Thinking #Crackstarter? Why not donate to a deserving charity instead?

Want to donate to a better cause than drug dealers via #Crackstarter? Might I suggest my @ campaign?
Greg Burrell

This whole thing with the Rob Ford crack video is getting ridiculous.

I’m assuming if you managed to find my site that you know about what’s been going on over the last few days, but just in case you haven’t, here’s a recap. Last week, Gawker published a story that they had been contacted by drug dealers claiming to have a video of Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. A few news outlets picked up on the story but none would pony up the $200,000 the crack dealers want for the video, so a “grassroots” campaign (affectionately called “Crackstarter”) has sprung up to raise the money and make the video public. I didn’t link to it, but you can find it easily enough if you really want to.

As of publishing this article, Crackstarter has raised $100,000. I have a lot of thoughts about the 4,000 people who decided to give money to this, for crack dealers and public humiliation. I certainly have no love for Rob Ford, and there’s lots of reasons I’d like to see him thrown out of office, but I think we can make better use of our money.

A while ago on Twitter I half-jokingly suggested donating to my Ride for Heart campaign instead of giving money to Crackstarter. The Ride for Heart raises money for the Heart & Stroke Foundation, funding research that helps people survive critical illness and live longer, fuller lives. I could be biased, since I am currently raising money for Heart & Stroke, but personally I think your donation will do more good given to Heart & Stroke than given to crack dealers.

If heart disease research isn’t your thing, here are some more local charities that are doing great work in our community, who could really use your donation.

Toronto People With AIDS Foundation: PWA is a support service for more than 15,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Toronto, representing a quarter of Canada’s HIV-positive population. In 2011, Rob Ford was the only member of Toronto City Council to vote against accepting a grant for HIV/AIDS programs in the city.

Nellie’s Shelter: Nellie’s provides emergency shelter to women fleeing violence, oppression, poverty and homelessness. To expand their services and offer support to more women and their families, Nellie’s is launching a campaign to build a new shelter. In 2008, Rob Ford was arrested and charged for a domestic dispute allegedly arising from a complaint from his wife. Charges were later dropped, but in 2011 police were again called to Ford’s home for a domestic abuse complaint.

My First Wheels: My First Wheels accepts donations of lightly-used children’s bicycles and distributes them to children in low-income neighbourhoods through community partnerships. Many low-income families cannot afford to purchase bicycles for their children, and many cannot afford recreation activities for their children at all. Rob Ford voted to impose new fees on sports facilities in Toronto, and is a well-known and vocal opponent of cycling and cycling initiatives.

Do you have a charity you’d like to support, instead of giving money to Crackstarter? Please post links in the comments, and consider giving to one of these worthy causes.

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Dear Toronto City Council: Support Bixi

Dear Councillors,

Like many fellow residents who you will have heard from recently, I am writing in regards to Toronto’s Bixi bike share system. I wish to request that you explore options to relieve Bixi’s current unsustainable financial situation, and work towards maintaining this important part of our public transportation network.

In less than two summers since launch, over a million trips have been made on Toronto’s Bixi system. These million trips would have been made by car on Toronto’s most congested streets, by transit on our most overcrowded routes, or not made at all without the Bixi option. Nearly 5,000 annual subscribers support the system’s operations, and businesses across the city are calling for stations to be located in their neighbourhoods because they know that Bixi brings customers to their doorsteps. In terms of usage and popularity, Bixi has been an overwhelming success.

However, establishing Bixi comes with a high capital cost, and we have heard recently that these costs are financed nearly 100% by loans guaranteed by Toronto. Supposedly, the not-for-profit operation struggles to make payments on these loans after understandably slow winter months. Rather than extending or guaranteeing more loans that will make the operation less viable, Toronto should invest in this valuable public service by purchasing it outright. The purchase of Bixi’s outstanding debt would be no more than a footnote in the city’s budget, a tiny fraction of the cost of new transit vehicles and other transportation infrastructure. Recent studies have estimated that each kilometre travelled by bicycle represents about 31 cents in benefits to the local economy.

