Monday, June 30, 2008

The trio that is driving transit ... into the ground

Imagine my surprise when I opened the City section of today's Citizen. My surprise was perhaps multiplied because I had actually spent money to buy this edition, Bridgehead's copies having been filtered away.

Crossing five of six columns on the page C1 was the image of three City managers--Mona Abouhinedy, Vivi Chi, and Nancy Schepers--in a Transitway station. They are dubbed "Three Wise Women of City Hall".

The article, which continues on the second page, rotates between patting these women on the head for being successful, reassuring the reader it's not a gender thing (cough cough), and offering unrelenting worship for their meticulousness.


I've come to expect the Citizen's reporting to fall short of where I'd like it go, but such a one-sided story seems to be an endorsement of an apparent flawlessness in the City's Transit "vision". What room is there to criticize the plan if Staff have looked at every detail?

I use the word "vision" loosely, despite the media's relentless reference to a Transit "Plan". A plan, however, would contain detailed costing, timelines, and ridership estimates. In acknowledgement that this is absent, City of Ottawa Press Releases--and even our dictaphobic Mayor--refer to it as a "vision". Which is like calling it a "daydream".

The closest thing to criticism in this article is for the trio's predecessors, who are referred to only as "two white guys" (Rajean Chartrand and Peter Steacy). Bay Ward Councillor Alex Cullen, who chairs the City's Transportation Committee, praises the ladies, saying they differ from their predecessors in that they are not "'over-controlling' of information surrounding their plan, particularly on controversial matters." Indeed, they're not.

These three prefer to merely ignore information they don't like, lest they be accused of controlling it. Council complicitly refuses to insist they provide it.

I speak not of hyperbole. I spoke at length with Vivi Chi at one of the many Open Houses on Transit which have earned these three praise for "openness" in the article. Interestingly, and to their credit, both Nancy Schepers and Alain Mercier had taken the bus to this Open House at Lansdowne Park (I have yet to find a reference to Vivi Chi ever stepping on a bus). Mercier complained at how difficult the transit connection was from OC Transpo headquarters, though I don't think he went so far as to realize that this might be the reason only eight members of the public had been at the Open House there a few days prior.

Now, never minding that the alleged "openness" did not extend to allowing alternate options from being presented at these Open Houses--leaving Councillor Wilkinson to be treated like a blasphemous traitor for parting from canon, despite her proposed map being nearly identical to one of the maps on Staff's own easels.

No, my beef with Ms. Chi--as with most of Council--has to do with buses. Thankfully, the Citizen has started to refer to this proposal as a "bus and rail plan", instead of blindly parroting the popular myth that it suggests that four billion dollars to be spent on rail.

I saw early on that this transit "plan" calls for 63 kilometres of bus Transitway ($900 million), plus $600 million in buses and other bus-related infrastructure. This would be built in the suburbs, to the far reaches of Kanata/Stittsville, Barrhaven and Orleans. When Staff presented the four "options" to Council, they mentioned this bus investment once, briefly, then said they would not raise it again because it was common to all four "options"!

The various reports provided by Staff scarcely mentions this bus investment. One reference in section 3.2 early of one report is explicitly referred to as a "planning assumption" (i.e. not justified; the conclusion of no logically-explained argument).

So I asked Ms. Chi about the blue lines on the map which represented the unbuilt bus Transitway, playing stupid. She told me that Transitway is cheap because all you have to do is lay down some asphalt and you're done. Cheap? Nine hundred million dollars is

I asked why we couldn't simply do today with buses what she plans to do with rail--namely, turning express buses around at Hurdman and Lebreton and forcing people to transfer to a platoon of Transitway buses. She said she was convinced that people will endure a transfer if and only if it is to a "higher order" mode. That is, people will transfer from the Transitway to a Light Rail train because the train is "higher order", but a bus-only trip requires a single-seat ride.

I then asked her why we couldn't build these suburban connections as rail instead. I can't remember which of the common excuses she recited, but the two I've heard before and since were "it's too expensive to build rail to the suburbs" and "there isn't enough density".

