Friday, June 17, 2011

New Music Video Highligts the Innocent Victims of the Drug War, Which Turns 40 Today

The US government spent $15 billion dollars on the War on Drugs in 2010 (nearly equivalent to Canada's entire military budget), and almost 35,000 Mexicans have been killed in Drug War related violence during the past 4 years. Here is the video for a new song by my friend Lindy Vopnfjord, which highlights some of the innocent victims of the drug war. Viewer discretion is advised.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Today, I'm coming out as a (constitutional) monarchist

Here's my latest article from C2C Journal, where I argue that the monarchy plays a small, but crucial part in our system of government that cannot be trusted to an elected office.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Can immigration save Detroit?

In my latest article at New Geography, I argue that targeted immigration should be used to stem Detroit's demographic and economic decline before it's too late. The only alternative is razing much of the city to the ground, which has already begun. The model for this already exists in a surprising place: Winnipeg.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Response to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities

The Edmonton Journal informed me that they have a strict editorial policy about printing responses to responses, which is a fair rule, so I'm posting my response to the FCM president's letter to the editor about my article about infrastructure spending here.

Here it is:

“Gridlock belongs on federal list,” May 6, 2011

I’m glad that the President of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities took my proposal to decentralize infrastructure spending seriously enough to respond. I’m also encouraged by the fact that he did not disagree in principle with the idea. However, I have two issues with his response.

First, he minimized the problem. His claim that half of infrastructure spending comes from municipalities is correct. But the debate over infrastructure spending has always been focused on capital spending, the majority of which comes from senior levels of government. In Alberta, it’s funded entirely by the province. As long as municipalities rely on higher levels of government, they’ll be forced to balance the needs of the city against political needs of senior governments. There’s no better example than Toronto’s Sheppard Subway line—a line from nowhere, to nowhere, and through nowhere. The province financed the tiny stub known as the Sheppard line by canceling the far more practical Eglinton line. Bad planning often makes good politics. Had the decision been left up to Toronto voters alone, this wouldn’t have happened.

Second, he said that if higher levels of government propose to give municipalities taxing power, the municipalities would be happy to sit down with them. The deferential tone is the problem. Unless municipalities are willing to forcefully make the case to the public that decentralization is essential, higher levels of government won’t bother with it. Federal and provincial politicians love controlling the purse strings. Having the ability to funnel money to politically important areas works out well for them. The FCM is a powerful lobby group, so there is no reason why they should hedge their bets by backing band aid solutions. The ball is in the FCMs court.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Air travelers should be weary of the NDP's de-facto airline policies

With the very real prospect on an NDP lead Federal government, Canadians who have hitherto paid little attention to the details of the party’s economic plans are now scrambling to piece together the NDP’s vision for Canada. Unfortunately, their platform is silent on many important issues. Among these issues are airline regulations, which have been a hobbyhorse for many influential New Democrats over the last few years. Canada’s airline regulations rank among the most backwards in the developed world. If statements from people like Peggy Nash, Olivia Chow, and Jim Maloway are indeed representative of the NDP’s intentions for the airline industry, Canadian travelers may be in for a shakedown under a Jack Layton government.

Three specific policies championed by the aforementioned New Democrats come to mind. First, Peggy Nash, a current CAW employee and President of the New Democratic Party, has advocated for a partial nationalization of the Air Canada, and regulations that would hamstring discount carriers. Her rational is that discount carriers flood the market with supply in order to eat away at Air Canada’s market share. Even if true, it is hard to fathom how this is a bad thing from the perspective of anyone other than a unionized airline employee. Discount carries save consumers a substantial amount of money, especially low income travelers, who might not be able to afford to fly with Air Canada. They also save businesses money, which helps make them more competitive with US companies, who have access to cheaper airfare (this is especially important for small businesses). As it is, we need more competition—foreign or otherwise—not less. Our airline policies shouldn’t be about keeping Air Canada’s unionized employees happy.

The second worrisome policy is contained in Winnipeg MP Jim Maloway’s 2009 private member’s bill, which called for the creation of a “passenger’s bill of rights” for air travellers. This included such gems as compensation of $500 per hour (after the first hour) to customers experiencing flight delays, and up to $1200 for being bumped from a flight. The four largest airlines implemented a watered down version of this bill of rights. While the intention behind this legislation was reasonable, the impact would have been devastating to the airline industry, and bad for consumers. After all, if the cost associated with delays was rendered higher than the expected revenue from many flights, the industry would reduce the number of flights. This could be devastating for companies like Porter and WestJet, where a large percentage of flights are under $500. For instance, a quick search reveals that a flight from Toronto to Chicago on April 30th (booked April 28th) would cost $60 plus tax. Porter would gross $4200 on this flight if it is filled to capacity. If this flight were to be delayed by two hours—which often happens due to circumstances beyond the control of airlines—Porter would be fined $35,000. Given that Porter operates on low margins, the loss from this one flight would be well over $30,000. It’s hard to imagine Porter operating in this environment. In other words, no more $60 airfare to Chicago (Air Canada would charge $139).