Toronto should then include expansion of Bixi as part of Councillor Minnan-Wong’s recent motion to develop Complete Streets Guidelines for the city. Cities all over the world have been implementing bike sharing in their complete streets initiatives, and Bixi is widely known as one of the highest quality and most reliable systems.

We should be proud to have this system on our streets, and we should be proud to own it.

External links:

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Talking about the Big Move

This morning, the Toronto Region Board of Trade recommended a series of revenue tools for the GTA, to raise revenues for Metrolinx’ Big Move transit expansion in the area.

Within a few hours, the Toronto Star published an article full of suburban drivers’ negative comments on new taxes for transit, complete with inaccurate quotes from “people at the mall” about why they shouldn’t have to pay for what they’ve been told is someone else’s problem.

Why do we keep letting our media outlets get away with this sensationalism, pitting drivers against transit users and downtowners against suburbanites in a dreamt-up War On The CarTM? This kind of reporting doesn’t serve anyone’s interests, and plays into the political games and populism that have deprived the Toronto region of serious talk about transportation for nearly 40 years.

We should be celebrating the recommendations today. Our regional and provincial governments have been struggling with the tools to fund these significant transportation projects, and in spite of the ramblings of a few loudmouth politicians, today the region’s business leaders agreed that we’re on the right track. Our region’s economy won’t shrivel up and die because we agreed to pay for transit expansion. What it won’t survive is continuing to do nothing.

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On the economics of commuting

A little while back, news came out that Metrolinx is considering charging for parking at GO train stations. Expanding transit is going to cost a whole lot of money, and the regional transportation agency is evaluating different options to pay for it. As the news made the rounds on Twitter, an excellent discussion on Twitter about the motivations of transit users ensued:

FInally! @ considering charging for GO parking. Do it. #TOPoli #onpoli
Nadia S

(for full effect, open the original tweet)

In very basic economics, the demand for a commodity is a function of the supply of that commodity and the price paid to acquire it. The supply-demand model dictates that if the supply is held constant, a drop in price leads to an increase in demand. We could use the supply-demand model to compare commuting choices, given some assumptions:

  1. Commuters must choose either to drive or to take transit. Other choices, such as walking, cycling, telecommuting or relocating, are available to a much smaller population and don’t affect this discussion.
  2. Commuters can choose either to drive or to take transit on any given day. That is, they own cars. Of course not everyone owns a car (yay!) but this is a reasonable assumption for suburban commuters.
  3. Commuters who drive to and park at a GO train station are considered transit users in this analysis. They pay a fare, take up a spot on a train, and don’t bring their cars into downtown Toronto.
  4. People in this analysis commute from the suburbs into work in downtown Toronto. This is of course not realistic – there are many employment centres throughout the GTHA, but the highest density and greatest source of traffic and congestion is downtown Toronto. Also, when congestion is eased in this direction, it improves throughout the area.

We can easily see that increasing the price of transit while keeping the price of driving the same causes some people to drive who chose transit before. Of course, the real world is nowhere near so simple. Let’s discuss some more features of the analysis:

  1. The “price” of commuting is more than just the dollar cost. There is also the time spent commuting, the relative stress of different options, as well as traffic congestion and vehicle crowding, personal safety, stigma, personal preference, etc. The value of each of these components will be different for every individual, but we can look at trends.
  2. The “supply” of driving and transit are fixed in the short term. Supply of driving is available road and parking space, and we’re not building more roads in downtown Toronto (nor should we). Supply of transit is more complex, including vehicle frequency and reliability, and other factors. Metrolinx is expanding transit, but this happens over a long enough time frame that we can consider it fixed.
  3. “Demand” is quite simply the number of people who choose each method. A person can either drive or take transit, but not both, and not neither (see above).

It’s important in looking at this to consider that “price” is not just the cost of gas or price of fares, but that is one of many components that each person determines for themselves. Just to drive home the point, let’s call it !price (“not price”) throughout the analysis. Regardless of the !price each person arrives at, a rise in the dollar cost corresponds to a !price increase, overall. Although the magnitude will be different for each person, there would be very few people who interpret paying more money as a reduction in !price.

