Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summer Editorial Series: The Conclusion – Has Guelph Changed?

Sometimes wading into the online debate and trying to make common sense of the issues is like yelling at chestnuts for being lazy. If you’re interested in sampling some of the Whitmanesque wit that makes up the Guelph political discourse, one needn’t look any further than the comment section on the latest blog post at 59 Carden St.

The topic du jour was last week’s unveiling of a new logo for Guelph Transit, a mitigating nugget of public relations to help cover for the fact that we won’t actually get our new routes and schedule till the late fall, and won’t step foot in the inter-module transit hub till next spring. Many of the comments were about the wasteful cost of an obviously aesthetic manoeuvre, but never underestimate the anonymity of the internet to allow for the most puerile and base comments to be made in the name of “debate.”

Let’s scroll down, as it were, to a couple of comments in particular. “Waiting for a slow, roundabout ride that almost gets you there, accompanied by the smelly freak show, is for people who can't afford better,” said a regular poster named Grumpy Old Corporal. Adds Doug, of no fixed last name, “If you think that a new logo and slogan will get me out of my car, so I can ride with drooling, mumbling staggering, rude, loud, profane, sloppy and the freak show of Guelph. You're crazy!”

First of all, you know your day’s gone topsy turvy when Grumpy Old Corporal is the voice of reason, and regulars on 59 Carden Street know what I’m talking about. Second of all, would these guys say any of this aloud if not for the anonymity of the internet? I’d bet my bus fare that if Doug or Grumpy ever come into direct contact with the Hills Have Eyes mob from central casting that is apparently the transit using population of Guelph, they’d be too busy trying to not lose control of their bowels.

But this isn’t about the not-so-startling lack of civility on the internet. This piece is about a tonal shift I’ve been sensing in Guelph for some time now. (Hence the above name of the piece.) Now granted, the internet is a terrible place to gauge the temperament of people on average since it typically attracts extremists from both ends, but I’m thinking of something more basic. A gut feeling. This isn’t the city that fought Wal-mart tooth and nail for 10 years. This isn’t the town that revels in, as my friend Oliver from CFRU observes, being the Berkley of Canada. Heck, this isn’t even the place they took Mondex for test drive in back in the 90s.

Remember Mondex? It was to the debit card what HD-DVD was to Blu-Ray. Never mind.

I guess what I’m trying to say, simplistically, is Guelph used to be cooler. Don’t get me wrong, Guelph can still be cool, and is infinitely more cooler than, say, Burlington, but I do feel, what I will call a “Stepford Effect,” creeping into the works. The Stepford Effect, of course referring to Bryan Forbes’ subversive cult classic, where in people start imposing a set of characteristics on a city for what it should be, not what it can be or what it is. A city should have low taxes, lots of shopping, malleable borders, a quiet downtown, and no roustabouts with a cause ready to disrupt.

The assumption now is that Guelph, as it was, is wrong. Being known as the place that held out for so long against Wal-Mart is bad for business. Being known as a place where conscientious objectors occupied green space to try and stymie urban sprawl is bad for business. Despite the fact that our downtown is a centre of arts of culture, you better not put up posters to promote and celebrate that culture because the city will slam you with fees. Then, when its time for a budget crunch, we’ll always make sure to cut transit first, because no one worthy of being pandered to takes public transit. Oh, and by the way, in the one area of the city where we know the highest concentration of low-income people live, we’ll support the closing of the area’s only discount store and replace it with a mid-priced furniture outlet, because there’s one thing our city’s poor needs it’s not paying a cent on a new living room set till 2013.

As with any editorial piece, I don’t mean to say that my way is the right way, but the intent, like with all my editorials this summer, is to try and get people to think and promote dialogue. This is the complete opposite of the intent of the above comments discussed, but it seems like this the only kind of conversation that counts anymore. As we head into a new election cycle, let’s try and reverse that trend together.

And now, on with the news…

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Summer Editorial Series – The List

There’s nothing like a little time out of town to give you perspective and appreciation. Last weekend, I was in downtown Indianapolis for GenCon, a convention of gamers that’s the largest of its kind in North America. This was the weekend after that whole debt ceiling nonsense had been resolved and the same weekend that saw the United States lose its prestigious AAA credit rating, which it had possessed for nearly 95 years.

But on the streets of Indiana’s state capital, where a homeless individual or other needy person seemed to be taking up residence on every corner at the intersection of Washington and Capital, none of that mattered. Better still, none of that seemed to matter to the people handing out postcards outside the convention centre, advising people going in of the importance of living, and if necessary dying, by the word of The Bible. Perhaps they hadn’t heard that connections between Dungeons & Dragons and Satanism had been debunked decades ago.

In the back of my mind was the comfort that I has heading back to Canada; where people were smarter, where they were more caring, and where radical Christianity hasn’t gotten a stranglehold. When I woke up Monday, it was literally morning in Canada. And then I saw the front of the Toronto Sun. Handed down from on high, or wherever it is that their editorial board meets, were the three main focuses that they thought should make the top of Mayor Rob Ford’s to-do pile: licensing bikes, panhandling, and getting rid of surcharges for plastic bags.