But that aside, I asked for her justification for building 63 kilometres of Transitway in the suburbs. What is the cost-benefit? Why were the existing reserved bus lanes insufficient? What is the need? How is busway justified, when the population "isn't dense enough" for rail?

I asked this because of the City's clusterfuck on Woodroffe. Some time ago, a good chunk of Woodroffe Avenue was widened from two lanes to four, with the outer lanes being reserved for bus traffic. As this was a bus facility, these lanes were built with Transit money.

Then, in 2004, for some reason unknown to me, the City built segregated Transitway lanes along the stretch of Woodroffe from West Hunt Club to Fallowfield. This, of course, was also built with Transit funding. Bus riders noticed few differences: the buses along this stretch went no faster than they had been going before (as there was no less non-bus traffic than on the reserved bus lanes), the people who accessed the #95 at the stop in the middle of this stretch could no longer do so, and about 30 seconds were shaved off by the Eastbound bus ride by no longer having to cross at Fallowfield.

Suburban car drivers, however, noticed a vast difference. They now had four lanes, not two, to sprawl through the greenbelt into Downtown.
All paid for with Transit infrastructure funding!

The $900 million investment in Transitway is really a misdirection to repeat the Woodroffe Effect in all our suburbs, making our beloved Staff's "Transit vision" into a "rail and bus and road-widening" plan. Councillors Doucet and Chiarelli acknowledged elements of this argument as they voted--rightly--against it.

But I did not take this for granted that this was a singularly malicious and intentional action on Staff's part. I assume that Staff had done their homework and had come up with a good excuse for this. After all, the
Citizen article says that this trio are "unassuming, exceedingly meticulous and professional", they are praised for "openness, frankness and honesty" and for having "provided as many details as possible at this stage of the process, including costs"--not counting what the women say about themselves.

So, in her defense, what did Ms. Chi's workbook have to say in defense of this busway investment?

We figure," she said, burning those two words into my mind, "that people in the suburbs would want to upgrade to a Transitway in the next 25 years." I was floored. The last bit is paraphrased, but I assure you that nine-hundred million dollars of infrastructure investment is being justified with "we figure."

She wasn't even going to give me the courtesy of some bullshit brushoff excuse, like a reference to Chamin Appuhamy, the baby who was killed when the car carrying him was struck by a bus while stopped in a bus lane. Well, credit that to her "openness and honesty". And credit must go to Council for being so explicitly and willfully blind to not notice this!

Councillor Cullen still says it will cost another $4 billion to convert these currently-unbuilt busways to rail, despite Staff having since focused the estimate to $1.5 billion since the $4 billion figure was first floated. No estimate, however, has been provided for the cost of building rail to the suburbs without first building busways. Councillor Leadman had produced an easy-to-follow report (which seems to have disappeared from the internets) for which she sought out these details for herself, despite Staff's insubordinate refusal to assist her in its preparation. (To top it all off, Staff have told Councillor Leadman that they plan on building these bus connections in the first five years of the plan,
before solving the downtown mess!)

After a community association meeting, I asked my councillor, Diane Holmes, why she wasn't following Councillor Leadman's lead by insisting that Staff provide a costing out of extending rail to the suburbs. Councillor Holmes said that it would cost too much to build out that far. Funny--how does she know this when
staff hasn't provided Council with a cost estimate? I mean, they looked at a fucking bus tunnel, for crying out loud! How can rail to the suburbs be less worthy of consideration than that?!?

All this to say that these women's success is most certainly not a "gender thing". These three women--"two of whom are visible minorities", as the politically-correct article helpfully points out--are clearly able to pull the wool over Councillors' and citizens' (and Citizen's) eyes not only as good as, but much better than the "two white guys" who came before them.

Taxpayers, unfortunately, will be left with nothing but a Mess Transit Plan.