If Metrolinx decides to start charging for parking, then the !price of transit rises. The supply of transit is fixed, so the demand for transit drops. On the day that parking fees are implemented, many transit users drive to work out of protest, but many return to transit after a few days out of familiarity, comfort, stress, or other factors, realizing why they chose to take transit in the first place.

This works in the other direction, too. If the !price of driving rises, many commuters take transit for a few days, but many return to driving due to convenience, crowding, extra time spent commuting, or frustration with transit conditions. In general, a !price increase of one commute mode while the other stays the same leads to the equilibrium shifting towards the other commute option.

What about some of the other revenue options being discussed?

  • New and/or increased taxes: Whether sales taxes, income taxes or property taxes, the !price of both commute options generally stays the same, so there is no shift in demand. Exceptions are fuel and parking taxes, which push up the !price of driving.
  • Vehicle registration fees: We’re assuming that people in this analysis own cars no matter which way they get to work. Registration fees make owning cars more expensive for everyone, but this is a sunk cost and doesn’t influence demand in the short term.
  • Road tolls, congestion charges: Obviously, tolls increase the !price of driving. If tolls are implemented on freeways and around the downtown area, people who drive to suburban transit stations will avoid the extra fees. Another option is distance-based road pricing, in which tolls are collected based on distances driven. This would raise the !price of driving more than the !price of transit, since people who drive all the way to work drive longer distances.

In the long term, an increase in demand puts pressure on the supplier to increase the supply. In this case, the supplier of both commute options is the government, and to simplify things we assume that government has limited resources and can either build more roads or more transit, but not both. For example, if there is more demand for driving, there is more political pressure to build roads instead of transit.

Of course this analysis isn’t perfect – I’m not an economist. People smarter and better paid than me are studying and releasing reports on these things all the time.

In the end, any one funding tool on its own won’t solve Metrolinx’ revenue problems. The solution will have to consider some mix of many revenue streams. To be successful in the long term, the funding model must encourage people to drive less and take transit more, not the other way around. And dismissing any individual revenue option for purely political reasons is the wrong discussion to be having.

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2013 Metropass update

Last year, when I did this, I made myself a handy template so that I could just punch in the new numbers when the TTC inevitably hikes fares every year. Most years, anyway. If you want to read about the mechanics of the Metropass tax credit, see my 2012 discussion here, or head over to the Canada Revenue Agency‘s website to read about the credit.

Effective January 1, cash fares stay at $3.00, but tokens and passes are going up by 2-5% depending on fare type, and Canada’s personal tax exemption rate for 2013 is staying the same at 15%. How does this affect our chart this year?

Fare Type Monthly Cost Cost Net of Tax Credit Ticket/Token Fare Cost Equivalent Trips in Tokens
Metropass $128.50 $109.22 $2.65 42
MDP Metropass $117.75 $100.08 $2.65 38
Post-Secondary Metropass (for low-income students)1 $106.00 n/a $2.65 40
Post-Secondary Metropass (for higher-income students)1 $106.00 $90.10 $2.65 34
Student2/Senior Metropass $106.00 $90.10 $1.80 51
Student2/Senior MDP Metropass $95.75 $81.38 $1.80 46

1There is only one post-secondary Metropass, but I have listed it twice because there is no benefit to claiming the credit for individuals (likely students) who earn less than the basic personal tax exemption, which is $11,038 for 2013.
2High school students probably can’t benefit from the tax credit themselves, but parents can claim the tax credit for passes for their children under the age of 19.

In this chart, the number of equivalent trips is the number of trips you would have to make in a month before buying the listed Metropass becomes a better value than just buying tokens or tickets instead. The pass-vs-token numbers are essentially unchanged from last year, meaning the TTC has set their prices so that monthly passes are really only a good deal if you do a lot more than just take transit to work, even if you sign up for the discount plan. Not exactly incentivizing transit use, but then again the system is overburdened as it is, so maybe the TTC sees that as a good thing.

Posted in Finance, Living, Toronto | 1 Comment

Let’s jump into the helmet debate, shall we?

Nothing seems to inspire more heated debate among cycling advocates and enthusiasts than helmets. Whether they should be worn by law, by suggestion or at all is a hot discussion topic these days. Everyone has an opinion.

