Monday, July 28, 2014Heavy Rain 18°C
City

Why the Cycling Advisory Committee should be saved

Posted by Guest Contributor / April 19, 2011

Toronto Cycling CommitteeIf you don't know what to ask for, you're never going to get what you want.

Before I became a member of of a city advisory committee, I knew what I wanted as a cyclist, but I had no idea how to ask for it at City Hall. Biking around yelling at motorists parked in the bike lane wasn't working.

I'm a big proponent of making demands of our elected officials, holding them and the staff that report to them to task; of complaining when things aren't right, and, yes, of bicycle lanes. And I sit on the soon-to-be-axed Toronto Cycling Advisory Committee, one of many on the chopping block.

Hello: My name is Tammy Thorne and my city has a democracy problem.

Active engagement of citizens is the hallmark of any great city, and many of our greatest neighbourhoods within the city of Toronto. I had to apply for the position of committee member - as I would have for any job - and was interviewed by a large all-male panel made up of staff, councillors and former committee members. I was told I was not allowed to use my notes when the questioning began. At the end of the awkward experience, I felt I had done poorly, so as I was leaving the room I said: "I just want to say, even if you don't choose me for the committee, I'll still be watching the city's every move on bikes and counting the kilometres [of bike lanes]."

At the time I was blogging for Spacing and it was not an idle 'threat.' Since then I've gone on to become even more engaged in attempts to make our great city even better. But, if I had not been chosen for the committee, my level of engagement would have been greatly diminished and the reams of information I've been able to share with community members would never have been typed and transmitted.

Along with fostering democratic engagement, the Cycling Advisory Committee serves a variety of functions. Generally, it's the best venue for regular folks to find out - and provide input to - the bike projects happening (or that could happen) in their neighbourhoods. It's also the place where cycling committee members can put motions forward suggesting new or improved infrastructure and policy to the Public Works and Infrastructure standing committee, which is then forwarded on to Council for final approval.

On a personal level, it's where I met the ever helpful bike riding police officer Hugh Smith, the Globe and Mail reporter who helped make the case for maintaining recreational trails in winter, and it's where I met local advocates who worked tirelessly to get a safer Bloor viaduct crossing for cyclists, and many others working to make the city better.

At the end of the day, the committee is made up of individuals, and being an individual member of the committee has afforded me a more official venue to help with other community initiatives and to work with BIAs, resident associations, and other advocacy groups like the Toronto Cyclists Union, 8-80 Cities and the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada.

Since the impending committee cuts were announced, it has been pointed out that some of the committees were dysfunctional. There were some nights when I felt the same thing - but I don't belief the dysfunction was due to the volunteers and citizens there to make change. We were there to provide expertise and input on our own time, at our own expense, to help make our communities a better place, and to make sure that City Staff were actually following through on infrastructure and policy recommendations in a timely manner.

Cycling TorontoStill, we were able to achieve some things in committee that a singular citizen alone would have a hard time getting traction on. With the help of the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation, we were able to have the dangerous extra set of bollards in front of the Boulevard Club on the Martin Goodman Trail removed. As mentioned above, the City is now removing snow from a portion of the lakeside trail as a result of work done in (and out) of committee. City staff also produced a State of Good Repair report for the Bikeway Network, which the committee should be allowed to follow up on.

If the committee were no longer to exist, it would make my goal of pushing for more and better year-round maintenance of all our off-road trails much more difficult. (I've got my sights set on the Don Valley trail network now - and the crosshairs aimed directly at the Mayor's office.) Indeed, many of our "victories" were the result of hard work done by other research and advocacy groups (like TCAT) beforehand.

The committee's function in these cases is to make sure that those initiatives get to council. First, motions related to bicycle infrastructure, or policy, go to the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. This standing committee is now chaired by Ford minion, Denzil Minnan-Wong, a non-cyclist who has been known to liberally use the phrase "war on the car" (see our interview with him in the upcoming May issue of dandyhorse).

Is the current Cycling Advisory Committee dysfunctional? At times. Dormant? I don't think so. Yet this is the main "reason" given for the proposed cancellation of these many citizen committees. As the new administration cuts costs in any way it deems "reasonable," it's very hard to see how eliminating citizen involvement meets their mandate. Eliminating these committees will further isolate City Hall from the citizens it is supposed to represent and respect.

