Lawrence Solomon: Toronto’s not-so-tiny but nearly perfect mayor

(Jan.08, 2010) So far he’s following urban guru Jane Jacob’s play book.

David Crombie used to be called the “tiny perfect mayor” of Canada’s largest city. Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, may not be tiny, but he’s shaping up to be something close to perfect.

Maybe it’s because I live in the wrong part of town — in downtown Toronto’s Annex district — but I have yet to meet a single neighbour who is proud of Rob Ford, or who can even pronounce his name without grimacing. The few neighbours who have privately admitted to voting for him — for fear that a more loathsome mayoralty candidate might prevail — did so with a sense of shame.

Rob Ford is antithetical to the anti-car Annex, which has Canada’s highest concentration of writers, artists, university profs and other pinkos. Disqualifying him further in the eyes of Annex residents, Ford is fat and suburban.

“So, what do you think of him,” my neighbours ask, knowing that I write on urban issues and that I also work for Energy Probe Research Foundation, the environmental group founded by the Annex’s most illustrious resident ever, urban guru Jane Jacobs.

“So far, Ford is near perfect,” I answer, as I have continually since his election in October. “Ford may not have an environmental bone in his body but he’s pretty much gone about things as Jane Jacobs and Energy Probe would have liked.”

The biggest knock against Ford is his opposition to Transit City, the previous mayor’s grand plan to bloat the city’s public transportation system. Ford gets top marks from me there. I have opposed Transit City from the start as a financially ruinous boondoggle that will not only harm the city’s economic viability but also lead to sprawl — unbeknownst to most, politically driven public transit projects, as opposed to those driven by true passenger demand, have driven sprawl over Toronto’s history.

What of Ford’s promotion of subways instead of mega-transit? While I’m doubtful about the first subway route that Ford is looking at, I’m encouraged by his upcoming discussions with the province over how to finance subway infrastructure using private funds. The approach they will be pursuing — selling the individual subway stations to retailers able to capitalize on the foot-traffic that the subways will attract — comes straight out of The Next City, a magazine that Energy Probe published. “The world’s subway systems should borrow a page from the subway’s past and the airport’s present, and turn stations into profit centres by selling the street-level floor space to retailers who would know what to do with the traffic,” recommended the magazine’s cover story, “Coming to a subway near you.”

While privatized subway stations would be a half-measure — in the ideal Jane Jacobs world, the entire public transit system would be privatized and run for profit — a middle-of-the road Ford approach would be miles ahead of any of his predecessors.

For all his lack of exterior polish and inability to slick talk, Ford has so far demonstrated the freshest mind of any mayor in recent history. His simple little idea to colour-code street curbs — red means no parking, green means park and pay and yellow means read the signs — will inexpensively relieve sidewalks of cluttering and confusing signs.

But Ford has big ideas too, like replacing today’s often hellish public housing with the superior system of old — rent vouchers that would allow the private sector to house the poor with more dignity and in more safety. Here again he follows the footsteps of Jane Jacobs, who cut her teeth fighting the dreary public housing projects that do so much to degrade cities and dull the human spirit.

Ford’s general approach to obtaining a smaller, nimbler, more empowering and more community centred city with big government less in your face is to reduce the city’s workforce along with taxation.

Once again he is following the Jane Jacobs approach by, for example, privatizing garbage collection to lower costs and improve service and selling off surplus real estate to raise funds and eliminate dead government space — all vital ingredients in the making of a liveable city. He could and should go much further, though, by privatizing Toronto Hydro and Toronto Water, and lowering property taxes, not just freezing them, as he plans.

Ford’s many critics claim he cannot cut taxes without cutting needed services. On the contrary, by privatizing, the quality of our neighbourhoods would improve as service levels soar, particularly if services are privatized at the neighbourhood level. Take snow clearing, which overwhelms city crews whenever a major snowfall occurs. As the city’s staff diminishes in number through attrition, Ford should contract out snow removal, beginning with neighbourhood streets. These can be bid out to neighbourhood gas stations or other businesses willing to add a plow to their existing vehicles. As it is, Toronto already has numerous private fleets servicing residential and commercial customers.

You want service? Toronto’s Monster Plowing Company not only provides a guaranteed service, its GPS-monitored trucks will automatically send you a text or email telling you when its truck arrives at and leaves your property. Or, watch its truck’s progress in real time, on its website. More service?

Monster can also clear your sidewalk and entrances, and make them safe with environmentally friendly de-icing agents. Private services such as Monster and the myriad others that would spring up to meet neighbourhood needs would invariably outcompete the city’s inflexible, unionized municipal workforce, saving taxpayers money and improving their quality of life.

Will Ford succeed in his ambitious plans to downsize the city bureaucracy and supersize the benefits of urban life? Ultimately, that depends on the support he gets from the citizenry, because there’s only so much he can do — in Toronto, the mayor has but one vote among many.

If you like his Jane Jacobs approach to date, let him and your councillor know, and if you have ideas that he or other Canadian mayors should pursue, let me know. Since Ford seems to be open minded, I plan to write regularly on reforms that he, along with other mayors, should consider. It will be my honour to pass along the best of the ideas I receive from you, for the consideration of other readers and the powers that be at City Hall.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute and the author of Toronto Sprawls (University of Toronto Press).

Lawrence Solomon, Financial Post, January 8, 2010

This entry was posted in Cities, Regulation, Sprawl, Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

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