Category Archives: Toronto

Toronto’s Zerofootprint effort

I want to like the element of inter-city competition Toronto Mayor David Miller is promoting with his “Zerofootprint” project. The City of Toronto is working with a nonprofit company running a system that’ll let interested citizens sign up, track their pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions in some detail, and ultimately compare their collective environmental virtue against people in other cities.

Also, somewhat more creepily, they’re working with an outfit called Business Objects, a for-profit, to mine the data the project generates and, I guess, formulate environmental policy that takes advantage of what they learn.

From the Toronto Star:

On the website, residents will be able to link with others to make such lifestyle changes as setting up carpools and, ultimately, to vie with other cities.Miller called the Zerofootprint Toronto initiative “exciting, innovative and, frankly, pretty cool. It’s a project that is destined to make Toronto a leader in the citizen-based fight against climate change.”

The program – a peek can be seen at http://www.zerofootprinttoronto.org – has a “calculator” that allows users to understand what effect they’re having on the environment, said Business Objects founder and chairman Bernard Liautaud.

“Individual engagement is crucial,” he said. “People don’t know what impact they would have by turning off their computer, but this will enable them to know. You could call it the power of millions.”

This is different from the One Tonne Challenge how, exactly?

Oh, it’s a social-networking site, too:

Liautaud said the site will be “like YouTube, or a green Facebook.”

I realize Liautaud was generalizing for a general audience, but being “like YouTube, or a green Facebook” isn’t a business plan. Those are two very different services that don’t, frankly, have a lot in common, and a lot of businesses want to be like them and fail. They already exist and own their niches — Zerofootprint’s thing will have to be unique and provide would-be users with something they didn’t realize they needed and can’t get somewhere else, better. Instead of being “like YouTube,” a much more likely fate is being “like Friendster” or “like Orkut” — they have their niches, but haven’t changed the world.

Or “like Commuter Challenge,” which is a nice idea to encourage people to walk or bike or bus instead of driving for a week in June that asks participants to record their distances travelled by various means of transportation. Workplaces and municipalities and whatnot “compete,” but I wouldn’t say the nation’s imagination is exactly seized. The winners are usually prosperous companies with strategic advantages, such as easily accessible physical locations. Even I forgot to record my biking miles last year.

But let’s look on the bright side.

  • This is, apparently, a good-faith effort to try something creative and trust that citizens, given appropriate and accurate information, will act on it. Showing people the consequences of their own choices is the vital first step in convincing them they’re contributors to a problem, and is much better than simply bossing them around.
  • An established, trustworthy system for setting up carpools and community-garden groups and whatnot would be a good thing, though if there’s a crying need for it the government shouldn’t have to pay for it.
  • Mining data supplied by voluntary participants (with due privacy controls) could help politicians and officials design better policies, provided they remember the group supplying the data is self-selected.

If the thing really, really works, government officials could be setting themselves up for some difficult times, facing competitive citizens angry that they’ve made poor environmental decisions on the city’s behalf, if those are reflected in civic emissions calculations. That could be fun.

Power-sucking advertising in downtown Toronto

Proposed Toronto information pillarThe Toronto Public Space Committee is maybe a little bit radical but extremely effective in drawing attention to abuses of that city’s sidewalks, streets and public squares. Every city should have a group that smart and dedicated about keeping publicly funded spaces in proper public use.

The committee is quoted at Spacing Wire today savaging (PDF) the City of Toronto’s choice of a new supplier of street furniture — benches and bus shelters and so on.

“Under this plan, every square foot of advertising currently on a garbage bin or bench would be transferred to a bus shelter or an ‘information pillar,’ more than doubling the amount of illuminated, eye-level advertising that is perpendicular to the sidewalk and making a mockery of Toronto’s environmental ambitions. Shelters need illumination, but regular shelter lights (such as those used in shelters that don’t have advertising) can be powered with solar energy; when ads need to be illuminated, however, the only option is to hook the shelters up to the grid. With ‘street furniture coordination’ Toronto had the opportunity to not only decrease advertising but also to conserve massive amounts of energy — but instead the City wants to double the power being used solely to light up ads. The new program proposes 4,652 more bus shelters ads’ worth of lighting!”

If true, this is appalling. I don’t object to advertising on public property, within reason, but downtown Toronto is practically a crisis zone for electricity, with the transmission grid jammed to the limit on hot summer days. Two years ago, Ontario’s government-sponsored Independent Electricity System Operator warned (PDF):

Under fault conditions, the present transmission facilities in Toronto would be barely adequate to supply the load on hot days. Completion of the John-to-Esplanade Link in Fall 2007 will provide some relief. However, it is vitally important that additional generation capacity be located within the downtown area within the next two to three years. In the absence of new generation, as well as demand-side initiatives, it is expected that rotational power outages will be required during peak load periods whenever equipment is unavailable.

In other words, the system can handle the load provided nothing whatsoever goes wrong, but there’s no spare capacity and with population growth, things are getting worse. The city government ought to be extremely careful about even risking aggravating the situation further.

Starting with the easy stuff

Howard Moscoe headshotI haven’t said anything about the ambitious greenhouse-gas–reduction plan (PDF) the City of Toronto emitted last week, but Councillor Howard Moscoe, unusually, seems to have it exactly right:

“We’re at the warm and fuzzy stage,” noted Councillor Howard Moscoe (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence). “Everyone likes to plant trees and save money by energy retro-fitting.

“But when you get to the tough decisions … that basically say to people, `You can’t bring your car downtown any more or you’re going to have to pay’ … that’s when the going gets tough. And that’s when politicians start bailing out.”

There are a lot of targets in the graphics-heavy document, very few proposed methods. My favourite is the one that’s simply, “Implement Transit City plan.” That’s the $2.4-billion plan for a network of light-rail lines for which the city has no funding, no detailed scoping or environmental assessments, really nothing more than a bunch of red lines on a map.

Gloria Lindsay Luby headshotCouncillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, incidentally, strikes me as a menace:

Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, who also voted for the report, said she was driving to work yesterday and listening to callers to a radio station who were complaining about how wrong forecasters were about the weekend temperatures.

“The weatherman can’t predict the weather for the weekend, yet we’re going to predict it for the next century,” she said. “It’s kind of interesting, when you think about it.”

Not only has she not been paying attention to the public debate, but she’s drawn to the very dumbest argument on either side.