This week the long awaited Coroner’s Report on Cycling Safety was released in Ontario. Ontario’s Coroner’s Office studied cycling deaths over the last few years and made 14 recommendations to improve cycling safety in the province. Among them was a suggestion that helmet use may reduce deaths, but came with a recommendation to study the real impact of a mandatory helmet law.

I always wear a helmet when I ride. I have since I was a teenager and the under-18 helmet law was enacted. I haven’t ever heard a good argument against helmet use, only vanity and machismo. I encourage everyone to ride with a helmet, because they do reduce injuries in many situations.

However, I am opposed to mandatory helmet laws for adult cyclists. I said so on Twitter yesterday:

Whether it’s mandatory or not, I’m going to continue wearing my helmet. I’ve seen too many heads cracked open already. #bikeTO
Greg Burrell

But I don’t think they should be mandatory any more than wearing one while walking. #bikeTO
Greg Burrell

This led to the usual question: if mandatory helmets have improved motorcycling safety, why shouldn’t we also mandate bicycle helmets?

First, while they both have two wheels, the similarities between motorcycle and bicycle end there. Motorcycle helmets are rated to absorb impact in a collision at highway speeds, at which motorcycles are designed to operate. Not wearing one and being in a collision means almost certain death.

Bicycle helmets are not designed for the same sort of impact. They are designed to absorb a fall from roughly rider height against a flat or curb-shaped surface. In other words, falling off your bike. They are not designed to protect against the sort of collisions that kill cyclists: being struck by a car at high speed, or being crushed.

@ How likely should an injury/fatality be before we use safety apparatus? Everyone calculates this differently, some ignorantly.

@ I’d say if the benefit of the safety equipment outweighs the detriment of decreased participation. Don’t know how to measure tho.
Greg Burrell

So how do you determine when it’s worthwhile to mandate safety equipment? It’s a fair question.

Road cycling is an activity where greater numbers mean greater safety, much more so than many other road users. If a driver sees a few cyclists once in a while, they’re an unexpected nuisance, an obstacle to avoid. With greater numbers, drivers see cyclists more frequently, and learn to expect us and respect our right to share the roads. That makes everyone safer. With a mandatory helmet law, some cyclists will choose not to ride, and some people who are considering cycling will decide not to take to two wheels. That means fewer cyclists on the roads.

Currently, cycling is on the rise in Ontario. All cyclists are safer because of the increased participation, although some individuals are less safe because they choose not to wear a helmet. If helmets become mandatory, fewer cyclists will ride, and those who do will be less safe because of it. See where I’m going with this?

Furthermore, with fewer people cycling, political pressure to improve cycling infrastructure decreases. Many of the Coroner’s better recommendations, like more complete road planning for all users, improving early age cycling safety education, and enacting a one-metre passing rule become less likely to be implemented. These are the things that will really make a difference.

That’s why I say mandatory helmets for adults will result in an overall safety reduction. Those of us who continue to ride will be less safe, and conditions will not improve any time soon. So, even though I wear my helmet everywhere and think everyone else should too, I say no to mandatory helmets.

Posted in Cycling | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Queen East replacement bus: tips from a daily commuter

This summer the City of Toronto is rebuilding Queen Street between Coxwell and Connaught Avenues, doing badly-needed reconstruction of the road, sidewalks and streetcar tracks. Since streetcars won’t be able to get through with the tracks torn up, the iconic streetcars will be absent from Queen and Kingston roads this summer, East of Leslie Street. Replacement  shuttle buses take over the route east of Broadview, diverting to Eastern Avenue between Coxwell and Leslie. Notices explaining the detour were up at least a week in advance but have been taken down for some reason, leading to lots of confusion and anger from riders, although the TTC is so far handling this major disruption fairly well.

As a twice-daily commuter along this route, I have some tips to share on making your commute along this route a little more comfortable.

Westbound from the Beaches

The best tip I can share is to simply take a different route. Take one of the many buses north to the Bloor-Danforth subway and ride downtown underground. Avoid Queen entirely.

