Doug Holyday and the role of council

So the big story is Doug Holyday’s belief that downtown is no place to raise children. Others have already shredded his nonsense, none more succinctly than when Josh Matlow voiced the exasperation on everyone’s minds: “Are you serious?” Surely this is how Buzz Aldrin feels when asked about moon landing hoax theories; when confronted with such ludicrous statements, how can you begin to formulate a reasonable response? Why even try?

But I think the media is missing the real story expressed in Holyday’s statements. Quoth the Star:

Holyday responded: “Well, I certainly think it’s really not the ideal place that people might want to raise their families. But on the other hand, if they do, I’m willing to leave the choice up to them, councillor. I’m not going to dictate to a developer that they must provide 10 per cent of their units in the three-bedroom form when there may or may not be a market for it.” [Emphasis mine.]

The important part isn’t the first or second sentence, it’s the third. Doug Holyday, city councillor, deputy mayor, and former mayor of Etobicoke, doesn’t think it’s his (and by extension, city council’s) role to tell developers what they can or can’t build. So I’d ask him, if developers know what’s best for the city and you’re not willing to “dictate” anything to them, why do you stand for election and why should we elect you when your place on council could just as easily be taken by an ink pad and rubber stamp?

You see councillor, city council’s entire raison d’etre is to dictate things to people and organizations that don’t necessarily want to do those things. If everyone was completely willing and able to do everything required to make Toronto a great city, we wouldn’t need taxes, by-laws, and regulations, would we? But in the real world, any reasonable person would have to admit that there is necessarily a big difference between a developer’s bottom line and the public interest. That’s why we have things like building codes and zoning regulations. If you don’t force developers to build three-bedroom units, how exactly do you expect people to choose whether to live in them? If they don’t exist, there’s no choice to be made.

Besides, you’re not forcing anyone to build anything. Last I checked, each developer chooses whether, where, and what to build; we simply set the rules that they must follow in order to do so. And if you don’t think that’s your job, then what exactly is your job?

Josh Matlow jumps the shark

According to the Star, Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St Paul’s-Busybody) has come to the rescue of hockey-playing kids in the city. It’s currently against a city by-law to play hockey on the street. Scofflaw kids, however, flaunt the law and play willy-nilly on city streets everywhere. Matlow just wants to allow kids to play legally, so he proposes that their parents be able to apply for exceptions to the by-law. They’ll have to get the support of 80% of homeowners on the street. The city would send out staff and equipment to do a traffic study to ensure that the street is below the acceptable traffic threshold of 1,000 vehicles a day and has an average of at least one minute between cars. Staff will evaluate sightlines to ensure that there are no obstructions like trees, hedges, or blind corners that would prevent drivers from seeing children at play. The staff recommendation and full report taking into account all of the above factors would then go to community council and then on to the full city council for final approval.

This proposal, which Matlow seems proud of, is the worst kind of micro-managing. It would be out of place in Singapore, yet seems a strangely fitting policy in the Toronto that often conflates good public policy with slavish adherence to rules. Can you imagine an entire bureaucracy dedicated to deciding whether and where children can set up their nets or shoot a ball against the curb? Apparently, Josh Matlow can.

Okay, I understand the urge to fix a by-law that no one either enforces or obeys. To that end, I’d like to suggest a few more projects for Councillor Matlow to tackle over the balance of his term:

  • Establish jaywalking zones where pedestrians can apply for permits to cross the street mid-block. They’ll need support of 80% of residents and business owners on the street, and city staff will conduct studies on each street to evaluate sightlines and traffic volumes to ensure that jaywalking is safe in any given location. Each approved jaywalking location will be equipped with traffic lights to stop traffic for jaywalkers. Any pedestrians continuing along the sidewalk will also have to stop and wait for the jaywalker signal to cycle.
  • Grant “garbage picking” permits to get around the by-law that prevents people from taking items put out at the curb for collection. Homeowners would apply for permits to allow their garbage to be picked over by passers-by. City staff would do random inspections on at least three different garbage days to ensure that each homeowner’s garbage is indeed worth picking over. Homeowner will need separate permits to allow their garbage to be picked by neighbours, semi-professional scavengers with loaded bikes or carts (who will also be subject to yet another of Councillor Matlow’s special projects), and professionals (i.e., anyone with a pickup truck).
  • Give cyclists licences to lock up their bikes to any handy fixed object on the sidewalk including hydro poles, guy wires, and railings. In any area that lacks enough official bike parking posts, cyclists could apply for an exemption from the by-law that prohibits locking up to anything but an official bike rack or post. Staff would do counts of both bikes and official parking spots on each block and determine by an ISO-approved standard whether bike parking supply is adequate to meet demand. Two different classes of permit will be available: one which grants a blanket exception to all cyclists locking up on one block, and one for individual cyclists that allows them to lock up to any object anywhere in the city.
  • Fix highway traffic jams by establishing a minimum speed limit of 80 km/h on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway. Anyone not driving at least the minimum speed will be fined $50. Fines double during rush hour. Enforce through photo radar. Problem solved.
  • Institute a “mandatory shirts” policy in public parks. Enforce with inspections at each entrance.
  • Create a special traffic enforcement unit that targets only city vehicles that are parked illegally: police cars in bike lanes, works trucks on sidewalks, parking enforcement cars in front of fire hydrants, fire trucks double-parked in front of grocery stores, and so on. Fines will be levied against each offending vehicle’s owner, the City of Toronto. The program will be self-financing.
  • Create the Common Sense Department, reporting to council, with a mandate to head off any councillor’s harebrained schemes before they reach the public. In the last year alone, the CSD would have shielded City Council and the public from wasting valuable taxpayer brain cells on waterfront ferris wheels, pixie dust subways, library closures, and plans to regulate children playing.

If Matlow is able to deliver even half of these proposals, he’ll have a record truly worth running on for his 2014 re-election campaign. Or, dare I say, mayoral campaign?