Toronto, not Ontario premier Doug Ford, should decide for itself whether it wants a casino

The Toronto Waterfront. Image: Getty.

After the Ontario Court of Appeal recently ruled that Toronto’s recent municipal election would go ahead with 25 wards instead of 47, the province turned its attention to the city’s waterfront.

There’s speculation that Ontario premier Doug Ford has a personal interest in reviving the idea of a casino on the city’s waterfront. In 2013, when Ford was a councillor, Toronto city council rejected a downtown casino in a near-unanimous vote. Likewise, municipalities in the pre-amalgamated Toronto fiercely opposed the creation of a casino in 1997.

Renewed provincial interest in pushing the deeply unpopular idea forward may give us a hint into why the Ford government was so determined to shrink Toronto city council.

After the court’s decision was released, government House Leader Todd Smith told reporters that having a “streamlined council” would allow the government to “move forward with all of our election promises”.

This reaction should make us fear for the power of local governments not just in Ontario, but all of Canada.

Municipalities are democratic institutions

While they do not have constitutional status, Canadian municipalities are crucial democracies that are grounded in particular locales.

The Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the impact of the diminished number of wards in Toronto as merely “inconvenient” displays a lack of understanding of the way these local democracies work.

Unlike provincial and federal candidates, aspiring and elected municipal councillors must speak to voters about their streets, their community centres, development applications in their neighbourhoods. While there are many issues that matter across the city, local politics is just that: local. These local issues are often what voters want to talk about at the dinner table, at the door and on the street.

In the wake of Ontario’s Bill 5 to shrink the size of Toronto city council, Todd Smith’s comments along with casino speculation confuse the role of municipal governments. Are city councillors elected to facilitate the agenda of the province? Or are they elected to deliver on the agenda city councillors put forward to voters at the local level?


Now what?

In the City of Toronto, the answer is clear: Like all municipalities, city council is a level of government deserving of recognition and autonomy.

Many residents were disappointed the local election went forward on 22 October with 25 wards. Even so, it’s important to forge ahead and seize this moment to affirm and expand the meaning and practice of local democracy.

The complex work of municipalities is everywhere in our day-to-day lives. City governance can look chaotic and messy from the outside. But we should not mistake messiness for ineffectiveness. Indeed, much of the appearance of messiness pertains to the transparency required of municipal councils compared to provincial or federal governments.

While city councils must deliberate most issues in the open — in council chambers, or at planning meetings and community consultations — provincial cabinets meet behind closed doors, spending unknown hours or days deliberating out of public view. Even the “open” nature of debates in the Ontario legislature has been limited recently, with galleries cleared during debates over the Toronto legislation.

More mess, not less

The City of Toronto and its residents should use the new 25-ward model to push for other forms of local democratic decision-making.

Toronto city council is far from perfect. Indeed, regardless of the chaos caused by Bill 5, local governance can be galvanised through the empowerment of community councils and local planning bodies. Toronto already has four delegated community councils that make decisions and recommendations to council about a range of issues.

We can learn a lot from how the 2013 casino debate unfolded, when the Toronto-East York community council played a crucial role by examining in detail the effects on local communities regarding traffic, addiction and businesses.

There are many important issues best dealt with at the local level; hence the growing importance of local governments across Canada. On crucial issues like climate change, cities have emerged as some of the most effective actors globally.

Local governments have also been at the forefront pushing for more affordable housing and better transit.

Some argue that we should rethink Canada’s Constitution in the wake of Ford’s successful move to shrink Toronto city council. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities stated recently: “Local governments are building a more liveable, competitive Canada. We are ready to have an important conversation about greater municipal autonomy, and the tools needed to support it.”

Changes should start at home, by building strong and vibrant democratic structures in our neighbourhoods and communities.

Torontonians — not the province — should decide whether to have a casino on the city’s waterfront.

City councillors and the public were best able to speak to the consequences of a downtown casino in 2013. They still are. The key to improving city governance is to add more democracy, more openness and more messiness — not less.

The Conversation

Estair Van Wagner, Assistant Professor, York University, Canada and Alexandra Flynn, Assistant Professor of Human Geography & City Studies, University of Toronto.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.