Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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Who gives a shift? You should

LATEST REPORT #1,073: In his first State of the City address Mayor Matt Brown laid out plans for an intensive public engagement exercise to develop rapid transit choices. Too bad he didn’t use this as a teaching moment for Londoners who don’t understand why this is important.

Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015 – London Ontario

Here’s what you might say about the mayor’s announcement Tuesday on rapid transit: Who gives a shift?

And that’s exactly what Matt Brown would like you to say. 

Shift. As in shift your thinking – about the way this city should grow in the future, and in particular about the way you will get around that future city.

“Western student leaders once told me that they needed better options to get to class and around the city,” Mayor Brown said during his first State of the City address at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast. 

“I agree, and it’s not just about students. It’s about all of us. It’s about getting to work, running errands, getting to appointments. It’s about getting across the city faster. It’s about creating a transit system that moves Londoners of all ages quickly and efficiently. It’s about thinking long-term. Congestion hurts our economy, our public safety, our quality of life and of our environment. We can do better.”

Well, yes, sort of. And here’s where our new mayor missed a wonderful teaching opportunity for his 365,000 citizens.

Rapid transit is but one of several solutions to fix congestion – which is not the actual problem but a symptom thereof. The real problem is that our transportation network – especially our roads, but also including public transit, bicycle paths, sidewalks and walking trails – are insufficient to meet the demands of London’s growing population, one which is spreading itself farther and farther from the centre. 

So, sometimes, we have congestion. You know, Rush Hour.

You could fix congestion by building more roads and widening others, which is very expensive. Alternatively, you could build fewer new roads but expand public transit in the hopes more people would choose the alternative, which is also expensive. 

Or you could develop land use policies that create less sprawl which in turn builds the kind of city that makes rapid transit efficient and affordable. This is still costly, but over the longer term is less expensive – by hundreds of millions of dollars – than any other alternative.

London is considering such a move, which is the heart of the much-discussed London Plan. Therefore some form of rapid transit needs to be integrated into that plan over the next few years.

What Shift represents is the beginning of the beginning of a brand new public transit system for this city, one that will reach its full potential perhaps 20 years from now. But we need to start on it now. 

Mayor Brown could have said all that and more about why rapid transit is necessary for London and maybe the 1,300 people in the audience at the Convention Centre would have had a better understanding of why this is a critical issue for city council. Instead he apparently saw it as exciting enough in and of itself. 

There were other examples of missed opportunities.

The mayors of Sarnia, St. Thomas, Stratford and Strathroy-Caradoc were in the audience, at Mayor Brown’s invitation. They got a nice round of applause as they were introduced with the throw-away line, “I’m so pleased you could join us today. London is committed to working with you to strengthen our region.”

Many in the audience might be wondering why London was making nice with its country cousins. Mayor Brown should have told them. 

London does not exist in a vacuum. It may be the largest city among the one million plus residents of southwestern Ontario, but it certainly isn’t the only one. All of us share several common issues – we’re largely forgotten by Queen’s Park and unknown by Ottawa, and we’re all losing jobs as our manufacturing base drifts away to less-expensive regimes.

For us to prosper we need to develop regional strategies to deal with these issues. We need to plan together and stand together. So Mike Bradley, Heather Jackson, Dan Mathieson and Joanne Vanderheyden should have gotten more than polite recognition. These people are, or should be, our partners in a joint quest for future prosperity. 

As the mayor said, “the number one focus for all Londoners, is jobs and the economy.” Yes, but it is also the number one focus for Sarnia, St. Thomas, Stratford and Strathroy-Caradoc. Why waste energy fighting them?

The downtown got a little mention.

“To attract the next generation of entrepreneurs, they will need access to fast, reliable internet; critical infrastructure that supports creativity and collaboration. The city, along with London Economic Development Corp. and Downtown London, are taking immediate steps to provide fibre optic connectivity in our downtown core. The long-term strategy will focus on building a connected city. We must make it easier for people in London to export their innovation to the rest of the world.”

Help me out here Mr. Mayor. Don’t most people downtown already have an internet connection? Give some examples of why this is a priority? How does it make it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop in this city?

Maybe it’s a great idea. If so, why not tell us why and how.

Mayor Brown, a teacher by training and for the next four years at least our full-time senior civic leader, surely knows the context to all this stuff. Most of the rest of us don’t. It was a missed opportunity to help us understand the difficult and often expensive choices he and his council will soon be making on the questions they face.

Shift happens. Or at least it could. But probably not without our political leaders helping us to understand why it’s important. Leadership is about far more than getting excited about shiny new toys. Mostly it’s about educating us on the best route for the road ahead. You know, like teaching.