Keeping Track - Lawn mowers: our most pampered and successful pets
If I wanted a carpet outside my house, I would put down a carpet instead of a lawn. I've always had trouble with the concept of exceedingly short grass and wonder what the purpose is. There are plenty of plants that stay short on their own, are prettier and less allergenic than grass, require no mowing, and in some cases even produce perfectly good food. Wild strawberries, for example, are aggressive, short, and produce absolute delicious food. Creeping Charlie is considered a weed, but is anything but. It has all the advantages of grass with none of the disadvantages. But instead of these practical solutions to having carpets outside of our homes, we grow lawns, and my column this month is a nod to the most successful domestic species in the world: the lawn mower.
As a society, we're too good to our lawn mowers
Summer is once again upon us. I can tell, not because of the date, nor the sweet sound of chirping birds, nor even the flowers in bloom. Summer's arrival is heralded by the ubiquitous sound of grazing lawn mowers.
The noisiest and least social animal humans have domesticated, the lawn mower generates some of the world's most toxic flatulence while producing no useful byproducts.
Unlike many of its grazing ancestors, this survivor of the modern urban jungle has evolved to chew grass, and return it from whence it came.
It produces only foul smelling gases, yet it is one of the most popular pets known to humanity. Its ancestors on our lawns, the goat and the cow, produced milk used for many aspects of cooking and baking, as well as large quantities of fresh, healthy meat, but were seen as unsightly and messy because of the organic fertilizer they produced. In some areas, another popular grazing animal, the sheep, has been replaced by lawn mowers as growing wool for clothing has gone out of style.
Some older, endangered breeds of lawn mower chew up the lawn and spit it out, allowing the grass to decompose back into the soil and strengthen the lawns, but most modern species of lawn mower hold their meals in large stomachs that have to be emptied by their human masters when they get full.
Many people are so embarrassed by the digested remains of their lawn mower's meals that they hurriedly stoop and scoop the partially eaten grass, quickly hiding it in yard waste bags to be fed to the mower's distant cousin, the garbage truck.
As lawn mowers are known to have a voracious appetite, many of their masters feel compelled to chemically induce their lawns to produce more and, particularly in droughts, divert limited potable water to their lawns lest their lawn mowers become malnourished. Watering lawns is not always legal but many lawn mower owners do it at night, or have their children play with the sprinkler system.
While some citizens let their lawns languish in this dry weather, many people believe that this results in inhumane treatment of lawn mowers which must be fed at least once every two weeks to stay properly fit.
Some rare species of lawn mower are so difficult to feed, municipal governments set up entire parks just to provide enough for them to eat.
These heavy but nimble lawn mowers waste little time enjoying their meals, and spend much of the year trying to eat as much of each city's grass supply as its minders will allow, the better to prepare for their long winter hibernation.
The very best lawns are set aside for the elite. Their life of privilege is funded by generous people who care deeply about the health of these grazers; pampered fairways are subject to continual inspection by club-carrying foursomes, assuring the quality of the grass. On these large, exclusive properties, delicacies, known as greens, are cultivated to the finest tastes of the most demanding lawnmowers.
Lawn mowers are not a social species. They are solitary creatures, rarely ever seen in packs. This far north, they have evolved to hibernate for the winter, although in warmer climates they must be fed year-round.
Lawn mowers reproduce asexually, frequently speciating, and not inheriting evolutionary advances found among their peers.
They are known to react very aggressively to being petted, particularly on their underbellies. However, as lawn mowers are one of our most sacred species, it is very rare for them to be put down for such an outburst. Most lawn mowers are vegetarians, but they have been known to eat a wide variety of small amphibious and land animals that seek shelter in lawns.
Most cities have laws that effectively set minimum standards for the number of lawn mowers that must exist within its limits. If a lawn mower has not had access to a particular lawn in so long that the lawn's height exceeds eight inches, a landowner can be severely penalized for lack of compassion for their lawn mower. As a result, population control for lawn mowers is very difficult and in many areas their numbers have grown to exceed both dogs and cats.
Some people are beginning to see this prolific species as a pest.
With no natural predators, their numbers are increasing and some desperate groups are proposing reintroducing endangered residential grazers like goats.
Prolific consumers of grass and weeds, they could displace lawn mowers in the same habitat. These grazers would reproduce naturally and provide humans with an indirect means of eating their own lawns; feed a goat for the summer, and it will help feed your family for the winter.
The future of the lawn mower is looking very bright. As its world population continues to rise and farmland is replaced with lawn mower grazing fields freshly established in each new urban development, and as grasslands continue to expand northward as lawn mower flatulence works its way through the atmosphere, its food supply and habitat is growing by leaps and bounds.
Indeed, lawn mowers may be one of few species in the world to benefit and thrive from climate change.
words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 15:26 on
June 10, 2010
Keeping Track - The Rails of the Royal City
On May 2nd, I led one of the many Jane's Walks in Guelph on a route I called "The Rails of the Royal City". Not everyone wants to do a seven kilometer wet-weather walk, so my column for this month is the written version of the same tour. I hope you enjoy this little taste of Guelph's rich rail history.
History haunts Guelph's railways
Thunderstorms and miserable weather were predicted for that first Sunday in May. Still, a small group of dedicated people showed up for the Jane's Walk that morning.
It was my task to lead the walking tour of Guelph's rail network - and how great it would be, I thought, if I could show everyone this poorly understood bit of our city.
As we gathered at the Guelph railway station, the Via train pulled out of the platform on its way to Toronto. The station, once part of the Grand Trunk system, was once serviced by the streetcars of the Guelph Radial Railway. It served as a transit hub, and retains its strong heritage and functional value.
Via Rail train No. 85 departs for Sarnia in this March 16, 2008 photo. CN Locomotive 6167 is visible in the top right corner of the image.
Across the tracks from the station, we looked at the soon-to-be-demolished cotton mill. Removed from the city's register of historic buildings, the site will instead serve an essential heritage and functional role in Guelph's restored transit hub.
We walked along Carden Street to the pedestrian overpass at Norfolk and along Kent Street, straddling the Guelph subdivision - better known as the north mainline - just west of downtown. We may never see another street quite like Kent, with its lane-rail-rail-lane configuration.
When we got to Edinburgh, we took Crimea to Alma Street. Just Alma Street - not Alma North or Alma South, because it is the tracks that are the north-south divider for street names.
There, the tracks leave the intersection of Alma and Crimea in four directions - to Cambridge, Kitchener, Georgetown and toward Fergus.
The tracks to Cambridge once led to a point near Brantford known as Lynden Junction, allowing Guelph residents a north-south connection to Brantford on the Great Western Railway.
Today, the same track in the direction of Fergus goes only as far as Woodlawn Road to the north, but once continued to Palmerston, which was a major passenger rail junction connecting much of the Bruce Peninsula and giving Guelph rail riders access to Owen Sound and many other communities.
The tracks to Kitchener and Georgetown still carry six passenger trains per day.
As we continued our walk, to the west lay Howitt Park and the Lafarge property.
We followed the tracks along Edinburgh northward as far as London Road.
Called the Guelph north spur, these tracks allow the Goderich-Exeter Railway to reach the industrial railway tracks in the Edinburgh-Speedvale-Elmira-Woodlawn roads block, which are shared with the Guelph Junction Railway. We hung a right and got on CN Spurline Park at London Road, walking along what used to be a connecting track between the Guelph Junction Railway and the Canadian National network.
This park, one of two former rail lines that now serve as walking trails in the city, runs from London Road along the south side of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School, across the northern tip of Exhibition Park, and curves sharply back to the Guelph Junction Railway at Clarence and Dufferin. The tracks along this alignment were pulled up nearly half a century ago, but the right of way remains clearly visible, a silent testimonial to the durability of rail.
While other tracks connected Guelph to Brantford and Owen Sound, the Guelph Junction Railway once continued north-west through Elmira all the way to Goderich.
We followed Dufferin and Cardigan streets along the Guelph Junction Railway as far as Eramosa Road. There, we were able to join the walking trail at John Galt Park along the side of the tracks, by the site of the old CPR station, now an apartment complex, and the Priory, the predecessor station. Along the way, we found a milepost: 32. I asked those along for the walk if they had any idea what we were 32 miles from. Nobody was quite sure. Hamilton, I told them, is 32 miles away. Railways still use miles
Hamilton, a city from which it is virtually impossible to visit Guelph without a car, has a direct rail line to our wonderful little community, but no service.
