Archive for January, 2008

Remember where you heard it first: No spring election

There was a plan, sort of.

The Tory candidates have been chosen, the billboards have all been rented, the secret pollsters are all secretly polling. Ken Allred’s face smiles down upon St. Albert from beside the Trail. All that remains is for the writ to drop.

But despite the media hysteria and the creaky sound of Ed Stelmach’s election machine trying to heave itself to its feet, don’t bet on there being a spring election in Alberta.

The reason? It’s those creepy ads from Alberta Building Trades Council and the Alberta Federation of Labour that whisper Ed’s got “No Plan… No Way!”

You see, they’re working.

Yeah, I know, Albertans don’t like negative advertising, yadda yadda. Just like they don’t slow down and stare when they drive past a car wreck. But have you noticed how in a couple of weeks “No Plan, No Way” has entered the Alberta lexicon? Someone ends a conversation with “No Plan, No Way” in a whispery voice and everyone in the room laughs out loud?

That’s because we all get it – the car wreck we’ve been driving past is Ed Stelmach’s attempt to run a government. Oh yeah, he’s got a plan – like, we’ll wait 20 years, then we’ll do something for the environment! You can almost hear the Tory brain trust muttering, “Yeah! That’s it!”

OK, negative ads didn’t work before. But that time the Tories had Ralph Klein as the Great Helmsman. Ralph had a plan all right. He knew where he was taking us and, now that we’re there, we’re still suffering the hangover. Albertans get that, too.

Now, last Monday, those few of us who still read newspapers woke up to headlines on the front page of the Globe and Mail that said, “Conservatives would roll to victory despite misgivings, poll says.”

“Aw hell, here we go again,” a lot of us thought before we crawled back into bed and caught another 40 winks. We didn’t even bother to read through the story, which, if we’d noticed, was hardly a ringing endorsement of Ed Stelmach’s success in government – with plenty of folks thinking the Tories have been around waaaay too long, just not really sure what to do about it.

But that poll, by the Strategic Counsel, was taken Jan. 10-13, before the No Plan ads started running.

Then those ads hit our TV screens – in heavy rotation, during prime time. (Obviously, the union groups are spending some pretty serious boodle on this effort.)

Now comes a Leger Marketing poll, published Thursday in the Edmonton Journal. This poll was taken Jan. 16-19, a couple of days after the No Plan ads began to run. If an election had been held that day, the poll concluded, 32 per cent of Albertans would have voted Conservative. “This marks a decrease of 10 per cent from Leger Marketing’s last poll in November.”

Moreover, Leger went on to report, “more than one quarter (27 per cent) of Albertans say they do not know who they would vote for, a five-point increase since the last poll.”

In other words, as soon as the ads started running, people started moving in significant numbers from the “Aw, heck, I guess I’ll vote Tory again” column to the “Don’t know” column.

I say that with a fourth, more powerful ad in the series now hitting the airwaves, this movement is going to grow, and grow significantly. This provides a huge opportunity for the opposition, and creates a huge problem for Mr. Stelmach.

I can’t prove it, of course, but I’m certain this is happening right now. You can be sure that Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives are polling like crazy. You can be just as sure the labour groups paying for the ads are doing the same thing. If their polls are saying what I’d bet they’re saying, the news is not good for Honest Ed.

And that, my friends, is because those ads ring true. Everyone in this province senses the Conservatives have been in power too long, and that their leader has no plan beyond getting re-elected and winging it from there. (Or, worse, that someone close to him has a secret plan, and they don’t dare tell us what it is!) Lots of good Conservatives, like Jim Dinning’s supporters in Calgary, are pondering the idea of just staying home on election day as they did last June in Calgary-Elbow, Ralph Klein’s old riding.

What’s the Stelmach Government’s response? I guess the plan is for their friends in business to take care of it. That may explain the Merit Contractors Association’s limp newspaper ad that makes the specious case unions should get each of their members’ approval before they buy a political advocacy ad. I’ll take that idea seriously the day public corporations start putting their political donations to a vote of their shareholders.

