Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Toronto Congestion Costs $3.3 Billion Annually: OECD

A recent report by the OECD found that congestion in Toronto costs $3.3 billion dollars in lost productivity every year. This problem is not unique to Toronto. The Texas Transportation Institute found that congestion costs each American commuter $750 in lost productivity and wasted fuel per year, and added nearly the equivalent of a full week of sitting in traffic every year. While the OECD recommends increased public transit funding as one part of the solution, they are also recommending the two main policy measures that free market economists tend to encourage for reducing congestion: tolling, and congestion pricing.

Toll roads are obviously familiar to Torontonians, as the city is home to one of the most successful toll roads on earth. The sale of Highway 407 generated $3.1 billion dollars for the Ontario government, and has saved taxpayers over $2 billion dollars in operating costs since 1999. Moreover, the private sectors has shelled out over $1 billion in lane extensions, lane expansions, and interchanges.

While the 407 is widely regarded as a financial success, it is easy to overlook the positive impact it has had both on reducing commute times, and on reducing carbon emissions. An independant study in York region found that using the 407 saves the average commuter 33 minutes for a 42 kilometer commute. Furthermore, the average 407 commuter emits 5 tons of c02 per year, compared with 9 tons for the average Highway 7 commuter.

Toronto has not yet attempted congestion pricing on city streets, though there are plenty of jurisdictions that the city can learn from. The most famous example is in London, where congestion pricing was introduced to downtown in February of 2003. Congestion has since decreased by 30%, and c02 emissions have decreased by 20%.

Tolling and congestion pricing are issues that could create consensus between fiscal conservatives, conservationists, and commuters. Surprisingly, and to his credit, David Miller seems to support toll roads, though Metrolinx (the regional transit agency) appears to be standing in the way of any potential expansion of toll roads. If an openly socialist mayor is willing to support toll roads, there is no reason why fiscal conservatives should demand anything less from whomever they support in the 2010 municipal election.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pirate Radio and Censorship

Richard Curtis is an average screenwriter. In many respects, Curtis represents everything that is wrong with Hollywood. Know for such deeply mediocre films as Brigit Jones Diary, and Love Actually, it is no wonder film critics were ready to pan Pirate Radio. As a film critic, I will acknowledge that Pirate Radio was no masterpiece. Chris Knight of the National Post derided the plot as "33% teen-virgin comedy, 33% '60s greatest hits and 33% Screw The Man!" This is a fairly accurate assessment. Moreover, the characters were little more than a motley collection of cliched stereotypes of the 60s. Pirate Radio is pretty average from a cinematic point of view.

While I do not typically endorse generic Hollywood movies, I actually feel compelled to do so in this case. The value of the film lays not in it's style (or lack thereof), but in it's substance. Though the story is far from true, it serves as a timely reminder of just how tumultuous the struggle for free speech has been. While the British government didn't actually ban rock music, it certainly was not beyond the realm of possibility. Recall that in 1965 the BBC refused to play the song My Generation by The Who. They went on to ban many Beatles songs in the next few years.

Though we have come a long way from banning the Beatles, music censorship is far from dead. As recently as 1990, twenty-one U.S. states introduced bills that prohibit the sale of records containing "lyrics that are violent, sexually explicit or perverse". Following the Columbine shootings in 1999, several Marilyn Manson concerts were cancelled, since he was seen as an influence on the perpetrators. Censorship is a constant threat to the music industry.

What makes Pirate Radio more important than other anti-censorship movies is that Curtis seems to acknowledge the pervasiveness of the censorship threat. It is pretty standard for such films to adopt a very triumphantalist spirit, assuming that the battle has been won. In short, they are period pieces. Pirate Radio eshewed this tendency, and consciously created a bridge to modern music with it's touching montage to the last 40 years of rock music at the end (no, this does not count as a spoiler). The stock villain of the film reminds us that if the government doesn't like something, they can make it illegal. This is as true today as it was in 1966.

While the film eshewed shades of grey in favour of the conventional good vs. evil motif, it was entirely justifiable. Every now and than it is healthy to reflect on just how fragile individual liberty is. Governments have no incentive to guard individual liberty. It is only through vigilance that we are able to guard our freedoms from over zealous legislators. It is refreshing to see a movie that unabashedly reminds us of this.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Taxis as Public Transit?

Bentonville, Arkansas, home of Walmart, has come up with an innovative strategy to solve mobility problems for low income citizens. As a town of less than 34,000, it would make little sense to invest heavily in public transit infrastructure. Instead, State Senator Kim Hendren successfully lobbied to reinstate a program that subsidizes taxi cabs. The program provides 25 $2 coupons to low income individuals to lower the cost of taxi rides. The program costs a mere $25,000. This is the kind of innovative program that small municipal governments should experiment with, rather than automatically opting for expensive conventional public transit options.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Do Edmontonians Support Light Rail Transit?

Light rail transit is becoming an increasingly popular transportation option for mid sized North American cities. There are currently more than 30 North American cities that have LRTs, and that number could easily double within the next decade. Many experts have expressed concerns over the cost and efficacy of light rail trains, though new lines have typically met very little public resistance. At the moment, the only city where opposition seems to be forming is Edmonton. A public meeting on Monday regarding a proposed light rail extension was dominated by anti-light rail sentiment. It is estimated that 47 of the 69 registered speakers at the meeting oppose the extension. One of the speakers had collected 1300 signatures on a petition against the $2 billion dollar proposal. Though it is difficult to gauge public opinion based on a single public meeting, this is the first good news for opponents of light rail in quite some time.