Thursday, August 19, 2010

Critical Mass rides promoting pedal power

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner

Last month I thrilled to take part in Barrie’s first Critical Mass ride. And next Friday, I’ll be at it again – with many of you, I hope.

Critical Mass is a fun, active, family-friendly way to build confidence in cycling and awareness in the community, especially amongst drivers. Too many citizens are afraid to ride their bikes on our streets because drivers don’t pay them enough respect. Those that do ride face unacceptable risks.

Bike lanes are part of the solution, but we already spend billions of dollars building roads; why can’t we share them safely with other modes of transportation? I believe we can, and that’s what Critical Mass is about. Neither a protest nor a demonstration, it’s a celebration of cycling as a mode of community transportation.

Here’s how it works. On the last Friday of each month, participants meet at a central location and then just go for a ride together, wherever their whim takes them. Last month we had close to 100 participants, and this month we expect more. There really is nothing to match the exhilarating feeling of being part of a huge, supportive cycling group instead of facing hostile or indifferent traffic alone. Bikes fill the whole lane and spread over a block or more, and cars simply have to respect them as fellow vehicles and wait their turn. For a few short minutes, one day a month, the car is no longer king on our public streets. We, too, are traffic!

This event has special meaning for me. Almost two years ago, my cousin Sam was biking home in London from classes at Fanshawe College. While waiting to make a legal left turn, he was struck from behind by a full-speed SUV whose driver apparently didn’t notice him despite his reflectors. Bike helmets can’t protect against this kind of impact and he was killed instantly. I hadn’t ridden my bike since, until last month.

Sam’s death didn’t have to happen. Drivers need to know that cyclists are part of traffic and watch for them. Cyclists should be able to trust drivers to see and respect them. We all deserve to share the roads that we all pay to build and maintain. That’s a big part of what Critical Mass promotes. Cycling is a healthy, fun, and environmentally friendly way to travel, but it can’t catch on if we live in fear of being cut down by our fellow traffic. Cycling together lets us overcome those fears through safety in numbers, and creates the visibility to change attitudes.

On the last Friday of each month, Barrie’s Critical Mass meets at the Spirit Catcher from 5:30 pm, then hits the streets at 6 to ride joyfully for about 90 minutes. The ride is suitable for all levels of cyclist – you don’t need to be a Lance Armstrong to come along. We adjust speed to suit the participants, and try to respect the rules of the road.

I really hope to see you there.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sharing the power of knowledge a must for democracy

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Census data should be available to all"

We all know that knowledge is power. This is especially true in politics. Democracy rests on the ideal that all citizens have an equal right to influence government and decisions affecting their lives. When knowledge is distributed unfairly, we lose our equal rights.

The current debate over the census is thus an issue of democracy and fairness. The power of Statistics Canada’s output is not just that it is unbiased, but that it’s available to all. It isn’t free; businesses and even local governments have to pay for detailed info. But because the data is gathered under federal powers and covers a huge sample, it is much more reliable than what private studies provide, and at far lower cost. This information source is a real advantage for Canadian businesses and employers, and very important for good planning at all levels of government. Our future economic growth depends heavily on entrepreneurs and independent local businesses, whose access to cheap, accurate census data helps them compete against the corporate giants.

If the census database is weakened, such as by dropping the mandatory long form, this advantage fades. Instead, knowledge-power will shift to those corporations or entities with the most money to spend on private research.

Sure, there are other ways to gather similar data, such as “mining” existing databases or doing targetted studies. But each method has its own built-in biases and errors. StatsCan’s census is a yardstick, making other studies more accurate and vice versa. And using data mining is actually more intrusive into privacy than the self-filled forms, because it happens secretly and requires access to information that you expect to be held private.

Not only is census data better than privately-gathered data in this manner, it is even better than other government studies. While we are familiar with the ballooning federal deficits, fewer are aware that the government’s spending on market research and opinion surveys is also rising rapidly. Yet results of those studies, paid for with our tax dollars, are often kept hidden from us. They are for the eyes only of the ruling party, giving them significant political advantage.