And I laughed out loud when I learned that the anti-union contractors’ group had teamed up with the National Citizens Coalition to pay for this salvo. This would be the same NCC – once headed by Stephen Harper – that went to court to challenge the federal government’s attempt to ban third-party political advertising! You know, like the No Plan ads…. (Who bankrolls the NCC, anyway? Surely the shareholders of public companies have a right to know if their money is being given to this shadowy group to topple NDP provincial governments, oppose public health care and so on.)

What’s Mr. Stelmach’s next move?

That depends a little on the opposition parties, of course. The AFL and the Building Trades have handed the Liberals and the NDP an opportunity. Now the parties have to do something with it – never a sure thing in this province. But if either party trots out a credible sounding plan in the next few days – you know, a plan that sounds as if it were planned – Mr. Stelmach’s position is going to be shakier still.

With the doubt growing, and the possibility of still more whispers of No Plan, No Way around the corner, I say Ed Stelmach and his advisors will get very cold feet – billboards, nomination meetings and all.

Of course, if he does, it’ll look like he had no plan. But still, that might be better than going back to the farm at Andrew.

And, hey, I could be wrong. Honest Ed may decide he has to pull the plug and call an election, for fear of looking like a guy with no plan.

But if he does, get used to hearing these words: “Premier Kevin Taft.”

Meantime, remember where you heard it first: There will be no spring election!

Public transit that works, Part III

While the idea of free public transit may seem outlandish, several mid-size communities in the industrialized world have adopted citywide zero-fare public transit.

These include:

- Chapel Hill, North Carolina
- Vail, Colorado
- Logan, Utah
- Clemson, South Carolina
- Compiegne, France
- Hasselt, Belgium
- Lubben, Germany
- Mariehamn, Finland
- Nova Gorcia, Slovenia
- Turi, Estonia
- Vitre, France

Chapel Hill, famous as the home of the University of North Carolina, and Hasselt, famous for its gin, are both cities about the size of St. Albert, with populations of 52,000 and 70,000 respectively.

Hasselt, the fourth largest city in Belgium with a surrounding metropolitan area of about 300,000, was the first city in the industrialized West to adopt this idea, in 1997.

However, the city first improved its bus system and walking and cycling infrastructure. In 1996, according to various sources on the Internet, there were only three bus routes in Hasselt with about 18,000 hours of service per year. Today, there are 11 free routes with more than 95,000 service hours a year.

On the first fare-free day, transit ridership in Hasselt increased 783 per cent. After a full year, ridership was up 900 per cent over the previous year, and by 2001 it was up 1,223 per cent. Ridership in Hasselt continues on an upward trend.

After fare-free transit was introduced in Hasselt, more than 40 per cent of people visiting local hospitals switched from automobile to bus. Likewise, well over than 30 per cent of the people going shopping switched from cars to buses. In a November 1997 survey, 16 per cent of all bus riders contacted said they had switched from automobile transport.

The Hasselt transit system cost municipal taxpayers approximately $1.9 million in 2006, the Tyee reports. This amounts to 1 per cent of the city’s municipal budget and covers about 26 per cent of the system’s total operating cost. The national government covered the rest, approximately $5.4 million, in a multi-year agreement.

However, the City of Hasselt also says the switch has saved it millions of Euros on transportation infrastructure costs. In addition, the city reported in 1998 that improved business in the downtown area had resulted in an increase in municipal revenue that in turn allowed the city to cut its business-tax rate.

Chapel Hill Transit’s fare-free public transportation service serves residents of the communities of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and the University of North Carolina.

Fare-free transit was made possible in those communities in part by a $2 million contribution to the system from the University of North Carolina, where there is strong support for reducing carbon inputs.

Chapel Hill Transit provides more than 142,000 hours of service each year with an annual budget of more than $11 million US. At the end of the 2004-2005 fiscal year, fixed route ridership was more than 5.7 million.

