The following press release came our way today:
For immediate release
Nov 1 2006
Toronto ON, October 31: Glen Murray, chair of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, Dr. Alan Abelsohn of the Ontario College of Family Physicians and Gil Penalosa of Walk and Bike for Life will be joining the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (TCAT) today at a press conference to demand that the next City Council make Toronto a truly enjoyable and safe place for cycling and walking.
The press release was distributed to an elite body of journalists, typists, and massagers of keyboards of all stripes all across the august city of To-ron-to. Naturally, the ALLDERBLOB was not among that number, however we have friends in high places and so we “found out” about the TCAT launch—among other things.
The simple fact is, Margaret Wente did not answer her invitation, so it was left to the ALLDERBLOB to ask the difficult questions on her behalf.
And you heard it here first that the typist gathering, which landed with a subtle “plop” in the two-storey atrium at MEC (that’s “mountain equipment co-op” for those of you out of the loop) could be counted on the fungus of one hand: there was Jeff Gray, Toronto Global Male and Car Advertiser’s self-titled “Traffic Guru;” there were Steve Wickens and David Bruser, competing for column inches from the same paper (the Toronto Rats and Car Advertiser); there was a woman from Novae Res Urbis (yes that’s its real name, but you need a million bucks to read the damn thing), a paper which my handy translation tool gives as “If it’s in Latin, it must be important.”
There were others present, but we are not at liberty to divulge their names. Suffice it to say that Sally McKay, Steve Brearton, Rick Conroy, Paul Young, all familiar to the elite cycling set that sets the agenda within today’s city hall, along with Ron Fletcher of Toronto Bicycling Network, J.P. Warren of the Conservation Development Alliance, and someone hovering at the back, eyeballing our reporter (who had absconded with the pen provided for signing in), completed the gathering.
At the head of the room, at a longish table our pals Marty Collier, Martin Koob, and Nancy Smith-Lea bookended the three distinguished complainants mentioned above: Dr. Abelsohn, Mr. Penalosa and Mr. Murray. Marty Collier did the introductions.
However, our rest was to prove fitful, and our dreams lively.
Martin Koob interrupted our revery with his presentation of the work of the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation. We have talked about them elsewhere and will not bore you again, however it bears mentioning that TCAT has done a yeoman’s job of creating a questionaire about attitudes toward cycling and walking for the current crop of wanna-be municipal councillors, and an even better job of getting the questionnaires into the faces of the polititicians.
After Koob, first to speak was Dr. Abelsohn, who co-authored a study called “Public Health and Urban Sprawl” in 2004. The findings of that study made the startling conclusion that folks who live in sprawl are car dependent. Being car dependent makes them tend to be overweight. Being overweight leads to a host of problems including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and the need for large trucks to accommodate their large behinds. It’s a vicious circle, one which Dr. Abelsohn abbreviated by saying his prescription for the large body of patients he sees who present these characteristics is “physical exercise.” When the inevitable answer comes back that there is not enough time to get to the gym, he responds, “incorporate exercise into your daily life by walking and cycling.”
The Margaret Wente in us put up her hand at this point: “Sirrah,” she screeched, not even waiting to be recognized. “First of all, I have seen plenny fat persons on bikes. Second, why you targeting fat people? Isn’t it time to re-evaluate “fat” anyway? If, as you say, to be obese is defined as being 30 pounds over one’s ideal weight, why not get together with your physician friends and redefine the ideal weight. Wouldn’t that be a lot cheaper than building all these trails and bikelanes everywhere, things society doesn’t really need and things that drain money away from roadbuilding?”
However, the discussion went on over these clear-thinking objections.
Next up was Mr. Penalosa, who you will know as the brother of Enrique although it did not come up in discussion (we are sure they are on the best of terms). Gil Penalosa was commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation during his brother’s mayoralty in Bogotá Colombia in the late 1990s. It’s Enrique who usually gets the credit for the construction of over 170 parks, the closure of 91 km of roads each Sunday, and the development of bus transit ways to rival anything in the developed world, but it’s Gil to whom credit is apparently due.
Today Gil lives in nearby Mississauga, the sprawling city that’s seventh largest in Canada (and yet forever in the shadow of Toronto), where he’s a planner “building the city for the 21st century.” He also directs the non-profit “Walk and Bike for Life,” under whose umbrella he has served as keynote speaker at the recent Madison Wisconsin Pro-walk/pro-bike international conference, and the American Trails Symposium in Davenport, Iowa. He left the press conference today enroute to Krakow Poland, where he is to speak at the “Great Places, Great Cities” conference next week [note the project for public spaces, the organizer of this conference, is also among brother Enrique’s biggest fans–ed.].
Mr. Penalosa had barely begun speaking when our inner Wente burst out in bitter complaint about his fumbling PowerPoint dependency: “Who are you to tell me not to take cellophane calls in my SUV,” she said out loud, “when you cannot even operate a computer safely in a clean, well-lit room.” But Mr. Penalosa plodded on, heedless.
It seems he is a believer in the notion that creating walking trails, and treating cyclists as valued members of the transportation family, will truly enhance the quality of life in a city. It seems he truly believes that a city like Portland Oregon, Chicago Illinois, or Vancouver B.C.: cities that make traveling by bike and on foot safer and more pleasant; these cities will prosper even as other cities, ones that ignore the safety and comfort of the active transportation sector, will fail.
