The Dangerous Delusions of Rocco Rossi
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The Dangerous Delusions of Rocco Rossi

When Rocco Rossi, former director of the federal Liberal Party and before that CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, announced that he was running for mayor of Toronto, few of his would-be constituents had heard of him. Rossi, though active in political and business circles for years, was largely a backroom guy. He had never run for office and he had flown, by-and-large, under our collective radar.
The first and most important imperative of his campaign has therefore been to change that. News broke of Rossi’s intensions on December 11; by January 14 he had the support of 15% of decided voters according to an Angus Reid–Toronto Star poll. Until yesterday though, Rossi had not articulated much by way of a platform: he proclaimed an interest in selling off city-owned assets the day he filed his nomination papers, but hadn’t said much else.
That all changed yesterday, when Rossi spoke before the Empire Club at the Royal York Hotel.
The good news for Rossi is that he gives good speech [PDF]. He was articulate, personable, funny, and impassioned. He had the room, as the saying goes. To some degree this was no surprise: the business elites who are the Empire Club’s core demographic were by nature inclined to respond warmly to a candidate like Rossi. But the response was, perhaps, just a little bit warmer than could have been expected. Rossi is, after all, not in pole position in this campaign—that role goes to George Smitherman. The whoops with which the audience punctuated his speech made it clear that Rossi has an opening to, at minimum, keep Smitherman from having an easy time of it. Rossi is known as a master fundraiser, and though he still lacks the essential campaign foot soldiers—the ones who knock on doors and make calls and get out the vote on election day—he is expected to build up sufficient funds to prove a serious challenger. His 15% is, in short, going to grow considerably.
The bad news—whether for Rossi or for Toronto remains to be seen—is that Rossi’s platform simply does not pay heed to some very basic facts about how cities work.

Rossi outlined three key priorities for Toronto: dealing with the structural problems in the city’s budget, improving transportation, and developing a plan for future economic prosperity. Under the first priority come measures like outsourcing services such as garbage collection, under the third come plans for an economic development manager and a city-building fund focused on targeted neighbourhoods. And many of these proposals, though controversial or possibly unachievable (there are real legal questions about whether the City can outsource services such as garbage collection, given the agreements it currently has with various unions), are unsurprising centrist positions that predictably will get a good amount of play, especially in the aftermath of the city workers’ strike which has left many Torontonians much more vocally opposed to the City’s reliance on union labour.
The gravest problems with his speech—the ones which seriously call into question Rossi’s judgment—are in the second of his policy planks, the one dealing with transportation.
“Nothing captures our rising frustration more than how difficult it is to get from point A to point B in the city, by bus, bike, or car,” he said. True.
“Gridlock is choking our streets, our economy, and our quality of life.” Also true.
And how is Rossi going to remedy the situation?
Step one: slander the TTC. The ranks of people who are taking issue with the TTC, its management, and its organizational competence are swelling seemingly every day. Without question, the TTC has a great deal of work it must do before it regains many Torontonians’ trust, and without question it could and should be running a much tighter ship. However, there is a world of difference between accusations of ineptitude and accusations of willful obstructionism. Rossi spoke of the TTC’s “dogged determination to tear up our streets, sever neighbourhoods, and interrupt established shopping patterns,”—as though transit could be built without incurring the inconveniences of construction altogether, and the TTC was gleefully ripping up roadways for the sheer joy of causing disruptions. It’s an easy way out, to use the TTC as a punching bag—after all, everyone else is doing it. And, of course, Rossi is, in attacking the TTC, preemptively attacking TTC Chair Adam Giambrone, who is expected to launch his own bid for mayor sometime soon. But such comments are hardly constructive, and hardly contribute to a climate in which we can have intelligent debates about how to improve the way that transit runs.
Step two: engage in the oh-so-helpful “war on cars” rhetoric.

For too many years City Hall has been stuck in the zero-sum game that transit and biking are good and cars are bad. Cars are neither good nor bad. And until we build the first-class transit system of the future—and we will—cars are simply a necessity for many people…I spend a lot of time on my bike in the city, but as mayor I’d call a truce in the war on the car by opposing any further bike lanes on arterial roads, including Jarvis Street…common sense and safety tell me that bike lanes and arterial roads do not mix. We have to get Toronto moving again or the world will vote with its feet and go elsewhere.

To recap: we need to ease congestion, and we can do so by preserving our roadways for cars, which take up far, far more space per person on those roads than do bicycles (or pedestrians, or transit riders). Further, we need to ease the tensions which have been characterizing our transportation policy debates, and we can do so by overturning the decisions which Council has already made in this regard.
Step three: kill transit infrastructure. Rossi followed this up, in the press scrum after his speech, by saying that he would consider halting all the planned Transit City lines, except for the one which has already broken ground, and consider ripping out existing bike lanes which are on arterial roads.
How on earth these measures are supposed to ease gridlock was left entirely to the imagination.
Rossi’s rationale for possibly halting Transit City is that we don’t have the money to pay for it—that is, it conflicts with his first policy plank of “getting our fiscal house in order.” When a reporter pointed out to him that several of the Transit City lines already had funding in place, and that this funding was coming not from the City but from other levels of government, Rossi explained that this only dealt with the capital costs of building the lines out in the first place, and did not cover the operating expenses of actually running them day-to-day.
This is true, and it is a problem. But anyone who thinks that we can simultaneously cut major transit infrastructure projects, thereby making the very vexed matter of budgeting somewhat easier, and also “get Toronto moving again,” is operating in defiance of basic facts. Our roadways are a zero sum game: they are finite, and they can’t get any bigger—there are pesky things like buildings on either side of them. Since our roads can’t get any bigger, we have to make them more efficient. Cars are, by several orders of magnitude, the least efficient way we have of moving people around.
So long as we keep measuring the efficiency of our roadways by their ability to move cars around, as was done in the debate on Jarvis and as is the default position in most planning discussions in Toronto, we are going to remain hopelessly mired in increasing frustration and growing commute times. What we need—urgently, and very badly—is to measure the success of our roadways by how well they move people, not cars, and privilege the modes of transportation which are most efficient at moving the largest numbers of people. Though Rossi claimed that he would get Toronto moving, it seems that he is only interested in keeping cars moving, as much as is possible, for as long as is possible. His promise to build “a first-class transit system” was not backed by any proposals for how or when or with what money Rossi would start building it. Though he proposed building bike lanes parallel to arterial roads on quieter side streets (which the current bike plan calls for in some cases), Rossi did not have any substantive transit projects of his own to suggest, and the first-class system he is envisioning remains entirely elusive.
Rossi made great hay in his speech about the need for a longer-term planning window. He made this point specifically with regards to the City’s always-contentious operating budget, saying that it was essential to start budgeting in five- or ten-year cycles rather than a year at a time. And we entirely agree. But that same attitude must be brought to bear on all planning, including transportation planning. Ripping out existing bike lanes, not building a bike lane on Jarvis, not building Transit City lines—these things will prevent short-term inconvenience, and preserve the not-very-good status quo for a while longer. They will, in other words, temporarily avoid more potential outbreaks of frustration. But they will leave us, in five or ten years, mired in gridlock and smog and anger that is far worse than what we’re suffering from right now.
Photos from Rocco Rossi’s Facebook page.