Monday, December 10, 2012

Democracy and the Ecology of Transportation

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

There is no question as to whether New York City and the surrounding coastal communities of the tri-state area will be rebuilt. But will these communities be reconstructed to serve the vast majority of working people or the interests of the economic and cultural elites that have dominated city life? Not surprisingly, those largely responsible for the current crisis are once again eager to take advantage of that crisis. But in the aftermath both of Occupy Wall Street and Sandy, citizens not only in the New York area but also in many urban communities may not be as easily cowed and manipulated as after 9/11. Transit may be an especially vital concern. 

In a recent article in Waging Nonviolence, Yotam Marom reports: "The city government is already thinking about how it is going to spend the enormous sums...that will be poured into redevelopment in the near future... The disaster-capitalist developers are already out there doing everything they can to ensure that they're the ones who get the contracts. The fossil fuel companies, meanwhile, are hoping none of us will put two and two together and hold them rightfully responsible for the climate crisis; they are probably doing all the lobbying they can to make sure the city rebuilds in a way that is as dependent on fossil fuels as before."


Nonetheless, Sandy still has put the climate science deniers on the defensive. The combination of continuing, deep recession and the storm's vast destruction has opened up possibilities of worker/environmental alliances that might reshape both our economy and urban space.

Sandy raises questions of the role that urban land use and transportation planning can play in reducing the incidence and severity of monster storms and mitigating their effects. More ecologically oriented planning has become a survival necessity.


Forty years ago Andre Gorz pointed out: "The automobile is the paradoxical example of a luxury object that has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread, its superiority would be striking."


The ecological case for making public transit more accessible to more communities is overwhelming. York University environmental studies professor Stefan Kipfer reminds us: "Public mass transportation produces five to 10 per cent of the greenhouse gases emitted by automobile transportation. The latter is responsible for about a quarter of global carbon emissions. In addition, public transit consumes a fraction of the land used by individualized car transportation (roads and parking space consume a third or more of the land in North American urban regions). Not even counting other negative effects of automobilization (congestion, pollution, accidents, road kill, cancer, asthma, obesity, and so on), shifting to transit will markedly reduce the social costs of economic and urban development. It would also make a substantial contribution toward global climate justice."


But the case for public transit is not only ecological. A compelling case also must include more than critiques of the auto. Sandy can become an occasion to promote and build modes of mobility, housing and working, shopping and relating to our peers that are more humane and satisfying. The harms and the risks attendant on global climate change are real enough, but too little is made of the human costs of our acquisitive, auto-dependent society or of the kind of satisfactions more sustainable alternatives might offer.

Kipfer argues that capitalism as a world system imposes both mobility and immobility on the poor and working classes. Many poor in the developing world are displaced and forced to migrate to first world cities where they often then find themselves confined to urban ghettoes with only marginal job prospects. Even the working and middle class finds itself trapped in traffic jams and spending larger sums on the auto. Road rage and various forms of scapegoating of these urban minorities grow out of and intensify the travails of our highways.

Are there ways to change this pathological dynamic? One way is to make mass transportation more widespread by making it free. Free mass transit would increase ridership among current users and add some new ones. To those who would complain about the budgetary implications Kipfer points out: "{T}he overall budgetary cost of transit budget expansion can be measured against the typically much higher cost of underwriting car-dominated transportation (road and infrastructure budgets and tax policies which subsidize them). Second, from a macro-economic and social efficiency point of view, public transportation is far less expensive than the existing privatized system."

Kipfer recognizes that mass transit by itself is no panacea for economic injustice or environmental degradation. Transit systems can be designed to bypass poor neighborhoods or to serve only wealthy suburbanites to the exclusion of expanding inner city bus service. Such systems ultimately reinforce suburban sprawl and the car culture and consumption- intense economies. Conversely the expansion of transit systems to formerly underserved areas can become an occasion to remove minorities and gentrify the neighbourhood.

Unfortunately the ongoing economic crisis is being used as an occasion not only to reduce transit subsidies but also to privatize many public systems. Willie Osterwell points out that when transit is privatized the emphasis is upon immediate returns. One consequence is reduction in services and cuts in transit workers wages, thereby blunting support for these systems.

Ultimately the shape of the cities we build both after storms like Sandy and---better yet---to mitigate the effects of such future storms-- will depend on the coalitions that are built. A right wing populist coalition could treat transit and bike lanes and walking paths and the immigrants who use such systems as obstacles to the car. (Remember Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker's diatribe against the minorities who use New York City subways.) Or mainstream corporate forces could see a commuter rail as an instrument primarily of suburban real estate development.


