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The world according to David Graham


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Recent entries

  1. PMO Staff Run Government; Ministers Represent It
  2. On A Mostly Harmless Birthday
  3. The Trouble With Political Communications
  4. Politics: War By Other Means
  5. On the function of Social media
  6. C-18 is an existential threat, not a benefit, to democracy
  7. On Missing A Little More Than A Sub
  8. The Realpolitik Of Open Nomination
  9. What Is An Open Nomination, Really?
  10. Alberta election about identity, not policy
  11. The Trouble With Electoral Reform
  12. Mr. Bains Goes to Rogers
  13. Question Period
  14. Why do lockdowns and pandemic restrictions continue to exist?
  15. Parliamentary privilege: an arcane concept that can prevent coups
  16. It's not over yet
  17. Trump will win in 2020 (and keep an eye on 2024)
  18. A podcast with Michael Geist on technology and politics
  19. Next steps
  20. On what electoral reform reforms
  21. 2019 Fall campaign newsletter / infolettre campagne d'automne 2019
  22. 2019 Summer newsletter / infolettre été 2019
  23. 2019-07-15 SECU 171
  24. 2019-06-20 RNNR 140
  25. 2019-06-17 14:14 House intervention / intervention en chambre
  26. 2019-06-17 SECU 169
  27. 2019-06-13 PROC 162
  28. 2019-06-10 SECU 167
  29. 2019-06-06 PROC 160
  30. 2019-06-06 INDU 167
  31. older entries...

All stories filed under essays...

  1. 2006-04-20: April 20th, 2006
  2. 2006-06-09: A ten-lane 401?
  3. 2006-06-24: Tor: Freedom for whom?
  4. 2006-07-03: Canada in 2020: an essay challenge
  5. 2006-07-25: Why lawns suck
  6. 2006-12-05: Canada: Defined by Water in 2020
  7. 2008-01-20: Guelph's former LaFarge property an opportunity not to be wasted
  8. 2008-03-02: New Highway 7 a total misallocation of funds
  9. 2008-03-28: How I came to believe in better public transit
  10. 2008-03-31: Growing without growing
  11. 2008-04-09: Does voter turnout matter?
  12. 2008-04-12: $15 million parking lot a curious approach to planning for the future
  13. 2008-05-22: Why I do not support an elected Senate
  14. 2008-05-26: Every day should be Clean Air Day
  15. 2008-08-14: Remembering the blackout of August 14, 2003
  16. 2019-10-26: On what electoral reform reforms
  17. 2020-01-21: Trump will win in 2020 (and keep an eye on 2024)

Displaying the most recent stories under essays...

Trump will win in 2020 (and keep an eye on 2024)

In watching Democrats attacking each other again this week, I think it is important to put my gentle warning in writing as a nominally disinterested foreign observer:

Democrats have no serious chance of winning the presidency in 2020 because they still have not, by and large, understood why they lost in 2016.

In 2016, the "ballot question" was as clear and concise as it could have been:

Do you want the establishment?
Yes: Hillary Clinton.
No: Donald Trump.

That Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election is, to the urban middle-class, a sign of how broken the American electoral system is, that underpopulated states have a greater weight in the system than the wealthy, mainly coastal, metropolises. Democrats across the country cannot understand how voters could vote against their own self-interests. But they are missing the point by a country mile.

The trouble is, we, collectively, measure success by the value of the stock market and the growth of GDP; of the quantity of people employed and not of the quality of those jobs. We describe everyone as middle class, and we congratulate ourselves for defending them.

Right or wrong, these concepts are urban. When the GDP and the stock market go up and the jobless numbers go down, the communities outside the cities are not enjoying the benefits. Their costs continue to rise but their revenues do not. Their debts rise and their ability to repay them evaporate. The good union jobs of previous generations are long gone, nobody having defended them, and they are too busy trying to survive to contemplate why this is the case.

All they know for sure is that the establishment does not work for them. That "middle class" is a term urban denizens use to describe themselves and the people around them; that all the growth they hear about is not coming to their community. To them, that growth and prosperity is all just another lie. The simple, clear messaging of Fox News and the rising alt-right media is understandable; clear blame and simple explanations are offered to complex problems, and they are receptive because their problems are fundamentally not recognised by traditional media, who no longer serve small markets.

That Trump is known to be a liar is irrelevant, if not outright advantageous, in this context. That he has been impeached for what amounts to treasonous behaviour even more so, giving reason to the belief that the establishment is terrified of this man and will do anything to get rid of him -- and if that is the case, then surely he continues to be the anti-establishment candidate, there for the forgotten folks outside of town.

Make America Great Again was never a slogan to make Trump's old Manhattan neighbours feel better about their lives. It is about telling disaffected voters that they deserve a piece of the pie. When people see billions being spent on highway and transit projects in the big cities, and the countryside is told that a few million dollars is too much to get them connected to the Internet or to fix their crumbling infrastructure, it is clear who matters -- and who does not (see https://www.citylab.com/perspective/2018/12/rural-america-us-economic-future-new-york-times-wrong/578740/ for some good analysis). From there, the right wing message is an easy sell: 'Just cut our taxes and stay out of our way -- government doesn't do anything for us anyway.'

That he has only succeeded in raising the taxes of those who can least afford them, losing American jobs, hurting international relations and diminishing America's role in the world -- while greatly benefiting the upper class, and generally doing everything wrong from the perspective of the urban elite, is very much by design. Succeeding would be failing.

Reducing the hardship of the working poor now dependent on dollar stores for groceries would give them the opening to see the fraud being perpetrated on them.

Trump is indeed making America great again for these voters. He is keeping the urban elite on the run. His failure to accomplish substantive change is just further proof that he is still needed to keep up the fight. He is, himself, the very greatness that America will be implored to keep this year.

Campaigns matter. This year, Trump will win because Democrats will press all the wrong buttons, and he will portray himself as continuing to fight for the great forgotten masses; that he is robbing them blind while urging their support will not enter into the electoral calculus.

After the election, he will move quickly to consolidate his power. His pardon of accused war criminal Eddie Gallagher was not an accident. It served two purposes: it irritated the urban elite, helping the narrative that they are out to get him, the anti-establishment candidate. And, in the long game, it demonstrated, along with imprisoning and separating thousands of immigrant children and many of his other acts, his increasingly limitless power in the face of a Republican party more afraid of losing to a Democrat than of losing a democracy.

In 1979, Saddam Hussein famously performed a public purge of his Ba'ath Party, executing people that everyone knew had done nothing wrong for the specific purpose of demonstrating he could do it -- and there would be no consequences. Video was distributed to make sure everyone got the message. Make no mistake, Trump's actions serve the same ultimate purpose. Underestimate him at your peril.

The Republican purge of voter rolls and voter rights and the inevitable installation of a fifth Supreme Court justice unwilling to stop him will help him consolidate his power into retaking majorities in the House and Senate and more state legislatures in 2022 by whatever means are necessary.

From there, Trump will be in a position to move to repeal the 22nd amendment. With all the fixes needed in place, his physical health may be the only thing between him and a third term.

The Democrats will go after Trump for being a bad president, so bad he is only the third ever to be impeached, missing completely that the reasons are completely beyond the understanding and interest of most of Trump's accessible voters -- all of whom will turn out to vote, where turnout will be the most important deciding factor. And Republicans will stay firmly united.

Democrats will fight among themselves and centrist Democrats will stay home rather than vote for that evil socialist Bernie Sanders or excessive progressive Elizabeth Warren -- or left Democrats will stay home rather than vote for that quasi-Republican Joe Biden. The progressive centre through the hard left will not coalesce around a single candidate and get out en masse as they did for Obama 12 years ago. And when they do address the American people, they will only speak to those whose votes they already have, ignoring the industrial heartland, whose labour movements collapsed as corporate - read: urban - America raced to offshore every good job and break every union, and they will not address the severe rural angst that exists beyond the boundaries of every city in America.

It does not need to be this way. The progressive centre and left across the United States must start addressing rather than ignoring rural angst and culture and put aside their differences to fight as one -- for all American people, not just those who live within a country mile of a traffic light.

Don't blame the electoral system. It is there specifically to ensure that the vast underpopulated rural states do indeed keep their voices and cannot be forgotten; rather, solve the economic disparity between urban and rural, between wealthy metropolises and impoverished industrial towns, resource lands, and agricultural areas that gave urban its wealth in the first place.

American democracy depends on it.

essays foreign politics 1306 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 13:43 on January 21, 2020

On what electoral reform reforms

For the past several days, I have watched as many people miss the point on electoral reform.

Way too much effort is being spent on the question of "proportional" and not nearly enough on the question of "representation."

Changing voting systems changes voting behaviour, so one cannot simply apply the results of one system to a different system.

Poll aggregators are self-fulfilling prophecies. Voters check for local momentum where none is measured, and share that information with their networks, while the data they are using is national numbers aggregated historically to local campaigns without any measurement of the current impact of the local campaign.

The fundamental breakage of our democracy is that we have 338 local elections, but we vote in a presidential manner - as if the party name or the leader's name are what is on the ballot.

I did not win in 2015 nor lose in 2019 because we did not have a proportional or preferential system; the results I had in both cases had a great deal more to do with the national campaign and the horse race numbers than my own efforts on the ground or those of my opponents. Yet the intent of our electoral system is to send local representatives to Ottawa to work together to find common ground with others across the country (not only the province) to solve our issues together, and do so by adopting a party banner that represents the issues those representatives intend to address.

The problem, at its core, is that local representation matters less and less and national campaigns matter more and more. The two solutions are either

- to say, ok, sure, national campaigns are easier than local campaigns to run and to cover, and we group-think anyway, so let's institutionalize this system by going to a proportional model of some sort, which puts more emphasis on the party and reduces the pretence that local representatives are relevant;


- to eliminate the horse-race and national narrative in favour of encouraging each community to make its own decision, and figure out how to make local representatives become once again relevant as local representatives, bringing that power and influence back to the communities that are choosing those representatives.

It comes down to a values question: proportionality and representation are essentially mutually exclusive; which one is more important to you?

Originally posted on facebook.

essays politics reform 402 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 19:31 on October 26, 2019

Remembering the blackout of August 14, 2003

As I have just been reminded, today marked the 5th anniversary of the blackout that darkened much of the US north-east and Ontario. I spent that evening, August 14th, 2003, watching a movie, browsing the Internet, listening to the radio, and otherwise performing electrical tasks thanks to a lucky series of coincidences.

In the spring of 2003, I bought myself a new laptop. Having used a 486 Dtk Computer laptop since 1998 for which I had paid just $50, I felt the time had come to upgrade. Somehow, using a computer with 8MB of RAM and a 325MB hard drive dual booting DOS and a 2.0-series Linux kernel no longer seemed entirely adequate. At the time, I also purchased a GPRS data card from then still independent Fido with a true unlimited data plan, a package essentially unmatched to this day by Canada's mobile phone companies.

I bought the laptop and the data card and plan so I could get on the Internet and do work while pursuing my then-new hobby of trainspotting. It worked marvellously well. I went to my favourite location, Guelph Junction, a railway junction just outside of Campbellville that connects Guelph's city-owned Guelph Junction Railway to the Canadian Pacific mainlines running between Toronto and London, and branching off to Hamilton. There were two radio towers at Guelph Junction. One of them was the railway's own communications tower so that dispatchers could talk to train crews. The other was a Fido cell tower, which guaranteed me excellent reception for my laptop as I sat at its base. The latter was taken down shortly after Rogers purchased Fido.

