I am an advocate and it is fine.

I am not afraid to disclose that I volunteer on an accessibility advisory committee for the TTC while remaining employed as a public servant and transportation planner with a higher level government. That potentially makes me a “special interest” advocate in a public sector position. Here, I will make a big confession. There may indeed have been instances when my volunteer experience in accessible transit influenced how I carried out my 9-5 work but I think it’s completely fine, nor am I violating any ethical code of conduct.

Being an advocate in a professional setting is obviously a double-edged sword. On one side, it enables me to be a subject matter expert on the topics close to my heart. On the other side, I can easily be criticized for being heavily biased and reluctant to acknowledge the perspectives of those with different values and experiences from mine.

Then there’s the perception that I may have a conflict of interest, given the potential for me to leverage my 9-5 job to support the interests of a publicly funded agency that I happen to volunteer with, but that doesn’t necessarily put me in a troubled situation. The Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) explicitly states in their code of conduct that “members have a “primary responsibility to define and serve the interests of the public”. Advocating for accessibility is my way of fulfilling my responsibility to serve the public interest. As well, the TTC is not my client or an investment holding. So there is absolutely no pecuniary interest from my end.

Advocacy is driven by personal values and passion. Personal values and passion are what separate the movers and shakers (ie. Leslie Knope) from your stereotypical beaurocrat counting down the days to retirement (ie. Garry Gergich). My passions are what led me to my career as a planner. Without them, I may as well have leveraged my math degree to pursue a career that pays more money. Lawyer and planning theorist Paul Davidoff argued that values are part of every planning process and that the planner isn’t solely a value-neutral technician. Davidoff also stated that advocate planners use their experience and knowledge within the field of planning to represent the ideas and needs of their comunities.

A forward-thinking profession shaped by constantly evolving technological and demographic trends needs to attract passionate people who are unhappy with the status-quo and push for progressive change. Many of these people are advocates in one way or another whether it’s for social justice, active transportation, source-water protection, a zero-carbon transportation system, etc. Without passionate individuals, planning authorities risk being trapped in a closed-minded culture resistant to change.

There is no shame in idetifying yourself as an advocate.

Image from: Advocacy Focus

Accessibility of Off-Site Work: An Addendum to my Position on Telework

In March, I made a somewhat ignorant, quasi-elitist post about the benefits of telework and the interventions that governments can make to support it. Now that I’ve had the time to reflect, I’m going to self-criticize my own thoughts. Too often, the discourse on telework comes from the narrative of your typical “white-collared” knowledge worker in the centre of an urban area. Given that as much as 12% of Ontarians live in communities unserved or underserved by broadband and the fact that many occupations cannot be done remotely, telework is clearly not a one-size-fits-all solution to keep everybody afloat during these tough times, nor is it necessarily “accessible”. One major theme that has since emerged repeatedly from the COVID-19 discussions online (ironically) is the disproportionate impact that social distancing measures are having on marginalized demographics. Even in well-connected urban areas, many front-line workers don’t have the option to work from home and are therefore faced with the daunting choice of either exposing themselves to germs while on the job or otherwise losing their income, whereas those with the luxury of working remotely can continue to pay their bills and maintain their lifestyles with minimal disruption, and children from lower-income households lacking access to online learning resources fall behind while their more affluent peers who can leverage e-learning motor ahead. Even job interviews now are conducted over GoToMeetings and I’ve seen professional conferences delivered digitally via Zoom, which means that those lacking access to the necessary technologies are now completely cut off from employment, networking and learning opportunities. The current situation further exposes the need for not just broadband internet but also the need to maintain transit operations despite reduced ridership and the need for the social safety net and emergency relief funding to get into the hands of citizens and workers. I expect that any post-pandemic government resiliency strategy be based on a holistic range of perspectives to address the needs of people from various demographics and economic sectors, not all of whom should be expected to participate in the digital universe. For some people, it may be “about the journey” after all.

"Sorry no internet today"

Telework: It’s about the destination, not the journey.

The COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity for employers to test their off-site work policies and evaluate their impact on productivity and work performance. For governments and planning authorities, it offers a window to observe the impact on travel demand and potential return on investment of government-led interventions and messaging to encourage working from home. “Telework”, “telecommuting”, “distributed work” or “remote work” refers to working from a location other than the central office at least part of the time (Source: teleworktoolkit.com). Telework helps address several common goals and priorities simultaneously including accessibility, emissions reduction, and cost savings for employers, employees and goverment.

The lack of mobility options is a barrier preventing access to employment for those in remote areas and people with disabilities. A home working arrangement enables workers to provide their own work accommodations in a familiar place with close access to caregivers and personal service workers, provided that they have access to the required equipment and technologies. Further, it allows those who are ill or immunocompromised to work in self-isolation.

Emissions Reduction
Any additional home energy consumption associated with home offices can be offset by the reduced volume of passenger vehicles idling in gridlock traffic.

Cost Savings for Employers, Employees and Governments
Employers can reduce employee turnover and absenteeism as well as office space needs while employees reduce their own spending on transportation, which costs Canadian households a total of $202.3 billion annually – second only to shelter in terms of major spending categories. Lister, et al. estimate that the annual return on investment of a federal telework progrm, if implemented effectively, would be $14 billion annually.

