in the brief case, well, plans sometimes just don’t pan out. And that’s why I wrote earlier in Part 1 of this blog series that implementation is always the hardest part of planning.

Champions and Leaders

Political decision-making is influenced by a number of factors. Individuals who find themselves in decision-making roles will have to balance these factors prior to making any decision. Sometimes, decision-makers take on the role of Leaders, and try to get out in front on certain issues in order to potentially influence decision-making outcomes. Sometimes, leaders and champions arise who do not exercise decision-making authority, but whom nonetheless can influence outcomes.

Elected officials who are champions often run afoul of the electorate for getting too far out in front of particular issues, especially those which contemplate changes which may impact a specific group or number of people. For example, an elected official who champions cutting bus routes in order to save money may take a lot of flack from transit users. To minimize opposition, champions first try to work with those who are affected in an effort to shift opinions, while acknowledging that opinions can only ever be shifted so far.

Elected Officials: Leading or Following?

You may feel that our elected officials should not themselves be leaders or champions on certain issues, and instead should make decisions based on what they perceive to be the will of the people. If a majority of the people want something, elected officials should give it to them. If the people don’t want a certain proposal, elected officials should vote against it. You may have noticed that many of our elected officials (and here I’m not just referring to those in the City of Greater Sudbury, but indeed throughout the world, at all levels of government) do, in fact, act this way, at least on occasion. In a democracy, the fact is that to keep your job as an elected official, it’s not usually wise to upset a majority of voters by consistently acting against their wishes!

I once attended a seminar where a municipal elected official representing his Council candidly admitted to all of those present, “If we took the actions that we needed to take on (a specific issue), you would never vote for us again.” At the time, I found myself in complete agreement with the official. As the years have gone by, however, I’ve changed my opinion, and now only mostly agree. What this official seemed to forget is that sometimes you have to spend the time to build political will.

The Need to Lead

Building political will is an exercise in organizing, educating, influencing and ultimately shifting public opinions. It happens all the time on issues of public interest, sometimes without co-ordination or effort. However, sometimes a great deal of effort is required, and that’s why finding local champions is so important, as they can be the living/breathing/walking embodiment of a particular issue around which opinions are shifted, and political will is built. Of course, they will also be a lightening rod for dissent, which is why becoming a champion is a role which elected officials are often reluctant to undertake. There’s often too much at stake for those whose jobs depend on periodic elections.

Interestingly, though, those truly popular politicians are the ones who consistently take on the role of strong and effective leaders.

Residents of Greater Sudbury, including myself, often express their dissent and dismay with decisions made by our elected officials. But decision-making isn’t easy. I’ve always been under the impression that our elected officials are making decisions based on what they believe to be in the best interests of the public. I suspect most in my community feel the same way. It’s in defining the “best interests of the public” where disagreement tends to occur.

Being a leader is never the safest role anyone can take on, and that’s especially so for elected officials, who have so much at stake. However, by their very nature, our elected officials are all in leadership roles of a sort. We’ve put them in their jobs to make decisions on our behalf – how can they not be leaders?

Well, first of all, leaders lead. They should be taking us to where we need to go. Are our municipal elected leaders doing that?

Municipal Council and Decision-Making

President George W. Bush once famously referred to himself as the “Decider”, for which he was ridiculed. But the fact is that for elected Leaders like Bush, with whom the decision-making buck stopped, the term “Decider” was appropriate.

Of course, there’s no equivalent to a President George W. Bush on our municipal Council. Each of our councillors has one vote, and decisions are determined by a majority of votes cast. There is no one “Decider”. Instead, we see some Councillors take the lead on certain items, building support to achieve consensus (or at least to achieve a majority vote), and then on other issues they may step back and let a different Councillor lead. In this setting, influence plays an important role in decision outcomes.

How does this decision-making process assist or hinder achieving the outcomes for our City which we know we ought to be planning for? Otto von Bismarck once remarked that making laws is like making sausages: it’s better not to see them being made. When it comes to democracy, I’m completely in disagreement with the second part of Bismarck’s quote, but I will admit that it’s hard not to deny the first part.

The decision-making process in place in Greater Sudbury, as in every municipality in Ontario, can be quite tedious at times. However, it is also mostly a transparent and accountable process. That transparency and accountability are sometimes called into question means that the process itself is generally a healthy one. At least we can usually see how the sausages are being made, and cry foul if we think something is wrong with the process.

Along with being dull, the process itself is not particularly swift. Although when a decision is ultimately made, there can be significant impacts which are felt almost right away. Most often, though, even when decisions are made, real impacts are felt by the public only slowly, over time. Incrementally, even.

It’s because of the nature of the local decision-making process that the public is often disengaged from what is going on within the community. Often, it’s only when the bulldozers show up next door that questions about decisions made long ago get asked. “What’s going on?” and “How will this effect me?” are important questions which always deserve answers.

Answers, though, aren’t always as forthcoming as they might be, and that’s when real problems can arise. Take, for example, the residents of Mountain Street below Sunrise Ridge, who have been trying to figure out just what went wrong with the decision-making process which led to the flooding of their homes. The resolution to this issue, if there is one, is one which taxpayers may be on the hook to pay for, due to the decision-making process which led to the situation.

Making the Best Decisions for our Future Needs

With power and authority comes responsibility. We have a pretty good understanding of what our City’s future needs are. Right now, the City is in the process of revising our Official Plan, which is a policy document that guides land uses and development. The Official Plan provides direction and guidance and creates expectations regarding the City in which we will inhabit. It’s a promise to the public that change will occur in a certain way, and that when change does happen, it will generally happen in a planned and responsible manner.

Moving ahead into the future which we can expect, it will be increasingly important for champions and leaders to step forward to create the political will to facilitate the changes that we need to make to our community. There is a general understanding that the status quo can no longer be the model for the way forward, given the significant local, regional and global trends which will impact the City over the next few decades. Leaders must be willing to put our long-term economic interests ahead of short-term concerns. To do this, the public must believe that it is receiving the greater benefit, and lend those leaders the political will necessary to make tough decisions.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)