As we approached the River Run Centre, we noted the tourist trains. The Guelph Junction Express operates tourist and dinner trains along the Guelph Junction Railway. Waterloo, Tottenham, Orangeville, and several other communities in the area have similar services. Why has passenger rail been largely relegated to the status of a tourist attraction?
We approached the intersection of Macdonell and Wellington streets. There, the North main line has a large viaduct passing over the Guelph Junction Railway and the Speed River. The viaduct was built wide enough to support two tracks, showing excellent advance planning - far more than the 20 years we plan ahead for now.
The transit hub will have a platform that comes nearly all the way to this intersection. Why not build it just a bit longer to connect it to a platform along the Guelph Junction Railway? That would be planning for the future.
The last stop on our journey took us to CN 6167, the steam locomotive nestled in next to the Greyhound station. The locomotive will be moved to make way for the restored transit hub. Like the cotton mill, 6167 stands as a silent witness to our past successes - and will need to be removed in order for us to repeat them.
words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 11:33 on
May 15, 2010
Keeping Track - Bus system overhaul coming to Guelph while GO station might go to Lafarge after all
There are quite a few new developments on transit in the Guelph area. This month's 'Keeping Track' addresses the Transit Growth Strategy's report on new bus routes for the city. I served on the community advisory committee for that project and am largely pleased with the results, provided they actually come to fruition. But there is more going on than just a redrawing of our bus route maps.
In a twist of irony, the plan to tear down a historically significant factory next to the train station in Guelph may prevent GO from stopping at the transit hub, with the station instead likely winding up at the Lafarge property. The Lafarge property is a large plot of vacant industrial land at the junction of highways 6, 7, 24, and two railway lines. I have advocated for a station to go there all along. As that has not been the plan, the City and the Ontario Municipal Board have cleared the way for a commercial development to go there instead, which will negatively affect our ability to usefully stop passenger trains there. Losing the downtown location would be tragic, as I believe both downtown and Lafarge are needed in spite of their proximity to eachother. If we want rail service from Guelph to be successful, it will need adequate parking that does not interfere with businesses. The downtown station cannot accommodate that for a variety of reasons.
The Lafarge/downtown station issue remains one to watch, but this month's column is limited to the bus system improvements outlined in the Transit Growth Stategy Public Information Centre
Guelph's transit strategy moving in the right direction
Public transit in Guelph is on the cusp of making a major leap forward - right into the early 20th century. Local bus routes that make sense and useful inter-urban mass transit connections are on the table and may well be in our future.
Anyone who has ever taken bus route Number 52 University/Kortright knows the true definition of the word meander. From its outer extremity along Ironwood Road south of the intersection of Scottsdale Drive and Kortright, it travels most of the way to the university, all the way back to Scottsdale, around behind Stone Road Mall, and only then back to the university, before finally making a beeline up Gordon Street toward downtown. Although it tries, it is an excellent example of that adage, "You can't be all things to all people." The route map generated by Guelph's transit growth strategy study, to be implemented with the arrival of the Carden Street transit hub in June 2011, shows huge improvement, and it cannot be implemented soon enough.
The message that Guelph Transit's route map needed to be wiped clean and started fresh got through, and residents throughout the city should soon be able to cross town in just 45 minutes in a worst-case scenario, down considerably from the more than an hour for the current trajectory.
The 10 linear and three loop routes introduced at the March 30 public information centre will almost all provide some measure of bi-directional service. This means that, for most of us, going from home to work will take the same time as going from work to home. For people who are used to a 10-minute trip one way and a 40-minute trip the other, this is indeed something to get excited about. Additional routes are being planned, according to the study, to provide practical service to the city's vast industrial parks whose current transit routes are, at best, painful, as anyone who has ever taken Number 51 around Southgate Drive, or Number 24 over the entire northwest corner of Guelph can attest.
Transit is apparently discussing the idea of bulk-rate passes, similar to the university passes, to be sold through large employers throughout the city. While many of us cannot benefit from such deals for the moment, one can hope that their success in moving more people further, faster, in fewer vehicles, will ultimately result in less expensive transit fares for all users. Making transit the most affordable way for people to get around can only serve to encourage its use and reduce other pressures on our infrastructure.
Most of the routes proposed are direct. There is minimal overlap except at defined transfer points. The loops at the ends of the routes to turn the buses around and provide service on the same routes in the opposite direction are mostly small and sensible. Instead of Number 52's vast 20-minute U-turn, proposed bus route Number 6 will travel from the university, along Gordon, across Kortright and Downey Road by the YMCA, and use Niska Road, Ptarmigan Drive, and Downey to turn around, then go straight back across Kortright and Gordon to the university. How novel is that?
The best news is that Guelph's transit growth strategy is the third serious study in seven years to look at how to connect Guelph to our neighbours without relying solely on the construction of new freeways. The others were the North Mainline Municipal Alliance and GO Transit Kitchener expansion studies. While the focus of Guelph's study is on bus rapid transit of various descriptions, the use of self-propelled passenger rail equipment to connect Guelph to Kitchener, Cambridge, and Brampton is proposed, with use of the same equipment to provide service between Guelph and Hamilton or Milton viewed as a longer-term prospect.
Demand for such a service on any one of these inter-regional corridors not only exists now, but has for a considerable period of time and must be properly run and marketed. More importantly, mass transit service on any one of these corridors would serve to reduce pressure on the many expensive highway expansion projects on the table for all of these same connections.
Guelph has been here once before. Up until the Great Depression, streetcars provided direct, frequent, affordable bi-directional service radiating out from Carden Street, where they connected with north-south service on the Guelph Junction Railway, east-west service on what we now call the North Mainline, and even streetcar service into Toronto, the only remnant of which is the Halton County Radial Railway Museum.
After 80 years of building our community around an ever-expanding automobile network, the past is once again proving to be the best example for the future, and Guelph's transit and inter-regional infrastructure may soon be up to the standards our great-grandparents enjoyed.
words - permanent link - comments: 2. Posted at 18:35 on
April 14, 2010
Keeping Track - Sikh Temple issue column
My March 10th Mercury column addressed the contentious issue of the proposed Sikh temple in Guelph's Westminster Woods neighbourhood. I am neither for nor against this proposal, mainly because it is not my place to state where such an institution should go, nor is it my neighbourhood.
Temple issue must be decided on the right reasons
If it were up to you, would the Sikh community be permitted to build a temple on Clair Road?
If you were one of Guelph's 13 city councillors, that question would be at the front of your mind daily as you read the wide array of commentary on the topic.
Is it a simple matter of esthetics and parking, or are there deeper, darker issues at play? The real challenge for council is to separate cultural undertones from legitimate issues, and make the right decisions for the right reasons.
With the farce at Trafalgar Court, where several apartment buildings share enough visitor parking for a small bungalow, it is not hard to imagine that area residents will be deeply cynical any time anyone says anything about any parking anywhere.
Add to that a sense among nearby residents that the stated capacity of the building at 400 people is unrealistically low, given the size of the structure, and we have a recipe for a truly objective complaint about what would seem to be a very routine proposal.
While some residents have implicitly threatened councillors with defeat in this fall's election if they vote in favour of the zoning change that could lead to the construction of the Sikh temple at 410 Clair Rd. E., others have accurately pointed out that councillors do not have the liberty of voting for or against the proposal based only on their opinion. Their decision is subject to various provincial acts, the applicants' charter rights, and various means of appeal including the dreaded Ontario Municipal Board.
Capacity, occupancy limits, and parking are legitimate concerns. The applicant has stated that by the end of construction of the second phase of the temple, the building will have a design and fire code limit of 400 people.
At least one presenter last week suggested that, mathematically, the temple could hold 3,639 people. By the same math, my fairly average house could hold 232 people. The question that residents want answered is not how many people it is designed to hold, but how many people can it hold, how much parking will actually be required, and what effect it will have on the traffic along Goodwin Drive.
The potential to expand the building on to the unused portion of the lot has some residents concerned. A large strip of the land is being rezoned in the application and some argue that the temple will some day expand into that plot.
The only way out of this is a permanent size cap as a condition of approval, and the conversion of the remaining property into a parking lot, adding years to the timeline before parking becomes a problem, or the turning over of the remaining land to the city to become a park.