With accurate census data available to all parties, at least they are on equal information footing for elections. Without it, the advantage falls to he with the deepest pockets. Right now, there is one federal political party which is the most successful at fundraising, allowing it to outspend all the rest on polling and research. That creates a feedback loop which ensures it can better spin messaging to connect with citizen voters, leading to more fundraising, research, and political power. And if you can’t guess which party it is, I’ll give you two more hints: it’s the one that currently controls “non-partisan” but secret government research, and it’s the one that is trying to weaken the census data which is now fairly available to all the other parties.

It’s not too late to tell that party how you feel about knowledge, power, and fairness in our Canadian democracy.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lacking Greens, Ontario makes many eco-missteps

(Written for the Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title "Green measures are great when properly delivered")

I’ve long observed the effect on governments of the growing Green movement. However, in the absence of elected Greens, other governing parties seem to stumble when enacting green measures.

Let’s look at Ontario. The Green Party of Ontario ran a full slate in 2007, won 8% of the vote, and almost took Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound’s “safe” Conservative seat. This surge was noticed by Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, who swiftly followed up on green election promises like banning cosmetic pesticides. He then launched several new green initiatives, the most obvious being the “Green Energy and Green Economy Act” which name-checks the g-word twice!

That Act included a number of daring but sensible measures, like voiding senseless bans on outdoor clotheslines. Most significantly, it set an above-market price for new renewable energy (solar, wind, or biomass) to jump-start Ontario’s clean energy industry and create good “green-collar” jobs. Based on successful programs overseas and suggested in the Greens’ 2007 platform (but not McGuinty’s), these higher rates seem to be working to boost solar and wind industries. But implementation of this renewable push has been inconsistent. First, the province issued a massive $7 billion no-bid contract to Korea’s Samsung. Buying more wind energy is a good policy, but bypassing our own domestic firms in the process insults our Ontario businesses who deserve at least a fair chance to compete.

Now, a recent action is undermining the launch of solar. Although the MicroFIT ("Feed-In Tariff") contract promised a fixed rate for solar until the 2011program review, the province recently announced it will prematurely cut back the rate for ground-mounted projects. Just as our Ontario solar industry was gaining a foothold, they face having the rug pulled out from under them.

Energy issues dog McGuinty, and the next is local. The province decided it needed a new natural-gas “peaker” plant, and that it must be built in the Holland Marsh. While gas plants are a part of greening our grid, it is disappointing that the province has chosen a low-efficiency single-cycle model, and even worse that they are dropping it on one of our most productive farming areas. They’ve even exempted it from review under the Planning Act, much to the chagrin of the communities being forced to host it. Actions like this stain the green cloak McGuinty is so eager to wear.

Meanwhile, the new eco-fees from Stewardship Ontario remain a disaster-in-progress. The concept of fees on polluting products is sound, but only if properly implemented. Surprises at the cash register and applying the same fees to products regardless of how ecologically harmful, they actually undermine the moral and economic effectiveness of true pollution penalties, not to mention making them politically unpopular. (More on this in a future column.)

If, like me, you support green measures by government, contact your MPP and demand that the MicroFIT promises be honoured and that the proposed Holland Marsh peaker plant have a full, proper review. Don’t quietly accept two-steps-forward-one-step-back instead of real progress toward a sustainable economy. Ontario can do better.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Follow-up action links:
  • Lots more on the foolish premature changes to the microFIT program here.
  • Campaign to save Holland Marsh from ill-considered peaker plant here.

This article was re-posted at the Green Party of Ontario site, and from there it made its way to Clear Politics.

Victory! - well, partial at least

Under pressure from the GPO and other groups, the province has decided to honour the full contract rate for anyone who had already applied for a contract under the microFIT, which means a lot of people who were facing potential losses will be able to meet their original solar investment plans.