But I had a problem. My laptop's battery only lasted a couple of hours. I could not spend the whole day sitting there. By August of 2003, I had decided on a solution to that, and a sort-of related problem. Trainspotting, at least if you want to take photos of the trains as I do, is essentially limited to daylight hours. I wondered if I could get around this problem by using a pair of 500W halogen work lamps pointed at the train as it passed.

So early in August, I went to Canadian Tire and got as carried away as I could. I bought a 1200W 3-socket power inverter and a pair of 500W halogen work lamps, and booked an appointment at Powerline, a high-end electronics store at the north end of Guelph, to have the inverter installed in my 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser with its roughly 375,000 km. The appointment was for August 12th.

I purchased a 25-foot wind-up coil extension cable that would live with the inverter in the car, and headed off to Powerline with the car for its scheduled appointment. An hour later, I turned it on for the first time and admired the digital read-out of my car battery's voltage and the huge piece of equipment now on the floor between the driver and passenger seats. I had done it.

Two days later, I was at my desk in the afternoon when I noticed two very strange power surges in quick succession. Without really thinking about it, I started shutting down my computers as I had not seen that kind of surge before and did not know what it was. A few minutes later, all my computers were shut down and the power went out in the house on what appeared to be a perfectly clear, normal day.

I found this to be a little odd and decided to see if I could put my inverter to use. Within a few minutes, I had strung the 25-foot power cable from my inverter through my house to the kitchen, where I plugged another extension cord into it onto my back porch. I plugged my laptop in and booted it up, shortly getting on the 'net and connecting up to IRC, an internet chat protocol developed in the late 80s that I continue to use to this day (see the 'Bloggers' Chat' link on the right). Within minutes it was obvious from the others that I was talking to that the scale of this power outage was rather large, as it was making news around the world. As I recall, it was friends in Europe who told me that all my neighbours' power was out.

Figuring we were in for the long haul, I strung up some more wires from the car, and with the help of a couple of my house-mates, set up a DVD player, small television, radio, and some lights on the porch. It occured to me at that point that it would probably be more useful to plug the chest freezer into the inverter so that our food wouldn't spoil, and I refocused my efforts on trying to do that. Within a few minutes it was clear that my car's battery was not capable of providing enough power to the inverter to power the freezer and I gave up on that project, not realising until much later that my car would never be able to provide enough power to bring the 1200W inverter to its full potential. I took off with a friend to check out the various stores in the city to see if anyone still had any ice for sale to try and preserve the freezer that way. Needless to say, we missed that boat and we returned empty handed.

While I don't recall what we did for dinner, my neighbour on one side came up onto our porch and as the sun went down we put on the movie "Catch Me If You Can," with my computer merrily providing us access to the full force of the Internet through my unlimited data plan, and the radio softly keeping us up to date in the background. A compact fluorescent light efficiently illuminated the scene for us, as our neighbour on the other side started up a small fire in their yard. After the movie, we set up lights around the house that could be used off the car battery as needed for the night and went to sleep.


The power came back on at about 4 am and had no further issues. The car itself was retired on November 12th, 2003 with a bit over 378,000 km on it. Fido's GPRS data service became worthless (except, curiously, in Ottawa where it worked perfectly well) after Rogers took over the company and I eventually got rid of it. The halogen lights did not see photography service until the inverter was installed in my new car, a 1993 of the same model with only 147,000 km which remains in service to this day, in early 2004. On May 5th, 2004 I tried to use them to take a photo of a brand new locomotive bound for Alaska Railroad on its way through Guelph Junction. In the few seconds the lights were on for the photo, the car battery nearly died and the engine ran rough as it tried to keep up with the 1000W load. The photo didn't come out, either.

essays 1187 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 03:47 on August 14, 2008

Every day should be Clean Air Day

The biggest expenses we have in our private lives are, for the most part, our mortgages, our food, and our cars. Tax-wise, our biggest expenses are health-care, education, and roads. If we made our transit systems as free as our road systems, how much money would we each save in both our personal expenses and our taxes? I argue this point in today's column.

We are, generally, perfectly willing to spend as many tax dollars on our roads as we are willing to spend after-tax dollars to buy the cars to run on them. Highway 7 from Kitchener to Guelph will cost $22,000 per commuter. The new parking garages downtown will each cost $30,000 per parking space. The city roads to connect the two will cost several thousand more dollars per user. The emissions from all of the construction and vehicles will send hundreds of people to hospital and cost millions more of our tax dollars.

Real transit solutions will save us plenty of both tax and after-tax dollars. Cars will have their uses for a while yet, getting kids to the doctor and sports practice, buying groceries and large items, getting somewhere in that hurry we always seem to be in. However, if we can address commuting with transit solutions, the automobile's total cost to our society will drop considerably. We are a society that likes getting things for free and we're willing to pay a lot for the privilege.

Our roads are free, but we pay as much as half of our municipal and provincial taxes to build maintain them. Our health-care is free but we pay a significant portion of our federal taxes to fund that, too. We complain about our high taxes, but do nothing to lower our own use of those tax dollars. Making our transit systems free will address all of these.

Transit systems, whether rail, bus, community bicycles or communal cars and taxis, reduce the total number of vehicles on the roads, the total amount of roads needed to handle them, the total effect on air quality and our quality of life. It reduces our total costs at all levels of government, from road and parking maintenance, highway construction, and health-care costs. As we worry about our modal shares and concentrate on a modal shift away from the car, we must try something new. Free transit is better than $.25 transit or $2.00 transit because there is no requirement to have change, tickets, or a bus pass. A major psychological barrier to taking the bus is taken away.

Guelph is currently going in entirely the wrong direction. On July 6th, our bus frequency will increase to 20 minute service, incidentally the level of service we had in 1895, which is good, but our fares will rise by 12.5%, which is bad. At the same time, the city is acknowledging that lowering bus fares encourages ridership by actively encouraging the city's large employers to get bulk bus pass rates of 15% off for their employees. Why? To encourage ridership, decrease costs to the employers for parking, and the city for roads. We already admit that lowering transit fares will save us money, yet we continue to raise them to cover "operating costs". Roads have no such fees. And in case you're thinking it, no, gas taxes don't even come close.

While we're on the topic of increasing bus fares, I must again point out that the amount of revenue raised by increasing transit fares in Guelph will be roughly equivalent to the money the city is losing in revenue from making downtown's street parking free, on an annual basis. Why must we ask our transit riders to pay for downtown parking?

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realise that cars are one of the most destructive forces in the history of our society. I say that as a car owner and driver, as lazy as they come, barely willing to walk beyond the end of my own driveway, whose eyes have opened only recently. That's the crux of the issue, really. Why is it that the only place modern man is willing to walk is the gym? And I don't mean to get there.

The automobile has broken us. It is a device I am slowly weaning myself from. I haven't quite figured out how to do it cold turkey, and as the most heavily subsidised means of transit around, there's very little incentive to break away from it. Although neither I nor my wife use a car to get to work -- I work at home, and she takes the bus, we depend on it for everything else. This past weekend I finally bought myself a new bike to replace the one I've had since 10th grade, which has been sitting in my shed since -- you guessed it -- the day I got a car. My project over the next while is to use my bike to help eliminate the need to own a car, though I suspect the need to use it, with the help of short term car rentals, will be years yet to completely resolve.

If we make our transit systems free to use, my contention is that we will save money as taxpayers and as individuals in nearly every industry and aspect of life. The city of Guelph spends nearly 7x as many tax dollars on its roads as on its transit, and around 4x as many tax dollars on roads as Guelph Transit gets in ticket and advertising revenue. That is to say, Guelph spends 4 years of free transit on roads every year. One transit operator I proposed free transit to warned that busses would become full of homeless people, but could give no other arguments why it might be a bad idea. Making transit free is all about providing options for transit that are, quite simply, better than the options for driving.

We start this trend by addressing the most significant replaceable use of cars: commuting. While I believe that people have a moral obligation to live as close to work as practical, addressing the 10,000 people or so who pass each other to work next to each other's homes between Guelph and Waterloo region is a much longer term project. Transit is something we can implement in the short term.

We have already proven the viability and usefulness of making transit free. Every year, Guelph celebrates Clean Air Day by making its busses free for all to ride. That day is approaching. This year, it lands on Wednesday, June 4th, in the middle of our Commuter Challenge. If making transit free contributes to clean air on Clean Air Day, why wouldn't it year-round? Making transit free could make every day Clean Air Day.

Driving costs us. It costs us car ownership, maintenance, fuel, insurance, road construction, road repair, parking structure, land use, health concerns, accident recovery, and environmental impacts from particulate and emitted matter in the construction, delivery, and operation of our cars and our roads. I would estimate that 1/3 of every dollar you spend in your life will have something to do with driving. Transit pools all of these costs for all of us and reduces them all around. Really, moving away from the automobile is more an economic argument than an environmental one. Like businesses "going green" save money, so too will our society.

On a closely related issue, drive-thrus have recently surfaced as an important issue to local residents. Many residents swear by drive-thrus, stopping on their way to or from work for a coffee or burger fix, or at the drive-thru bank machine for cash. Many other residents warn of the environmental consequences of idling vehicles. But my perspective is different from both of these. I believe drive-thrus are a symptom of a problem rather than a problem in their own right. On her excellent new blog, Mayor Farbridge recently asked for feedback on this issue. I replied: "the only real difference between the pollution and emissions from a car idling in a drive-thru and one passing it on the road is the optics of it. On the whole, the one driving is the problem. Solve that and the one getting coffee resolves itself." That is, if these transit solutions are implemented, drive-thrus will be as obsolete as the cars that drive through them.

For those concerned about the loss of jobs in the auto sector with a shift toward transit, I would not worry too much about that: a transit-based society's only unemployed people will be auto industry lobbyists. The auto sector's employees will be needed in a big way to build and operate our transit infrastructure. Yes, infrastructure, not service.

Here, then, is my column on the topic from today's paper, which started its first draft as a "what changes would I try to push through if I were on city council". The half not about transit will become another post.

Public transit: if you love it, make it free

Is our public transit system a service or is it really an integral component of our infrastructure?

Without including provincial investment in such projects as the new Highway 7 or the Hanlon Expressway upgrades, Guelph currently spends nearly seven times as many tax dollars on road maintenance and parking as we do on our public transit network.

Road and parking construction and maintenance will cost Guelph taxpayers more than $46 million in 2008 alone. This is the true culprit behind our constant tax increases, like next year's projected 6.5 per cent rise.

It's not the fault of the paltry investment of a few hundred thousand extra dollars into our bus system.

Our city councillors can fix this disparity, but they have to know that we will not turf them and return the Reign of Error to office if they take bold, necessary, but hard-to-sell measures.

That means you and I have to make it clear that we are ready. The most bold measure Guelph should try - and it is not without precedent around the world - is to make Guelph Transit's buses free for residents to ride. As radical and simple as the idea sounds, it should save tax dollars in the long run.

Free transit would increase ridership and alleviate stress on our road network, eliminate the need for huge new parking structures, and encourage developments built around transit instead of around the car.