Against these visions, Kipfer argues for the social and ecological benefits of broader democratic coalitions: 

To win out against the real, if contradictory pleasures of our car culture, transit has to offer an exciting way of experiencing urban life. The beast so central to capitalism as we know it, 'homo automotivis'... will only die out with a renewed transit culture: being together with others in anonymity and encountering fellow inhabitants not simply through kinship and self-selected sub-cultures but through the unexpected encounters of urban living. Fostering such an exuberant -- curious, open, and generous -- public culture of being 'in solitude without isolation' will require that many of us relearn the capacity to live outside privatized, atomized and sanitized environments. This is not impossible.

A recent survey by the Pembina Institute reveals that most Greater Toronto Area residents would happily trade their cars and bungalows for walking, transit and denser living arrangements if they could afford it. After decades of worsening congestion and 'world-class' commuting delays, Torontonians seem to have become more intolerant of car-led sprawl and more receptive to more open and public forms of urban life. This makes it possible to think of a transit culture beyond the central city spaces where transit is already a fact of life for the majority of inhabitants. If not from personal experience, we know promising elements of living in large cities from movies, literature, and music: the syncopated rhythms of street life and mass transit, the promise of independence from domestic life, the excitement of bustling crowds, the bouts of unexpected camaraderie among strangers.
Such sentiments cannot be assumed. Their coalitions emerge among different ethnicities and faiths and sporadically germinate ever new challenges and visions. Nonetheless, arguably they can be cultivated, and such cultivation is essential to the politics of transit. These sentiments are no longer limited to residents of a highly cosmopolitan city like Toronto. Even the world's most caraholic culture is shifting. Bill McKibben recently pointed to a poll conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council that "suggests that [public transit] would be popular with the public, 59 percent of whom believe that the U.S. transportation system is 'outdated, unreliable and inefficient.' Americans also want to be less dependent on cars. Today, 55 percent prefer to drive less, but 74 percent say they have no choice, and 58 percent would like to use public transportation more often, but it is not convenient or available from their home or work."

Osterwell wonders: "What would cities look like with bikes, buses and even subways truly run by their citizens? For now, the question is pie-in-the-sky, but public transit truly run by the public and for the public would make cities more equitable, more green and less prone to temperamental whims---of market forces and politicians alike. If we start imagining and building these systems today, we can start building the cities we'd like to see in the future."


Ultimately sustainable public transit systems require creating or revitalizing public space and thus democracy itself. A more vibrant democracy can help shape systems that in turn strengthen our democratic commitments.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fall from the bully pulpit: Rob Ford and the dubious case of neo-liberal "ethics"

Willy Blomme
Johns Hopkins University

On November 26, the mayor of Canada's biggest city was removed from office. A judge ruled that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford had contravened Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and imposed the penalty mandated by the legislation: vacating the office (suspending the decision for 14 days to allow for administrative changes). After a collective moment of stunned silence reactions poured out from public figures, commentators and citizens – ranging from the predictably outraged to the gleeful. Elected mayor two years ago, Ford is a polarizing, controversial and gaffe-prone figure. More importantly, he is a bully. And a bully who engages in the dubious ethical grandstanding so popular with the right today that creates an environment toxic to democratic deliberation.

Rob Ford's two years as mayor are rich in controversy, making it hard to see past the screeching headlines to the substantive damage he has done. A greatest hits of Ford follies includes: repeatedly skipping City Council and Executive Committee meetings to coach his high school football team, commandeering two City buses (and kicking off their paying passengers) to transport the players of his team after a rain-soaked game, getting caught behind the wheel of his SUV reading while driving on the highway, declaring that anyone who commits gun violence in Toronto should be deported from the city, calling in top City bureaucrats to ensure that the road in front of his family business was repaved in time for its 50th anniversary celebration, and skipping the mayor's traditional role at the front of Toronto's million-strong pride parade two years in a row because of a family cottage weekend. (Here is a quick summary of Ford's troublesome decade-long record as a city councillor, including attacks on racialized communities, AIDS victims and cyclists.) 

Given this litany of gaffes, controversies and attacks it is somewhat surprising that what brought Ford down is a relatively minor infraction. He was found guilty of a conflict of interest for speaking to and voting on a motion in Council that excused his repayment - recommended by the City's Integrity Commissioner - of $3,150 in donations to his private football charity raised through fundraising letters sent on City letterhead to lobbyists and corporations. As the judge noted in his decision, the incident was made more serious by Ford's "willful blindness" and "stubborn sense of entitlement (concerning his football foundation) and a dismissive and confrontational attitude to the Integrity Commissioner and the Code of Conduct." From the launch of the case the story played out rather comically like a tale of your regular schoolyard bully. First, Ford vehemently denied that there was any conflict of interest (I did nothing wrong!). Then, in his courtroom testimony he admitted that, despite being a Councillor for ten years and Mayor for two, he had never read the Conflict of Interest Act or the Councillor's Code of Conduct (I didn't know!). Once the verdict came down he immediately lashed out, blaming a "left-wing cabal" for orchestrating an attack (It's not my fault!), painting himself as an innocent victim just trying to help kids (I'm the victim here!). Finally, the day after the verdict he apologized for how others took his words, without admitting any wrongdoing (I'm sorry you feel bad.) 