Now, I can’t for the life of me understand the appeal of Mayor Ford; he has all the personality of Boss Tweed, but has the extreme misfortune of being a politician in the Information Age. (Guy can’t even flip the bird at cautionary citizen pointing out his law violating Blackberry use behind the wheel without making CP24.) Still, he won the election, he’s the mayor for three-and-a-half more years at least, but should these really be the three most important things he needs to get immediately?

Certainly, the Sun thinks so. After Monday’s cover story, they launched into a week-long series of covers demanding, practically ordering, that something be done about panhandlers. First of all, what’s the urgency? Second of all, can one get rid of the poor like they’re overstock cookies at a bake sale? Solving the problem of all the poor people on the street requires one of two solutions: social spending to help these people out with the programs and services they need (which I’m sure would tick Sun editors off) or two, rounding them up in debtors’ prison and poor houses like the social welfare state never came into effect in the first place.

What about licensing bikes? Were does that come from? Actually, I know where it’s coming from, the recent, well-publicized traffic incidents involving cyclists. Incidents, mind you, where the cyclist was usually at fault. That is regrettable, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with the notion that a bike should be licensed, should making it so really be in the Top 3 of Mayoral priorities in Canada’s biggest city. Besides the whole thing smacks of “Summer of the Shark” syndrome, something’s made the news a couple of times in quick succession, which means a clear and present danger is there and it needs to addressed. It’s the chicken and the egg problem of the modern media: Problem A is in the news because it’s an immediate threat, and it’s an immediate threat because it’s in the news.

Last, but certainly least, is the matter of paying a nickel for a plastic bag at the grocery store. Aside from sorting your recyclables and being mindful of much electricity you use, it’s literally the least you can for the environment. No Frills has been doing it for years, I wonder if Ford pushes through on this and the by-law is repealed, will Toronto take the grocery store chain to court? What am I talking about, it’s not like they’re Guelph.

But seriously, this is a matter of world-crumbling urgency? How can you fault a law that encourages people to be more environmentally conscious, while making them pay a premium for using something that harms us and the planet? Doesn’t the Sun know there’s a big floating pile of plastic in the Pacific the size of some larger U.S. states? What am I talking about? They’re too busy swearing under their breath trying to find pocket change for a plastic grocery bag.

Perhaps once the immediate problems of these three issues are resolved, Ford can get busy working on other issues. For instance, there are trees in Toronto with too many leaves. Doesn’t he know people are going to have to rake them up in another month? Also the TTC subway trains make too much noise, but we don’t want to pay more for quiet trains. Maybe you should be writing this down…

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Summer Editorial Series – There’s a Bus for Everyone

A few months ago, the Guelph Mercury published a week long series about Guelph Transit; its past, present and future. And while the series was informative and interesting – especially the details of Guelph’s forward-thinking past so far as mass transit is concerned – it seemed that the series remained, at the core, one written by people who don’t take the bus regularly, and can’t speak with true insight on the problems with our transit system.

The examination-slash-retrospective came from the coming changes to Guelph Transit starting this fall. These changes include new and altered routes as well as peak time 15 minute scheduling. Combined with the move from St George’s Square to the inter-module transit terminal next spring, and the anticipation for the expansion of GO Transit trains to the Royal City, it would seem things are looking up for those in Guelph that either by choice or necessity, take the bus. The sad part is though that the new transit looks a lot like the old transit.

To wit, if you are on a Guelph bus right now, and it’s a weekday, then you may have noticed that you only had to wait 20 minutes for the next bus rather than 30. This is thanks to a grassroots effort by a number of citizens who spoke out against another year of transit cuts in the 2011 budget. As a result of the outcry, not only did city council maintain 20 minute service throughout the summer, but partial stat holiday service was restored too. You might have taken the bus to Canada Day festivities in Riverside Park, or enjoyed John Galt Day activities downtown.

Sadly though, in spite of a number of Guelph Transit drivers that perform their duties admirably and professionally, there are some on the job that still can’t get their heads around the idea that the bus is a commuter service and not Sunday Night vespers with grandpa and grandpa. To them, a trip on the bus is a leisurely drive with friends where you can chat the day away knowing that you will eventually reach your destination. That is if you leave on time. Boarding the bus from downtown, it’s like a game of Win, Lose or Draw: will your bus leave on time, or are you waiting five minutes later waiting for the driver to appear, or finish up a conversation with a colleague?

Again, to be clear, this is not a majority of Guelph Transit employees, but incidents like the ones stated above happen with unusual frequency. The first thing you learn in customer service is that people will remember times of bad service to a far greater degree than the instances of good service, no matter how frequent the latter occur. How many people have been turned off riding the local bus because they missed their transfer, or the bus drove past their stop because the driver was distracted? I’m sure the number is greater than you or I might think because people don’t usually tend to call in to the Transit office to let them know that they’re breaking up.