The one day that transit was free last year, on Clean Air Day, ridership rose to 22,000 from 15,000. That represents a lot of cars not driving on our roads.

Our transit system should be considered and treated as infrastructure rather than as a service. As infrastructure, extending our transit system to new developments would be a cost associated with development charges as is the case for road construction, sewer and water lines, and our power grid.

Funding transit expansion through development charges would encourage transit-friendly developments as developers seek ways to save money. Public transit is no less an integral part of our city's operations than any other aspect of our infrastructure.

If the Toronto Transit Commission's recent strike and Queen's Park's rapid response -- including a rare Sunday sitting and back-to-work legislation by the start of the next rush hour -- is anything to go by, public transit is clearly a form of infrastructure, not just a service.

Public transit is as important to our infrastructure as our electricity, our running water and our roads. All these elements together are what allow our community to function. We should declare public transit as part of our infrastructure, even if no one else has.

While we are getting that sorted out, we must focus on intercity transit and the importance of the former Lafarge property in any vision of our transit future.

City staff assured a business audience at the city's recent Transit Forum there is no legal reason we cannot run our city buses beyond city limits. Having our transit system connect to Waterloo's by bus, and eventually by light rail, is essential to the future viability of Guelph as an employment centre.

Highway 7 and the Hanlon upgrades from south of the 401 to north of Guelph will likely cost more than $600 million provincial tax-dollars over the next few years.

That huge sum does not even count the billions that the GTA West highway corridor proposal will cost, which proposes to connect the top of the Hanlon directly to the 407.

If we put that kind of money into inter-regional transit infrastructure, we would likely eliminate the need for those new highways altogether.

Guelph has to lead this charge, no one else will do it for us.

With GO Transit's recent announcement it's exploring a return of GO train service to Guelph that may not initially extend to Waterloo Region, the former Lafarge property will show itself to be essential as our transit terminal area for car connections, with the Carden Street transit hub for bus and pedestrian connections in and out of the city.

Securing this land, now in private hands, will take leadership, guts, and investment on the part of our city. It will require us to consider public transit as a critical part of our infrastructure rather than being viewed as little more than a service that other people use.

Making public transit free will ultimately reduce our taxes.

columns environment essays guelph money transit 2245 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 12:50 on May 26, 2008

Why I do not support an elected Senate

What value would an elected Senate provide to Canada that the current Senate does not?

In my view, absolutely none. Indeed, I think an elected Senate would be more vocal and less valuable than what we have today. Given the choice, I would opt to abolish the Senate outright if the alternative were to devalue the House of Commons with an elected Senate.

An elected Senate is an empowered Senate. A Senate that is elected must keep itself relevant. Its very background as a house of "sober second thought" is thrown out the window if the sobriety of not needing to seek re-election or a post-term employment position is lost. The Senate is a house of sober second thought precisely because it is not elected, and its members need not seek employment when they are done. Elections break the former, and term limits break the latter.

Indeed, if I could change anything about the Senate, it would be to bar senators from having any other form of employment while sitting in the upper house.

The real flaw in our Senate is the same as the major flaw present in our lower house, and would not be rectified by election. The introduction of partisanship over principle or independent thought has devalued both houses and largely rendered them obsolete, with the bulk of our country's power in PMO, most of whose members are, I should point out, not elected. Any reform at any level has to be to return independent thought and decision-making to our representatives, where their opinions and consciences are more valuable than those of their parties, where debate is actually about influencing one another's opinions, ideas, and decisions.

If a senator must seek re-election, or seek employment at the end of their terms, their judgements are no longer "sober". Their decisions risk becoming clouded with self-interest. To be re-elected, they must conform to their party line, eliminating that very sobriety our bicameral system exists to provide. Their decisions become what is popular and not what is right. The Senate becomes another elected body, redundant in the presence of the Commons, with a need to assert its own relevance and damage the value of the Commons.

I am happy with the status quo for Senate appointments, and I would also be happy if premiers were given the opportunity to appoint senators, if only to break any single party's majority in that Senate, but electing senators would be a huge step backward for this country and in no way improve anything but the optics of the house of once-sober second thought.

The Senate as an appointed body exists as a check on the power of the House of Commons and the Prime Minister's Office. That balance of power would be completely gone with an elected Senate. Senators would have to watch their own backs rather than those of all Canadians. Today, Senate is not bound by rules of the House of Commons. There are no confidence bills, Conservative tactics over the crime bill notwithstanding, there are no time-limits on debate and committee research. The Prime Minister cannot railroad a bill through Senate. Bills passed for political expediency without so much as a proof-read by the lower house stop in the Senate for a careful re-read. This is what it means to be the house of "sober second thought".

Some have suggested in the extensive thread that spawned this post that in the 21st century, there should be no appointed electoral bodies. As the quality of debate and the strength of our democracy is weakened by partisanship and lack of substance, I argue that it is now, in the 21st century, more important than ever to have this appointed body, not vulnerable to political whim.

Electing the Senate is, like converting to Proportional Representation, a purely emotional and self-interested argument. It is intellectually dishonest, putting partisan interest before the good of our democracy and the effectiveness of our governing bodies. We have an elected body today. It is called the House of Commons. Electing the Senate makes little more sense than electing the Supreme Court who wield at least as much power, yet few would consider electing.

If we are serious about reforming the Senate, we should consider meaningful reform. Stripping partisan labels from members to ensure that each is there on their own merit and not as a function of a lower house party, would be meaningful reform worth pursuing. A difficult but existing means of removal for useless or AWOL Senators would also be an improvement. Requiring the unanimous consent of the House of Commons and the majority support of the Senate would probably be ok, for example. Senators are like tenured professors in that they have work to do that may be unpopular with their peers that must be done, and they need a strong defence to be able to pursue it. That defence is in their lifetime appointment and lack of need to seek re-election.

What do we gain from an elected Senate, really? Why would the Senate be anything more than a carbon copy of the partisan self-interest of the lower house? The Senate will need to make itself more relevant in order to capture the media attention needed for its members to be re-elected. A more relevant Senate is a more activist Senate. A more activist Senate risks trumping the power of the House of Commons rather than only checking it. An elected Senate will be nothing more than another lower house, more than ever subject to the direction of the PMO and party whips. What we have works today works, but an elected Senate would be worse than no Senate. The "political legitimacy" of an elected Senate is nothing more than a straw man.

An elected Senate would, quite simply, hurt our democracy.

elections essays politics 975 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 13:06 on May 22, 2008

$15 million parking lot a curious approach to planning for the future

My third crack at challenging our fundamental assumptions when it comes to travel and transit issues is in today's Guelph Mercury. My editorial board column comparing our parking investment to what it could do for transit is below, along with a whole lot more thoughts that did not make the cut into the version I submitted on account of space constraints.

First, I have a lot of respect for our current city council. In my view, they generally do the right thing. That is why I am so surprised that it would be this council that would drop a $30,000/stall parking lot in our laps. The mayor has explained her position on the Ward 2 councillors' blog. I highly recommend taking a read.

The way I see it, we are getting 500 parking spaces downtown -- at a cost of around $30,000 a stall -- at Baker St lot/housing/library regardless. I do not think we need 500 stalls much less 1,000 vertical parking spaces at that kind of price. Not to mention that those 1,000 spaces are not a net improvement in our parking situation - both Baker and Wilson St lots replace existing parking lots, so the total number of gained spots is closer to 700 between them, which substantially raises the price per stall in terms of cost per net new space, to well above the official numbers. Indeed, as a commenter on this site said a couple of weeks ago, I am not entirely sure why government is in the parking business in the first place. It is neither the most economical nor the most environmental solution for moving people.

I disagree that new parking garages are even a step in the direction of preparing to fight urban sprawl. Facilitating more cars does not discourage people from wanting single detached homes on what was the year before the site of a perfectly good forest or farm field at the outskirts of town. It makes those more attractive. If our goal is to encourage people to move into our downtown -- a laudable goal worth pursuing -- then we should seek creative new solutions that will encourage people to live downtown who will not own cars. If parking is not increased, but transit is made free, as I propose in my article, the type of people who will move to Guelph are the type of people who believe in transit and see leadership in this city, and their arrival would cause this effect to be self-perpetuating.

If I assume for a moment that the urgency of this parking garage is in reaction to my presentation last month warning of massive parking shortages for the pending transit hub and the need to set aside Lafarge lands for that purpose, there are two key points that need to be made. 1) 500 spots in a lot two blocks from the station will not last two months once GO trains arrive, and 2) If those parking spaces are to offset inter-regional transit parking demands, they will not be available for either downtown residents or downtown business. I am all for building parking to drive people out of their cars, but I do not believe that this lot will achieve that.

If we must have short term parking solutions, then we should make them short term. The city is already planning to turn one block of Carden St. into a one-way street to make way for angle parking. My question is: why not do this to the rest of downtown, as well? The other side of Carden St. until the arrival of the Transit Hub, Cork, Quebec, and Suffolk streets, could all be converted to one way with angle parking, each adding a significant number of parking spaces for minimal cost and maximal reversibility.

When the city's busses move from their current home at St. George's Square to the site of the Via station next year, if the plans go through, Wyndham could be switched to two lanes with angle parking for most of its length, including the large section in the downtown core where no parking exists at all today. This works for Macdonell.

That is all on the assumption that we want more parking downtown, which some people clearly do. But at the very least, going mostly one-way to make way for angle parking would cost a whole lot less than building apartment buildings designed to provide lodging for cars rather than for families.

What I would really like to see, though, is our bus system improved to the point that it can compete with cars. Will it cost a lot? That depends on what you compare it to. Compared to spending $30 million to build a pair of parking garages that will then need ongoing maintenance -- before inevitably being joined by two more in 20 years or less when we are, once again, completely out of parking and with this current very progressive council long gone, with their opportunity to Make a Difference missed -- transit is not so expensive.

What could we do to improve transit to the point that it is useful enough for, say, city councillors to use it to get to council meeting? Lots of things. Here are a few ideas, based on what would make me inclined to get out of my car and get on the bus.

1) Make riding it free or almost free.

A $58 per month pass for someone like me who telecommutes and only needs to leave the house occasionally, is a waste, but having to keep bus tickets on hand is annoying. The transfer given should be good for the day for any bus route, if we must charge a fare, so that it does not cost another $2 every time I stop to run my next errand on my tour. But there is no need to charge transit fares. The justification for it seems to be that our neighbours do, and not only must we charge fares, but our fares must be comparable to theirs. What we should try, instead, is subsidising our busses as well as we subsidise our roads and parking, and make transit fares free, or close to it.

In the same vein, the city has its free downtown parking pilot project, which, not surprisingly and in spite of excluding the parking meters around the farmers' market, is popular with Guelph's drivers, but I wonder about the wisdom of raising transit fares, as the City plans to do, by roughly the amount the City is losing on downtown's free parking. And I wonder if more people would go downtown if city busses were as free as the parking.

2) Make routes more frequent and direct.

The reality is that if I get on bus number 52, the outer limits of whose route I live on, and want to go downtown, it can take up to 30 minutes for the bus to arrive at the stop next to my house, while I either wait watching NextBus at my computer, or stand out in whatever weather at the sign post designating my stop. Then, it takes 20 more minutes to get to the university, and as much as 15 more minutes to get downtown. We are now almost 65 minutes into the journey, and I have just arrived downtown, a trip that takes about 8 minutes by car. And if I want to go somewhere other than downtown that is not directly on my own meandering, directionless bus route, it can take another half hour to get there.