A bigger concern at an esthetic and traffic level - one that is seldom discussed - is the type of structures that can be built on the several acres between the proposed temple and Victoria Road.
Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. The architecturally interesting, bright, well-kept buildings that are the Sikh temples - at least the ones I have seen - belong in residential neighbourhoods rather than in commercial, industrial, or agricultural areas. So, can this temple be made to fit in with this particular residential area?
Every member of the Westminster Woods community must pay a monthly fee to a property management company and are contractually obligated to have their homes conform on brick type, height, colour and style.
While the proposed temple is outside Westminster Woods, it does directly border on the condo complex and any co-operation would have to come from the good will of the applicant.
There is no doubt that good will exists. A recent article quoted Amarjit Furmah, president of the Guelph Sikh Society, as saying: "We've talked to the city and said, 'Give us your requests and we'll follow them.' We don't care what colour is the brick or stone. We'll do what they want."
But the trouble here may not be the colour of the brick - rather that Westminster Woods, like most of Guelph and, indeed, Canada, is a very cosmopolitan community.
There may be an underlying concern that the inclusion of a Sikh temple in a community will challenge rather than enhance that intercultural diversity by causing one particular ethnic group to be over-represented in the neighbourhood.
If that is the issue, then the question comes back to one posed by many a letter writer and columnist over the past few weeks: If this were a Christian church, all else being equal, would that concern still be present?
Before our councillors cast their votes, the challenge will be to determine exactly what question we are trying to answer.
Is the issue one of parking, traffic, and esthetics, or is it about the cultural structure of our city?
And can the two be reconciled into one right decision, whatever that may be, for all the right reasons?
words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 18:11 on
March 27, 2010
Keeping Track - Why Canada should adopt the Turks and Caicos
Going for the slightly off-beat in this month's column.
What would you say to Canada, the Caribbean nation?
Since prime minister Robert Borden first brought it up in 1917, the idea of Canada absorbing the British island chain of Turks and Caicos has periodically surfaced in Canadian discourse. As we look out at our short, cold days and ponder whether our passports are up to date for a trip to Florida, perhaps it is, once again, time to consider offering the Caribbean nation Canadian citizenship.
The idea is not new, and since Borden's proposal nearly a century ago, both Canada and the Turks and Caicos have brought up the notion periodically over the years. The islands are not independent now, being still under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, and so changing allegiance to a fellow Commonwealth member that would pay more attention to it would not likely be a major problem.
Geographically, the Turks and Caicos are well positioned. They are just north of Hispaniola, the island that Haiti and the Dominican Republic share, and just east of Cuba. Canada would have an international presence in a part of the world where we barely exist today, able to assist in much more real terms with disasters such as last month's earthquake in Haiti.
The population of Turks and Caicos is around 23,000 people. That's about the same size as the University of Guelph. For providing 23,000 people access to universal health care and a seat in Parliament, what could we get?
We would expand our 202,080 kilometres of cold, northern coastline by 389 km of tropical beaches, and expand our 9,984,670 square km country by 948 square km, an increase of nearly one per cent of one per cent. While dramatic, that is not the reason.
Giving Canadians a domestic location in the Caribbean Sea would have major economic benefits for Canada, as well as the tourism-dependent Turks and Caicos. It is one of many territories in the world still governed by the United Kingdom, who wouldn't miss it. As a part of Canada, it would be treated as a special place,
not as one in a litany of overseas possessions; the Turks and Caicos would be the only inhabited Canadian territory not contiguous to the rest of modern Canada.
Thousands of Canadians travel to the southern United States and the Caribbean every winter to get away from our short days and long snow squalls, many staying down there for the entire winter. It all results in a lot of money directly leaving our economy with little more than a collective sun tan to show for it. If a substantial portion of those Canadians wintered in Turks and Caicos, the island would benefit from the massive amount of investment and all Canadians would benefit from keeping our expenditures within our borders and from having a warm place to go on a domestic flight. Even scuba divers could rejoice at having a place to go deep in Canada in February that is not cold.
We are a people known for cottaging and travelling for recreation. Many Canadians would not think twice about taking the five-hour flight from Toronto to Vancouver to see friends. The Turks and Caicos, on the other hand, can be reached from Toronto's Pearson airport in under four hours.
Not to say that there would be no drawbacks. Turks and Caicos are right in the path of more hurricanes than you or I care to think about, for one thing. Moreover, it would risk casting Canada to the world as a neocolonial power. However, while none of us will admit it, Canada's history is rich in annexations and expansion, and so adopting a friendly little territory just south of the Tropic of Cancer would not be completely out of character for a country that peacefully absorbed a neighbour as recently as 1949.
Canada is, fundamentally, a country that cares about others. How could we go wrong offering a little piece of Canada to the Caribbean community?
Besides, were Canada to absorb the Turks and Caicos, we would need to change our national motto. We would be Canada, A Mari usque ad Mare usque ad Mare usque ad Mare. It would be worth it just for that.
words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 22:08 on
February 09, 2010
Keeping Track - Rethinking the commute
Today's column in the Merc, the first in my Keeping Track series.
Leaving car at home would ease our stress
In a perfect world, commuting would be about more than just getting there, but could contribute to strengthening our community.
With advances in technologies like home video conferencing and our gradual shift to a knowledge and service economy, it seems to me that the ultimate
solution for our clogged roads and crazy commutes is to not commute at all. We are a long way from there, of course, and much of our economy will always
require being on-site. Many jobs will always require driving a car, whether to obscure locations at odd hours, or simply because there is too much stuff
to transport any other way, or because extensive travel needs to be done for the job itself. And while some drivers value their commute as their one time
to be alone and at peace during their busy lives, it is an inherently unsocial way of getting around.
When we think about how to improve our transportation system, one fundamental piece of the picture is missing. It should not be about how to accommodate
those commuters who must drive, but how to organize transportation so that everyone uses the most sensible system for their needs. That would free up the
road network enough so that those who have to drive can do so sanely and would make transit more attractive to the vast majority of travellers who
currently are aware of it only insofar as they occasionally have to pass a bus stopped at the side of the road.
I take bus route 52 to work. I live near its southern extremity, in Ward 6. Number 52 is a slow, meandering route, and it takes 29 minutes to get downtown
and 26 minutes to get back home, plus waiting, and walking time at either end. It gives me a chance to relax and read a book or chat with the person next
to me, and by taking the bus I pass on the responsibility of cleaning off and warming up the snow-covered vehicle to someone else. When all is said and
done, at least in the winter months, it is not significantly slower than driving the six kilometres to the city's centre.
Taking the bus to work has helped me understand that I often feel rushed when I am in a car. I do not know what it is, but there is something about a car
and its asserted anonymity that makes its very existence feel urgent. It is counter-intuitive and unhealthy, yet I know that it is very common. One need
only spend a few minutes on the road to experience another driver's hurry to get somewhere. Driving is a dangerous way to travel at the best of times.
Commuting by transit is inherently safer than travelling by car. The medicare costs alone of auto-crash-related injuries, should give us pause when
considering the economics of different modes of travel. The personal risks and stresses of driving when there are viable and even relaxing alternatives
are things that most of us do not even consider as we feel a desire to "get there." Intuitively, public transit should cost little to the user, be
relatively quick, go far, and run reliably, none of which is generally the case today in Canada.
The Toronto Transit Commission is raising fares so much this year that it's expecting a drop in annual ridership. The TTC's chief general manager, Gary
Webster, noted publicly last fall that for every 10-cent increase in fares, a ridership loss of three per cent can be expected. The service is raising its
cash fare by 25 cents per ride, which, based on his numbers, should reduce transit use in Canada's largest city by seven-and-a-half per cent.
Those riders will not stay home. One can imagine the cascading effect of increased transit fares and decreasing ridership on other aspects of our
Guelph's transit fares will be going up the same amount in just a couple of weeks, with route and schedule cuts to follow. Ridership loss should not be as
pronounced in Guelph because so much of the ridership is made up of university students on their fixed-rate passes, to the tune of 60 per cent of its
riders. As many of my fellow bus commuters will no doubt do, I have stocked up on bus tickets at the current price and fully intend to save the few cents
In a perfect world, commuting would not be about everyone hurrying some place, but about simply getting where we need to go and helping our society calm
down just a little bit. From a social point of view, driving and taking transit are polar opposites. Going together is not only an environmentally and
economically responsible way to travel, but one that helps build our community.
words - permanent link - comments: 1. Posted at 11:47 on
January 13, 2010
Keeping Track - there is always more to discuss
With two years and 17 columns under my belt, my term as a member of the Guelph Mercury's Community Editorial Board is up. I will, however, be continuing as a monthly columnist in the paper starting in January under the title "Keeping Track".