The last policy that the NDP has to answer for is their opposition to expansion of the Toronto Island airport. While this issue is specific to Toronto, the mentality behind the party’s opposition should worry air travellers throughout the country. This is the beachhead for Porter Airlines, and Olivia Chow is on record as wanting to shut it down. Her opposition stems from the not in my backyard sentiment against the airport from certain local constituents. This lobby was powerful enough to propel former Mayor David Miller to power, so it seems like a wise political move for Chow, whose riding includes the airport. When opposing airport expansion in the House of Commons, she claimed that “operating an airport is contrary to the vision of a clean, green and vibrant waterfront.” It’s hard to imagine how forcing the 700,000 plus passengers travelling through the Island Airport to instead travel all the way to Mississauga to fly via Pearson would mesh with her stated environmental goals. After all, only 7% of passengers, and 11% of employees travelling to Pearson use public transit. One valid concern she raises is that the airport is subsidized to the tune of $6 million annually. This should be addressed by shifting the burden of financing the airport to the airlines. The $45 million Porter spent on their new terminal is a great start. Nevertheless, it seems odd that Chow is so concerned about a $6 million dollar subsidy, but unfazed by the annual $400 million plus operating subsidy to the Toronto Transit Commission.

If the New Democratic Party is serious about governing, they will have to explain their positions on important issues like airline regulations. One of the reasons why the Conservative Party has been able to build a competitive national party is that they dropped many of their most controversial policy ideas when they were within striking distance of power. Will the NDP make the same prudent decision, or will they govern like an opposition party? This is the question that Jack Layton will have to answer in the closing days of the campaign.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My latest column on why the Feds shouldn't pay for infrastructure

Here is a column I was invited to write for Post Media for their series "The Real Agenda," which highlights issues that are not being focussed on during the Federal election, but should be. I argue that having senior levels of government funding infrastructure projects is bad for everyone, including the recipient municipalities.

US Air Traffic Control System Comes Under Fire, Privatized Canadian System Wins Awards

In the last few days there has been shocking news about US air traffic controllers sleeping on the job, watching movies at work, and showing up late for work. Today the issue has been exacerbated by a close call experienced by First Lady Michelle Obama.

It may come as a shock to critics on the left that while the US government's government run air traffic control system is violating safety regulations, Canada's privatized system is far more efficient, and safer.

Have a look at these two videos on privatizing air traffic control:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Canadian journalist detained in China, dissident artist nowhere to be found

While most of you are bogged down in the election campaign, I hope you can take a minute to observe what is happening in China right now. Today, Canadian journalist Bill Schiller was detained and questioned for documenting the oppression of Chinese Christians. Meanwhile, dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained last week, is nowhere to be found. I encourage you to Google his name, since Google will actually permit you to do so in Canada.

While many people will inevitably be disappointed by the outcome of our election, at least we live in a country where we don't face indefinite detainment for expressing political opinions.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Calgary transportation study, released today

I've spent a good chunk of the last few months working on a study of Calgary's light rail transit (C-Train) system, which was released today by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. I've had a long standing interest in LRT systems, and spent the summer of 2009 working for the Cascade Policy Institute in Oregon, where we compiled massive amounts of data on their world renowned LRT system as part of an ongoing project. The data (including actual field research, which proponents of the system haven't done--they rely on survey data), indicates that ridership is lower, and costs are far higher than proponents believe.

That first hand experience (which included riding the train every day), coupled with the empirical literature from light rail systems across North America, shattered my previous conviction that light rail transit can be an economical method of transit. For the record, I do believe that subways can be profitable in dense urban cores (even the badly managed TTC nearly breaks even), and buses already are profitable in many cases (especially inter-urban bus services, such as Greyhound and Megabus). Many proponents of LRT believe that it is a happy medium between subways and buses. If that were the case, it would be profitable. However, LRT combines the disadvantages of the two: it is slow, inflexible, and expensive. Numerous studies, in particular an authoritative study by the non-partisan United States Government Accountability Office, have demonstrated that on average, buses are a cheaper, faster, and more flexible than LRT for providing mass transit.

While I use many different metrics to demonstrate that the costs and benefits of LRT are wildly exaggerated, my favorite is that Calgary spends both the most on transit and the most on roads per-capita. Given that Calgary's entire land use and transportation framework for the past several decades has been built around the C-Train, it is hard to call it anything but a failure. The City has cracked down on parking so aggressively to encourage people to ride the train that there are only 0.07 parking spaces per employee in the central business district. Because of this, Calgary is tied with New York for the highest parking prices on the continent. But many of those people who would otherwise have parked downtown instead park in the free parking spots provided at C-Train stations. Not only is free parking horribly inefficient, but this also emphasizes one of the major contradictions of the C-Train: it isn't getting people out of their cars, and it isn't helping to curb urban sprawl--two of its primary goals.

Unsurprisingly, those last two findings proved controversial, though not as controversial as my assertion that the C-Train fails to help the urban poor. A columnist for the Calgary Herald wrote an angry response to my Herald article that accompanied the story (though doesn't seem to have read the study). She attempts to refute my arguments about urban sprawl, and the impact of the C-Train on the poor, while dismissing the study as "a cost-benefit analysis guaranteed to resonate with other right wingers who share the mantra of lower taxes above all else, including over the reality of everyday experience." I'm not clear on when cost-benefit analysis became a right wing concept, but I'll let that one go. I will, however, address her two criticisms in short order.