We have routes designed for University students now that are quick, frequent, and efficient. I took route number 58, a seasonal, rush-hour only route, from my house to the University a couple of weeks ago, and was impressed that it a) came every 20 minutes, and b) only took 7 minutes door-to-door. Why? Because it went straight down Kortright, hung a left on Gordon, and went straight to the University.

3) Reduce the reliance on hub-and-spoke, and work toward point-to-point, bi-directional routes.

We are already on this track. We have the downtown transit hub proceeding, the bus terminal at the University Centre where 6 city bus platforms meet 3 GO bus platforms, the transfer point behind the mall, and the addition of our first bi-directional route, number 70. There are also plans to build new mini-hubs around the city at places like the West End Recreational Centre.

Over the long term, we could plan to further improve our bus system by complementing our existing system to take advantage of the long, skinny shape of Guelph, by running busses the length of Victoria, Gordon, Edinburgh, the Hanlon, and Imperial. We could eventually run an outer ring peripheral route along, roughly, Arkell, Gordon, Clair, Hanlon, Downey, Niska, Whitelaw, Elmira, Woodlawn, Victoria, Grange, Watson, Arkell that connects the ends of all the other routes, both north/south and east/west, call it bus number 360. With those and busses going east/west along major corridors such as Speedvale, Willow, Wellington, College, Stone, and Kortright, we will start getting toward a bus system that really can get anyone anywhere quickly.

If that all sounds expensive, it isn't really. It is more a question of priorities than of money. To calculate the economics of it, consider this: I am told busses each cost approximately $500,000 to buy, and $100,000 per year to operate. For reference, if we take one of the two $15 million parking garages and buy busses with that money, it will buy us 30 of them. Take the other one and we can operate all 30 of those busses for 5 years, without counting fare revenue. And that is before counting cost overruns and maintenance costs on the garage that would instead be diverted to the bus system. With each bus able to carry around 40 people at any given point on their trip, with a lot of trips per day, that should more than make up for the capacity of the lost parking spaces.

4) Connect our bus system to our neighbours.

Guelph's bus system is a decent bus system domestically, but you cannot get out of, or into, Guelph with it. We are on track to fix this, too, with the return of the Transit Hub, but there are other things we can do as well. First off, as I have proposed before, let's run a bus from Guelph's airport to Waterloo's airport via the transit hub, conditionally upon Grand River Transit also running express to Waterloo airport from its three downtowns. This would connect us to Waterloo region in a meaningful way, something that is going to have to happen sooner or later, not to mention that it would provide a transit route to the airports themselves. Canada is quite bad at connecting its airports to transit, a topic I briefly covered a few days ago. I would also eventually like to see that same route extended eastward all the way to Acton or Georgetown to connect to Brampton Transit, which would allow anyone to travel freely between anywhere in or near Guelph to contact points with the GTA. Right now, one can take city busses from Brampton to Oshawa or Stoney Creek, and such a connection would extend the westward limits of that massive transit network.

Ultimately what I would like is a transit system that allows me to give up my car because the transit system is a better option than driving. And we can all do it, if we make the collective decision that our infrastructure investment should be spent the best way possible. There is nothing economical about spending $30,000 per parking space in Guelph, more than the value of most of the cars that will park in it, and enough to buy over a hundred bicycles per stall. Knowing that that many years of my municipal tax-dollars are going to pay for that single parking space will only encourage me to use it.

Without further ado, here is the article.

Don't build parking at expense of transit

There is a parking crunch coming to downtown Guelph. There is no argument about this.

Local businesses are concerned about the loss of parking at the Via station with the construction of the transit hub, parking that is not public to begin with. There are other local trouble spots as well.

According to an article in this newspaper, 93 people are on a waiting list for a parking pass in downtown's parking lots. Our city leadership argues that we need more parking to help bring more people in to live downtown. It is more creative solutions and more leadership, not more parking, that we need to accomplish this.

The city agreed last month, in a surprise move, to spend $400,000 to plan a 500-stall parking garage on the site of the current Wilson Street parking lot, at a cost staff say will be $30,000 per stall. The surprise is that we are studying how to build it rather than whether to build it.

According to the 2006 Guelph-Wellington Transportation Study: "As redevelopment occurs in downtown without increased management of parking, the city will be required to invest in structured parking at $25,000 per stall. Experience elsewhere indicates that it is difficult to recover the money invested in construction and maintenance of a parking structure."

The same study notes a decline of 15 per cent in transit's share of Guelphites' travel, from 6.1 per cent in 1996 to 5.2 per cent in 2001, the years the study examined. In the same period, auto passengers dropped from 19 per cent to 17.1 per cent, with auto drivers picking up the entire difference from both transit and car passengers, rising from 63.3 per cent to 66.3 per cent of all travel within the city.

That approximately 15 per cent relative drop in public transit use between 1996 and 2001 is alarming.

In effect, it means that not only were 15 per cent fewer people taking public transit, but those people are moving to cars and increasing the total number of vehicles on the road, which block and slow down transit buses among their other effects. Where are the studies to explore this trend and its possible solutions?

If we are in need of more parking, it is not because we need more cars: it is because our public transit system is inadequate.

While the study points out that barely one in 20 trips in Guelph is made by bus, two out of three are made alone in a car.

It is time for us to be more creative than we have been over the last half century. It is time for Guelph to start "Making a Difference," as our city's new motto proclaims. If not now, when?

Is spending at least $15 million, the equivalent of the city's revenue from 258,620 adult bus passes, to temporarily accommodate our parking-pass waiting list the right way to go? Is it appropriate for us to fund public transit to the tune of 55 per cent, but parking at a rate of, or near, 100 per cent?

Why do our studies look at how to improve our roads rather than how to improve travel? Where are the studies to tell us why we need to sacrifice the equivalent of 43 years of adult bus passes per driver, spending $30,000 per parking stall, to help them park their cars?

Are we really making a difference by doing so, or are we just letting ourselves off the hook? Where are the studies that focus on public transit solutions?

If downtown business needs new parking spaces, is it not reasonable for downtown businesses to pay for their construction?

Stone Road Mall has more parking than all of downtown's public spaces put together, yet not only are none of those spots paid for by the taxpayer, but municipal taxes are paid on all of the mall's 2,600 parking spaces.

If we take the conservative estimate of $15 million that the Wilson Street parking garage will cost, and instead offer free and improved city bus service, we will soon see how many new parking spaces we actually need downtown.

Do we want to continue with 20th-century concrete solutions that no longer work, or look for 21st-century solutions that will make a difference?

We need to prepare for the transit future that we all know is coming. Building parking at the expense of public transit will not get us there.

columns essays guelph money transit 2762 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 13:53 on April 12, 2008

Does voter turnout matter?

One of the major (and wholly flawed) arguments in the referendum we endured in Ontario in October was that a change in electoral system would inevitably result in increased voter turnout. While there was no evidence to back up the claim, and the turnout in the referendum showed Ontarions to be completely uninspired by a referendum that should, by its proponents' logic, have had very high turnout, it does raise some important questions about voter turnout in the first place: Is voter turnout in itself important? What does a vote represent? Should there be a "none of the above" option, and what should it do? What can we do to address low turnout in a way that actually improves democracy?

I have more questions than answers, of course, but here are my thoughts on the matter.

1) Why wasn't the referendum's turnout higher than the previous election's?

It's a simple chain of logic, really. If MMP was going to increase voter turnout, then those people who would have come out to vote under MMP, who otherwise would not have voted, should have felt empowered by the referendum to come out and vote in that referendum. Had that happened in any significant numbers, the referendum would no doubt have turned out differently, but people were not inspired by what it offered and turnout dropped over the previous election yet again.

To me, that reinforces the view that while our democracy is severely lacking in participation, it is not strictly about the voting system itself, though there are certainly improvements we could make to it. What happens as a result of the vote is a lot more important.

2) Is voter turnout in itself important?

Many people will jump on this question and say "but of course!"... but is it? I think the question is a lot deeper than that.

We currently give our voters every opportunity to vote in every election. There are mail-in/absentee ballots, advanced polls, laws to ensure sufficient time off to cast a ballot, and substantial marketing of the balloting date, among other points I am likely forgetting. But in spite of this, voter turnout drops each election.

There are, in my view, two mutually exclusive ways to interpret the dropping turnout. The first is a satisfaction with the status quo, and the second is a dissatisfaction with the status quo. In the first, people trust their peers to make electoral decisions for them, being content with whatever decision is made. I include general apathy in this category. In the second, there is a feeling of disconnection between the vote and the results, a feeling that the vote that is cast won't make a difference regardless.

To me the subtext of the question really should be: are votes informed? I would much rather have a 40% voter turnout where most of those voters have taken the time to look into the differences between the candidates and decide which one best represents them and their views. The alternative is 100% of voters turning out to vote, with large numbers of them voting for the prettiest face, the best slogan, or the slickest campaign. None of those factors have any effect on how the winner will govern, or what they believe, yet they are the most tangible aspects of a disconnected voter's vote.

This leads me to my next question.

3) What does a vote represent?

When a voter goes to the ballot box to cast a ballot, what does that vote represent? For a significant number of people, the vote is for the person or party for whom they have always voted. While this is very appealing to political parties, it is an extraordinarily broken way of choosing a government. Non-judgemental loyalty to a party, rather than support for the candidate who best represents the voter, takes away the fundamental objectivity needed to choose a government that will govern as well as possible. For another large section of the voting public, a vote can be a vote for the prettiest face, best slogan, or slickest campaign.

I believe the segment of the population that votes completely objectively based on concrete factors of the history, present actions, and plans of a candidate is quite small. So when a voter does not cast a ballot, what does it really mean? I don't know. A tellingly small handful of people register their disgust with the options by showing up and spoiling their ballot, rather than lending their support to any candidate.

4) Should there be a "None of the above" option on the ballot, and what should be its effect?

It is my view that, in a representative democracy, a voter who is unsatisfied with all options on the table has an obligation to run. As such, I don't believe a "None of the Above" option is, philosophically, appropriate, as it says that not only does the voter not agree with any of the options, but is saying that he could not do any better. It is therefore incumbent upon a voter to select one of the options on the ballot.

That said, I consider some electoral rules and practices to be undemocratic, and a hindrance to the implementation of that philosophy. The presence of a political party's name on the ballot suggests that we not only accept that many people are not voting based on the substance of the candidate, but that this is ok and we should therefore give that voter a way to cast a vote without being sufficiently informed to know anything much about the candidate. This system presents a liability to independent candidates as they are fighting to get their message out to an audience that may not be interested in listening, and without the backing of any political party's organisation. A campaign's organisation and its ability to "get out the vote" are inherently undemocratic as a victory can be far more related to the quality of the volunteers and campaign staff than the quality of the candidates themselves or their ideas. The other problem is the deposit that most jurisdictions charge its candidates, generally a significant sum. If a certain percentage of the vote is achieved, the deposit is returned. It is intended to block frivolous candidates, but it creates unnecessary barriers to entry to those who have ideas rather than organisation.