Margaret Wente slammed her foot to the ground at this point, and the whole room turned to see the source of the noise. “I want you to know,” she said, “when I puts my foot on the gas I burns calories. I want you to know I get exercise when I climb up into my truck. I want you to know I am just as active as you cyclo-fascists when I reach across to shut off the damn CBC on the radio. Look at me. Look at my butt. Tell me I’m not gorgeous. I’m in just as good shape as any of you.”
The dead silence that followed was taken by Ms. Wente as assent. You will shurely read about it in her Global Male column tomorrow.
The final speaker was Glen Murray, the former mayor of Winnipeg who today charts his own course as partner in “Navigator Ltd.” There he is leader of AuthentiCity, the cleverly named [Bricoleurbanism, Sit Down! –ed.] “full-service urban management consulting practice.”
Now, we like Mr. Murray. We were impressed with the way he spoke without notes and without fancy gadgets. We could feel his sincerity as he told us “Active Transportation is central to any solution to climate change. Cyclists and pedestrians emit no Greenhouse Gases.” We feel sure he went on to say other things that were logical, well-thought-out, and heartfelt. However, Margaret Wente at this point stood up and interrupted:
“Cyclists and pedestrians emit no Greenhouse Gases? Who you kidding? Excuse me, but since when was your exhalation pure oxygen? No, I’m sorry, I won’t shut up. Are you not an animal? Do you not breathe in air and expel carbon dioxide? Are you not aware that trees and cows are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases that the loony left believes can be eliminated by—ptui!—cycling and walking? Well excuse me for exhaling, but my carbon dioxide needs a place to go, and as far as I am concerned that’s what the atmosphere is for. As far as I am concerned you can take your Alternative Transportation and put it where the sun don’t shine. I’m outa here.”
The applause that followed, led by Wente’s colleague Jeff Gray, was taken by Margaret as approval, but it was soon drowned out by the engine roar of her silver-gray Escarole. The scent of her perfume was lost in the burnt rubber she left on the sidewalk where she’d mounted the curb in her haste to arrive on time. The yellow leaves that scattered in her wake were no more riotous than the yellow of the parking ticket she let fly in the breeze behind her.
Inside M.E.C. meanwhile, the press conference went on apace. Jeff Gray was asking questions about the cost of the proposed bike routes and walking paths called for by TCAT. Martin Koob answered with a series of roundish numbers: “Six million in 2007. Six point two million in 2008.”
Rick Conroy had a question. He asked Gil Penalosa what the difference was between Bogotá and Toronto: how was it that so much could have been accomplished in Bogotá in just three years, with substantially less money than Toronto has when it farts, when in Toronto we can’t build more than one km of bikelane a year.
We winced at the prospect of another fumbling diatribe from Penalosa, but were pleasantly surprised at his passionate response. Turns out in some people’s hands, PowerPoint is truly evil. “In a word, Leadership,” he answered. “In Bogotá we elected people who had vision, political will, and the management capability to get things done. It doesn’t have to cost millions and millions of dollars.”
The woman from Nova Res Urbis had a question, but was interrupted by Jeff Gray: “What’s it going to cost,” he said. He really wanted to know.
But then Gray had his shining moment. Not for nothing is he known as the “Traffic Guru.” He asked about the questionnaire TCAT created and presented to all candidates in the current Toronto Municipal election. He was interested in the fact that Mayor Miller’s answers, a progressive voice in city hall, were indistinguishable from Councillor Rob Ford’s answers: Ford, who never saw a Ford he didn’t want to drive. Gray asked Martin Koob: “It would be more interesting to know the thoughts of those who didn’t respond to the questionnaire: the Case Ootes’s of this city.”
A rumble of “boos” and “Anybody But Case” washed over the room like an evening breeze. And it was only noonish.
Martin Koob, who had already claimed the high ground in responding to a previous question about which candidates TCAT thought should be elected, said only “the questionnaire will show voters they have an option. There are others in Ootes’s ward who did answer the questions.” [case in point: Hamish Wilson, anyone? –ed.]
But Glen Murray was unafraid of the potential controversy. He fielded Gray’s question with panache [now hold on, there –ed.]. “The question is always the same,” he said. “How do you hold politicians accountable? Leadership isn’t just for politicians. We’ve forgotten how to be citizens. We have become consumers. But you can’t “buy” transportation choices, so voters have to make themselves heard.” He gave the example of the “twenty-two” lawn bowling aficionados who regularly sat in on city council meetings when he was mayor of Winnipeg, and ensured that nothing was done to disturb their green and pleasant lawns. “The two hundred twenty-two cyclist advocates in Toronto have to do the same in this city,” said Murray. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Or something like that, anyway.
Fact is, the press conference carried on around us, but we were fretful and suspicious by now. We really had to use the toilet, and the MEC clerk was still eyeing us, eager to retrieve his pen. Fact is, we needed a cup of good strong coffee and a tasty chocolate chip cookie. Fact is, we weren’t really there anymore, in the strict sense of the word. We heard the occasional mumble and chirp, and we think Penalosa told a funny story about how the folks in Oakville Ontario consistently supported cycling and walking in every survey, but the city translated that to new hockey arenas when budget came to crunch: organized sports have organizations making phone calls to councilors; anarchic transportation choices do not.
We aren’t sure, but we think there’s a moral here. We think TCAT is a necessary and useful “organization” to ensure that the squeaky bike wheel, and the squeak of shoe leather, are what gets the grease in Toronto in the new city administration after November 13.