My final editorial board column was written very casually and personally, though the published form is a bit more prim and proper, with my favourite line "I use vi to write these columns -- ten points to anyone who knows what that is" removed. So, um, who'll get the ten points?
There's always room for more discussion
This is my final column as a Community Editorial Board member, but I will continue to opine in this paper.
The last two years as a part of the editorial board have been eventful. From my first column, prodding this city to embrace the Lafarge property as the logical place for a park-and-ride transit station, to my last, prodding this city to embrace the Lafarge property as the logical place for a park-and-ride transit station, I have covered many aspects of transit and policy issues at all levels of government. My personal life, not usually the topic of my columns, has been a roller coaster of its own as my career took a dramatic change in direction while my marriage quietly ended.
Through it all, I have kept my focus on how I see the world and how I would like to see it improve. I have developed many new perspectives on the world that I may not ever have had, or expanded on to the same extent, without the opportunity to share them with you.
There is, of course, always more to discuss. Transit is my focus but far from my only concern. The computer keyboard and a word processor are among the deadliest weapons in the world and there are many issues I have yet to address.
Through subsequent column offerings, I intend to cover many of the issues I did not get to in the past two years. I expect to comment on why Linux should be your computer operating system of choice, why properly made poutine is the tastiest food ever made as well as being the only way to eat a potato, and why there is no such thing as sustainable growth.
There is, of course, also more to be said on my favourite topic. For example, because of a proposal to council, university students have been asking me recently if their universal bus pass is in danger.
And I answer: I doubt it. Nobody in his or her right mind would terminate the University of Guelph student bus pass outright, in spite of the idea being floated. The risk of 60 per cent of our transit system's ridership having to choose between buying passes and tickets or simply resorting to driving on our already overcrowded streets should make even the most anti-transit decision-makers reject any such notion.
I use transit regularly, but not exclusively. I take the bus downtown two, sometimes three, days per week and always use our city's paper tickets. I would rather use a pass, and would no doubt use the bus more if I had one. But the economics are not there for me to spend that kind of money.
To me, there is a more obvious solution, and while the appropriate venue to present solutions is the new Transit Growth Strategy Project Advisory Committee, there is no harm in presenting it here: Rather than having university students pay four times what they do now, I believe everybody in the city should have access to a university-style bus pass, good for a year instead of a month, and economical to buy. It should cost dramatically less than it does to buy passes by the month, and there should be strong incentives for everyone in the city to buy one.
So I ask the vast majority of you who are not regular transit users: what would it take for you to take the bus at least sometimes? I have made it clear in the past that I believe transit should be free and parking should always cost, though I'm enough of a realist to know that that is a bit of a pipe dream so long as even I feel a need to own a car. But that's just it, isn't it? It is all a chicken and egg problem. Nobody will use transit until it can compete with the car, and it won't be able to compete with the car until everybody uses it.
Nor will this conundrum even be addressed until we, collectively, understand the danger of continuing to focus on the car, no matter how green the fuel we put in it becomes over time. Until we learn to build our cities around the infrastructure we have rather than always trying to build infrastructure to keep up with the cities we have, sprawl will remain a vicious cycle and sustainable growth will increasingly be shown to be the myth that it is.
But all of that is a matter for a future column.
words - permanent link - comments: 4. Posted at 18:10 on
December 15, 2009
Transportation planning leaves a lot to be desired
Tuesday's column appears in yesterday's on-line edition, so here goes. It's an expession of my annoyance that we have become so obsessed with a downtown railway station for outbound Guelph commuters that we will now risk entering GO service in two years without having one single parking space for those commuters in the entire city. Somehow, tying up our remaining already overcrowded city lots with commuters' cars is considered good for our downtown businesses. The lack of clarity in our vision for how to build our infrastructure if it isn't a simple road is truly mind-boggling.
Anyway, here it is...
Stimulus opportunity fails to hit the rails
Transportation planning leaves a lot to be desired
With two years to go before leaving the hatchery, our chickens are already on their way home to roost.
The proposed Wilson Street civic parkade, Guelph's answer to a proper commuter rail station, will be deferred years past the arrival of the trains it
was meant to serve, and, for the second time in as many decades, GO trains will visit Guelph without providing a realistic option for its passengers
to park and ride.
The decision to defer the lot may be the right one, if made for the wrong reason. Its main purpose, by design or otherwise, would have been to service
the train station, drawing more cars into downtown outside of business hours and contributing only parking fare to the local economy. But by
requesting only a single station in our downtown, and by settling with a particular set of developers whose vast, vacant land lies between two railway
lines and three highways, Guelph has effectively cut off its nose to spite its face. When GO trains arrive two years from now, we will have neither a
proper station downtown, nor an alternative location conducive to getting drivers out of their cars.
Once again, we will be encouraging our commuters to use the ever-expanding highway network while pondering why our GO trains are leaving Guelph with
almost only Waterloo region passengers aboard.
The 401 is among the busiest highways on earth. Stretching 16 lanes across at its widest, it is also among the slowest. With all that, you would think
that the GTA is one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. But it only makes the top 50 if you stretch it to include Hamilton.
Our solution to our never-ending congestion problems is inevitably to pass up golden transit opportunities, build another highway, and enlarge the
freeways we have until there remains no room to grow.
We have an extensive network of buses and trains of various descriptions, speeds, and routes. And if you don't mind going through downtown Toronto,
you can get pretty well anywhere in under a day. Guelph to Hamilton, with the end of direct CoachCanada service, is a mere four hours by bus, and we
can even make Brantford on overnight service.
Among the many studies taking place in the area is one called "GTA West." It looks at transportation problems from the Hanlon in the west to the 400
in the east, from the 401 in the south to a fuzzy line north of the GTA. Every few months, the GTA West study's Community Advisory Group meets to hear
about the latest developments and offer input to the planning team. The fifth such meeting will take place in Mississauga on Thursday.
GO has already run an environmental assessment from inception to completion, albeit largely based on city parking plans that won't come to fruition,
since the GTA West study got under way for much of the same territory. GTA West, delimited by highway rather than developed boundaries, remains
focused on all modes of transportation, with a likely outcome of a new super-corridor stemming off the interchange of the Hanlon and the as-yet
unbuilt new Highway 7 to an unclear easterly terminus.
Coupled with the grade separation of the Hanlon and the pending expansion of the four-lane Highway 6 south from the 401 toward Freelton, such a
highway would make a clear means of coming up from the Niagara Peninsula and bypassing Toronto to get straight onto the 400, via Guelph. However the
planners have acknowledged the loud and clear message from the community advisory group is that a new highway, at least on its own, is not an
acceptable solution to our transportation woes.
For the past year, we have been in recession. In an attempt to jump-start the economy, roads across the country are being rebuilt at a frenetic pace.
And while our governments at all levels are borrowing heavily to pay for it, one has to ask what we are actually achieving.
There is no better time than a deep recession to rapidly and comprehensively rethink national infrastructure. Labour is cheaper and more abundant than
during a boom, and the work can create jobs. We have figured it out to an extent, with the largest pothole-filling project in history, but what we are
lacking is the vision required to turn this economic bust into a true infrastructure boon.
Now is the time we should be mapping our country and drawing a new transportation infrastructure on it that does not focus around our insatiable
demand for highways. We need to be building new railway lines and stations and improving existing ones. We need to make our different means of
transportation interconnect. And we need to provide a place for people to put their cars to ride into the future. Projects such as GTA West provide us
an opportunity, at least in our little corner of the country, to push for transportation strategies that offer meaningful alternatives where only
another highway and a parkingless commuter station are envisioned.
words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 08:24 on
November 01, 2009
Weighing civic politics, punditry
There is an election in your future, and it is not the one you are thinking about: there is just over one year left to the next set of Ontario municipal elections.
The three years since this council was elected have been a most fascinating learning experience. At its inauguration, a heckler shouted: "the dream team!" as the councillors repeated their oaths of office. Yet, as with politics everywhere, the honeymoon soon ended as councillors began expressing opinions and voting.