So, with those problems, a "None of the Above" option may indeed be necessary for people to express discontent if they are not going to seek the office themselves. In this case there has to be a defined result for a "None of the Above" victory in the election.

That is, if more people vote for "None of the Above" than any of the candidates, what should happen? The easiest and most obvious answer is that the electoral district will go without any representation whatsoever until the next election. Perhaps that is indeed the best option, as it would give voters a chance to ask themselves seriously, is having no representation really better than the options presented?

5) What can we do?

Mandatory voting, a solution employed by some countries and advocated by some people, is, I submit, inherently broken. It does encourage voters to vote, but it does not address the fundamental question of whether the vote was an objective, informed vote, or a subjective one based on the abstract factors of the prettiest face, best slogan, slickest campaign, or a completely random selection, and does not allow the lack of a vote as a deliberate statement.

Adding a "None of the Above" option could serve to give voters an opportunity, as I mentioned above, to ask themselves: is no representation at all better than what we have? If the answer is yes, then our system is a lot more broken than I thought. I rather suspect though that such action would bring back to the forefront what having a democracy is all about.

Voter turnout has been dropping steadily in most democratic countries over the last half century. This is well known. Could one cause of this be that our democracies have not, collectively, been threatened lately? Nothing makes a person more appreciative of something they have than losing it, and with our democracies having remained stable for so long, they are largely taken for granted by the voting public. Having a "None of the Above" option that actually results in the loss of representation would be the first real threat to their democracy that most people would have felt and would likely, I suspect, result in higher voter turnout -- and few "None of the Above" votes -- the next time around. The often expressed belief that public policy has no impact on an individual could be rather seriously challenged by a total lack of representation.

Many people advocate for a change in the voting system as the solution. While my opinion of the first attempt of that offered here in Ontario is well documented and need not be rehashed, I believe that it could, indeed, have an effect, but only a minor one, and only with an appropriate choice of alternative.

I do not believe that it is the voting system that keeps people away from the polls, but rather cynicism about what happens after they have voted. We can all go to the polls and vote for an excellent candidate in our riding, but if elected as a member of a party, everything they stand for and everything we voted for can be changed on a dime once they arrive in their parliamentary seat. It is the party structure, the party whip, the party line, and the discouragement of public intellectual discourse by party members that creates that cynicism. The only people who have any real effect on policy are not the voters or indeed the election's winners, but the small proportion of the population that take the time and effort to join a party and work on its collective policies, along with the party's leadership.

Members elected to a parliament should, before all other considerations, represent their constituents and not their party, and be free to exercise the judgement their constituents have opted to trust. To me, using one's own judgement is an important aspect of representing a constituency. A failure in judgement should result in a defeat at the next election.

The only aspect of the voting system that I believe needs changing to decrease cynicism is the abolition of the single-choice ballot. Vote splitting and the strategic voting that results means that we spend far more of our voting time voting against, rather than for, candidates and ideas. A system that disempowers party structures and empowers voters to make an honest choice with minimum strategy and maximum principle is integral to reducing cynicism of the voting system. Preferential balloting is my preferred solution, currently employed in Australia's lower house, but changing the voting system will not on its own solve the problem. Weakening the party structure and strengthening the actual power of a vote will begin to.

So, is declining voter turnout a problem?

I don't know, but an uninformed, disinterested vote is a problem. Getting people involved and understanding the issues, having their say and having it mean something to them would be beneficial to democracy as a whole. Forcing people to vote or encouraging turnout for the sake of turnout really would not solve much other than to help us all feel good about what we will cynically call "public participation".

elections essays politics reform 1921 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 20:20 on April 09, 2008

Growing without growing

In Ontario, since the advent of the Places to Grow legislation, there has been a lot of talk about absorbing the 30-50% population growth in the province anticipated over the next quarter century. The legislation requires at least 40% of new growth to be in currently built up areas, with "only" 60% of the growth taking place through sprawl. I have a simple regulatory proposal for all municipalities in Ontario affected by the Places to Grow legislation, and anyone else who wants to prevent Canada's built up area from stretching from sea to sea to sea as we pursue the myth of sustainable growth.

My idea is simple: require any developer or builder who wishes to build any kind of building in the limits of the municipality to first tear down an existing building within that municipality.

There should be no restrictions on the size of either the torn down or new building, with the necessary caveats to avoid the destruction of historically significant buildings. That last bit can also be used to tell a developer that if they adopt and preserve such a historic building, that would then count toward their one-to-one building replacement quota.

The immediate effect is that the economics of building small, detached homes as massive developments flies out the window. One would be required to purchase and tear down one detached home for each detached home they planned to build. Purchasing one small, detached home to build a 100-unit apartment building, on the other hand, makes the small, detached home a rounding error in the math. This type of approach should work toward intensification, and the demolition of buildings to make way for new buildings should also help to slow the rate of sprawl. The 60% sprawl factor in the legislation is a target we should not be aiming to meet.

Can we grow sustainably? According to Gord Miller, Ontario's Environment Commissioner, who I met at the OPIRG conference in Guelph yesterday, there is such thing as "sustainable growth", but not when it comes to population. Some parts of Europe, he points out, are growing their economies without growing their population in a sustainable way, by increasing productivity rather than population.

Sustainable growth when it comes to population, on the other hand, is a complete oxymoron. With population, we can either sustain, or we can grow. Doing both is a technical impossibility. With a sustained population that is not growing, it is possible for every family to live in a single family detached dwelling without contributing to urban sprawl. With an ever-growing population, it is possible for every citizen to live in a string of 20 storey high-rise apartments that stretches from Lake Erie to James Bay, with more under construction. Intensification therefore only slows down sprawl, it does nothing to stop it.

But slowing sprawl down is the only option available to us for the moment. Places to Grow won't bring people to Ontario -- they are coming anyway. What it does is try and limit how much of an impact that growth has, and where that growth goes. Cities like Guelph that are in the cross-hairs of this legislation must act quickly and decisively to handle this incoming population. Places to Grow gives us targets for growth and an approximate structure for how to grow, with the 60% sprawl factor and the 40% intensification factor, but I see no reason for us not to try to exceed them.

Forcing developers to tear down one building to build a new one should serve to meet or exceed our intensification quota nicely. While I do not, and most of my friends do not, have any particular desire to live in an apartment building, with growth numbers like we have, single detached dwellings will have to go the way of the dodo sooner or later, or there simply won't be any farms left to feed the cities we end up with.

Even as the population growth in the rest of the world slows and perhaps even stops as we reach the carrying capacity of our planet, I have little doubt that Canada will continue to be the recipient of millions of immigrants from other parts of the world for several generations to come.

environment essays 710 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 12:39 on March 31, 2008

How I came to believe in better public transit

If you told me four years ago that I would some day be an advocate for mass transit, I would have told you that you were crazy. I had recently bought myself a nice suburban house where I still live, I was on track for my wedding, and I had a beat up old car which has only gotten older and more beat up since. But around that time I picked up an innocent and somewhat eccentric hobby that would change my life and my outlook on the world: I started trainspotting.

The background

As a child, I took any opportunity I could to look out my grandparents' window on Nun's Island in Montreal at the Victoria Bridge a few miles to the east, a century-old railway bridge shared between cars and the railway. When my family took its annual winter pilgrimage to Port Salerno, Florida, where my snowbird grandparents had a condo, we took three days each way to drive there, and when we arrived, I took every opportunity I could to bike up South-East Cove Rd. in Port Salerno from the condominium of Emerald Lakes to sit and watch the Florida East Coast railway. Then I went to high school, and then university, and did not really think about trains for the better part of a decade.

Then, in late 2002, I published a rather goofy article on Slashdot about turning a cheap wireless camera into a model traincam. Someone who I had run into just once at the University some three years earlier saw the article and sent me an email inviting me to join the local historical railway group and try trainspotting. I borrowed a camera, and on February 1st, 2003, after staring wild-eyed at the television as the Columbia burned up on re-entry for the first part of the morning, I went down to a location which I have written about before called Guelph Junction with my new friend. We spent the day watching trains. On that first day, I saw 14 of them and became totally hooked on going to the train tracks with a camera to see what would come, and document it on a website I created for the purpose.

The cause

I took the hobby seriously. I bought a copy of the Canadian Trackside Guide, an annually updated publication that is no less than the bible for Canadian trainspotters, outlining the various details about Canada's railway network that no person in their right mind would have any reason whatsoever to care about. Trains became my professional sport, my local railways my team.

Over the next few years, I explored more railway lines in more places. I began to plan my family visits and my vacations around which railway tracks we could follow. As I spent more and more time and energy watching trains, I learned the layout and operations of southern Ontario's railway network. Who owned which track, what trains operated on that track, and how often they ran became matters of importance to learn.

Then it hit me like a run-away train. I was looking at the infrastructure that had built our country. While people were still completely reliant on horses around town, railways were already mature. Canada, I learned, had connected British Columbia to central Canada in three years flat by railway, less time than it seemingly takes us now to work through an Environmental Assessment for an overpass. The construction of the Canadian Pacific railway cut the cross-country over-land trip from a matter of months to a mere six days. The railway's very existence was a condition of British Columbia joining confederation. What hit me harder was that while many of Canada's cities were built around railway tracks and railway junctions, we had become a country of drivers who learned to see railways as a liability rather than as the enormous asset they are.

My real epiphany on the matter of transit probably can be traced back to an announcement on the corner of a page in the Guelph Tribune in early June of 2006 that prompted me to write my first anti-highway essay, entitled "A ten-lane 401?". For the first time in my life, I asked the question: how many lanes is too many?

While I am still waiting for an answer for this simple question, highway 401's 4-lane expansion on the short stretch referenced in that essay has been joined by the announcement, locally, of the construction of a new divided highway 7, cutting across farmland north of the existing highway 7 alignment, at a cost of an estimated $400 million. The divided highway through Guelph is to have 4 sets of traffic lights removed for $50 million. The other traffic lights on that highway are soon to follow. We are also going to spend around $16 million a piece to build two new parking garages in downtown Guelph. Yet no-one is willing to say at one point we have paved enough over.

Simply put, it led me to want a line drawn in the sand. At what point will highways be considered big enough, fast enough, or extensive enough? Will they ever? I don't believe so, not the way we are doing it today. But while we expand our highways, my experience trainspotting has taught me that our railways are largely very vastly under-utilised. We should be expanding our use of those railways first and then looking back at our highways when our railways are efficient, popular, and affordable, and see if the new highways are still needed. If the answer then is still yes, then and only then will it be the time to consider any form of highway expansion.

Here in Guelph, for example, railway tracks leave the city in four directions to the immediate neighbours of: Halton Hills (Acton and Georgetown) to the east and Kitchener to the west on the track known colloquially as the "North Mainline." This is joined by Campbellville to the south-east and Cambridge to the south-west. There used to be on the order of 8 to 10 passenger trains per day on each of these lines before the advent of the highway.

The first, the North Mainline, connects Guelph to Union Station in downtown Toronto. Six Via trains a day service this line, one each way at rush hour (07:05 and 18:50), one each way between morning rush hour and lunch (09:50 and 12:04), with one each way between evening rush hour and midnight (22:00 and 23:30). There are also, between Guelph and Georgetown, two freight trains a day -- one each way. Currently, the eastbound, originating in Stratford, goes through Guelph around 20:00, and the westbound, originating in Canada's biggest freight yard in Toronto, goes through Guelph about 01:00 in the morning. That is not a lot of opposing traffic and the tracks stay quiet for most of the day most days. There is an additional freight train a day on this same line between Kitchener and Guelph, which currently comes into Guelph around 9 in the morning, and goes back to Kitchener in the early afternoon.

