February 16, 2001
Toronto’s list of urban maladies just keeps getting longer and longer. Multi-million-dollar budget shortfall? Check. Traffic-snarled streets? Check. Growing armies of the homeless? Check. Legions of bad sushi restaurants? Check again.
To all but the last of these complaints, Lawrence Solomon, executive director of the Urban Renaissance Institute on Brunswick Street, thinks he has some solutions. Perhaps surprisingly, his solutions don’t include hiking taxes by 30 per cent, padlocking libraries and community centres, or even screaming abuse outside Mike Harris’s Queen’s Park office.
Instead Solomon offers some radical, perhaps Swiftian, proposals:
1. Transform urban thoroughfares into toll roads.
2. Sell off the TTC.
3. Privatize garbage collection, power and water utilities.
4. Stop whining about amalgamation.
Solomon is a walking contradiction, an environmentalist and anti-nuclear activist who also happens to write a regular column for the National Post’s financial pages. His ideas have been implemented by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, from Jimmy Carter to Margaret Thatcher.
Since writing his 1980 book, Energy Shock, Solomon has been advocating market principles for the energy sector, a pursuit that has led him deep into the swamp of urban social issues. But by uniting urban activism and environmentalism with free market principles, Solomon might be as rare as a spotted owl in a Bay Street bank tower.
"Most people naturally gravitate to cities," says Solomon, speaking from his Toronto office, "Politicians seems preoccupied with dispersing the population through all kinds of mechanisms that discourage urban life-through tax policies, planning rules, development codes, and all kinds of other indirect mechanisms. Without those mechanisms, we would find that we lived in very dense cities because we wanted to." And we’d be polluting the environment less.
It’s a difficult message to appreciate on sweltering August days, when yellow haze blankets the city like a pile of dirty socks. Or when you’re parked on the 401 on a Friday afternoon, idling and swearing along with the thousands of other motorists that surround you.
"Gridlock" is just one of the many serious urban issues that Solomon is trying to solve. And the problem, as everyone knows, is getting worse. In the morning rush hour alone, according to Toronto’s transportation services department, 560,000 people crossed the city’s borders in 1998. Ten years from now, that’s expected to jump to 825,000. "Rush hour" is now 24-7.
Let the market come to the rescue, argues Solomon. "Free roads don’t provide the economic signals needed to determine what roads are needed and when," he recently wrote. "If we tolled our roads, instead of funding them through gasoline taxes, property taxes and general government revenues, we’ d have fewer but better-maintained roads, we’d have fewer two-car families and we’d tend to drive our one car far more economically."
But what about public transit? How is Toronto going to pay for the $300-400 million annual subsidies it gives the TTC to get urban commuters to work? Sell it off, argues Solomon. When the United Kingdom abolished public transit monopolies in the 1980s, ridership went up, and service vastly improved. London’s crumbling rail infrastructure, on the other hand, might suggest some natural limits to this approach.
But some very successful experiments in privatized public transportation have already taken place in Ontario. The most celebrated was Allo Stop Carpooling, the Montreal-based company. And what happened to Allo Stop?
Last year, the Ontario Highway Transport Board forced it to cease its activities in Ontario, after protests from bus companies who didn’t like competition. Proving, once more, that government is often not part of the solution, but part of the problem.
Part two: Financial follies