But it’s not just driver behaviour that confounds, and while one of the articles did compliment Guelph Transit drivers for their friendly attitude, it’s probably one of the reasons why so many people feel like it’s okay to have a conversation with them while the driver makes their rounds. Or that it’s okay to put their bag on the seat and leave no where for someone else to sit. Or that it’s okay to sit at the back in a seat with your feet up. So yeah, this isn’t your buddy’s car, this is public property, and in the winter it’s hard enough to get people on the bus without making them wonder if the only seat available will come with muddy foot prints.

I’ve said this before, taking the bus will never be as fast and convenient as taking your own personal car directly from your garage to the parking lot of you place or work, but it’s also not supposed to be. And because of this, and because its hard enough to convince people to get on the bus in the first place, every time someone has a uniquely terrible experience on the bus is another excuse given to them to tune in, drop out, and get their own ride.

Guelph has invested a lot in their new transit system, but how can we expect people to take advantage and get excited when we’re still acting like it’s 1999, back when there was no Sunday service and accessible buses were a pipe dream. I think I speak for all of us that take the bus regularly when I say we want an improved transit service, and we don’t want to let old world thinking get in the way.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Summer Editorial Series – The Jack’s Creek Covered Bridge

The news last week that Jack Layton was taking some time off to fight another bout of cancer comes as shocking to a lot of politicos cross-country. This man is a lion. He defeated the strain of pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with in February, had hip surgery in March, and then got out on the campaign trail in April, leading his party to its biggest victory ever in May. You know the old marine motto about doing more before 6 am… Well Jack Layton may not be a marine, but by any standard, that is a pretty eventful spring.

Now, I’m not a doctor, but anecdotally-speaking some of Layton’s recent public appearances have not painted the picture of a man who’s got a full health bar, to use video game parlance. Of course the stress of a major illness and a cross-country Federal campaign doesn’t do much for one’s stress levels, but all-in-all Layton’s physical struggles seems to have not damped even slightly the man’s vigour and commitment to leading his party to heights never before thought possible. At least until now that is.

Now it’s not all bad news. Layton intends to be back in time for the recommencement of Parliament in mid-September. In the meantime, Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmelhas was Layton’s personal selection for interim leader. She’s a rookie MP and part of the NDP’s “Orange Revolution” during May’s Federal Election, and on the face of things, politically, that makes a lot of sense. But the selection of Turmelhas, no matter how temporary, is odd because she leap-frogged over deputy leaders Thomas Mulcair and Libby Davies, as well as party stalwart Paul Dewar. And all things being equal, the NDP hasn’t had a lot of luck when one of their freshmen class is thrust into the spotlight.

And make no mistake, leadership matters. Could the NDP have made the gains they have without Layton at the helm? Possibly, but not probably. Layton’s miracle with the NDP is that he was able to play on even-keel with the two traditional main party leaders, and in recent years, even best them in national debates. He wasn’t whiny, he wasn’t resentful, and he came across as completely forthright, confident and ready to serve. Cogito ergo sum. Despite his small caucus he believed he was a national leader, therefore he was a national leader.

By comparison, think of the former leader of the Ontario wing of the NDP, Howard Hampton. I remember exactly two things that Hampton did in the 2003 Provincial campaign: 1) he tried nailing Jell-O to a wall, and 2) he had several huge dollar sign sacs on a flat bed truck be driven down a Toronto street as a visual aid during a speech. I can’t remember what either of those things were supposed to symbolize, but I remember that Hampton did them, and along with then-Premier Ernie Eves’ “reptilian kitten eater” comment, they probably painted Dalton McGuinty as the sanest choice for Queen’s Park.

Sadly appearances matter, and in the case of Jack Layton the appearance was of a man working hard to get your vote. Since his first election as party leader in 2004, Layton has led the NDP to posting a bigger share of the popular vote, even if their total number of seats didn’t increase; his predecessor Alexa McDonough didn’t post better than 11.05 per cent in the 1997 election. It’s why commentators were hesitant to call Layton’s ascension to Official Opposition leader an overnight success. It was a victory eight years in the making, and if the intention was to form an NDP government then they’re one more move shy of their goals.

But if Layton’s health continues to be an issue, then a question of more permanent leadership will have to be addressed, and like of all the major Federal parties, no clear successor is obvious. And the NDP is painted in a tight corner too. While the tenor of Quebecers and their new found allegiance to the NDP may not be fly-by-night, they’ll want to see progress on what the Orange can do for them. At the same time though, none of the new 59 NDP MPs from Quebec are probably leadership ready, though do the residents of “La belle province” have expectations that way? I doubt it.

Either way, Layton will be a tough act to follow in Ottawa. Not that we want anyone to follow him yet. He’s worked too long and hard to get that seat directly across from the Prime Minister, and I have a feeling that even Stephen Harper is relishing a real challenge in the Commons. Get well soon, Jack.