Saturday, April 26, 2014

Keeping Ontario's Roads Safe Act an important piece of legislation

Let's see if we can avoid this.
Although a spring election is expected in Ontario, it hasn’t been called yet, so the business of the Legislature goes on. One piece of business is Bill 173, also known as the Keeping Ontario’s Roads Safe Act. This bill, introduced by Infrastructure Minster Glen Murray, contains a number of measures specifically addressing the safety of active transportation. Some of these, in turn, are drawn from at least 4 separate private member’s bills that were introduced by members of all parties.
From Parkdale – High Park NDP MPP Cheri Dinovo comes a requirement that vehicles passing a bicycle leave at least a full meter of clearance. When I am cycling, I certainly don’t feel comfortable when a vehicle gets closer than that, so I think this change would be appreciated. It will also give drivers clear guidance as to how much room they should leave when passing.
Another improvement comes from a bill from Muskoka – Parry Sound PC MPP Norm Miller. It creates an explicit allowance to ride bikes on the paved shoulder of a divided roadway, as well as prohibiting vehicles (other than emergency responders or tow trucks) from driving there. This sort of has the effect of turning paved shoulders into de facto bike lanes, although a marked and signed bike lane, where possible, is even better.
There are also measures to require drivers to change lanes to pass a tow truck with lights on, suggested by Simcoe North PC MPP Garfield Dunlop, and increased fines for distracted driving, from Scarborough – Rouge River Liberal MPP Bas Balkissoon.
Another change for bikes is to explicitly allow a flashing red light at the rear, something that is cheap and effective but wasn’t anticipated when the old rules were written.
All in all, it seems like the measures in this act are sensible and warranted. Having lost my cousin Sam when his bike was struck by a vehicle in 2008, I heartily approve measures to prevent such tragedies in future. Unfortunately, politics too often get in the way.
In this case, it’s the politics of timing. Although an election is anticipated, the government has introduced a slew of new bills recently, and the Legislature simply won’t have time to study each in committee and go through all three required votes and associated debates. Some of them will certainly die on the order paper if we have a spring election. Even if we don’t, it’s not clear how many could get through the system before the Legislature rises for the summer.
Therefore, if you agree that improving road safety is a laudable goal and that this bill will help, I strongly urge you to contact your Member of Provincial Parliament, and the party leaders, and tell them to prioritize this bill. Urge them to vote for it rather than against, and not to delay it or play politics with it. Any sincere concerns should be addressed, but political gamesmanship is unacceptable. I expect the MPPs whose own measures were rolled into this will support it, but as Ms. Dinovo explained to me, they may not even get the chance if the government doesn’t keep this on the front burner.
So hold their feet to the fire! Given the ongoing low-level carnage associated with our roads, our own lives and those of our children are clearly at stake.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Friday, April 11, 2014

When feeding wildlife is fowl

Did someone mention sauce?
What’s the difference between feeding a chipmunk and feeding a goose? In Barrie, one is illegal, the other is not.
Last year the City passed a bylaw wisely banning the feeding of wildlife, with the notable exception of well-maintained backyard bird feeders, because wildlife feeding causes many problems. It attracts animals that become habituated to humans, and can then be more aggressive. Their feces on our lawns and beaches can be a health risk. And the foods people commonly throw to them –bread, crackers, popcorn – is “junk food” not suited to their nutritional needs.
But in their wisdom, Council restricted the bylaw to mammals; feeding ducks and geese is still permitted, although discouraged in parks. Yet this is one of the more problematic feeding issues. It is one thing to attract squirrels or raccoons to your backyard – you (and your immediate neighbours) will suffer the direct consequences. But feeding waterfowl at Barrie’s waterfront ends up despoiling the area for all of us who share this wonderful natural feature.
As other cities like Mississauga and Oakville have shown, you can include waterfowl among animals prohibited to feed. Doing so is probably easier to enforce, too, because squirrel-feeding usually happens at home while duck-feeding is usually done in public parks and waterways. And even if the by-law isn’t aggressively enforced, visible signage can help reduce the harms.
And the harms will become more apparent. Canada goose populations are at an all-time peak, and continue to rise. These geese thrive under human development, which actually provides more convenient spaces for them to live & eat than nature does. Their increase is most noticeable at the waterfront upon which rest so many of Barrie’s hopes for economic growth and amenity improvement. Do we want to attract more geese, and their poop, to the same place we are drawing people? Will aggressive geese and ducks make visiting the waterfront more fun?
There are even some who feel it’s such a problem that the City should start aggressively reducing the goose population. In more rural areas, hunting them is permitted but I don’t think we want guns around our lakeshore. You can also destroy eggs or nests, or try to scare geese away periodically (usually with guns or aircraft – again, not great for our waterfront), or even have the birds relocated. But none of that works in the long term if we keep attracting them by feeding them junk food.
There may be options for bird relocation the City would not have to pay for, which would be a good way to get a handle on the problem, but when it comes to dealing with nature, prevention beats a cure. We should learn to watch wildlife behaving naturally, which for geese means eating plants and seeds, not running after us to eat a scattering of human food. It’s not like there will be a sudden shortage of these common birds; they are very capable of feeding themselves and don’t need our help.
So what do you think? Should Barrie expand its bylaw to disallow feeding geese and ducks? Should we look into ways to reduce excess birds, by increasing suitable natural spaces away from the parklands maintained for human use, and trying not to attract them to the places we use? Should we be more aggressive in removing geese to other locations? As spring finally lets us return to enjoying a cherished green lakeshore whose amenity value grows with our own population, this is a conversation worth having.