In addition to citywide no-fare transit, numerous cities offer zero-fare loops, lines and free transit zones as part of their regional transit systems. These include:

- Adelaide, Australia
- Ann Arbor, Michigan
- Auckland, New Zealand
- Austin, Texas
- Brisbane, Australia
- Calgary, Alberta
- Charlottesville, Virginia
- Denver, Colorado
- Dordrecht, Netherlands
- Ghent, Belgium
- Halifax, Nova Scotia
- Ipswich, England
- Leeds, England
- Manchester, England
- Melbourne, Australia
- Miami, Florida
- Perth, Australia
- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Portland, Oregon
- Reading, England
- Seattle, Washington

[Sources: AlterNet.com; Town of Chapel Hill; CNN; EcoStreet.com; FreePublicTransit.org; Marketwire.com; City of Toronto; the Tyee, an on-line newspaper published in Vancouver; University of North Carolia Chapel Hill; Wikipedia.]

A press of troubles, Part II

Not so long ago, at just about the time a lot of newspaper owners started to think seriously about selling, a few individuals, families and large companies in Canada began to get really interested in the idea of buying up a lot of media.

There had long been newspaper chains. But these new buyers saw power and profit in controlling all the media in a region, not to mention, in some cases, the ability to push their hobbyhorse economic and political causes.

This was a good thing for newspaper owners who wanted to get out of the business, but it was not particularly good for the industry. The situation gave rise to a couple of federal commissions, which of course accomplished nothing at all.

For starters, concentrated media ownership meant standardized media management. All media in the country started to look and sound more and more alike. Readers alienated, say, by one paper’s over-emphasis on far-right economic theories or a particular slant on Middle Eastern politics couldn’t find a view they agreed with, either in the pages of their own paper or those of another. This drove a few more readers away from newspapers immediately, and would drive many more to the Internet when it got around to providing niche-market alternatives.

Newspaper circulation, beset by the switch to morning publication and the emphasis on providing less news, shrank even more. (This gave rise to a weird phenomenon in which newspapers owners stopped publicizing their circulation, a hard statistic that has real meaning, and instead started calculating “readership,” an airy-fairy estimate of the number of readers who look at each copy that is sold or given away.)

Concentrated ownership tended to magnify bad ideas. With newspapers already in decline, there was now a real danger that the “solutions” the new owners proposed would make things worse, not better. And since the same old MBAs were giving the advice, guess what! Bad ideas tended to outnumber good ones. (Even some of the ones that worked, for example bathing suit girls, lowered the tone and drove away the most literate readers, who often also tended to be the most likely to spend money on advertised products.)

A few venerable dailies got amalgamated out of existence – a move that made some business sense as they were all morning newspapers now anyway. Even so, a few more beloved columnists retired, a few more journalistic voices were lost, and, inevitably, a few more readers and subscribers packed it in too.

The bean counters soon turned their attention to their papers’ news staffs, which of course don’t actually generate any revenue – although they create the reason for generating revenue. One newspaper group cut brutally, shrinking their newsrooms year after year. Others followed suit with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Shrunken news departments brought an end to “beat” coverage – where reporters specialize in covering certain topics. Every print journalist was a generalist, and therefore that much easier too fool. Not only were valuable insights lost, but readers began to suspect, often rightly, that they were getting only regurgitated press releases … and so, of course, more readers were lost.

Shrunken news departments also meant an end to local expertise on the copy desk – resulting in more mistakes, grammatical, factual and geographical – driving away still more readers. The shrinkage resulted in a switch from substantive reporting, which took time and cost money, to an overemphasis on crime and car crashes – sending readers who wanted depth and analysis elsewhere. Shrunken local news staffs increased papers’ dependence on wire copy from the Canadian Press and other news services. Often, this was excellent copy, but it was the same everywhere. Result: More readers lost.

These staffing cuts have continued right to the present, with dramatic shrinkage of news staffs taking place in newsrooms all across Canada and in Alberta as recently as the last quarter of 2007!