But this track connects to a very busy Canadian National freight line in Georgetown where upwards of 20 freight trains per day rush past at all hours, turning south toward Burlington at Georgetown. More importantly, four GO trains terminate at that busy freight junction, where they swim upstream through the freight trains both ways every working day. Tired from this difficult journey, they stop in Georgetown and do not go up the blissfully quiet line to Guelph. This is more than an under-utilisation of the tracks, it is a travesty. While the province considers building Guelph still more highways to let our people off the transit hook, this track directly connecting Kitchener and Guelph to downtown Toronto, at the end of which four GO trains already park, has long enough between trains to turn to rust. Just before the last provincial election, GO transit's board of directors announced plans for an Environmental Assessment to bring service to this line, though we are still awaiting it.

The next track is the City of Guelph-owned Guelph Junction Railway. It has one train each working day, usually coming up to Guelph around 10:30 in the morning, and going back at some point in the afternoon. Up until just over one year ago, five, yes, five, GO trains ran from Milton to the south end of the Guelph Junction Railway every night, with no passengers, to stay the night and weekends. Does that even need any further comment? If so, read my post specifically on the topic of this line from a few days ago.

The last track is my favourite of all. It connects to Guelph's mainline at the eastern tip of the former Lafarge property and connects to a freight line from Cambridge to Kitchener near Hespeler, just south of the 401. Remember that train that comes to Guelph from Kitchener after rush hour and goes back in the early afternoon I mentioned a moment ago? Twice a week, with occasional extra trips, that same train turns south at Guelph and heads down to Cambridge on this line. That's it, that is every train on this track. At our end is the North Mainline, and at the other end is the track that will be used when (not if) Waterloo region eventually gets its Light Rail Transit line, though we don't really need to wait for that for us to put domestic rail service between Guelph and Cambridge on that line.

The effect

It is hard for me to understand why we would even consider building a new highway, or upgrading a highway, which is very much designed to get people between cities when we have so many perfectly good and vastly under-used railway lines that could, for a fraction the price of those highways, be equipped with passenger trains.

Will building more rail service mean our highways will be converted to desert wastelands? Absolutely not, but it can serve to arrest growth on those highways. As congestion reaches unsustainability for drivers, they will at least and at last have an alternative means of getting where they are going.

My concern is not about peak oil -- alternative fuels that are even less environmentally friendly like corn-based ethanol will probably make up for that -- so much as it is about peak pavement, peak congestion, peak car accidents (don't we say that "if just one life gets saved, it is worth it" about just about everything these days?), and peak sprawl. We cannot grow forever, quite frankly the earth is of a rather fixed size, yet our entire society is based on the premise that a failure to grow will be the end of the world. I think everyone should ask themselves what exactly is coming out of their car's tailpipe or off their ever-wearing down tires is going, but that seems to drive people to buy slightly more efficient cars that were hauled across the ocean by burning tons of bunker oil, rather than causing us to think through the alternatives.

Do I drive? I do. And that's the crux of the issue. I will advocate for alternatives, including both domestic bus and intercity rail, but I will use what is most appropriate logistically for me at any given time. What I hope for, what I dream of, and what I intend to accomplish before my life is over, is that our transit system will be funded as well as, or better than, our road system, and be efficient enough, that I, personally, and the majority of my fellow citizens, instinctively find that transit is the most appropriate, economical, and efficient means of getting where we are going. Abandoning our railways, sending our busses aimlessly meandering through the streets of our cities with no sense of purpose or direction, and building massive and countless new highways will never get us there.

The future

Today, our highways are, with the exception of the 407, funded entirely by public money. There are no user fees for our highways. We pay taxes through our purchases, including that of fuel, through our income, and through property taxes. A huge proportion of the money we give to the state gets returned to us in the form of pavement. Do I inherently object to that? No, not at all: roads are national infrastructure. But so are our railways, and that means that railways are not on a level playing field against roads.

Railway companies are directly responsible for the cost of maintenance and operations of every inch of their infrastructure, a cost that has resulted in the abandonment and removal of secondary railway lines throughout North America that we will soon sorely miss. Anybody who tells you that railways are heavily subsidised and that trucks and cars are not should be called out for the lie they are peddling. Railways, our most important and oldest national infrastructure, are not only funded and maintained almost entirely privately, but railway companies have to pay property taxes on their railway lines for the privilege, which directly go to fund roads, their chief competitor. Yet in spite of this, in spite of the fact that railways have every handicap and highways every advantage, railways are still competitive. If the railway infrastructure were publicly funded like the roads, with railway companies able to operate without directly paying every cost associated with their operation but the country as a whole taking on that responsibility, railways would show themselves to be the better option in almost every case. Isn't that what the free market so widely espoused by highway building politicians should be all about?

Next time you are stopped at a level crossing for a train, instead of wondering how long it will take to pass before you are able to drive on in your private motor vehicle, count the number of freight cars on that train and multiply it by 3. That is roughly the average number of trucks that you are not sharing the road with at that moment as a result of the train passing in front of you. And if it is a passenger train, every 11 heads you see looking at you out the window represents 10 cars that aren't waiting at the crossing with you.

As Guelph plans new highways and parking garages, I am saying it is time to draw our line in the sand. If we are to build parking, let it be to get people out of their cars, not into them. Build parking for train stations, not instead of them. Put more trains on the tracks, don't rip up the tracks to put a highway. We have to get it right the first time. We can't hit reset on this little rock we call home. This little rock does not deserve to be completely paved over and gassed out of existence. We are not entitled to the planet, we are only its tenants.

essays guelph transit 2510 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 15:19 on March 28, 2008

New Highway 7 a total misallocation of funds

My second Mercury Editorial Board piece is in yesterday's paper pondering our societal spending priorities on highways versus rail. The paper's choice of stock photo to use is excellent. Here's the text of the article:

Rail transit opportunities grow

Opportunities are brewing for Guelph to work together with Waterloo to better interconnect our cities by rail transit.

From Waterloo's proposed light rail transit (LRT) system to the North Mainline Municipal Alliance study to GO Transit's expansive mood, there is much we can do.

For more than 30 years, Waterloo Region has discussed installing an LRT system connecting Cambridge to Kitchener and Waterloo along existing freight tracks -- tracks that served this exact function up until the end of the Second World War.

Waterloo Region's LRT network will be a boon for commuters and transit users within Waterloo Region when all the hurdles are finally cleared and it is put into place some years from now.

It will allow people to move freely without being constricted by traffic, but it will do nothing for the masses of people who travel between Waterloo Region and Guelph. We can and should connect Guelph, Waterloo Region's nearest and biggest neighbour, to this network. We are being given, for a substantial sum of our own money, a new divided Highway 7 instead.

The new Highway 7 is estimated to cost some $400 million, while a 2006 study commissioned by an alliance of the mayors along the railway line through Guelph, the so-called North Mainline Municipal Alliance, determined that connecting Waterloo Region to Georgetown's GO train station would cost just $19 million in infrastructure improvements, just one-twentieth of the cost of the new Highway 7, over a substantially greater distance and thus to the benefit of substantially more people.

The implementation of this study would give Guelph much better access to its neighbouring communities for a small fraction of the price of our new Highway 7.

Were GO trains to simply originate in Georgetown or Guelph and travel to Waterloo Region before heading for Toronto, half our battle would be solved.

Highway 7's daily commuters would have an efficient way of travelling in both directions. Guelph would be linked to Waterloo Region and ultimately its light rail transit system to Kitchener.

Guelph has the opportunity to connect to the proposed LRT if we act now, and it is well within our capability to do so. While Cambridge and Kitchener have railway tracks connecting them, Guelph also has separate tracks connecting to both Cambridge and Kitchener.

Cambridge has been fighting for GO train service for more than 30 years, 26 of those years with GO trains dead-heading from Milton to Campbellville to park for the night, a practice that ended in January 2007. They would have the service already except that our society's spending priorities have been on highways instead of railways since the advent of the automobile.

The freight railway's simple and rational but as-yet unmet request for improved signalling and double track on its already busy line to Cambridge would have to be honoured before it could agree to host GO train service.

When Cambridge connects to the GO train network, a realistic possibility with the Ontario government's recent investments in transit, it will give the south end of the light rail transit system a connection to the outside world and increase the usefulness of the LRT service.

At that point more than ever, Guelph's connection to the south end of the LRT line will be needed.

Many people see expanded commuter train service as a means to get people out of our cities, but it is important to also see it as a way to get people into our cities.

The former is unappealing to many as it creates a feeling that we are promoting the existence of bedroom communities. However with a proper rail connection going both ways, we allow our cities to grow together and compete as one. Having the LRT system connect Guelph to Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo will bring us closer together as neighbours, and save us money to boot.

For $400 million, we can connect Guelph and Waterloo Region on a new Highway 7. For $19 million, we can better connect Guelph and Waterloo Region not only to each other, but also to the Greater Toronto Area, by rail. Is it our responsibility to ensure that our tax dollars are spent efficiently.

As we all become more aware of the damage our cars cause to the environment not only by driving them, but by building roads on which to drive them, the need to look into better means of transport is becoming paramount.

While it is my contention that "sustainable growth" is an oxymoron, there is little to stop us from growing responsibly if that is what we choose to do.

Waterloo Region's LRT, Guelph's connection to it, and the transit opportunities afforded to us by the North Mainline Municipal Alliance study, as well as GO Transit's recently announced environmental assessment to bring service to our region, give us the opportunity to pursue this transit future, and to grow with a lesser impact on the environment.

The province of Ontario has, through its Places to Grow legislation, made our need to work as a community to expand responsibly more important than ever before.

We have the opportunities to do just that -- at a much lower cost than the status quo. So let us work together to pursue these transit opportunities, to work with Waterloo Region to help them get their LRT system, and to get ourselves connected to it.

columns essays guelph highways transit 939 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 12:00 on March 02, 2008

Guelph's former LaFarge property an opportunity not to be wasted

My first article as a member of the Guelph Mercury Community Editorial Board is up, addressing one of the biggest immediate issues I see facing Guelph: hopeless intercity transit. Here it is, with the photo I submitted with the article.

Also, see Guelph's file concerning the LaFarge property.

Landing on a commuter train solution

Silvercreek property offers the city a unique transit opportunity that shouldn't be wasted

When it comes to transit, Guelph is an island.

The city has long discussed turning the existing downtown train and bus terminals into a unified transit hub. This is an excellent idea. It allows intercity buses, GO trains, Via trains, and city transit to converge on one point. But the transit hub is missing two important elements.

First, there are very few trains that connect to the transit hub -- just three each way per day, with only one at rush hour. Second, there will be no parking available, making it nearly useless to both commuters and travellers from surrounding communities.

GO trains currently run as far as Georgetown on a busy Canadian National Railway freight line, which is undergoing significant upgrades at the moment, specifically to expand GO train service to meet very high demand along the Georgetown corridor.