City council is one of the most underpaid, thankless jobs anybody can have anywhere. To many councillors, serving in the city's legislature is a full-time job in its own right, one which pays about the equivalent of minimum wage, forcing most to retain their existing full-time jobs and give up on minor obligations such as sleep. The city is the level of government that most directly affects our lives every day, yet the level to which we, collectively, pay the least attention and take the least seriously.
Whatever voter turnout may be at other levels, municipally it is downright abysmal.
Flatteringly, perhaps, there is a Facebook group calling on me to run for Guelph city council. Of the 60 or so members of the group, only four could actually vote for me-including myself. I do not know if I would want to serve on council, or simply to continue to quietly speak my mind in my corner of the world while pursuing the causes I care about. There is a lot to think about, not least of which is to think about the major issues of this council, with the benefit of hindsight, and ask myself: how would I have voted? How would my constituents have wanted me to vote? What would have been the right decision?
While the city faces a $2.7 million budget shortfall on account of lower incomes from a variety of sources, that money will pale in comparison to the number of opinions on what should be done about it.
There are certainly decisions of this council I have disagreed with, but there are just as many I have agreed with. With the benefit of operating outside of hollow partisanship, each member is free to judge the issues for him or herself, and each voter is obligated to judge each candidate on individual merits.
When Barack Obama was running for president last year, I read that one of the reasons for his immense popularity was everybody projected their own values onto him. I suspect this is a universal truism for politicians. I know from conversations I have had with many people over the years that most assume, if we get along, we must believe the same things and agree on most issues. As a result, I find myself able to get along and co-operate with people over the entire breadth of the political spectrum.
But it simply is not the case. Like you, I have my opinions and biases, ideas that I embrace, and ideas I reject. As with any thinking person, my opinion is subject to change as I learn new information and gain new knowledge and experience.
Indeed, once upon a time, I strongly felt that our highway system was terrible and in dire need of upgrade. Not until I took up the esoteric hobby of trainspotting did I begin to appreciate what we have, what we have lost, and what we could have. Out of that came, well, most of the rest of the columns I have written for this paper as I have sought to understand the issue of transportation to its fullest. I still think our highway system is terrible. But the upgrades that I believe are required are philosophical and cultural shifts, not improved traffic flow algorithms and infinitely wide roads. They are upgrades that not everybody agrees with or believes possible.
I believe my causes and beliefs can be most effectively pursued in writing rather than in chambers. You can accomplish anything if you do not care who gets the credit for it, and putting it out there gives people a lot of opportunities to use your ideas. The most important issue is to be involved - all of us - especially at the municipal level. For my part, I plan to continue to use my keyboard as the weapon that it is, while pursuing my career, but my opinion is subject to change.
words - permanent link - comments: 1. Posted at 08:51 on
September 21, 2009
Column: GO service is coming to Guelph
This month's column focuses on the details of GO Transit's EA study results for train service to Guelph and Kitchener. The short version is that Guelph will be moving from 6 Via trains per day to 12 Via and 8 GO trains per day, with none of the twenty daily trains allowing commuters to take the train to work west of their origin.
The combined schedule at Guelph is currently expected to look something like this when GO service commences in 2011:
|Guelph Eastbound (to Toronto):|
|co.|| train number ||time|| originates||status|
|GO||204|| 05:53||Kitchener|| new|
|GO||206|| 06:17||Kitchener|| new|
|Via|| 86||07:01||London|| existing (at 07:05)|
|GO||210|| 07:13||Kitchener|| new|
|GO||252|| 08:13||Kitchener|| new|
|Via|| 84||09:52||Sarnia|| existing|
|Via|| 684|| 13:33||London|| new|
|Via|| 686|| 16:43||London|| new|
|Via|| 688|| 19:33||London|| new|
|Via|| 88||21:55||Sarnia|| existing (at 22:09)||
|Guelph Westbound (from Toronto):|
|co.|| train number || time|| terminates||status|
|Via|| 85||12:01||Sarnia|| existing (at 12:25)|
|Via|| 683|| 14:11||London|| new|
|GO||281|| 16:57||Kitchener|| new|
|GO||205|| 17:35||Kitchener|| new|
|Via|| 685|| 17:41||London|| new|
|GO||209|| 18:35||Kitchener|| new|
|Via|| 87||18:52||Sarnia|| existing (at 19:01)|
|Via|| 687|| 19:41||London|| new|
|GO||269|| 20:10||Kitchener|| new|
|Via|| 89||23:08||London|| existing (at 23:22)|
Here's the article, as it appeared on page A8 of Monday's Mercury.
GO expansion plans are good news for Guelph
An environmental assessment for Guelph was released by GO Transit July 23, and while this city was not even mentioned in GO's 10-year plan just three years ago
this newest study recommends four trains per day running from Kitchener to Toronto and back. And the surprises don't stop there.
According to Appendix B of the 1,452 page document found on GO's website, VIA Rail has advised GO that it intends to double service to Guelph, running 12 VIA trains and 8 GO trains to the Royal City, putting us well on our way back to levels not seen since the early 20th century.
If GO's board approves this environmental assessment, the project will become "shovel-ready," magic words for infrastructure projects in today's economy. GO trains could be running to Guelph by some time in 2011. The cost is projected to be $153,400,000, a little over one-third of the cost of the new Highway 7.
The new combined schedule for VIA and GO trains to Guelph will add four eastbound morning GO trains originating in Kitchener, and three additional afternoon VIA trains in each direction through Guelph between Toronto and London.The report notes, as anyone following Guelph's transportation issues will already be aware,
that the rate of commuter traffic from Kitchener to Guelph vastly outnumbers commuter traffic from Guelph to Kitchener. So, while several trains will service the Kitchener to Guelph commuter market, there are no westbound trains planned before noon and no eastbound trains at a commuting-appropriate time in the evening. Those will come later, according to the study, when 50 miles of additional track are built alongside the existing line that runs between Brampton's Mount Pleasant station and Kitchener, giving us all-day service.
But if it all sounds too good to be true, there may be a fly in the ointment. While three station locations were proposed in the study for Guelph - the former LaFarge property, the existing VIA station, and a greenfield site at Watson Road - only one was selected. The study predicts that 65 per cent of GO train using commuters in Guelph will drive to the station and park, with 35 per cent using other modes such as bicycles or transit - so parking capacity for 65 per cent of those train riders will be needed if that prediction is accurate for the service to succeed. GO trains ran to Guelph from 1990 to 1993 and the lack of parking is often cited as a major reason for its failure last time around.
According to the report, Guelph's VIA station currently has only 45 parking spaces.
Even a cursory look at the station any day of the week will show that the parking lot is filled beyond capacity every working day for the existing lone VIA commuter train. That station lot is due to be converted into Guelph's long-awaited transit hub. Moreover, the city has promised to build a new parking garage on the south side of the tracks at the top of Neeve Street in time for the opening of GO service in 2011.
If you're keeping track, that means the city is now planning to build at least three parking garages downtown (on Wilson, Baker, and Neeve streets), forcing train-using commuters to compete with downtown businesses for parking.
While GO's report anticipates 210 parking spaces will be needed for commuter service in Guelph on day one - and 210 will be provided in the Neeve Street lot - the study anticipates a demand for 670 spaces by 2031. GO had predicted 150 spaces would be needed in Barrie on day one, less than two years ago, and within a couple of months faced three times that demand. Barrie's station now has 628 parking spaces.
The stations along the route will include Kitchener's existing downtown VIA station - with a transit connection, but no new parking - the Breslau Greenhouse Road park-and-ride - with 700 parking spaces, and expandable to 1,050 - Guelph's downtown VIA station, with a transit connection/park-and-ride, 210 parking spaces, and the Acton Hide House, with a park-and-ride and 200 parking spaces).
Guelph is well on its way to a reasonable level of passenger rail service, and barring a cataclysmic event, it is likely to be here within two years. I commend
GO and VIA for working together to improve our passenger network and to give people alternatives to our clogged highways. Better transit service cannot get here soon enough.