If you must use Queen, know where to transfer. Streetcars are starting their westbound trips at Russell yard and meeting shuttles at Queen and Leslie. However, the shuttles run as far west as Broadview. If you stay on the shuttle until then, you’ll be waiting for the streetcar with a busload of other passengers. Plan to exit the shuttle bus at Jones Avenue, then you can wait for an almost empty streetcar instead.

If you’re exiting the shuttle before Broadview, plan ahead. Start moving towards the door at least a stop in advance, if you’re able.

The shuttles technically run even further west to Parliament Street, but it seems to be up to the driver whether to carry passengers west of Broadview. Don’t count on it.

Eastbound from downtown

Commuting from downtown, you must board the 501 streetcar on Queen Street. Ignore the destination signs, drivers have apparently been instructed not to change them. Even though they say “NEVILLE PARK”, all streetcars are going out of service at Leslie, and turning at Russell yard.

The 502 and 503 streetcars will not be operating at all, but you could board a 504 streetcar on King Street and exit at Broadview.

If you’re travelling beyond Leslie, plan to exit the streetcar at Broadview. If you’re on a packed car, you’ll have to plan ahead to be sure you can get to the doors, although vehicles are often held up at the busy Broadview stop anyway. Wait for the shuttle here and avoid the huge crowd that forms when full streetcars unload at Leslie. Take the 501 bus to destinations on Queen Street, or the 502 or 503 bus to Kingston Road.

It’s going to take longer than normal to travel eastbound, so plan ahead & leave extra time.

506 Carlton streetcars

A quick note on this route: the diversion on Queen doesn’t directly affect this route, but it means streetcars can’t travel directly from the usual turn point at Coxwell to the Russell yard. Therefore, 506 streetcars that would usually go out of service at Gerrard & Coxwell are going out of service at Gerrard & Broadview instead.

Above all, be patient. The drivers and the TTC are really doing the best they can with a bad situation. Getting angry & complaining aloud to the driver and other passengers won’t make anything better for anyone, so just don’t do it. This bit of inconvenience doesn’t give you license to mouth off and act like an asshole.

For more reading, please see Transit Toronto’s
excellent summary of the diversion and affected routes.

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The Cyclists Union is dead. Long live the cyclists union.

Tonight, the Toronto Cyclists Union voted to do away with the organization’s name. By a very slim margin, the members decided to scrap the old name and move forward with a new name, Cycle Toronto.

I voted against the change, for reasons I detailed in a previous post. However, with the vote now in the past, the weakness and emptiness of the new name can be its strength going forward. It can mean whatever we want it to mean.

Over the last several years, the Toronto Cyclists Union has grown from a handful of activists to over 2,200 dedicated members of all abilities and backgrounds, and from all parts of the city. The organization has done amazing work promoting cycling and advocating for all cyclists in a very hostile political climate. There’s no reason to believe that this important work will stop just because the name has changed. I’m still proud to be a part of it, whatever it’s called.

I still hate the new name, for the record. It’s going to take time to grow on me. It’s going to take adjustment for a lot of people, judging by the angry reactions on Twitter shortly after the meeting. But I’m glad that we had these amazing discussions, and I am optimistic as always about the future of cycling in Toronto.

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What’s in a name?

Last month, members of the Toronto Cyclists Union received an email from the organization’s Board of Directors, introducing the new name they had chosen for the organization. At the upcoming Annual General Meeting, members will vote on accepting the Board’s new name: Cycle Toronto. Activist and founding TCU member Dave Meslin wrote on his blog soon after that members should reject the new name, for a variety of reasons. That sparked a great conversation on what value the old name has and on the merits of keeping it, versus migrating to the new name. A few other bloggers followed suit with their own discussions, and recently the TCU themselves invited the public to comment on their website. These are all great articles and I’d encourage you to take a look at all of them.

Last year, the TCU ran a membership drive that more than doubled the organization’s membership. That’s amazing, and an indicator of huge momentum. Just today, the TCU tweeted that more than 2,200 cyclists are now Bike Union members. Why change the name now?

