Post Journalist Foments Urban War

If you have read here before, you know that many journalists who write about road user charging (or congestion pricing) are easy targets. In Canada’s National Post, journalist Kelly Patrick recently weighed in with the GrushHour-bating title Toronto’s war on the car, Saturday June 2, 2007.

Ms Patrick’s errors are especially egregious. First, let’s look at language. Two weeks ago Jim Byers described “slapping a fee … on drivers”, clearly analogizing congestion pricing to traffic fines. Now Patrick describes transit advocates as “looking to essentially punish motorists out of their vehicles”. If you’re going to use that kind of language, then consider for a moment that the steady decline of relative transit investment in Toronto over the past 35 years has “punished” transit riders into private vehicles, that these additional automobile trips have “punished” bicycles off the road, and that all of this taken together is “punishing” our children with asthma.

But our journalists are also victims. Writers such as Patrick have been “punished” by lousy transit for so long that unless they are over 50 could hardly recall a time when Toronto transit served commuters particularly well. Her mindset might run something like this: “I hate transit, I live too far to bike (biking is too dangerous in Toronto, anyway) and frankly I like my car, so build more roads with my fuel taxes and get those slow-moving buses out of my way”.

While I have no way to know what is really in Patrick’s mind (words like “war” sell more papers, and anyway she has a right to earn a living, even if research and constructive analysis are not involved), I have described how a large, but thankfully shrinking, portion of Toronto motorist-think.

What is completely missing when a journalist looks only at the surface of a problem, thereby losing any opportunity to inform a reader as opposed to just reinforcing their frustration, is an understanding of how things are interconnected. Seeing congestion pricing as only a tax grab ignores dozens of current automotive-related inequities, and ignores the fact that reducing driving while improving transit is in fact better for those motorists who decide to continue driving.

Patrick goes on to compare driving with smoking: “…driving has now joined smoking and drinking as vices…”. While there are similarities (pollution, entitlement, health, etc.) there are many differences. To compare smoking in a restaurant with driving to work is of course, absurd and, I sense, designed to raise the righteous indignation of the long-entitled motorist.

I recently discussed the problem of mixing congestion pricing with sin-taxes – not as a language issue, as it is here for Patrick, but rather as criticism of Mayor Miller’s enormous waste of his new powers of taxation. He is squandering an opportunity for critically needed social change while he drives his popularity into the ground and while singing green songs in other cities. He was handed the tools to leave a substantial transportation legacy, now he will leave only a bigger mess than he inherited. It is all talk.

Patrick goes on, writing “taking road space away from vehicles” means the author sees roads as “for cars”. Not buses, not pedestrians, not street cars, not bicycles, not goods delivery. Just cars. The entitlement of the motorist runs genetically deep.

Further on Patrick describes “raising revenue for the cash-strapped city -- all have the side effect of dinging drivers.” Miller named a number of other tax changes. Garbage, smoking, theatres, etc. It is not all about drivers.

But gentle reader, this is nothing. Patrick’s most hilarious error is in her opening paragraph. Evidence that she has never seen the inside of a subway station.

Arif Vellani's morning drive from St. Clair Avenue East and Warden Avenue has all the hallmarks of the hellish Toronto commute. First, [Arif] crawls westward along busy St. Clair in his Honda Accord. Then he usually gets stuck on the parking lot that is the southbound Don Valley Parkway on a weekday morning. At the end of his journey, he pays $11 to park at a lot at Church and King streets, four blocks from his office. "My drive still takes less time, even with all that, than it does to take the TTC," he says.

If our poor victim, Mr Vellani, lives near St. Clair East and Warden then he is also near the Warden subway station. Most likely walkable. I use that station and I get to King and Yonge in about 25 minutes. If Vellani “crawls along St. Clair” and “gets stuck on the Don Valley Parkway”, we’re talking more like 40-45 minutes.

Either somebody has fabricated this story of misery or the truth is that Vellani simply likes the autonomy of his Honda Accord more than the subway. In fact, he is willing so spend an extra 20 or so minutes and $11 in parking to listen to the music he likes and smoke if he pleases. One hopes that Mr Vellani has no real problems to confront.

And, I prefer my Honda, too. I am just willing to tell the truth about it.

So let’s say Patrick was duped by Vellani and cannot read subway maps. This is still no excuse for misunderstanding congestion pricing. The principle of market pricing to manage over-consumption of a scarce resource (road space in this case) is well understood. There is no need to teach this to Patrick or any other person who has completed a secondary education. So why the lapse in thinking?

Entitlement. Self-entitlement often causes lapses in social intelligence. I’ve experienced it myself.

Everyone, everywhere feels they are owed the kind of automobile trip promised in the advertisements. I do too. I don’t wish to be “punished” out of my car. But I also don’t want modal choices constrained to car, car or car, as they often are. I simply want to see a balance in choice. More transit, more bike trails, less traffic congestion.

In 1963, William Vickrey, Nobel-Prize Economist from Columbia University, published in the American Economic Review: “In no other major area are pricing practices so irrational, so out of date, and so conductive to waste as in urban transportation.”

And nothing has changed in North America in these 44 years.

So why should Patrick know any better?


Actually, something has changed – the technology to repair pricing practices, called Time, Distance and Place (TDP) pricing is finally ready. It will likely appear first in the Netherlands, or perhaps in Singapore. A small number of cities in the US are starting to look at it. A gradual shift from a fuel-tax based to a pay-as-you-use-it based transportation economy has already begun. I predict that we will see trials in Toronto circa 2009, followed by congestion pricing in conjunction with a large infusion in transit by 2011 or 2012.

Welcome to the beginning of the end of congestion.


eddrass said...

Was it Ivan Illich who suggested that when calculating the average speed of travel by car, etc., that one should include the amount of time one spends motionless behind a desk working to pay for their chosen mode of transport?

If my math is any good, take your auto/transit/whatever costs, figure out how many minuteshours of labour are required to pay for them, add this time to your commute, and divide by the distance.

Arif said...

Mr. Grush,

In response to your post regarding the article "Toronto' War on Wheels", I thought I would add my 2 cents in as the article had my name plastered all over it....

This is the letter that I wrote to the Senior Editor of the National Post after the article was written...it should clearly outline what I think of Ms. Patrick's article and my thoughts on the transit system as a whole, which is what I was led to believe the interview was about....

"On Saturday June 2, 2007 Kelly Patrick wrote a piece on those who drive into the downtown core, namely me, as the first two words in her article were my first and last name. That being said, as much as Ms. Patrick used quotes from a discussion that we had, she chose to omit the main details of our discussion that referred to my thoughts on the transit system, which is what I was approached for in the first place. While we are on the topic, I choose not to take the TTC because I do not feel that the money that we as taxpayers and those who are riders of the TTC, are getting our money's worth and for that, I dont see why those who choose not to be bombarded with crowds of people, endure constant delays, and fear threats of transit strikes should be looked down upon. If the government wants to increase public transport usage then the government and the TTC should make the appropriate adjustments to ensure that this city's trains, buses and streetcars can handle this city's growing population, which it most definitely cannot. So before targeting those who drive, lets all look at the big picture and not be SO NARROW MINDED and remember that being bias is one thing, but picking out words from a conversation and manipulating to meet your own criteria is poor journalism."

Arif Vellani