- RG>

Monday, June 23, 2008

New Swap Box on Gladstone, part II

Previously on New Swap Box on Gladstone, a pink swap box was installed on Gladstone at Percy, to the delight of the author.

And now the denouematic outcome...

As had been mentioned by the couple gawking the pink swap box the last time I saw it, there was, in fact, a perspex swap box kitty-corner to it with a vase and flowers inside. Very cute, although I never got around to contributing any flowers myself before it got removed:

Back at the pink corner, there was bad news, good news, and more bad news.

The bad news was that the pink box had been destroyed. All that was left was the backboard with a giraffe telling us "improving + beautifying our neighbourhoods is up to us to do" (see photo in previous blog entry) and a side panel which read "treet rt is not a rime". The good news was that there was a new swap box--Art Exchange Box #2--installed right next to it:

The other bad news is that the new box was already damaged, too.

Luckily, the bottom piece was still on the street corner, and the box was well built, with a rabbet that allowed me to wedge it back in and tie it together with a used inner tube I had with me (I swear; those things have a million uses!):

Four days later, I returned to see it still intact. So maybe the vandalism was just a one-time thing. Someone else tied a scarf around the box, and a bunch of stuff was inside. Not having any art to exchange, I think I left it without swapping anything, though I would have cleaned it of any trash:

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and ten days after the new box had been ripped off the post as well:

Lookin' forward for the next one!

- RG>

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Conservative Party vs. the nail

There is a saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. Unfortunately, our government not only has an arsenal of hammers, but it sends questionnaires out to citizens asking the public's advice on which hammer to use.

I received this one such questionnaire earlier this year, and I was floored (click on any image to enlarge):

The big question asks whether "I think thieves and vandals should serve their sentences in jail."

Prison time for "thieves and vandals" draws up images of the guy who (literally) got 25-to-life for stealing a slice of pizza. But read the smaller print, which informs citizens that "The Conservative Government believes that serious offenders should be held accountable for their actions." So which is it--Serious offenders or thieves and vandals?

I was so incensed by this tough-on-crime mantra that I decided to write a letter. By hand: (as always, click to enlarge; the yellow highlighting is added after scanning for this blog entry)
Aside from playing out my 'credentials', I scorn him for not giving any space for comments. A yes/no checkbox is hardly "consulting" the community, and he could receive any number of "no" responses and still stand up in the House of Commons and say "Such-and-such many people replied to my survey saying that they want..." &c.
But I try to give him the benefit of the doubt. I figure, hey, this guy's a conservative, let him at least explain how this policy will save taxpayer money and reduce crime. My main concern is that we keep throwing resources at ways of putting more people into prison, while wholly ignoring the services that deal with people when they come out. That does nothing to discourage recidivism.
My name and address are blacked out to protect the guilty :P.

Naturally, once I had written this letter (and sent it off postage-free), I more or less forgot about it. I also forgot about the fact that MPs are compelled to reply to correspondence. (I recently e-mailed my MPP, and I got a reply e-mail asking for my address so they could send me a response. Gah!)

From the get-go you could tell he didn't write the letter, because he had crossed out my full name and scribbled my first name above it. To be honest, I think that was a decent gesture on Hawn's part, without treating you like a child.

But substantively, he not only confirms my fears, but brings out even more crazy shit that I didn't expect in the first place! "Lenient sentences are most certainly taken into account by criminals who plan their crimes" he says, providing no evidence. He then trots out the "think of the children" argument, and talks about some policies to help addicts, which will probably be left underfunded and unsupported in practise.

But he really surprises me when he announces the "reverse-onus" law for gun crimes. In case you're not familiar with the term, "reverse-onus" means guilty-until-proven-innocent. And in case you're not familiar with the Charter of Rights, it is totally unconstitutional (see Charter section 7(d)). The fact that the Conservative Government wants to do away with due process and the rule of law scares the shits out of me.

The letter continues:
To his credit, Hawn addresses my concern that punishment is only a deterrent if you think you're likely to get caught. He addresses it by saying the Government is spending $161 million to put a thousand more police on the streets in hopes to increase the "perception of the enforcement of laws". Again--hammer, nail.