There is little stopping GO trains from running the rest of the way to Kitchener, via Guelph, on the far quieter Goderich-Exeter Railway, the North Main Line, which stretches from a junction in Georgetown through Guelph, Kitchener and Stratford, into London.

Shortly before last fall's provincial election, GO Transit announced an Environmental Assessment for the track upgrades necessary to make GO trains in Guelph a reality. I anticipate that not long before the 2011 provincial election, the environmental assessment will be complete and a contract will be tendered to perform any needed upgrades. Just before the 2015 election, I expect, GO trains will run the line for the first time since 1993, to much fanfare.

Most GO lines include two stops per city. The Georgetown GO line, which extended to Guelph until its service was cancelled by the NDP in 1993, has two stops for Georgetown, two for Brampton, and so forth. Guelph should be no different.

A GO train originating at the Kitchener Via station to connect with Grand River Transit would stop again at a park-and-ride station in Breslau.

The train would continue, stopping once again at Guelph's currently hypothetical highway-connected park-and-ride station to connect to cars and again at Guelph's transit hub to connect to city and intercity buses. Which leads us to the second problem: no parking.

LaFarge property history
This property has long been seen as the best place for a park-and-ride station in the city. This 2001 photo shows an already very old planning application notice suggesting this very usage. Photo: Stephen C. Host 2001
Arguably the most controversial property in Guelph today is the large triangular tract of land on Silvercreek south of Paisley, known colloquially as the former Lafarge property, owned by Silvercreek Guelph Developments Ltd.

This 22-hectare tract of land represents the future of our transportation infrastructure, but there is a process currently before the Ontario Municipal Board to turn it into a large commercial development.

This piece of land, strategically located between Highway 6, Highway 7, Highway 24, and both the Goderich-Exeter Railway's Georgetown-London and Guelph-Cambridge railway lines, is the best opportunity Guelph has for a home base for commuter train service.

Aside from being centrally located for a park-and-ride station for GO trains coming to Guelph, it would be well-positioned to serve at the same time as a station connecting Guelph to Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge when a Light Rail Transit system is inevitably installed -- Waterloo recently put its proposed regional Light Rail Transit at the top of its transit expansion plans.

Using the former Lafarge property in this manner would increase its value to the community as well as to the developers, giving it the potential to become a high-density residential development with parkland.

If we do not act soon, the property will be built up, eliminating the best opportunity we have for this much-needed facility. Without this property, Guelph, facing rapid centralized growth under Places to Grow, will not have a good location for its critical park-and-ride commuter train station.

The community will search for a site, realizing that there is only one other option that would allow people to come off the highways and go into a parking lot with minimal interference to a residential area, and minimal property expropriation to put it in place.

Pressure will grow on Margaret Greene Park, the only other open plot of land near both tracks and highways with the potential to become this all-important facility, once again developing greenfields when brownfields had been available, and failing to provide access to the eventual Guelph-Cambridge line.

As our city grows by leaps and bounds, we will need to consider how best to make use of this potential. We must prepare the groundwork for our transit future, which will come whether we are ready for it or not.

We must save the former Lafarge property for this major station, or we risk remaining an island separated from the future mass-transit system.

columns essays guelph transit 873 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 15:00 on January 20, 2008

Canada: Defined by Water in 2020

Back in early July, I submitted an essay to Canada 2020. The essay contest closed on November 1st though I have heard no results from it. I am preserving a public copy of my essay here for the record.

This morning I woke to the sound of a city fire-truck driving down my street. Its siren was not on: it was not racing to a fire or to assist a paramedic. It was there to advise us, yet again, of a boil water advisory. Bring your water to a boil for 10 minutes before using it to cook, eat, or clean, warned the fire-truck's loudspeakers, and please conserve water.

As the water table has dropped, water problems have become more frequent. We've had a boil water advisory for nearly a year, following the death of some of my compatriots and the serious sickness of nearly half the city. No-one is quite sure exactly what the cause is, but there is little doubt that the pipeline is to blame.

Three years ago, the California Water Pipeline project was put into service, syphoning off our fresh water supply. The government of the day assured us that there would be no appreciable environmental impact from the installation, and that the economic gains for our region and the other regions affected by the project would be too great to ignore.

Nearly every province, from Quebec west, is involved in the pipeline project. Around a billion gallons of fresh water per day are put into pipes and sent to the southern United States, where it is used as water has always been used, by a population too large for its domestic supply.

The environmental impact of the project is still not clear. Canada's fresh water supply, once estimated at one third of the world's, is in jeopardy. Most cities have water conservation advisories banning the watering of grass. For the first time in Canadian history, even car washes are being forced to close.

The federal government has been reluctant to pull the plug on the project for a few key reasons.

The first is that natural resources are a provincial jurisdiction. Water, being a natural resource by virtue of the federal government permitting its bulk export, is no longer within the federal government's powers to administer.

The second, they point out, is the quarter-billion dollars per day being injected into the Canadian economy by selling our water at twenty-five cents a gallon. Money also, incidentally, effectively, protected under chapter 11 of NAFTA.

The third reason is one that nobody particularly likes to bring up.

Water is the one resource the US needs that it cannot meet with the help of any other country. With Canada having opened its floodgates, there could be severe repercussions from the parched country to the south, were we to halt our bulk water export.

The battle for oil ended quietly but quickly in 2009 when OPEC switched to the Euro, and the price of crude oil began to exceed $200 per barrel, causing inflation to skyrocket. The US pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 and has kept its forces at home to rebuild.

The US had come to two fundamental realisations:

It would cost too much to suppress developing economies by forcing a high cost of oil.

It would be better able to retain its power and compete by eliminating its dependence on oil.

Auto manufacturers who had had the capability and capacity to manufacture electric cars for years came to realise that the market for these cars warranted exploiting, and the government realised that funding an electric passenger rail network could be an economic boon. The North American dependence on oil began to drop at a refreshing rate, though the increased demand for energy to power oil-reduced industry and electricty-based road and rail networks resulted in a huge construction spree of nuclear power plants throughout the continent.

With oil no longer a serious problem for US policy, the national attention quickly turned to water.

Canada's vast fresh, potable water resources had not escaped the attention of the Americans as their desert lawns turned brown in the high, dry heat.

The idea, which had been bandied about in a not very serious way for decades before, of putting in a fresh water pipeline from Canada to the US began to grow legs. Within two years of the nearly instantaneous evaporation of the US oil market, support for the idea had become widespread across the southern States and pressure was brought to bear on Canada, whose oil-based economic bubble had burst, to allow this idea to become reality.

It took only five years to build the multi-thousand kilometre pipe network to feed the South's thirst, and just two years to cause a noticeable effect on our domestic water supply. In spite of a healthy, rainy summer, we are under a water conservation warning. There isn't enough water here any more for our needs, and what little is left is not safe to drink. The pipes, meanwhile, pump on.

essays 845 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 21:17 on December 05, 2006

Why lawns suck

As my grass begins to look more like a plant than a carpet, I wonder again why it is that we feel a societal need to have -- and mow -- lawns.

Grass is a widespread natural plant, found on a large proportion of the world's surface. It is the primary food source for many grazing animals, from elephants to rabbits. Over the last few centuries, it has evolved into a cosmetic accompaniment to most homes in the West.

It is often planted in arid parts of North America where grass is not a native plant. It has difficulty surviving and requires frequent watering to maintain its healthy green appearance. In some areas, this usage makes up more than half the total residential water usage. The more scarce the potable water supply, the more of it is used to water the lawn.

During hot, dry seasons, and in the winter months, grass goes to a dormant, brown state. There is nothing wrong with the grass in this condition, but many people believe it is unsightly and unhealthy. They therefore water it until it is green again.

With enough water, grass grows. With more water and the strong sunlight associated with dry areas, it grows faster. Then it needs to be cut. Many people use lawn mowers that bag the cut ends of the grass. These are then thrown out, clogging up landfills and taking nutrients out of the soil. With the nutrients gone, lawn owners call chemical companies to fertilise their now unhealthy, fast growing, water-consuming lawns.

It doesn't make any sense to me. In fact, the more I think about lawns, the less logical they are, at least in their current implementation.

In a sane, rational world, we would still have lawns, but our lawns would be diverse, containing broad-leaf plants as well as grasses and clovers. We would not cut them, but we would, instead, have animals grazing our lawns, keeping them short and healthy. A couple of lambs could keep the lawns of a few houses short all summer long, for example.

The animals used to keep the grass short can feed off of the lawn while keeping it short and fertilised all summer long. In the winter, they can feed the owner of the lawn and their family. In the spring, the process can start over with a new grazing dinner in waiting.

This, to me, would be a rational use of lawns.

essays satire 410 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 16:05 on July 25, 2006

Canada in 2020: an essay challenge

This morning, my wife pointed me to an article on CBC about an essay challenge asking citizens to submit 800-word essays on how they see Canada in the world in 2020, offering a $2020 prize and publication of the winning article in various places.

I pondered it a bit and let my fingers do the talking. I submitted my essay to them early this afternoon after trying to keep it down to 800 words.

This is my submission: Canada: Defined by Water in 2020.

reposted here because the site no longer exists, 2019-12-16

Canada: Defined by Water in 2020

This morning I woke to the sound of a city fire-truck driving down my street. Its siren was not on: it was not racing to a fire or to assist a paramedic. It was there to advise us, yet again, of a boil water advisory. Bring your water to a boil for 10 minutes before using it to cook, eat, or clean, warned the fire-truck's loudspeakers, and please conserve water.

As the water table has dropped, water problems have become more frequent. We've had a boil water advisory for nearly a year, following the death of some of my compatriots and the serious sickness of nearly half the city. No-one is quite sure exactly what the cause is, but there is little doubt that the pipeline is to blame.

Three years ago, the California Water Pipeline project was put into service, syphoning off our fresh water supply. The government of the day assured us that there would be no appreciable environmental impact from the installation, and that the economic gains for our region and the other regions affected by the project would be too great to ignore.

Nearly every province, from Quebec west, is involved in the pipeline project. Around a billion gallons of fresh water per day are put into pipes and sent to the southern United States, where it is used as water has always been used, by a population too large for its domestic supply.

The environmental impact of the project is still not clear. Canada's fresh water supply, once estimated at one third of the world's, is in jeopardy. Most cities have water conservation advisories banning the watering of grass. For the first time in Canadian history, even car washes are being forced to close.

The federal government has been reluctant to pull the plug on the project for a few key reasons.

The first is that natural resources are a provincial jurisdiction. Water, being a natural resource by virtue of the federal government permitting its bulk export, is no longer within the federal government's powers to administer.

The second, they point out, is the quarter-billion dollars per day being injected into the Canadian economy by selling our water at twenty-five cents a gallon. Money also, incidentally, effectively, protected under chapter 11 of NAFTA.

The third reason is one that nobody particularly likes to bring up.

Water is the one resource the US needs that it cannot meet with the help of any other country. With Canada having opened its floodgates, there could be severe repercussions from the parched country to the south, were we to halt our bulk water export.

The battle for oil ended quietly but quickly in 2009 when OPEC switched to the Euro, and the price of crude oil began to exceed $200 per barrel, causing inflation to skyrocket. The US pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 and has kept its forces at home to rebuild.

The US had come to two fundamental realisations:

It would cost too much to suppress developing economies by forcing a high cost of oil.