The idea that urban transit could worsen sprawl seems odd. The reason why it does so in Calgary is because the C-Train network is built on a hub and spoke model. What this means is that transit is concentrated on going from the outskirts, into the city center. Since LRT is so expensive, and since people need to be 'collected' by buses to get to LRT stations, the city has less resources to provide transit circling the core, or travelling east-west. And if you can't provide good transit for people who aren't living along LRT lines, and don't work along one of the lines, people are just going to keep moving further out (hence the highest road costs in the nation). Here's what Calgary Transit's current planning manager has to say about the C-Train's impact on sprawl:

"In one respect, it should allow Calgary to be a more compact city, but what it's done is it's actually allowed Calgary to continue to develop outward because it was so easy to get to the LRT and then get other places," says Neil McKendrick, Calgary Transit's current planning manager."

While that comment is true for those who can afford to live by LRT stations (or to drive to them), it doesn't apply to the city's poorest. As it happens, LRT lines raise the cost of adjacent housing(though for proximate high end housing it lowers the value--hardly a concern for the poor)--by $1045 for every 100 feet closer to a rail station. This isn't a terribly complicated concept. If you spend a massive amount of money on a form of transit that is considered to luxurious, the price of housing goes up. This is exacerbated by the fact that diverting transit resources to those areas makes transit there comparatively better, making it that much more desirable comparatively for people who intend to use transit at all--even as just an occasional amenity, say for going downtown on weekends. LRT is great for people who can afford to live by the stations, but not so much for anyone else.

Unfortunately, for many, light rail transit has become a sacred cow. But if Calgary is ever going to have adequate rapid transit, the City will need to explore more cost effective options. Buses may not be trendy, but expanding BRT in Calgary would dramatically improve people's mobility at a reasonable cost. Fortunately, the current Mayor has acknowledged that BRT will have to be part of the solution for making Calgary a transit friendly city. He also made the wise decision of de-prioritizing the southeast LRT extension (expected to cost $1.2-$1.8 billion). If the Mayor follows up on his promise to make BRT an integral part of Calgary Transit in the short term, the City will not only have far better transit, but it will have a chance to watch the LRT and BRT operating side by side so that the people can decide for themselves whether the the billion plus required to build the Southeast LRT is worthwhile. My bet is on BRT.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Instead of Earth Hour

Earth Hour is a great example of millions of how people can spontaneously cooperate to achieve a collective good. Unfortunately, while participants succeed in coaxing others to participate, the collective good they create is a fleeting sense of collective accomplishment. As for achieving the primary goal of the activists--reducing greenhouse gases--it completely misses the point. The most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to increase energy efficiency. Fortunately, nearly everyone has a vested interest in energy efficiency--saving money.

Does turning off the lights for an hour have a lasting impact on energy efficiency? Of course not. The real rational behind Earth Hour is to create support for legislation that they believe will reduce carbon emissions. In other words, Earth Hour is a bottom up attempt to use top down means to solve hundreds of billions of problems--namely the multitude of individual energy inefficient decisions each of us make every day. This approach is bound to fail. Declaring that carbon emissions shall be reduced doesn't have an impact unless individuals and businesses do something to reduce their carbon emissions. Diktats have far less ability to change people's behaviour than economic incentives, absent Draconian measures. In short, the best way to convince people to conserve energy is to show them that it will save them money.

So how could we leverage the co-operation of Earth Hour into an increased awareness of the individual benefits of energy conservation? I would suggest that rather than turning off the lights for an hour, the World Wildlife Foundation (organizers of the event) suggest that everyone make one improvement to their household energy efficiency during Earth Hour. This could range from replacing an old refrigerator (or at least purchasing one online during the hour) to installing an energy efficient light bulb, or installing new weatherstripping on a drafty window. Sure, it doesn't have the visual impact of having large swaths of a city fall into darkness, but it would actually have a bigger long term impact. WWF could feature an energy efficiency calculator on their site, and participants could roughly calculate their energy consumption savings, and send them on to WWF to aggregate. This way participants would still get some of the sense of accomplishment that comes along with cloaking their city in darkness. Given that WWF believes energy efficiency to be the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this would seem like the perfect way for them to get their message across.

So here is the choice: self loathing deprivation, or a celebration of human accomplishment. Given the extremely negative message the first sends to people who aren't hardcore environmentalists--that conservation requires inconvenience and sacrifice--the smart approach would be to send a positive message: energy efficiency saves you money. It lacks the feel good factor of sacrificing for the good of the planet, but at least it could have an actual impact. Like it or not, self interest almost always trumps self sacrifice. The goal should be to harness people's self interest, rather than fighting against it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Should Toronto Sell the TTC?

Eleven years ago, a British company bid $500 million to buy the TTC, and promised a 10 year fare freeze. The TTC currently loses $350 million annually. Energy Probe Research Foundation executive director Lawrence Solomon makes the case that the TTC millstone could still be turned into an asset for the city.