Unfortunately, this still will do little to reduce crime, while doing lots to spend taxpayer money and remind us that the State is supervising our every move.

Mr. Hawn's letter, just like Canada's 'correctional' system, completely ignores the fact that when you put more resources into sending people to jail, you need to put (at least) equal amounts of resources into dealing with when they come out. The Conservative Government policies which Hawn propounds in his letter will only exacerbate this problem.

When he says "the best way to prevent crime, be that jail time, community service or house arrest," Hawn shows that he completely misses my other point that punishment is not the only way to prevent crime. That, as can be explained patiently, is insane.

I'm glad I didn't just dismiss the leaflet, but instead tried to engage in an intellectual debate on the merits of prison. It really gave me an insight into how little intellect is being used to run this country. Shit.

- RG>

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Finally, a label for me

When I was in grade 1, they pulled me out of class a couple of times to have me fill out some multiple-choice quizzes, then they gave me the option of changing schools.

Having no reason to think this was unusual for a child of that age, I thought nothing of it. I was given the choice between my then-current school--a French-language public school a kilometre away--and an English-language one downtown. My next-door neighbour went to the one downtown and I didn't like French classes (hey, I was six!), so I chose to change schools.

They told me I was given this option because I was "gifted", and I ended up staying in the gifted programme until the end of public school. I never really understood what it meant to be "gifted", and didn't really care to figure it out. The meaning was never evident, because I had no reference point: save the first grade, I only ever experienced the gifted programme. So any description of the term would have to rely on what others told me.

I was occasionally told that being in the gifted programme was like being in special ed, but for people who learn faster instead of slower than normal. I never internalized this description because it sounded like a roundabout way of saying you're smarter than others. I only like to sound arrogant when it's fairly clear I'm being sarcastic.

Despite this vague description, we were told as children that being gifted doesn't mean we're smarter, just that we learn differently. (I'm sure the kids in special ed were told the same...) This paradigm of "everybody is equal, but different" is something I've internalized and continue to live by.

Today in my apartment (which by coincidence is just around the corner from the school where I entered the gifted programme), I wondered once again what everybody had meant when they said I was "gifted." With the power of the Internet, however, I could find an answer to that question readily. Naturally, the first place I turned to was Wikipedia.

I was struck by the section "Characteristics of giftedness". So struck, in fact, that I stopped reading the article to write this blog post.

I've had plenty of personality tests, horoscopes, and aptitude tests based on ambiguously-worded questions, but never before have I seen something describe me as well as those short paragraphs. And I don't think it's just selection bias. Sparing the details, the first paragraph is entirely accurate, and I am often distracted by my excellent hearing.

The reason this is important to me is that I've never encountered a label that managed to fit me. Even literal ones, like "cyclist", I challenge. I define a "cyclist" as a person who is riding a bicycle. Right now, I am lying in my bed writing an entry on my blog. I'm not cycling, so to say "I am a cyclist" would merely be an approximation. RealGrouchy is a handle I use on the Internet to project a certain side of myself, but again it's an approximation--there is much about me that has not been reflected by RG's ramblings.

The more ambiguous labels I dismiss outright--ones like "left-wing", "progressive", "conservative", etc. What is meant by these labels? They can mean different things to different people (unless you're Ottawa Police Chief Vern White, who insists every word and symbol means to everyone else exactly what it means to him). For example, the term "liberal" referred to free-market type thinking in its earlier application--the opposite of what it means now.

Applying these types of labels also comes with a tacit expectation that you'll live up to them. Am I an environmentalist because I don't own a car? Such logic can stretch the "environmentalist" label a bit too far. I ride a bicycle mainly because it is logistically, economically, socially and time efficient. If sustainability is a corollary to efficiency, then good for the environment. I am able to live my life fully without owning a car, and my life is that much less complex for doing so. I could say the same for alcohol, coffee, and religion. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I happily lived my life without an mp3 player, but the phone I got happens to play mp3s, so now I can listen to music more.