Lately, national newspaper chains have become enamoured of the idea of centralized production. It will cost less, the MBAs have decreed, to write and edit stories and lay out pages in a central location – say Winnipeg, Hamilton or Toronto – and ship them out to chain papers for local tweaking. Have you noticed a lot of “local” stories lately that turn out to be about people in faraway Canadian cities? This is why.

The bean counters are right, of course, about the short-term effect of this on the bottom line. The trouble is, it also affects the quality and amount of local coverage. It results in a lot of errors, because a copy editor in, say, Ottawa, can’t be expected to know the difference between Saskatchewan Drive and Alberta Avenue. You can fool some of your readers some of the time, but you can’t fool them all. So still more readers abandon ship.

And what do you think this has done to the quality of new entrants to journalism? Bright young people thinking about their futures are less likely to consider journalism than at any time in the past century. Why would they? They can make more money at the local chain coffee shop. Have more job security in retail sales! The result of this reverse investment by daily newspapers will be fewer readers down the line.

With less and less news of interest to readers, metropolitan dailies have had more and more trouble selling classified ads, once the backbone of their business. Classifieds cost a fortune in the local daily. They’re free in the weekly local bargain paper. Since there’s less reason to read the daily every day anyway, the solution is a no-brainer for advertisers. They’ve taken their business to the bargain finders. The buyers followed them over. Another reason to read daily newspapers has been lost.

Then came the Internet, where any reader in any location could find a news source more to his liking, some of them in places where good journalism is still practiced and honoured. Speaking for myself, every day I read the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times of India, the BBC Website, and several specialty news and commentary sites. All are on-line, and none cost me more than the price of my Internet service. Plus, I read my community weeklies – the Gazette and the Saint City News – in detail.

For me, about the only reason left to buy the local daily is to get Alberta and regional news. But since local daily newspapers put so little effort into covering events close to home, and since a surprising amount of Alberta coverage pops up immediately on the Globe, CBC and Star Websites, few compelling reasons are left to read, let alone subscribe to, the local metropolitan daily anywhere in Western Canada.

Remember, daily newspapers have done this to themselves. The newspaper remains a convenient format. It’s a darn sight easier to sit in a coffee shop and read a folded paper than to sit there and fiddle with a laptop. And if someone steals your paper or spills your coffee on it when your attention wanders, well, no biggie. Indeed, many of us readers prefer the newspaper format. And speaking of coffee shops, isn’t it telling that many of those international-chain shops in St. Albert sell the Globe and Mail and the New York Times to their customers, but don’t stock either of the local dailies!

Local daily newspapers could still be viable, if they provided reasonably timely news, community news we couldn’t find elsewhere, a range of commentary, and quality writing by experienced journalists. But Canadian metropolitan dailies, their owners and their editors, have made the decisions themselves that have forced us readers to seek our news elsewhere.

Can daily newspapers be saved? Maybe, but at this point I wouldn’t bet money on it. Legislation restricting concentration of ownership might help – instead we’re headed in the opposite direction. The entry of new players with a new perspective and agenda could make a difference – I’ve said for years the Canadian Labour Congress should publish a daily newspaper and help set the national news agenda. But this seems unlikely too.

Of course, maybe Canada’s exclusive club of remaining newspaper owners will admit that they’ve been getting it wrong for the past quarter century and start getting it right. All that would take is a miracle!

Bloggergate: Hard not to feel some sympathy for premier

I’m afraid I’m not much of a fan of Premier Ed Stelmach, but it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for the man in the midst of his current “Bloggergate” brouhaha.

Loyal readers of this blog will recall that not so long ago I warned about the legal dangers that face bloggers who don’t mind their defamation-law Ps and Qs. So when I got a laughter-choked call yesterday from a friend who runs in political circles about how the premier was suing a blogger, I simply assumed it was a defamation matter.

Not so. At issue is the fact that someone else – for sport or political purposes – had registered and started to use the domain name edstelmach.ca. When you click on that domain name, you’re re-directed to the Wikipedia entry for the late Premier Harry Strom.