Advisory committees provide an avenue for regular folks to get issues to council that are important to them, but might not be at the top of the political agenda. As a committee member I can work with staff over an extended period of time to help track projects and ensure that plans are actually implemented. Indeed, access to staff is the biggest boon of being a committee member to my mind. While some (including me) might say that keeping councillors and staff honest is our bane.

I've been working with, and as a volunteer for many years now, and I have to say it's bad business to turn away good people willing to work for you for free. It's neither respectful nor cost-effective.

So my promise to the powers that be is still the same as the day I walked out of that Cycling Committee interview room: I'll be watching you. But the really important question is will you?

Active citizenship is one of Toronto's best qualities so it makes sense to harness this resource, not put it out to pasture.

Tammy Thorne is the editor-in-chief of dandyhorse magazine, Toronto on two wheels. She is also an untethered committee member.

The Executive Committee meets tomorrow, April 20, 2011 at 9:30 a.m. (City Hall, Committee Room 1). To make a deputation at Executive Committee, contact Frances Pritchard of the City Clerk's office to register. She can be reached at 416-392-6627 or exc@toronto.ca.

Photos by Derek Flack and Martin Reis

Discussion

18 Comments

blah / April 19, 2011 at 12:34 pm
user-pic
Much ado about nothing.
Luke / April 19, 2011 at 12:38 pm
user-pic
Excellent points. Whatever the specific committee, what we're dealing with here is an administration that's doing its best to snuff out democracy at City Hall. Hell, they don't even want City Council to vote on the garbage contract. WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?
TrinTron / April 19, 2011 at 12:46 pm
user-pic
Maybe the most f-cked thing about all of this is that Doug Holyday said that these committees were being cut because they're too expensive. That's Sarah Palin-esque. I shudder at what this city will be like in 2 years.
Antony / April 19, 2011 at 01:04 pm
user-pic
"Democracy: It only happens every 4 years, so stay home and shut yer mouth"

How disappointing. On the other hand, this might channel folks into their neighborhood / BIA committees and make the case for local bike infrastructure there. Of course cross-boundary infrastructure for commuters will fall through the cracks...
Cameron / April 19, 2011 at 02:04 pm
user-pic
The only thing Sarah Palinesque about this is the injudicious use of the term "crosshairs" when speaking of office holders and their staff; though comes as no surprise coming from someone who routinely screams at motorists. Smarten up, it’s time for some civility at City institutions. Time to get rid of these hectoring dogmatists.
the lemur replying to a comment from Cameron / April 19, 2011 at 02:13 pm
user-pic
How do you know she personally 'routinely screams at motorists'?
Tammy Thorne / April 19, 2011 at 02:36 pm
user-pic
I guess I was subconsciously jacked-up on the launch of Fox news of the North (re: crosshairs).
realityCheck / April 19, 2011 at 03:19 pm
user-pic
I'll hold off on saying whether these committees are a good or bad thing or whether their mandates have been fulfilled ... But I don't think that getting rid of these committees represents the watering down of local democracy that some like to claim. In fact, I'd say that the existence of these committees gives a FEW UN-ELECTED citizens a level of influence on cityWide issues that those not on the committee don't have.
Nick replying to a comment from realityCheck / April 19, 2011 at 03:31 pm
user-pic
I disagree, realityCheck - I had issues with the way the Toronto Parking Authority placed its street pay-and-display machines (which were at times blocking pedestrian access on sidewalks when someone was obtaining a ticket), and in spite of several calls to the TPA, the reaction was zero. I contacted the Toronto Pedestrian Committee and within a couple of weeks the problem was solved. I am not a member, but at least there is one point of contact for city-wide issues. I'm not a TPC member. It totally makes sense to have such committees and increases transparency for ALL. As an alternate avenue for input by the public, I doubt my councillor would have paid any attention to the issue, especially because the case in question was not in his ward.
Antony / April 19, 2011 at 03:57 pm
user-pic
"UN-ELECTED"

How many unpaid volunteer positions with zero authority are elected? Why on earth would any normal person bother to run an election campaign to volunteer with their neighborhood committee, for example?

Democracy is not just a menu where you pick the candidates every few years. It's about your neighbors, friends, and self showing up and helping out.
Steve Munro / April 19, 2011 at 06:34 pm
user-pic
The right wing agenda, especially south of the border, is founded on the concept that people should do for themselves rather than expecting services of the government. Local involvement and activism is essential to this process, often through faith-based groups.