[ My concluding sentence: "I hope that Guelph can rise to the challenge of moving people to and from this service." did not appear in the printed version but does appear in the on-line version. ]
In Saturday's Mercury, there was a related story: a detailed history of the Guelph Junction Railway spanned pages A1 and A3 of the paper, incorrectly asserting that the Canadian National once operated the Guelph Junction Railway when it was the Canadian Pacific. The phrasing made it sound like that bit of incorrect information came from me, but it most assuredly did not.
words - permanent link - comments: 6. Posted at 11:20 on
August 11, 2009
Column on UK vs CA rail service
I recently travelled to the UK and spent a lot of my time travelling around the country on the country's expansive rail network. Some stats that couldn't fit into the column: 550 trains a day go through Oxford station, including freight trains and passenger trains that don't stop. 1,100 trains a day go through nearby Reading station. According to the CIA World Factbook, Canada has ~415,600 km of paved roads and 48,000 km of rail, and the UK has ~398,366 km of paved road and 16,567 km of rail.
U.K. shows us the value of rail transit
Ever taken a train to the airport? I dream of being able to get to Canada's major airports by train.
The U.K. and much of Europe have a transit network that provides a real option to private cars. I saw a vivid demonstration of this visiting High
Wycombe and Marlow stations, nearby satellite towns outside London, England that connect to different major routes, allowing passengers to avoid an
overburdened hub. Marlow is a town on the end of a short branch line reminiscent of the Guelph Junction Railway. Every hour, a short passenger train
completes a loop the length of the Marlow branch, connecting several small communities to the main line through the area at Maidenhead.
There, 15-minute train service connects the station to London to the east, a hub at Reading to the west, and the rest of the United Kingdom. Just to
the west of Marlow is a similar branch connecting the next set of communities in a similar way. Both lines have privately operated dedicated trains
and crews that service exclusively the local branch lines covering a distance of no more than a few miles.
These rail networks have not replaced the road system. They work with it, drawing down automobile traffic and allowing both systems to operate at a
lower total cost. While a similar rail service is not practical for all Canada, there is no reason to build more highways in southern Ontario before
we have complemented what we have with this level of rail service.
What stops us from having service that never drops below an hourly service between London and Toronto via Guelph, Cambridge, and Brantford, with
north-south lines connecting them along the way?
The tracks are almost all in place. The traffic is there to justify the investment in such a network -- it needn't be high speed. Instead of servicing
the demand with a proven rail infrastructure, we await the pending construction of the new Highway 7, new Highway 24, rebuilt Hanlon, and new GTA West
highway corridor. Why do we lack the vision to build and maintain a rail network that works in concert with other means of transportation? Why are our
taxes used to increase the size of our road network instead? Build and price rail competitively. It will save us in the long term.
For about $400, I had access to nearly every train in England at any time of any day as much as I wanted for the week I was there. That cost would
barely get me to Montreal and back on Via. Individual trips for short distances can almost always be done in the U.K. for just a few pounds-paid on
board without reservations. By contrast, Via's minimum regular fare is approximately $21 to travel to the next station.
We lack the vision to consider our rail system as a complement to our overall transportation network, seeing it instead as competition to aircraft.
Trains are a way to facilitate inexpensive, efficient regional travel.
In London, England, it is possible to get to the city's major airports by train. The same applies to most major airports in the country. Often, the
train is inexpensive and practical. Gatwick, for example, is accessible by train not only from London, but by direct train from Reading and other
hubs, allowing connections from all over without entering London or having to take a car further than the nearest railway station, themselves usually
well-serviced by buses.
Toronto Pearson, by comparison, is bordered to the north-east by the GO Weston subdivision, a railway line that runs nearly exclusively passenger
trains, to the tune of 16 per day. In spite of bordering airport property, none stop at the airport, nor does the recently built airport monorail
connect to this high capacity transit link.
Reading's direct service to Gatwick would be comparable to Guelph's service to Pearson, which is eminently doable if only we had the vision.
Toronto's ever-proposed Blue 22 service to Pearson would not help those of us coming from the Guelph side. We would have to take the train to Toronto
and connect back out to the airport, along the same line we had just taken.
While on my travels, I also visited the West Somerset Railway. The tourist line connects the city of Taunton 35 kilometres north to the coastal city
On a Tuesday, the line's three trains running back and forth some 16 times provided more regular service than Guelph sees each day, for a smaller
population base, and it was often difficult to find seat. And that is nothing compared to the 256 passenger trains per day scheduled to stop at
Banbury station, a city about one-third the size of Guelph between Birmingham and Oxford.
While I flew into Pearson and waited for a car to take me along beside the railway tracks back to Guelph, I ask you to ponder what role trains should
Is our vision to continue paving over our region while trains languish, or could we perhaps learn a bit from the Old Country?
words - permanent link - comments: 3. Posted at 21:11 on
July 09, 2009
With Police Week under way today and tomorrow, I thought it would be a good opportunity for my column to leave the usual track of pushing for rational transit solutions in a land where such concepts sound wonderful but are truely completely foreign to all of us, and focus on the people who enforce our laws for a few moments. While policing addresses crime head on, it doesn't make any effort to address the root causes of crime in the structure of our society, but that's a different column. So here's this one.
Police Week a chance to show our appreciation and get involved
Today marks the start of Ontario's annual Police Week. What better time to stop and really appreciate the contribution that our police department
makes to the peace and well-being of our community?
Our media outlets are usually looking for problems -- scandals, disasters, or epidemics -- to catch our attention. As the saying goes, "If it bleeds,
it leads." National news coverage sometimes sounds like a soap opera, reporting murders and crimes until we become inured to them and no longer even
notice, except to wish they would announce good news more often.
Even so, we rarely take the time to notice when something is working properly. The fridge, the hot water tank, the car -- all are taken for granted
until they break. In the same way, for most of us, the Guelph Police only come to mind when we realize we have been speeding, or have just made an
illegal left turn.
The rest of the time, though, they are performing their real tasks.
Policing is among the most thankless tasks in any community, yet year after year, crime rates are substantially lower in Guelph than in other
comparable cities in Ontario in every category except traffic violations.
There, we rate as the second highest, arguably a sign of the zeal of our men and women in uniform who monitor and patrol our roads.
"This year's theme is Policing Possibilities: Inspiration for the Future. This theme focuses on heightening community awareness and promoting
collaboration between young people to keep our communities safe, through crime prevention, preparedness and social development," The Guelph Police
Service said in a statement.
Policing services are not all performed by the active members of the force.
There are also groups of volunteers that strengthen links with the greater community.
One of these groups is the Community Volunteer Patrol (www.guelphcvp.ca). The volunteer patrol was started by residents of Guelph's west end in the
mid-1990s. It grew quickly and serves the entire city, feeding information back to the police service's dispatcher as warranted, and helping to keep
Guelph's crime rate down. Many similar volunteer services exist in other Ontario communities such as Kingston, Belleville, and Halton region.
Some forces, such as the OPP, have a more hard-core group of volunteers in their auxiliary units. All of these groups share one thing in common: they
are all ways for the community to volunteer with the police services and contribute to our collective well-being.
The Guelph volunteer patrol is an eyes-and-ears extension of the Guelph Police Service. Usually at night, its members patrol parks, schoolyards,
churches, and other neighbourhoods, institutions and businesses that request their presence.
They report directly to the police dispatcher while on duty and record everything that happens. You may also have seen them in their red shirts
helping out at events such as Canada Day.
Guelph is a city rightly proud of its strong volunteerism, as seen during the recent National Volunteer Week.
If you want to get involved and help out with policing in Guelph, but the volunteer patrol is not your cup of tea, there are other opportunities to
volunteer, with organizations such as Guelph Neighbourhood Watch or Block Parents.
If you want to learn more about these local opportunities, about the police service in general, or just want to show your appreciation to our Police
service, Police Week is your big chance.
Today and tomorrow, you are invited to an open house at the Guelph Police Station any time between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to meet the people of our police
service, and the volunteer community groups attached to the police that help to make Guelph a better place.
Guelph works because people like you take an interest and show their appreciation. Successful policing requires community involvement.
words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 20:50 on
May 11, 2009
Celebrating our heritage
Today's column ties Guelph's rail history to Guelph's rail future through Guelph's rail present. The message in it applies to communities all over, though. Waterloo residents can drop in Waterloo Central where Guelph Junction Express is mentioned, Orangeville and Brampton residents can look toward the Credit Valley Explorer, and the further away you go, the more of these tourist railways you find viably running on railway lines that could be hosting real passenger service.