Based on some social media discussions I came across last year, and based on the responses of some Board members on Meslin’s blog, it seems some folks believe the word “union” is holding some cyclists back from joining the organization. More importantly (to some, much less to me) the TCU has been passed over for grants and partnership opportunities because of the word. The Board also seems to believe that people are turned off by the political nature of cycling advocacy, and that a change of name (and implied change of direction) will appease these people.

If the Board thinks that using the word “union” is holding back the organization, then I think this is a great discussion to be having. The words we use are less important than the meanings behind those words. I like the word union – to me, it means a group of like-minded people working together to achieve a common goal. However, to some people, the word has picked up a very negative connotation, conjuring images of overpaid, underworked labourers walking off the job to protest wage and benefit cuts. Some people don’t want to be associated with that imagery.

According to the TCU’s Board, there’s a lot of people who would gladly fill out an application, if not for that word. I’ll admit I was once in that camp. I do like the idea of changing that word, for that reason. How about Toronto Cyclists Association? Or Toronto Cyclists Alliance? That’s a pretty cool name.

Changing that one word satisfies the need to distance ourselves from anti-union sentiment, while maintaining the idea that the success of this organization depends on its membership of engaged cyclists. At the same time, it’s a fairly minor change that will allow the organization’s fantastic momentum to continue.

Cycle Toronto, on the other hand, is a completely new name and a completely new brand. It sounds like the bike union and its membership model is going away, being replaced by a faceless corporate entity. The Toronto Cyclists Union has enormous brand recognition in Toronto, and it’s absolutely foolish to throw away that goodwill now, when the brand has momentum. Toronto Cyclists Union means a lot of things to a lot of people, both good and bad. Cycle Toronto doesn’t mean anything to anybody, and that’s a problem, not a benefit.

Even more foolish is the idea that we can be an organization that advocates for things that benefit cyclists without being political. The benefits of cycling are well documented and well understood. Frankly, the only major obstacle to expanding cycling infrastructure and getting more of us on the road is politicians. If there isn’t a group advocating to politicians on behalf of cyclists’ interests, then nothing will change. The Toronto Cyclists Union is very well positioned and very well known to be that voice. We must be proud of that, not try to gloss over our political roots.

I will be going to the Annual General Meeting on May 2nd to vote against this name change. I’m glad we’re talking about it though, and hope that the discussion doesn’t end here.

Some more discussions:

Posted in Cycling, Toronto | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Open letter to Toronto Council’s “left wing”, re: rapid transit

Dear esteemed councillors,

In today’s Globe and Mail, I have read that some of you are being asked to vote against Councillor Stintz’s revised proposal for the Eglinton Light Rail. As you likely know, this plan restores the surface light rail east of Laird and west of Black Creek, in exchange for directing the billions of dollars in savings toward extending the Sheppard subway by two stops, and building a bus rapid transit system along much of Finch Ave in the city’s north. These are all areas where transit improvement is desperately needed, as identified in the studies leading up to the former Transit City plan.

Some of you are balking at the proposal, it seems, because it does not include a light rail line on Finch. This is foolish and irresponsible. The Province has committed a fixed amount of funding to Toronto to build transit. Bus rapid transit is a proven, cost-effective solution to northern Toronto’s transit dilemma: rapid transit at reasonable cost. We can afford it now and we should build it now.

Metrolinx and the Province have said that the money is there. Toronto just needs to decide how to spend it. By that they mean you, Toronto City Council, must decide. You can all see that suburban Toronto desperately needs modern rapid transit. Don’t let the funding dry up while you quibble over vehicles. Bus rapid transit could be rather easily upgraded to light rail in the future, when funding is available.
Toronto has spent at least 30 years arguing about the best solution, while everywhere else in the world has been leaving us behind. That solution is in front of you now. Councillor Stintz’s proposal has broad public support and very high potential to pass Council. Don’t kill yet another good plan for your stupid political games.

If you ignore Toronto’s dire transit needs and vote against Councillor Stintz’s proposal, you will be no better than the Mayor’s band of cronies, with their thumbs firmly up their asses and their heads buried deep in the sand.

Vote for rapid transit now. Stop fighting about what to build and start building it. Move Toronto forward.

Sincerely and gratefully yours,

Greg Burrell
Ward 32

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