Tuesday, June 27, 2006

John Sewell? Oh, God, no...

John Sewell's back. Well, he's trying to be.

The Globe and Mail reports this morning that John Sewell, former mayor of Toronto — whose policies ensured that one two-year term was more than enough for the citizens of Toronto, even back when "Toronto" was just the chunk between the Humber and Victoria Park — is running for city council.

Around ten years back I bought a book of his about the nature of Toronto's growth in the 20th century. I still have it. It's well written, and well researched. But there's no question of it; the man was born 100 years too late. The Toronto he'd be comfortable in — one of tiny, quaint little hamlets separated by a mile and a half, where everyone walks everywhere — had vanished by the time of Confederation.

The big controversy this time out is jaw-dropping, for me. Streetcar lines, in most places in North America, hearken back warm memories of black and white television, Leave It to Beaver, and kids avoiding swimming in late summer so they didn't get polio. In Toronto, we still have a number of streetcar lines downtown; we never lost them (in fact, we added one on Spadina Avenue in 1997). So you would think the issue would be that someone's trying to kill a line off, right? Wrong! There are plans to segregate the line on St. Clair Avenue from the traffic, which seems eminently sensible to me: better traffic flow with a much lower risk of accidents. But John Sewell and his supporters want to kill the plan. Why? One of his supporters, Margaret Smith, as quoted thus:

"I think many of us believe that if we had local democracy in Toronto, if neighbourhoods really counted in Toronto, then we wouldn't have a dedicated right-of-way forced down on our community and our neighbourhood," Ms. Smith said.

Oh, great. "Local democracy in Toronto", yeah, I just thrill to those words. Speed bumps every seven inches. Threats of turnstiles and tollbooths. Territorial pissing contests at every major intersection. Turf wars for soccer moms. As if this fucking town weren't already a massive pain in the ass for getting around in, constipated at every turn by some selfish self-appointed local saint of the Church of NIMBY. These are people who think just because they live on or near a street, they own it. At least, more than you do. No, folks, you don't. We all own it. Streets are first and foremost for getting around on. That's why they exist. Your right to jaywalk or not to have to look at a 18" concrete traffic barrier does not trump the right of hundreds of thousands of people and tens of millions of dollars in commerce getting to and fro as easily and efficiently as possible. These are our streets, not just yours because you happen to see them when you look out your window. Nowhere in the whole article, as far as I could see, did the exact issue they have with the dedicated right-of-way come up. I'm forced to conclude it's nothing more than a petty reaction to the fact that the city is daring to change city property in a part of the city... where they happen to live at the moment.

(Note: I actually went to Save Our St. Clair's website and, yes, I made a pretty good guess at it. Foremost is their 'right' to cross the street or turn left wherever they want without having to go to an intersection with a crossing signal, and the psychological burdern of having to conceive of their neighbourhood as "divided" outweigh all the practical considerations of the entire rest of the GTA.)

And John Sewell stands at the apex of all this. When the province was amalgamating Metro into a single city in the late 90s, I remember Sewell complaining that not only was one city a bad idea, even the six we had were too few, and that we ought to go back to the bucholic chaos (my words) of the thirteen municipalities we had before 1967! I was waiting for him to suggest every street should have its own mayor and council (the man actually used the long-forgotten word "megacity" in the article, as if that debate hadn't been put to bed before the first firecracker went off at the new millenium). I, on the other hand, feel it didn't even go far enough then. Metro shouldn't have vanished; it should have expanded to take in the other four regions of the GTA, giving us a single transit authority to get people moving and out of their cars (hey, isn't that what you wanted when you killed the Spadina Expressway, John?) instead of — as they generally do now — stopping at municipal borders as though they were the Berlin Wall; and to redistribute the tax burden so that downtown can be preserved while growth is better and more sensibly managed in the fringes. Toronto in particular and the GTA in general need the insularity of John Sewell and people like him about as much as we need a ricin injection.


Polt said...

I haven't ridden the trolleys in Toronto, but I like the look of them. I pretty mcuh walk everywhere when I'm there, but then I rarely leave the downtown area anyway.

Nonetheless, this guy sounds like a moron. Hopefully he won't win a seat.

Lone Primate said...
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Lone Primate said...
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Lone Primate said...

Hiya, Polt... no, John Sewell's not a moron... I think that's what I find so disappointing in people like him. Like I say, I've read a book of his; he's a bright guy. But his priorities are unrealistic in a modern city. I felt the same way about Jane Jacobs. I frankly believe the two of them and their associates have crippled Toronto in terms of access in and out of the downtown that have damaged, are damaging, and will continue to damage its future in exactly the same way that blockages damage the heart. Blood (commerce, labour, produce) needs to flow, but unlike the body, blood in the GTA has many other alternative hearts to the downtown core, and it's being drawn away...

Streetcars are, to me, a blessing and a curse. Anyone who's ever ridden one loves them; anyone who's ever been stuck behind one in a car hates them. I've been both. Streetcars that share lanes with automobile traffic have three strikes against them: they slow down a lane of traffic and bring out the worst inclinations in drivers (compounded by the fact that, in what strikes me as a display of mindboggling stupidity, the City of Toronto lets people park on main thoroughfares); they occasionally break down, which can instantly send a street like Queen or King into hours-long gridlock until it's sorted out; and they require passengers to step off directly into traffic. If you think falling backwards into someone's open arms is a trust game, wow, lemme tell yah... But all these problems are solved or at least ameliorated by dedicating the centre lanes to the streetcars and either widening the street slightly, or — better yet — prohibiting people to park on main streets and shooing them onto the residential side streets where parked cars belong. All of these things are unquestionably in the best interests of the people of Toronto; anyone with an ounce of objectivity would be forced to recognize that. Only people whose perception is clouded by parochial and usurpatious attitudes find the gall to put their own aesthetic comforts before the good of an entire city and the province and country it helps support. I really have little patience for these hothouse flowers. They're not stupid. They're just selfish, clanish, well-off, and smug.