An accidentally-truncated version of this was published in the Barrie Examiner as "Should we keep feeding ducks and geese at the waterfront?"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Friday, April 4, 2014

The other end of the organic pipe

As Barrie slowly increases waste diversion, with measures like every-other-week trash collection, residents must keep up. And with spring weather finally approaching, composting resumes.
In fact, I know at least 4 ways to compost. First is the traditional backyard method. Growing up, my grandparents, early adopters of neighbourhood bottle recycling, also had two compost piles: an enclosed one at their Toronto house and an open pile at their farm. From them I learned not all garbage was created equal: some went into different containers and was even a valuable resource.
I follow that tradition at my own Barrie home, where a rotating composter improves the process greatly, providing rich fertilizer for our vegetable gardens. However, backyard composting has limitations. You need yard space for it, not an option for apartment-dwellers, and you must keep it mainly to fruit & vegetable peels, because meat scraps, bones, bread, dairy or oils draw unwanted pests and spoil the composting process. You must also mix or alternate wet, rich kitchen waste (“greens”) with drier carbon (“browns”) like shredded paper, dried grass clippings or raked leaves.
On the other hand, if you have the space, you can do a lot of composting in raised garden beds in a practice known as sheet composting or lasagnagardening (named for alternating layers of mulch) which I have found a wonderful improvement on traditional backyard gardening.
But other options are available, too. One is vermicomposting: red wiggler worms in a container under the sink who eat your diced food scraps and rapidly turn them into finished humus for your plants indoors, outdoors, or on a balcony. You can get worms and other supplies from in Bradford. Vermicomposting works at home, in an apartment, or as a class project to learn about worms, soil, the nutrient cycle, and waste reduction.
Just recently I discovered another method called bokashi composting. In your special anaerobic (airtight) container, you press down each layer of food scraps and sprinkle on top bokashi (a mixture of friendly microbes, bran and molasses) so instead of rotting, your scraps get pickled. After 1-2 weeks fermenting, you bury the compost under soil in a container or garden. Bokashi eliminates odourous gasses, flies, or animal attraction and can process a much wider variety of scraps, including meat, fat, cheese, bread, fish, even bones! It becomes a rich, organic amendment to revitalize your soil, improve water penetration, and increase plant growth and yields. An expert in nearby Utopia is hosting workshops where you can learn Bokashi hands-on; visit to sign up or access e-books or email Vera at
Last but certainly not least is Barrie’s Green Bin organics program. This most closely resembles the traditional out-of-sight, out-of-mind model of trash collection, accepting the widest variety of organics, including used tissues and paper towels and various used paper or cardboard food containers, as well as any kind of actual food waste. In fact, with the notable exception of diapers and pet waste, the green bin takes just about every kind of “stinky” trash – so luckily, it still goes away every week!
Within our own average family of four we produce almost nothing that ends up in the traditional garbage can, and our consumption patterns aren’t that far outside the norm. So if you’re finding your trash can is stinky or overflowing, you can probably solve it by better learning and practicing Barrie’s various diversion programs, including one or more kinds of composting.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Reduce garbage with innovative compost methods"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation