March 22, 2016

What Rob Ford (RIP) Unexpectedly Taught Me

Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford died at age 46 today. Here’s CBC’s take on it. It’s a gracious and extensive piece that reflects on his personality, accomplishments, tragedies, and skims over or skips the sexism, racism, homophobia, and lifestyle that gave them so much news. It looks they’ve updated it from this morning’s post and it’s both more and less complimentary now. I hadn’t realized how deep was his love for football.
It doesn’t describe how embarrassing his time in office was for many Canadians – especially anyone travelling abroad while he was mayor – or his anti-active transportation stance that has delayed Toronto’s improved, urban greatness for years.
Here’s my take on what’s missing:

  • the protected bicycle lane in the centre of 5-lane Jarvis Street that was ripped out which struck fear in the hearts of active transportation supporters everywhere.
  • the homophobic comments on why City Hall didn’t need to have showers for active transportation commuters.
  • his insatiably addictive personality: he seemed addicted to food, drugs, alcohol, and later to being in the media – his behaviour more outrageous each time in order to get the exposure at the cost of any respect and his reputation.
  • his enabling family and the sad dynamic within it. His downward spiral was always to the advantage of his brother Doug Ford, whose poor behaviour looked good in comparison. I always wondered if their mother was like the mom in that very disturbing Australian film Animal Kingdom about a family gang in the 1980s.

However, Rob Ford changed my mind completely on the structure of regional districts versus mega cities. I used to think Metro Vancouver as a regional district didn’t have enough power or budget to make the decisions it needed to make. Also, that trying to get 21 municipalities, 1 Treaty First Nation, and Electoral Area A to agree on things was cumbersome and need to move faster, at the speed of business today.
I thought the solution was a mega city: 1 mayor for the entire region with a large city council like Toronto’s. Or, reduce the district into 5 municipalities (of course I had ideas on which ones to merge) and a Treaty First Nation. That would at least be more effective than what we have now.
Once Rob Ford was elected, I could see what could happen in the worst case scenario: A suburbanite mayor addicted to drugs, ripping out bike lanes, spewing hatred unprofessionally, and refusing to resign. The suburbanites in the mega city had voted for him and were still fans – he often did what he had promised to do – while the needs of urban Torontonians were neglected.
It also showed me that this was only a glimpse into the rural vs. suburban vs. urban tension. It has not reached its peak. Unfortunately, many issues including water, energy, housing, and transportation will erupt pitting suburban vs. urban or rural vs. urban residents in the future. G-d forbid.
Suddenly my appreciation for Metro Vancouver grew. It still doesn’t have much power (or the budget to go with it) to be truly effective. It still takes a long time to make major decisions – sometimes decades – because so many cities are involved. We have a lot of work to do to improve the governance structure of our transit authority. But it’s our Metro Vancouver.
My mayor looks out for the 10 block radius of our City and co-operates with most of the ones next door. My downtown lifestyle is so different from those on the West Side and in South Vancouver; it’s enough of a challenge to come to agreements with them. At least my City has no Agricultural Land Reserve or highway running through it. Those people are totally different.
Seriously though, last year’s transportation plebiscite showed how where you stand depends upon where you sit (and how you get there). Vancouver urbanists sounded like Ford’s description of Toronto’s “downtown elites” when trying to get people in “the suburbs” (now called “other cities”) to vote Yes. It takes a lot of work to get so many groups to work together. Each City has its own folks it represents from their point of view. But a mega city is not the answer. Thank you Rob Ford for that lesson. RIP.

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  1. It takes a lot of work to get so many groups to work together. Each City has its own folks it represents from their point of view. But a mega city
    is not the answer. Thank you Rob Ford for that lesson. RIP.