Rail transport is not just a thing of the past
On Election Day, last Oct. 14, a teenager playing with fire destroyed the restored historic railway station in the Quebec town where I grew up. A few short years ago, Strathroy's station, too, was torched. The River Run Centre was built on the site of the original Guelph Canadian Pacific station, which was the Priory. Our Great Western station, once near the former Lafarge property, has been gone for generations. The Grand Trunk station remains in service as the city's Via Rail station, soon to be joined by GO transit and the city's bus system. This is the sole survivor of at least seven train stations built in Guelph since 1827.
It used to be that the Guelph Junction Railway was part of the Canadian Pacific network as a passenger and freight line, connecting Goderich to Hamilton through Guelph. The line was abandoned from Guelph to Goderich some years ago, and passenger trains have not run on the balance with any regularity for over four decades.
Now that has changed. Last year, a local business person started the Guelph Junction Express, a tourist railway running between downtown Guelph and Guelph Junction, which is just west of Campbellville, on weekends.
Guelph residents have an opportunity to see this passenger train as it goes by the site of the old CPR station at the River Run Centre. The symbolism cannot be overstated.
The Guelph Historical Railway Association, which has been an active participant in the Guelph Junction Express project and has provided volunteer labour for many aspects of its preparation and operation, is putting on a special trip on April 25, running the Guelph Junction Express passenger train over most of Guelph's railway tracks. It will cover all of the tracks from Guelph Junction to north of Woodlawn Road, and into the industrial tracks that cross the Hanlon Expressway between Speedvale Avenue and Woodlawn Road, off of Edinburgh Road. This is an opportunity to experience Guelph's existing, and still active, rail network.
The tracks on which the Guelph Junction Express operates represent a huge opportunity for Guelph, if we have the courage to rise to the challenge. While studies looking at transportation in the region see tracks that run from Guelph to nowhere, and studies in the region south of us see tracks that run from Hamilton to nowhere, we must see that these tracks do not go nowhere, but connect Guelph to Hamilton.
Imagine a direct train from here to Hamilton. When Guelph had 20,000 people, passenger trains regularly ran that route. Now, with over 120,000 people, we have settled for a tourist train, celebrating rail transit as an exotic form of transportation that only our grandparents used.
While we treat passenger trains as a tourist attraction rather than as a practical way to get around, a ride on the Guelph Junction Express will challenge that assumption. Short-, medium- and long-distance travel are all possible by rail. All we lack is the imagination and courage to invest and restore our service to the level it was a century ago when taking the train got you some place other than Front Street.
Could we run a light-rail transit system south from Guelph's downtown to Hamilton's? Could we run one from downtown Guelph to our northwest industrial park? The Guelph Historical Railway Association excursion train will operate on one of the two potential routes for that service, which exist today as freight lines.
Integrating a Guelph light-rail system with a Waterloo Region light-rail system can be accomplished along two existing, serviceable routes, one that goes from Guelph to Cambridge (that appears as a desired route on Guelph's walking-trail master plan, in spite of being an active railway line) and the other, which goes from Guelph to Kitchener. But even if we do not connect to Waterloo, we can provide meaningful service within Guelph city limits, connecting some of Guelph's residential areas to its industrial ones by rail.
While our train stations continue to be burned or torn down, whether through malice or planning, the opportunities along the railway lines that pass those stations remain untapped and unexplored. Take a moment out of your weekend, take the Guelph Historical Railway Association's excursion, and imagine the possibilities as you ride a passenger train around Guelph.
Now is the time, with more and more of us looking for work, to invest in improving the underused rail infrastructure that we already have, an approach that could truly make us stronger for when times improve.
words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 09:49 on
March 30, 2009
It's full-time work when you're looking for work
Not being much of a romantic, my column in today's Valentines-day Mercury is about everyone's favourite topic in this economy: the job hunt. Without further comment, here it is.
As 2008 drew to a close, so too did the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people across North America.
After almost nine years of professional Linux and web work, my U.S.-based contracts dried up and, being self-employed, I was not eligible for employment insurance -- or a government bailout.
My wife, a doctoral student at the University of Guelph, is not in a position to make up the missing income, so I have been seeking Linux system administration or web-related work, and have some observations about the whole process of "finding a job."
Until now, I have never once found either a job or a contract through the conventional CV/interview process. In fact, no employer has even asked to see my curriculum vitae, with one notable exception: the employer at a summer job in high school asked for my CV -- after signing my contract.
With my major American clients gone, I prepared a detailed CV and fired it off to some 20 employers who had posted notices seeking my skills in Guelph and Waterloo Region. Along with each application, I included a detailed, personal cover letter.
Over the following several weeks, as I continued sending applications, I received only one response. In spite of these numerous applications, mostly to positions I am well qualified for, I had received no other replies.
Then, in late January, I attended the TechVibes job fair in Waterloo where, aside from running into people I know from Guelph who I would never have imagined were unemployed, I found a small number of tech companies looking for employees.
This time I distributed 10 copies of my CV, two of which went to recruiters. When I got home, I sent followup letters, along with a soft copy of my CV.
Within a week of the job fair, I received three responses, two of them to schedule interviews. The third was from a recruiter wanting to pass on a soft copy of my CV to a client. The lesson was clear: personal contact is very important.
One of the interviews I attended was with a company that had received my original application to that company's posting more than six weeks earlier, but giving them a CV at the job fair is what caught their attention.
When I attended my first job fair-related interview, I was surprised to learn that the interviewer, who said he knew me by reputation and was clearly interested in my file, had received only the CV I had given them at the job fair and had not seen the followup letter I had sent directly to the company's posted recruitment address the following day.
Perplexed, I began to wonder if email addresses like 'jobs@company' and 'careers@company' were just aliases for the nearest trash bin.
I have come to realize that the major task is not so much to find work as it is to learn how to find work -- to learn how the system actually works and not to rely on how it is supposed to work.
While I am fortunate to be in a field where demand is great and to have some savings to fall back on, my search has inspired a lot more questions than answers about the job-hunting process.
If a company needs an employee to do a specific task, why is it so difficult for a relevant application to get noticed? What needs to be done to ensure that an employer reads an application? (I have been told that the scented ones go straight to the trash, so there goes that idea!) How are people with less specialized skills than I have coping with the lack of response from employers?
In Canada in January, 0.6 per cent of our total workforce lost their jobs. That is a huge number of people joining me in the job line. I am not starving, but for those who have kids, a lot of debt, or simply no reserves, what are the options?
How can they afford a costly learning process that may only serve to help them understand how to get interviewed? Is there a secondary process that still stands in the way of actually being hired once the interview process is complete?
The first lesson people in my position seem to have to learn is that finding a job is a job in its own right, and that there is no logical training procedure to follow. Like any other job, success comes through experience, determination, and the courage to think outside the box.
words - permanent link - comments: 2. Posted at 18:30 on
February 14, 2009
Auto bailout lacks vision, imagination
My column in today's Mercury addresses the strange circumstances we now find ourselves in with regards to spending about $360 per Ontarian on one of the most heavily subsidised industries in the world. To put it mildly, I am not impressed.
In one of the newscasts covering the US' debate on the auto industry bailout, a US congressman in debate asked if we should have bailed out the horse and carriage industry when the car was invented. It is mildly alliterative, but it makes the point.
There are plenty of successful auto manufacturers left in the world, many of them manufacturing their vehicles in North America while making cars that consumers actually want, instead of asking consumers to want the cars they are making*. Moreover, if we are going to bail out American auto manufacturers, what bang are we going to get for our buck? If we invest the roughly $17 billion in the US and $4 billion in Canada to keep them afloat, what will we accomplish? Will we remain world leaders in the construction of SUVs, or could we perhaps exercise just a little imagination and use these billions of taxpayer dollars that, in Canada alone, add up to around $10,000 per affected auto industry employee to become world leaders in something that needs a little leadership?
Through part of the fall, I saw one wind turbine head up Guelph's Highway 6 just about every weekday afternoon. They were offloaded in Hamilton harbour and sent north by truck. Why? Because they had to be imported from Europe; they are not manufactured in Canada.
During the Second World War, North America's industrial might was very quickly changed from the manufacture of consumer goods and vehicles to the manufacture of war machinery including trucks, tanks, aircraft, ships, weaponry, and ammunition. Is our failure of imagination so total that, in an age when technology allows us to contemplate a manned mission to another planet, we can not re-task our manufacturing sector to prepare us for a more sustainable future?