Governments often play a leading role in supporting telework by offering employers with toolkits and templates of corporate policies, agreement terms, employee/manager agreement applications, assessments/checklists, and various other resources. See this toolkit from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Or see the State of Oregon’s Teleworking tookit.

Planning authorities can request residential property developers to include study rooms or “wifi rooms” in floorplans, such as the one in my building, shown below. These rooms can provide teleworkers a refuge from roommates, children, pets, and other distractions at home.

Above:Wifi room at 88 Spadina Road apartment building

Additionally, government organizations have led by example by enabling their own employees to work off-site. See City of Ottawa or City of Calgary.

Translink, the transit authority in the Vancouver region, identified telework as an important component of their trip reduction strategy during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Contrarily, our very own regional transit authority in the GTHA, Metrolinx, doesn’t even have the mandate to support employers on telework due to Bill 57 enacted 2018, which reduced their madate to strictly just transit.

Refuting False Assumptions regarding Free Transit

The case for free transit (or “fare-free” as I prefer to put it) is often met with skepticism and opposition from politicians and policy wonks on the grounds that it is not financially feasible nor effective in addressing transportation planning objectives. Here are some common assumptions made by critics of fare-free transit, followed by my rebuttals, at least from a Canadian context.

It Is not financially feasible.

Most transit services in Canada are highly subsidized to begin with, given their relatively low fare recovery. For example, only about 36% of Durham Region’s transit budget is covered by fare revenue. Typically, the majority of transit funding comes from provincial or municipal contributions, whereas fare revenue tends to account for very little. As such, paying for fare-free transit is a matter of boosting these contributions that have been made for many years. As well, transit authorities can continue to generate revenue through other means like advertising and real estate.

People may start using transit for non-mobility purposes, such as shelter, thus making it less attractive to the “desired” clientele (ie. daily commuters).

If you’re a compassionate person, that’s completely fine. Everybody needs a warm place to sleep without dying of hypothermia, even if they smell a little funny! :). I would even advocate for the provision of benches at stations, just like the public parks. Consider the fact that many of us encounter homeless people on public sidewalks everyday. Does that necessarily prevent us from walking outside?

The lack of gate-keeping makes it easy for pick picketers and other criminals to enter the system, which again drives away the target demographics – literally, they may “drive” away.

Well, think of it this way: Security personnel can now watch for real crime rather than being pre-occupied chasing fare evaders.

People will ride the bus all day because they have nothing better to do.

Well, anybody who has been on a transcontinental flight or a day-long bus ride knows that it is brutal! There are only so many movies and playlists you can have on your tablet or phone. Who in their right mind would do that if they don’t have to go somewhere?

The bus will become too crowded, which will just reinforce the desire to drive in a private car.

Many Canadian jurisdictions, such as the 905 municipalities surrounding Toronto, currently have very low transit ridership, unfortunately, due to decades of low density, auto-oriented land use planning and a preference for travelling in a single-occupant vehicle. Before we even consider transit capacity, let’s first get people out of their cars.

Commuters will become too lazy to walk or cycle.

It is often assumed that active transportation and public transit are in competition with each other. However, they have been known to mutually support one another. Walking and cycling would remain important first/last mile connections regardless of the price of the fare.

What exactly is “paratransit”?

In my experience working in the transportation industry, I have heard my professional colleagues use the term “paratransit” in reference to specialized door-to-door transit services for people with disabilities, such as Wheel-Trans. At one time, I ignorantly assumed that the prefix “para” is short for “parallel”, meaning that it operates parallel to conventional transit services, much like how the Paralympics occur parallel to the “regular” Olympics. Alf Savage, the general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) between 1981 and 1987, used this erroneous way of thinking to defend the lack of accessibility at Toronto’s subway stations during his time. He said, “Can you imagine a wheelchair in the rush hour at Bloor and Yonge? That’s why we have a parallel system for disabled with WheelTrans” (Bateman, 2013).To people like Savage, there is a separate transit service for disabled people, while so-called “able-bodied” people ride the conventional system. In contrast, others have used “paratransit” as an umbrella term that includes a wider range of flexible transit services that do not operate on fixed routes or schedules. Robert Cervero (1997) defines paratransit as “a type of service which relies on small vehicles which are frequently privately owned and operated, and which may not work on a schedule.” So basically, UberPool, Bridj,and RideCo can all be considered paratransit. Likewise,Wheel-Trans is simply another first/last mile solution connecting commuters from their door to a higher order transit station. It does not give us a cop-out for failing to make conventional transit universally accessible. Fortunalely, the TTC has since come a long way. It now offers the Family of services, which encourages Wheel-Trans riders to make multi-modal trips by transferring to conventional transit services at accessible bus stops or subway stations. This more recent approach treats paratransit as a means of accessing conventional transit rather than segregating it from the rest of the system. It just puts greater importance on making our conventional transit system fully accessible pursuant to the AODA, as planned. The world has moved on from people like Alf Savage. Maybe it’s time we rethink our language too.

Note: I am cognizant that there will always be those who require door-to-door transit services due to the nature of their disabilities that prevent them from using conventional transit services without putting their safety at risk. As such, I am not in any way implying that all users of specialized door to door services should be forced to use conventional transit or Family of Services.

Bateman (2013). A brief history of the Scarborough RT. BlogTO. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.blogto.com/city/2013/07/a_brief_history_of_the_scarborough_rt/

Cervero, Robort (1997). Paratransit in America: Redefining Mass Transportation. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Press.