Some thoughts on Toronto

For those of you who may have missed an earlier post, or who are finding this blog for the first time, please be advised that there may be but few updates coming. I have moved away from my exciting and bitter eight-year relationship with Cincinnati to the more expensive and diverse city of Toronto, Ontario.

toronto the blurry

Still seen as through a cell phone, darkly.

Though having been here for several days now, I feel I should send a letter home with some initial thoughts and relevant comparisons.

  1. I don’t yet understand how bicycling works here. There seems to be much more bicycle infrastructure, and about a thousand times more cyclists, but I still find myself quite definitely on the vehicular cycling side of the debate. Cyclists here ride far to the right side of the road, and while car drivers seem very much more competent at driving near people, they can still pass extremely close to the cyclists, even while they are riding in the door-zone next to parked cars. In fact, that appears to be the norm. Perhaps people are also extremely cautious about opening their car doors? As a vehicular cyclist myself, this sort of riding absolutely terrifies me. Yet a couple times when I tried to take the lane for myself, the car behind me clearly indicated that this was not how it expected/wanted me to behave. There are also clear benefits to filtering forward on the right: cars can’t turn until the pedestrians clear the crosswalks, but bikes going straight can get ahead of the turning cars by moving with the pedestrians.
  2. Streetcar tracks are not as bad for bike tires as I thought they would be or as the ones in Cincinnati are. I think the Toronto tracks have narrower grooves and are more flush with the road.
  3. There is actual bicycle congestion here, exacerbated to be sure by the fact that cyclists generally stick to a narrow bike lane. Passing is constrained by the presence of cars on the left, so a slow rider can hold up a line of bikes for a while. Also, cyclists actually pile up at red lights! That’s not interesting so much as it is exciting, I guess.
  4. Can it be possible that Cincinnati has a slightly more modern fare payment system than Toronto?? This agency still has tokens and accepts cash fares at the point of boarding, and does not have a stored-value card1!
  5. Streetcars travel down the middle of many two lane streets and people board them by walking to the middle of the street across a lane of traffic. But the traffic is extremely well-trained and will not pass a stopped streetcar until all of the doors are closed.
  6. What’s the deal with the new streetcar designs TTC is rolling out? Are they supposed to be sexier? Flashier? To get all the “choice riders”? Hell no. They are clearly being introduced because they are larger and the smaller streetcar vehicles can get insanely crowded. There is a line in the Spadina subway station to get on the streetcar and they have to cut it off when it’s packed full. A larger vehicle…
  7. ¬†Streetcar bunching and breakdowns are a major problem as far as I can tell. TTC operates some very long routes, and since the vehicles can’t pass eachother or anything else that gets in their way, all of the cars have to turn back before the breakdown until the thing is cleared. Streetcars have their charm, but this would not be a problem with electric trolley buses.

So, I think the big lessons from the first week are that it’s possible to train car drivers to be more competent around the humans, bike lanes do NOT ever make me feel more safe, and streetcars are definitely less reliable than buses.

That’s what I got for today. Now back to working on that real-time app!

Show 1 footnote

  1. Though I hear that one is already available and working on only part of the fleet.
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Posted in: Bicycles | Investments | modes | Technology Choices
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urban interstices

Another in a series of posts that need finally to either die or exit my draft folder by publication. This one was composed sometime in the summer of 2014. -Nate


I gather myself in the presence of others though not in their company. They pass me by, a harmless goomba on their screen. Rush hour is the quietest. A thousand throbbing glimpses of privacy flash by, a thousand people I need never meet. Rarely one car breaks its windows, and like that horror movie trope, the tv speaks to me: a friend slows down to become human for a moment so quickly again gone, rushed away in the pounding surf.

A lonely mountain, perhaps, is where some simple people seek solitude but I’m too lazy for that or perhaps too near a substitute. I find my quiet in the inhumanity of the car’s deafening rage. It’s not quiet so much I seek perhaps but loneliness in labor far from home, a break in scale, flying to the super- and inevitably sub-human. The best walks aren’t what the urbanists would tell you. They’re too long, at rush hour or in the middle of the night, along highways and train tracks, hopping fences and stepping in shit. They’re death-defying, smelly, lonely, silent and loud.

I crouch beneath an underpass and no one sees me and I am alone.