As another example, I would say that I do not consider top-down hierarchies to be worthwhile (and perhaps hierarchies of any sort), but to call myself an "anarchist" would cause others to associate me with other "anarchists" more than with what the term sets out to describe. Heck, get a load of the rap that communism gets, simply because Russia and China called themselves "communist". The difference between denotation and connotation is a fundamental one when you strive to communicate clearly.

The only labels I would apply to myself are those which are so self-evident as to be rhetorical. I'm human. I'm a North-American, middle-class, white male. Yawn. None of those are likely to change in the foreseeable future.

All this is to say that I was quite thrilled to find a label that fits me like a glove. Not that it changes who I am. It's a descriptive label, not a proscriptive one.

Now that I can go on in life knowing that "gifted" is a label that fits me accurately, I will nevertheless continue to think of myself as Arthur Dent does: "more differed from than differing." I'm not an extraordinary person, but an ordinary person who may do or experience extraordinary things. I think that most people I encounter are also extraordinary in their own ways, and if I see someone doing an ordinary thing, that doesn't mean they're capable of nothing more.

Plus, you'd would have to be a real jerk to go around telling people you're "gifted".

- RG>

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Thought of the [undefined period of time] #9

In French, the word « association » produces the "ss" sound three times, each with a different letter combination.

[Previous undefined period of time: 2 years, 8 days (and change)]

- RG>

Monday, June 09, 2008

Car crashes into Dominion Chalmers

Live from Centretown...

Just as I was leaving work today, (around 17:40), there were a few police cars zooming around. I heard sirens in another direction, too, so I decided to check it out.

At first I could only see a bunch of police cruisers and a fire truck. There were a bunch of cops interviewing people, plus a bunch of onlookers. Traffic on O'Connor is down to one lane (which made it very difficult for an ambulance to get to the scene).

After ensuring the way was clear and no more emergency vehicles were trying to get through, I crossed and saw a red car that had launched itself diagonally onto the lawn in front of the Dominion-Chalmers United Church. It didn't look like it hit the wall, though.

The sidewalk wasn't blocked off to pedestrians, as we can tell from the three we see here passing by the car. These pedestrians were obscuring the view of a cyclist sitting down on the sidewalk on the other side of the car, apparently with another person. I didn't take a photo of it for the sake of those people's privacy.
A lady standing at the corner told me that she saw the whole thing, and that the driver of the red car sped down O'Connor through Lisgar against the red light, while another motorist was hurrying to catch the tail end of the green light on Lisgar. I couldn't quite make out exactly what the lady was telling me, but apparently the owner of the red car was going so fast that the car took over half a block to come to a stop.

Considering the sidewalks on both sides were still open, I suspect that nobody was seriously injured. I hope that the cyclist there was only helping some other people, and that no cyclist or pedestrian got struck in the middle of this mess.

Hopefully the asshole who sped through the red light gets his license revoked.

- RG>

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Streetcar ties under Bank St.?

On my way home from work today, I went to check out the construction on Bank Street. According to the City's Road Work and Street Closures page, it will be closed off until June 8.

I got more than I bargained for. With my keen eye, I noticed some wood about a foot or so under the surface on the West side of the pit. I am speculating that this is the remnants of old streetcar ties.

I've got a photo album for the Bank Street reconstruction project, and an older one with photos of the Wellington-Laurier section of Bank Street that was done over the previous two years. (Since I didn't go that way very often, I didn't have many photos of that area)

I've had mixed luck embedding Picasa photos in my Blogger entries, but here goes. Unlike the Blogger images, where you can simply click the image to zoom, you'll have to follow the link to the Picasa page and click "download" to view the full image.

You can also just go to the gallery and view the whole set of photos. I have captions on each photo describing what they are. The greater variety of photos in the gallery also provide better context.

Assuming these are streetcar ties, it would be great if they could be preserved!

- RG>