    Thanqu Tanya for these comments. I am sorry for Rob Ford but he was oh so willing to follow his demons and he paid dearly for our entertainment.
    I was brought up in Yorkshire where big city was something like half a million people and coming to Vancouver in the early fifties Vancouver wasn’t much bigger: the difference was Hull, were I was born, stopped at its boundaries. Vancouver seemed, in the early ’50’s to go on forever: Marpole was a blur, so too Kerrisdale, UEL, Vancouver Heights to say nothing of Surrey, North and West Vancouver etc.
    I lived in Centro Historico, DF for nearly two years in the late ’90’s with a metro pop of 28m depending upon who you ask. I routinely commuted to UNAM, Coyoacan . . .
    . . . ” were I was a visiting lecturer. UNAM is a magnificent campus UBC could learn much from.
    La Ciudad during the time of Cuauhtémoc, early 1500’s, was an island that has been madly expanding El Monstruo proper, ever since within a pattern of autonomous urban villages, colonias: Azcapotzalco, Tlalpan, Xochimilco etc. etc.
    I was no expert, more an inquisitive interloper, but after the wonderful families, girl friends, Claudia, students (Alejandro, Adrianna), fellow profs. Julio, Hotel Isabel staff (Senorita Marina, Juan y Cedro) that I had to leave, and huge as the city was, and little of it I became familiar with it had a pristine functionality worth emulating.
    Small . . .
    . . . is beautiful!

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      Thank you for sharing your story and link to your blog.
      Because I have a concussion right now, I muted the music, covered the top border that moves from right to left (screens with moving images are not great for me ATM) and tried to read the text on the cherry pink background. In case anyone else with a concussion doesn’t want to take the risk, here’s a great quote from a banner with a blessed and calm black background starkly contrasted with easy-to-read white text:
      “Hopefully, a “balkanized Vancouver” has the potential to encouraging communities with unique identities: stress-free living, less auto-dependence, and modest prosperity.”
      What a lovely vision of urban villages. Are they then more likely to want some of the same big transformations: rapid transit, some mixed use densification and affordable housing, a network of active transportation routes?

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  2. I would greatly favour an elected Metro council over our current diluted version, but that would challenge Victoria, which prefers to maintain a manipulatable organization that shields them from the people on controversial policies. The imposed transit plebiscite was a prime example of that control and blame transfer. Far better to have an elected regional government to take responsibility for regional issues, like transit, and be accountable every four years for a region that produces half the GDP of the province every year than to continue the master-and-leash relationship with the province.
    But a regional government must strike a balance between having enough power to tax and get stuff done, but not so much power to over-invest in the mayor’s office, or to over-ride the municipalities in practice. I see it more as a board of directors represented by population who are on the ballot in every municipal election, but separately from councillors. Ideally, each prospective Metro board member will publish their own regional policy platform and define their role in an individual municipality in the regional context, but also be independent from any political party affiliation. This will emphasize good management over ideology.
    If need be, the chair could rotate every year amongst four councillors chosen by lottery, if the position is seen as too powerful in the Rob Ford sense where an individual could take over. Alternatively, very well defined limits to the mayor’s power could be defined, and the job description should emphasize a balanced regional perspective over local biases.
    Just some thoughts to suggest a unique made-in-Metro-Vancouver elected regional government model is possible.

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  3. Both Calgary and Toronto, 2 big cities over 1 million (well, City of Toronto has 2.8 million that), have a ward system. So those local councillors (in the suburbs) or on whatever issue councillors lobby, may tend lean heavily on supporting their local constituents.
    City of Vancouver does not have a ward system at all.
    By the way the geographic boundaries of Calgary is 800 sq. km. for 1.2 million people.
    City of Vancouver is approx. 600,000 for 140 sq. km. Metro Vancouver with 20+ municipalities approx. size of Calgary. Probably more population.
    Whenever I come back home to City of Vancouver (2nd home to me), it feels like the city is fine-tuning infrastructure by focusing within a smaller distances for improved infrastructure connectivity.
    It’s a very different feeling…than being in Toronto or Calgary. For cycling matters, advocacy loosely at times, is organized by ward. Nothing like cycling straight ahead without much detour, for 1.5 hrs. in 1 direction, and still realize that you are still in the same city.