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Posted in: Poetry
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Parking Pranks

Today, a trip in the WABAC machine:
A few years ago, I eagerly offered my services to a rather inauspicious but important project, important I still say though perhaps for someone with more stamina than I. I offered to lead the CUF Community Council’s effort to tackle the dreaded ‘parking problem’.

****ooooohhhh*****scary halloween noises….******oooooohhhhhh******

Lots of meetings and a couple years later, I’d met a lot of important people and ‘important people’ too, learned how the City works, and found out I had better ways to spend my time. I still actually hang out with those thicker skinned people still working at the issue though, and an exchange today last week prompted me to dig back into my parking archives and properly pass the torch.

All of this is a long wind-up to say that I rediscovered a series of photos I took that a certain tiny subset of central Cincinnati may find either extremely amusing or entirely aggravating. I intend to spoil any possible amusement by explaining the context of each photo in it’s caption.

CUF Free Parking Sign

There are dozens of things that the CUFNA board hated, but two of them were: 1. People who aren’t on the CUFNA board parking in the neighborhood and 2. Signs on telephone poles.


cant afford parking

A common complaint: “What about the poor? They might not be able to afford [trivial amount] per year.” Though of course the ‘poor’ must have cars if they are to have this concern raised rather presumptuously on their behalf, inevitably by the rich.

Tow the outsiders!

Most people like it when outsiders come to the neighborhood–look at OTR–but not these folks.


please give quarters

Please give QUARTERS.


the party hydrant

This photo is a collage of all of the things that the then CUFNA board (and the meetings’ regular curmudgeons) hated. I had to move that broken bottle to get it into the shot, but not very far ;-)


I’d have so much fun if my prop budget allowed more than cardboard, markers and string…

Also, my thanks to Tyler Catlin for modelling and for bringing some fun and prankishness into the whole discussion. I’ll never forget the night when I first presented our work to the CUF Neighborhood Association general meeting and things quickly devolved into a shouting match among the audience. At one point someone yelled “who gave you the right to speak!?”, I think to the board president, at which point Tyler replied for all to hear in a way that left the old windbag slightly flabbergasted and which of course only escalated the conflict.

It was difficult for professionalism to restrain my smile in that moment.

If anyone is interested in seeing where the process is now, Jack Martin and I are still going back and forth on parking issues between ourselves and various others at the City and in the neighborhoods. The latest thing I have is an outline of the current proposal which I’ve uploaded. I’ll let it speak for itself.

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Posted in: History
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More to come.

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Posted in: Maps | Politics | Priorities
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Why I do it

I was talking to an environmentalist recently, trying to understand why she wanted to go into environmental law. Why at the lowest level she wanted to do it…what her vision for the world was. I was dissatisfied with her answer, which was posed mostly in negative terms: less this, less that, none of the other. It was all very reactionary.

Then I realized this morning that even though it’s been clear in my head for a year or two now why I care about transit, I’d never actually put it to paper(or in this case into a MySQL database). Here it is, the drive of my work here:

I want to bring people into humane, fruitful relations with one another.

I want to address what I think are some seriously messed up power dynamics. Cars present a major unbalance of power. Cars are a constant reminder that the majority of normal people in this country every day strap themselves into a massively powerful mechanical extension of their bodies and roam the world like careless god-monsters. Unable to communicate, unable to be reasoned with or even looked in the eye, cars fill our public spaces with a stampede of frightened and frightening beasts. It’s only forcefully that I remind myself of the humanity of the people “driving” these things and I think it’s often only forcefully that they can be reminded of it themselves.

Public transit for the environment? No! To save money? I’d ride a bike.

I use public transit because when I’m inside of it people are just people and don’t have the ability to kill me with a twitch of their right ankle. The people aren’t just people. They’re persons. Sometimes we transcend mere respectful civility and get to something divine: communion. My acute sense of the wonder of shared humanity is why I’m an urban planner. Instead of people sheltering alone in their cars and their homes, working behind fences and walls, I want to create places(transit vehicles, caf√©s, street corners) where diverse people can sit next to each other, not because it appeals to some sense of justice, but because sitting together is better than sitting alone.

I want to see what humanity can do with itself if we’re all able to treat each other with true respect. I think it will be glorious.

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Posted in: Back to Basics
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