I suppose that this is the "right" kind of participation, and it presumes a powerless, ineffective government, exactly the sort of thing the right wingers prefer to see.

There's a reason for advisory committees, even if they seem to be full of the usual suspects -- that's a problem of selection, and often of staff "arranging" meetings at times and places inconvenient for anyone who isn't near City Hall and/or tied down to a regular job. Perish the thought we should hold meetings when and where citizens can attend!

From this built in selection bias, it's a short hop to the committees appearing to be irrelevant collections of the elite pinkos, and in the current environment, not the sort of people the administration wants to hear from.
hamish wilson / April 20, 2011 at 10:56 am
user-pic
Thanks for this Tammy, and your time and insights as a great velonteer on the Committe, and elsewhere.
I'm at City Wall right now, awaiting dep time, and while the room is full, regrettably there aren't really any folks from the last TCAC putting such excellent and robust views as yours into the public record.
It is still possible to give two cents worth in of course, via the clerk, and I suspect the Fordkers will axe the TCAC and other committees. So hopefully many people will still fuss as it is a narrow window to influence things, not that the Councill will, nor has, always listened to TCACs/TCCs.
I've also asked the province to simply mandate a cycling advisory committee for all cities above 50,000 people. Why not?
scanner / April 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm
user-pic
The objective is to create a "Presidential" Mayoralty office with as few obstructions as possible so the Mayor can "get the job done" It is not to save money. Toronto has to be open for business, which means development at any cost and everywhere. The ridiculously expensive refurbishment of Nathan Philips Square is a good case in point. By pairing with the private sector the square can be refurbished at no cost at all to the city and the loss of half the area to a tastefull 28 story condo is just the cost of doing business. Think I'm kidding? Just wait.
realityCheck / April 20, 2011 at 01:49 pm
user-pic
Nick, great to see that your story turned out that way... but there should be other ways of getting these issues addressed in a more democratic fashion ...for example through the community councils which are comprised of ELECTED councillors...rather than through committees of APPOINTED (ie NON-ELECTED citizens). I know there seems to be a lot of support for appointed committees in these comments. Funny how most people are ok with appointees when the appointees tend to advocate for things they agree with.
Dave McD / April 21, 2011 at 01:54 pm
user-pic
Dear Tammy,
I commend you for your volunteer work but your claims about democracy being under attacked are unfounded and offensive. The Committee issue is a tempest in a tea pot and has nothing to do democracy. Giving favoured access to government by granting official "committee status" to one advocacy group over another is not what democracy is about. You and your group can continue to advocate with complete democratic freedom but giving your group special status over another is not democracy but the pork barrel political favouritism typical of the arrogant Miller regime. You may not like Ford and be unhappy because you have lost your “special person” access to government but Ford was elected with a bigger mandate than Miller got in either of his elections and that is democracy.
hamish wilson / April 21, 2011 at 05:25 pm
user-pic
Yes, democracy is too under attack! We have lots of demockery, and have had lots of it, and the elected reps on both the COmmittees above Advisory Committees and the Council can and did happily ignore or adopt recommendations. But it was an entry opportunity for concerns, and many of these Advisory Committees should be retained. Please consider giving a word to your Councillor to overturn this Execute Ctte decisions.
Like do we have any plans for $2.00 litre gas?
John G. Spragge replying to a comment from Dave McD / April 22, 2011 at 10:44 pm
user-pic
The city most certainly does not give "advocacy groups" favoured status by constituting them as committees. It has created these committees to receive comments from all stakeholders on issues of importance to the city, and to pass these comments on to council, where the elected members of council vote on them. That process encourages transparency: everyone with an interest in the issue can attend the meetings and speak to the committee. With the passing of these committees, interested parties such as the Cyclists Union and TCAT (Toronto Committee for Active Transportation) will not stop working on the issues or making our case. However, we will do it by letter writing campaigns to council, and by making our case to sympathetic and undecided members of council. Discussions that used to take place at TCAC, in open meetings with all interested parties invited, will now take place in close meetings, with opportunity for only one side to have their message heard.

As a cyclist active in promoting economical, healthy and environmentally sound transportation systems, I believe the cycling community has a good case, and I believe we will prevail whether we make our case at open committee meetings or by taking our case directly to members of council. Whether or not the wider public has an opportunity to join these discussions depends on what council does next.
Bob / April 29, 2011 at 12:36 pm
user-pic
Really awkward writing style.

Add a Comment

Other Cities: Montreal