Before his fall Ford adopted the familiar right wing strategy of painting himself as standing up for "the little guy" by ferreting out "waste" wherever he could. Ford was elected by a majority of voters on a populist promise to rid Toronto of its "gravy train." Exactly what this gravy train referred to was conveniently never specified, though allusions to "waste" and "overspending" were often dropped into the same sentences. The gravy train symbol worked in part because it fit well with Ford's infamous stunt during his decade as a Councillor. Every year when the expenditure reports came out Ford would rail against any Councillor who spent a significant portion of the $50,000 budget allotted to the running of his or her office. He invariably pointed to his own annual office expenditures - ranging from $5 to $10 - as the example of a responsible budget. (It should be noted here that Ford is independently wealthy due to a successful family business.) Office budget spending was an example, in his mind, of a waste of tax-payers' money. This is the familiar neo-liberal calculation: spending = waste = unethical.  This simplistic formulation is more than just an attempt to reorient the focus of ethical concerns in politics, it is an attempt to make spending a matter of ethics rather than politics. By making this shift the right preempts the debate about political priorities that is actually behind decisions about government spending.  It also, conveniently, turns attention away from actual unethical practices. Hence Rob Ford's inability to see - or "willful blindness" to - how his conduct in his conflict of interest case was in fact unethical.

Having fashioned their capes of "spending is wrong" these self-proclaimed ethical crusaders feel free to push around all those who stand in their way. Even when that means taking on the defenders of ethics themselves. From the early days of the Ford administration there were reports that City bureaucrats were afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation. Those fears materialized very publicly when Gary Webster, the chief general manager (and 37-year employee) of the Toronto Transit Commission was fired for giving advice - based on his experience and assessment of transit in the city - to Council that differed from the mayor's preferred plan. A few months later it was the City's Ombudsman who was in the hot seat. Ford's ire was raised by Fiona Crean's report accusing his office of a rushed, compromised and interfering selection process in the appointment of citizens to 120 civic boards and agencies (including directing bureaucrats to remove from newspaper advertisements a reference to seeking “diverse” candidates – this in a city whose motto is “Diversity our strength”). For five hours Crean was subjected to vitriolic attacks from Ford's allies after giving her report to Council. More worryingly, when the report was made public Ford's allies mused openly about not renewing her contract and of cutting resources to her office and that of the Integrity Commissioner's.  

This is a pattern of behaviour that closely mirrors that of the Conservative government in Ottawa. Since gaining power in 2006 the Harper government has adopted a series of bully tactics: it fired the chair of the Canada Nuclear Science Commission for her criticism of the government's running of a nuclear facility hours before she was to appear before a parliamentary committee; it barred scientists working for Environment Canada from speaking to the media; it tabled an omnibus budget bill that amended almost 70 different laws in one fell swoop; and it has a second omnibus bill before the House now. Perhaps most worrisome is Harper's cynical use of a once little-known procedural rule (prorogation) that prematurely ends a parliamentary session, killing all the bills on the order paper. He first used it to avoid a censure motion and later to avoid questions about the handling of Afghan prisoners by Canadian soldiers. This highly suspect use of the rule has spread. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty used it most recently to shut down the legislature upon his resignation, allowing his party to conduct a leadership race hassle free. Explaining his decision to prorogue McGuinty claimed that he did so in order to allow "discussions with our labour partners and the opposition to occur in an atmosphere that is free of the heightened rancour of politics in the legislature.” In their abuse of this procedural parliamentary tool Harper and McGuinty have effectively told their respective legislatures "don't get too critical or I will shut you down." This abuse has transformed prorogation into a persistent threat - a Damocles sword - hanging over the heads of legislatures across the country. Just like the Ombudsman and Integrity Commissioner bullied by Rob Ford and his allies, and like the nuclear safety commissioner fired by Harper for raising concerns about a potentially dangerous facility, legislatures are being told that if they are too critical or ask too many questions - essentially, if they do their job - they will be made redundant. This is not only bad news for Canada's democratic institutions, but also for the public that relies on revelations made in these bodies to inform broader democratic deliberation.

There is a culture of intimidation taking hold in Canadian politics.  Here's hoping that Rob Ford's removal from office inspires more of us to stand up to the bullies.