  4. I think your lesson is a good one to draw from the Rob Ford, but it is not the only one in the story. There are others that transportation activists and other people who seek to change cities without actually running for office themselves can learn from. They are discernible in the answers to the question: how did he ever get elected in the first place, and why did he remain popular with his core support group even as the havoc unfolded?
    It is actually a good time for Rob Ford to come back into public view, even if in memoriam, with the advent of Donald Trump and how progressives are choosing to try to combat him by cutting him down. The rise of Trumpism and the entry into the Mayorship of Rob Ford are not spontaneous events; they are traceable back to what happened before them. They are symptoms of a large groundswell of reactionism to decades of progressive ideology yielding to its inner totalitarian.
    I’ll give you an example. I became a vegetarian when I was about 22, circa 1980. It was hard, because it was a meat-based world back then, but I and obviously thousands of others with the same idea persevered, and now, I’m planning to go out for dinner this week with a friend and each of the 5 restaurants we’re considering has something vegetarian on the menu. As a study in societal change, the steady advance of vegetarianism is very instructive. What is particularly instructive is that although there is fun made of the extremists, and we’re a bit of an archetype, there has never been a backlash. There is a resurgence in meat-eating, yes, in many ways, but it actually absorbs many of the points that vegetarianism originally brought to the table, for example see the biodynamic movement. Vegetarians now have a place at almost any table; even in Alberta for heaven’s sake you can usually get a vegetarian meal. We are not hated (and no I haven’t forgotten kd lang and the whole cattle rancher thing), and many acts of animal cruelty and many volumes of methane gas have (we like to think) been avoided. Again: even if there’s resentment, there is no “rip out the bike lanes” type of movement.
    But… in yesterday’s paper there’s an article about the advent of “meatless mondays” at, I think, BCIT, or was in Langara. Whatever. It seems equality and equal opportunity aren’t good enough. No, someone with a planetary bug in their hair just has to try to make other people’s eating choices for them. They’ve let loose their inner totalitarian, and now… there will be payback. They may win in the short term, and they may convince themselves that a little oppression is worth it, because the planet. But somewhere, because of this action, someone will elect the next Rob Ford. And then, not only will there be rollback of meatless mondays, but somewhere, a farmer’s market will be cancelled, and yada yada yada. The lesson is: the harder you push, the harder the pushback. And it will be right where you least expect it.
    Funnily enough, I think Rob Ford himself learned this lesson, albeit a little late. I don’t think his political opposition has learned it yet.
    Now, don’t get me wrong, Toronto needs bicycle infrastructure and driver ed. And TTC bus driver ed. People who ride bikes in Toronto are INTREPID. And why should they have to be? But being a fierce champion for cyclists who doesn’t respect the other road users is the worst thing any activist could possibly do for them. Advance their needs by all means. But the tighter you try to put a lid on competing needs, the bigger the next Rob Ford is going to be.

    1. I understand and agree with your principle, however I don’t anywhere see anyone’s ability to drive a car being taken away either here or in Metro Toronto. What I do see are/were opportunistic politicians lying to people and scaring them into believing that the desire to have more transportation choices is step one in a plot that is bent on taking away their cars. People downtown might just laugh and shrug it off but those in the ‘burbs eat it up and vote accordingly.
      Rob Ford kept claiming that there was a war against cars going on. An absurd thing to say of course but enough people believed him and voted for him to get him in. The rest is history. Even after his ripping out of bike lanes and cancelling street cars, it was still the worst time to drive in Toronto ever. So, what he thought he was favouring didn’t even get any benefit.
      All the fierce champions of “cycling’ I’ve encountered do not support anyone not respecting other road users. The whole idea behind cycling infrastructure is for civility in transportation. It’s a desire to get away from the wild west competitive mean-spirited culture of traffic that has developed.
      Rob Ford was just like the person forcing meatless mondays on others. And him being booted out of office was the reaction by people who didn’t like having only one single transportation choice.
      Your analogy of vegetarianism is good. To take it further a lot has to do with perspective. From a carnivore’s perspective, an omnivore is a vegetarian and probably hates meat. But in actuality an omnivore likes meat and also likes all foods. Same with transportation. To someone who only drives, they imagine that a multi-modal person must hate cars or something.