The whole process of bailouts has been broken from the outset. The US' $700 billion bailout package is largely being used to buy up bad credit from creditors so that they can once again lend money. Had the same money been used to pay off the huge consumer and mortgage debt in the US, consumer confidence would have returned in spades, the credit markets would have been re-invigorated, and millions of people would not have had their homes foreclosed. If we are going to spend taxpayer dollars to that phenomenal extent, we should at least be helping people live rather than only ensuring that bankers' profit margins are not hurt too badly.
The big concern for me is that the failure of imagination is so comprehensive that the current governing generation is taking a huge debt-load, and doubling it for my generation -- those of us born well after the war in Vietnam -- to pay off. Recent policy in Canada has been to "give back surplus tax dollars to Canadians" in the form of huge tax cuts, but only during boom times. All it serves to do is bankrupt the country so that proper, forward-thinking investment is impossible.
Canada has a long history of building itself up only to sell itself short. It is a cycle we need to break. From being world leaders in the aviation industry until the cancellation of the Avro Arrow, a crime for which I will never forgive Diefenbaker, to turning from the most prosperous country in the G8 to essentially bankrupt under another Conservative government, Canada has a long history of getting to the top of its game, and then backpedalling with apology to those that we had outshone. The bailout Canada and the province of Ontario are offering to the auto industry here, measured as a simple function of how much the US is offering in their bail out multiplied by the percentage of the industry that is in Canada, is yet another example of how we are failing where we should be leading.
The ideas are out there. A report in the Mercury a few days ago related a new study proposing a high speed rail network for the greater Toronto area, stretching from Waterloo to Orillia to Peterborough to Niagara Falls. According to the study, the network could cost as little as $4 billion -- the amount we are giving to the auto industry.
With the prospects for my generation being as dim as they are with what we are inheriting, I feel I have to call attention to the existence of the future to those currently in power, as nobody at the top seems capable of seeing beyond the tips of their own noses.
This lack of vision and foresight extends to Guelph, which at a recent council meeting voted unanimously to ask GO Transit to set up a single station in the downtown core, not setting aside any other land for use as a future station, and committing downtown to building vastly more and more expensive parking -- no doubt at the expense of further increased transit fares. To council's credit, only three members voted in favour of a motion calling on GO never to consider any additional stations in Guelph. While the "Stone Rd extension" right of way connecting one of the main east-west strips at the south end of the city with highway 24 has been set aside for generations, preparing our transit infrastructure even a few years in advance is beyond the capability of our politicians at any level. Why are we so chronically incapable of planning ahead? Is it too much to ask that we plan as far ahead for our transportation infrastructure as we do for our water usage? We do have abstract plans, but without action, it's essentially meaningless.
With that, here's today's column.
Bail-out places a second mortgage on my generation
My generation is in for the surprise of its life.
We have never endured a recession. Sure there was one in the early 1990s, but when your parents tell you at nine years old that they are on their last
$20, your reaction is "that's more than I have!" So as we head into this period of economic uncertainty, what do we have to consider?
I am a firm believer in the role of government. For the economy, government's responsibility is to eliminate debt and build a reserve when times are
good. When times are bad, taxes can then be lowered and we can rely on those reserves and short-term debt to invest in our national infrastructure,
stimulating the economy.
Government's role is to reduce the peaks and troughs of the economic cycle. The bigger the boom, the bigger the bust, and by taxing the boom, we can
mitigate the impact of the bust.
U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and president Dwight D. Eisenhower's Interstate system demonstrated this. Both took the economy out of
recession through massive investment in the future. We almost had it figured out on this side of the border this time, too.
For 10 years we paid down the debt of the previous two recessions. We were making headway, but a new government came in and opted to cut taxes when
the economy could actually afford the level of taxation we had.
Both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper brag about the amount they cut taxes: Martin by $120 billion, and Harper by another $200 billion. Between them, we
could have almost completely paid off our debt and could have had the money to invest in public infrastructure during this recession without
mortgaging my generation.
We pay in excess of $30 billion a year from the federal pot just for interest on the debt we have.
Without any debt that would be $30 billion more per year that the federal government would have to work with before going into deficit.
Our deficit is projected to be $30 billion in 2009, all of which will be borrowed to pay interest on what we have already borrowed.
The trouble is, we called our financial situation a "surplus." There is no such thing as a surplus as long as there is a debt.
Surplus is a bad word: it implies the government is taxing more than it needs.
That way of thinking considers only the here and now, it does not account for the spending done yesterday that we could not afford. Ultimately, it
means we are measuring our government's financial health in terms of cash flow, not in consideration of the long term.
You and I would not reduce our income if we still have a mortgage to pay off and a retirement to plan for. Why should we do so collectively?
Government is not some mysterious institution that robs from us. It is our way, as a society, to manage ourselves and share communal costs and
If we, as a society, are spending more than we can afford, it is our collective responsibility to pay off the excess just as it would be for us to do
personally. When governments at any level have a debt-target that is not zero per cent of GDP, we have a problem, just as much as if we abuse our
credit card, or refinance our homes simply because we can, with the deliberate intention of carrying a debt that we could have paid off.
After having quickly squandered our reserves when times were good, the governments of both Canada and the United States are now preparing to give the
American auto industry thousands of dollars per manufactured vehicle to keep their inefficient business models afloat. Meanwhile, their foreign
competitors continue to clean up the market with better, more efficient vehicles, built for less money that cost less to maintain.
This bailout is wholly uninspired and does nothing to invest in our infrastructure or our future.
The $23 billion being spent by the governments on the two sides of the border could be put into our national infrastructure in a way that is truly
meaningful while stimulating our economy.
Canada's $4 billion figure, just to bail out one industry in one province, along with all the other money governments around the world are giving to
save dated business models, could instead have been invested in rethinking our approach to infrastructure.
Why are we not refocusing the industrial might of the auto sector on redefining how our cities are built, how we move around, and how we power it all?
Why are we not taking this opportunity to invest in becoming world leaders in sustainable technologies?
The auto industry has the potential to do it. We would be better served investing our billions of dollars to convert these failed manufacturers to the
construction of technologies largely made elsewhere today including buses, passenger trains, wind turbines, solar panels and the like.
Purchasing the results would improve Canada's infrastructure. This would turn our automakers into world leaders in those fields, saving hundreds of
thousands of jobs, and truly preparing us for the future. All it takes is vision.
Cars are not going anywhere, but they do not need to go everywhere.
Instead of paving over my generation with poorly considered short-term fiscal policies from unnecessarily emptied federal coffers, this recession
could be our chance to invest wisely in our rapidly changing world.
At least then my surprised generation could contemplate a better future.
As an aside, Guelph spends a huge portion of its annual budget building and maintaining our 538 km of public roads. Mayor Farbridge's recent State of the City address confirmed this. 538 km represents approximately 4.5 metres or 14' 8" of road for each of Guelph's approximately 120,000 residents. It is 6.1 km of road per square km of city. All of those km are funded by the taxpayer and exclude the provincial highways in city limits, bridges, boulevards, traffic signals, and the other expenses we pay for to allow our cars to run. The level of subsidy for the automobile includes all these factors. By contrast, the City of Guelph turns an actual, real profit that is returned to city coffers on its railway operations. The subsidy for cars and trucks on our roads is so ingrained in our governing attitude that, in spite of the Guelph Junction Railway's profit, Guelph has, in the past, tried to convince its rail customers to switch to trucks. I suppose, given that, it is not that much of a surprise that we would seek to bail out the least profitable or visionary auto makers in the world.
* - Although I am unable to find a car I want to buy from any manufacturer to replace my venerable 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser 8-seat wagon as it approaches forced retirement. No car on the market today can seat more than five people aside from a fuel-thirsty Mercedes C350 7-seat wagon, which is a tad outside of my price range. Vehicles built on car frames rather than truck frames with a large capacity rather than the wasted space of a sedan, and bench seats up front allowing three occupants per row (something I use more than you'd think), simply do not exist any more from any manufacturer, with half-hearted attempts to correct a decade of SUV/Minivan obsession by building slightly smaller SUVs nicknamed "crossovers." Sorry folks, they're still SUVs.
words - permanent link - comments: 3. Posted at 09:56 on
December 30, 2008