It would be better able to retain its power and compete by eliminating its dependence on oil.

Auto manufacturers who had had the capability and capacity to manufacture electric cars for years came to realise that the market for these cars warranted exploiting, and the government realised that funding an electric passenger rail network could be an economic boon. The North American dependence on oil began to drop at a refreshing rate, though the increased demand for energy to power oil-reduced industry and electricty-based road and rail networks resulted in a huge construction spree of nuclear power plants throughout the continent.

With oil no longer a serious problem for US policy, the national attention quickly turned to water.

Canada's vast fresh, potable water resources had not escaped the attention of the Americans as their desert lawns turned brown in the high, dry heat.

The idea, which had been bandied about in a not very serious way for decades before, of putting in a fresh water pipeline from Canada to the US began to grow legs. Within two years of the nearly instantaneous evaporation of the US oil market, support for the idea had become widespread across the southern States and pressure was brought to bear on Canada, whose oil-based economic bubble had burst, to allow this idea to become reality.

It took only five years to build the multi-thousand kilometre pipe network to feed the South's thirst, and just two years to cause a noticeable effect on our domestic water supply. In spite of a healthy, rainy summer, we are under a water conservation warning. There isn't enough water here any more for our needs, and what little is left is not safe to drink. The pipes, meanwhile, pump on.

Do I believe what I wrote is exactly how Canada will be in 2020?

Sort of. I do consider it a strong possibility that it is a representation of the road we'll be on when 2020 rolls around in just 14 years.

But Canada is in the middle of a great big 'choose your own adventure' book, and we will have to see which page we turn to.

I'm looking forward to reading other submissions.

essays 980 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 21:53 on July 03, 2006

Tor: Freedom for whom?

Proponents of Tor recommend reading renowned security expert Bruce Schneier's article on the value of privacy. Schneier makes a compelling argument in favour of the value of privacy. But use of Tor isn't just about privacy.

There are, fundamentally, two forms of freedom. There is the freedom "to," and the freedom "from."

There is also the balance of freedoms: how one person's freedoms affect another's. Services like Tor address both the freedom "to" and the freedom "from," but deprive others of both freedom "to" and freedom "from."

Tor works by routing a user's Internet connection through a long and wholly undocumented and unlogged list of participating hosts. Theoretically, it is impossible to trace a connection back to its origin through this system. With the lack of logging, the only practical way is to monitor participating hosts and try and figure out who is doing what. The result is that anyone who uses Tor is anonymous to anyone whose services he is using. This provides the Tor user the freedom to privacy, and complete freedom from being identified.

This also takes away service providers' freedom to monitor access, and the freedom from abuse.

Bruce Schneier's argument, as twisted by Tor users, would appear to be that it is not a provider's right to know who is using its services. Tor users worry that providers are in a position of power, and power corrupts. The logic employed ­­ that if a provider knows who is using its services it will use that information for nefarious purposes ­­ is no more sensible than assuming that someone who is using a privacy service like Tor is necessarily doing so to facilitate trouble­making.

My fundamental problem with Tor is connected to my experience as an IRC operator. On IRC networks, Tor prevents freedom from abuse. If a hundred people use Tor, and one of them abuses his privileges on a provider's network, the only alternative for a provider (other than allowing the abuse to continue) is to block all 100 users, because there is no way to differentiate among them. Because blocking large groups of users often is not a practical solution, that one problematic user can continue being a problem without any limitations.

Privacy vs. freedom

Schneier states that the debate is wrongfully categorised as a debate between privacy and security. I agree ­­ it is not privacy versus security, it is privacy versus freedom. When one person's privacy restricts someone else's freedom, we have a problem.

In the real world, every country has a legal system with a set of rules by which everyone must live. If someone breaks one of those rules, a police force and judicial system exists to prevent them from continuing to do so. In some cases, the rules are unjust, but generally, rules are designed to protect the freedoms of others. Take the police force and judicial system out of the equation, and you end up with anarchy.

That's what Tor brings to the Internet. If everyone on the Internet used Tor, and no one could figure out where anyone was coming from anymore, the Internet would be a complete anarchy, even though most people would still attempt to continue their normal, honest behavior.

While IP­address­based restrictions may not be an ideal solution for managing services on the Internet, it is the best currently available. Tor in effect removes this system from the Internet.

Prior to Tor, similar problems existed through open proxies and hacked accounts, but these can be blocked, because there is no such thing as a legitimate user coming through these means.

Please understand, I'm not against the concept of privacy. What I am against is the concept of total anonymity. I would not object to Tor, or any other anonymising service, if it provided a way of uniquely identifying users. I don't care if connections can be traced back to actual end users, just that they can be managed separately. But making end users identifiable is contrary to the stated objectives of Tor.

Are there practical solutions? Yes. The simplest solution would be to require registration of Tor users, and have service providers implement a system to check users' registration status. Though it wouldn't eliminate problems, it could reduce them and make them more manageable. Unfortunately, it would remove the very anonymity Tor seeks to create.

Is there a way to balance the privacy of users with the propensity for bad apples to destroy the crop? If so, what is it?

Originally posted to Linux.com 2006-06-24; reposted here 2019-11-24.

essays internet 782 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 18:26 on June 24, 2006

A ten-lane 401?

How many lanes is too many? What about alternatives?

An announcement in the local paper this week says that highway 401 is going to be expanded from 6 to 8 lanes between Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge, about 5 km. Within 7 more years it'll be further expanded to 10 lanes over the same stretch.

The Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Cambridge areas have no viable form of alternative transportation yet in place. Providing our three cities with commuter train service would likely cost less than this single four-lane expansion of a small stretch of the freeway, and it would have a far more long lasting and useful effect.

As of right now, GO train service goes from downtown Toronto to Milton on the CPR line. The trains then continue up the hill with no passengers a further ten miles to park in Campbellville. 18 miles further west down those same tracks is the city of Cambridge.

Similarly, GO train service goes from downtown Toronto to Georgetown on the so-called "North Main Line" via Weston, Malton, and Brampton. These trains park at Georgetown. 19 miles further west is the city of Guelph, and 13 miles further west still is the city of Kitchener-Waterloo.

The condition of the tracks to all these cities is very good. Goderich-Exeter Railway, which operates from Georgetown to London via Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph recently installed brand new continuous welded rail on most of its line. It currently hosts an insignificant number of freight trains (4 west of Guelph and a mere 2 - one each way - east of Guelph) and handles 6 Via trains per day at mostly inconvenient times with no stops east of Brampton until downtown Toronto.

The largest expense in extending GO service to Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Cambridge would be the construction of stations.

The GO station at York University cost $850,000 to install. The parking lot at Langstaff station cost $1.4 million to double in size to 1,021 parking spaces. A safe bet would therefore be around $3.65 million per station. It would therefore likely cost about $10.95 million to install stations at the three cities, plus the cost of land expropriation where necessary.

The equipment already exists and is parked in locations where it could be used for these lines and additional trains would not even need to be purchased (until GO sees the demand is there). The tracks are also already in place and would not cost anything to put in, though the CPR line to Cambridge may eventually need to be double-tracked to provide better service.

The only expense aside from building the stations is direct operating expenses in operating the trains themselves, including any possible payments to the host railways to use their tracks. Some of these would be offset by removing the inept, slow, poorly scheduled, and mostly useless, but nevertheless present GO bus service to the area.

Now, back to the original point. How much will it cost to put 4 additional lanes over 5 km of the 401?

The initial announcement failed to mention the budget for it. But judging by this Ministry of Transport document, it should cost about $23 million. This document shows a 4.5 km stretch immediately to the west of where this work will take place being expanded from 4 to 6 lanes starting in 2000 for around $11.2 million. We're looking at putting in twice as many lanes over a slightly longer distance in two stages in the same geographic area, so the comparison is a safe one.

For $23 million, we will have four additional lanes over 5 km of Canada's busiest highway. This will not serve in the least to alleviate any of the traffic, and as anyone who drives on any highway knows, highway traffic tends to expand to fill all available lanes.

By putting in GO service, preferably all-day, to these three cities, a lot of the Toronto-bound traffic can be taken off the roads. The remaining traffic should be able to manage with the existing lane structure, and the four lane addition to the 401 over that short stretch would be unnecessary.

Unfortunately, political expediency and short-sightedness will still opt for the increased lane solution, at a mere twice the cost of adding GO service, only contributing further to our endless smog days in Southern Ontario.

At what point does the 401 have too many lanes?

By expanding the 401 from 6 to 8 and then to 10 lanes, do we really increase capacity on the highway enough to warrant the investment? Or in 10 years, will drivers, stuck in 10 lanes of lung-shattering traffic, ponder idly if 12 lanes or 14 lanes might possibly be better? At what point do we stop and consider the alternatives to our smog-filled air and car-filled roads?

One GO train can seat one thousand five hundred passengers, plus standing room, with one single 3,000 horsepower engine, the equivalent power of around 20 average cars (with their lone occupants).

essays guelph highways transit 830 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 16:45 on June 09, 2006

April 20th, 2006

A few months ago a friend was asking for ideas for a short story for his homework. I suggested writing an irony in the second person. He didn't take me up on it, but I gave it a go. Here are the results:

The fire

You wake up with a start. You know that sound. You know that smell.

You rush over to your partner and wake her. With a nudge, she gets up and looks at you invitingly until she, too, recognises that sound. Then she, too, notices that smell.

The two of you try to get away, heading toward a lake that you know is not very far away. Your way is blocked, you can't get to the lake.

You hear a very loud roar overhead and look up. A large yellow object flies by just above the tree-tops. As it passes, it drops water violently near you. You jump back, startled, raising your tail and revealing its white underside to your nearby partner. She jumps, too, then jumps again reacting to your warning signal.

The acrid smoke is starting to bother you. You are having trouble breathing. You are having trouble seeing. You and your mate continue toward the sun, hoping to find a way around the heat, looking for the route to the water you know is there.

It is getting hotter. You are getting tired. Your antlers weigh you down, slowing you and catching on branches. You continue in the hope that you are almost to safety.

The fire is closing in. You are in pain. Your hooves are starting to ache and blister from the heat. You are running out of time.

You call out to your mate, hardly able to see. You hear no response.

You pause.

Where is she, you ask yourself.

You go back along your track. You trip. You fall over. You look down. Your last bit of energy is drained: It is your mate. She does not react. You know.

You muster up some energy and overcome your feeling of grief. You have a basic urge to survive. You continue toward the sun. It is disappearing.

The sun disappears, but it does not get dark. The sun appears to be in every direction. You no longer know which way to go.

You hear the roar again. You look up, but you don't see anything. You hear a crash close to you. You follow the sound. A path appears to the lake. It is wet.

You get to the lake. You rest your hooves in the water. You are still feeling hot. You move away from the heat. You find a meadow. You fall asleep in the middle of the clearing, in a cool area close to the lake.

You wake up. It is cool. The sun is now behind you. You went the right way. You travel a little bit further away from the sun and find a stream feeding the lake. You stop to take a drink. You pause to think about your mate. It hurts, but you are prepared to move on. You look in the water and see your reflection. You are alive.

You look up from your reflection in the water you are drinking. Something is not right. You see me. I am holding up my rifle. I fire.

essays 557 words - whole entry and permanent link. Posted at 16:39 on April 20, 2006

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