    2. “civility in transportation” – good phrase. But isn’t it funny how uncivil the conversation about it for some reason has to be. If you think it isn’t, you must read very little of this blog.
      No, the ability to drive is definitely under attack. People on this very forum consistently have precisely that goal, for example, meet Thomas and taking away free parking. It’s actually not something that isn’t a laudable goal; it’s just that you can get there the smart way or the dumb way.
      There is of course an endless cycle of provocation-reaction as one political regime follows another. Most progressive impulses are the result of oppressive experiences of one sort or another. The perception I think I’m trying to foster is that the progressivist impulses in themselves are often oppressive, but progressivists are oblivious to them, hence wear a mantle of virtue that really, is only convincing to themselves. This lack of self-awareness is why most progressivists cannot see the provocation to which Rob Ford is a response – they can only feel the provocation he generates. And that compromises the success of the progressivist agenda.
      The history of cycling infrastructure in this city is actually also instructive. Back in the 80s (again), we cycling activists were determined to stake our claim on the main streets. “Effective Cycling” and all that. We were the serious, the committed – the commuters, the randonneurs, the racers; the, er, experts. We got honked at a lot, almost died for our beliefs more than once (and some did), and I had to write often to whatever the bus company was called back then.
      There were, however, some smarter people out there, who were not that keen to get onto the main streets and just wanted an easier way to cycle. THEY saw an opportunity to make the roads cycling-friendly where there was no resistance: the side streets; effectively unoccupied territory. I don’t know the whole story as I came and went a bit, but it was not the cycling hotshots who seeded the idea of cycling paths on side streets. It was people who weren’t hotshots and didn’t need to be. The rest of the bicycle network is history – suddenly anyone could ride safely across and around town.
      The bike lanes on the main streets were an easy sell after the side-street system had developed a critical mass of cyclists (and I use the term advisedly). No, I know they weren’t an easy sell per se, but they were easier than they would have been 20 years earlier. And with more considerate implementation even the amount of opposition that there was could have been mitigated. The “in your face” reflex had its way yet again with the installation of the counter at Burrard and Cornwall.
      Unfortunately I think political polarization serves political and economic interests, so leaders are rarely motivated to succeed quietly and kindly.
      But among us followers, there isn’t really any reason not to exercise good manners and empathy in formulating our positions, and it may allow our leaders to do the same. Good manners might have saved Rob Ford a good bit of trouble, and – again the point – might have saved everyone Rob Ford 🙂

      1. I agree. It would be great to live in a world in which you could just politely ask for your needs to be met and they would be provided for. A world in which you didn’t have to be so extremist just to get a bit of stuff done.
        I agree with you how certain approaches turn people off. As everyone is free to use their own style, I don’t see any answer for that other than the listener to learn to separate the message from the speaker. For them to not tar the others with the same brush. I read this blog often enough to see how phrasing style colours the message.
        And this is just folks commenting on a blog. People say stuff. They each have a different style. Some try to quietly plant a seed, others go with the approach to ask for too much in order to get a little.
        I think instead of mocking someone who is trying to make the old ways still work, they should help them accept that the past is the past and that things are different now.
        I disagree that Rob Ford got elected because of overzealous progressives. He got in because of propaganda and lies.

  5. The amalgamation of the 6 cities/boroughs into the larger and current ‘City of Toronto’ by the late 90s PC government of Ontario always had the end of urbanism as at least one of its objectives. Mel Lastman of North York was the first mayor of the larger amalgamated city that sought to assure that the civic ideas and urban ideals would come to an end in Toronto. Jane Jacobs lamented before she passed on that Vancouver had come to carry the mantle for urban ideas in English Canada. Of course a bigger objective in the case of Toronto was also to make the old City of Toronto’s assessment base available to the larger metropolitan region. That BC has “provincialized” the assessment function, as well as taxation regimes makes such a move totally pointless in greater Vancouver.

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