Mr. Strom was Alberta’s last Social Credit premier, and, although a fine person, he was not really up to the job. Obviously, someone is making a point about Mr. Stelmach here.

This is probably mildly defamatory. Leastways, it can’t please Mr. Stelmach, who is surely doing his best to avoid Premier Strom’s fate. But it’s pretty clearly what you’d call a fair comment, which is a perfectly serviceable defence against a defamation suit.

Registering a Web domain name in someone else’s name is another matter, though. Should a person be able to do that? I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sit quite right with me – especially when the guy doing the registering is a former employee of another political party who pretty obviously has an axe to grind.

That said, the way the premier has handled the case illustrates again Mr. Stelmach’s political ineptitude and that of his staff. By threatening to sue a 24-year-old university student, whatever his politics and motives, Mr. Stelmach looks like a bully, and a ham-handed one at that.

Was there no one in the Premier’s office who could explain this to him? Or were they all too busy saying “Yes, Premier!” to realize that the next thing we’d see would be the student’s youthful face gazing sadly from the pages of the local daily?

Organizations that assign domain names all have dispute policies designed to deal with exactly this type of situation. The Canadian Internet Registry Association is no exception.

The premier should have tried that route first and had his staff appeal to CIRA. He could have resorted to threatening lawyers’ letters after an election.

It’s not a good sign that Premier Stelmach and his staff don’t get this.

Moreover, if I’d been the premier, I would have expected my staff, for heaven’s sake, to be enough on the ball to have registered edstelmach.ca and like variations!

Readers will be relieved to know that I’m good to go if I decide to run for premier. I registered davidclimenhaga.ca months ago.

Mind you, this raises an interesting question: What if my cousin, David Climenhaga the eye surgeon, wants to register a domain name?

Fortunately David and I get along pretty well. If need be, we can share.

A press of troubles, Part I

Another St. Albert blogger, who like me spent many years in the newspaper business, recently wrote:

“Today’s newspapers face many problems and few, if any of them really understand it. I have known for many years now that newspapers are a dying media. Readers are also tired of some single-minded editor sitting on their high horse feeding them controlled bits of information they think is good for readers. And they are tired of the pomposity of having editorial opinions stuffed down their throats like individual brussel sprouts.”

There is no doubt that the newspaper business, which for more than a century couldn’t not make money, is in big trouble. It’s also almost certainly true, as well, that most mass-market newspapers owners, editors and managers don’t know what the problem is, and haven’t got a clue in a carload what to do about it.

I am not so sure, however, that the problem is having pompous editorials stuffed down our throats like Brussels sprouts. For one thing, I like Brussels sprouts. For another, I don’t think anyone much has read a newspaper editorial, or taken one seriously, for 50 years or more. (That’s because everyone knows editorials nowadays are written by committees of employees, not by people whose opinions we have reason to pay attention to. So what the Punkydoodle Corners News thinks we should vote Social Credit? Who cares!?) Yet for at least some of that time, newspapers did fine.

Nor do I think the problem is editors selecting news for us. Indeed, many of us want a degree of selection and indexing to help us get through the daily clutter of too much information. If someone else tells me what’s important, and I trust their judgment, from my perspective that’s a good thing and not a problem. Speaking for myself, that’s why I still enjoy newspaper journalism – even if I tend to access it on-line.)

So why are newspapers in trouble?

It’s all about stupidity, I think, or at least stupid responses by smart people to a changing world.

Oddly enough, the current troubles of the Canadian newspaper industry started with worries about urban traffic.

In the 1970s, this resulted in the viral spread of the idea that metropolitan daily newspapers should all be morning papers. This is what happens when you let MBAs run your business, instead of people who know what they’re doing. This brainiac idea grew out of the correct observation that traffic on city streets was heavier mid-afternoon, when afternoon papers leave the press, than in the wee hours of the morning. Therefore, the combined brain trust of Canadian journalism concluded that it made business sense to time publication to suit the ideal circulation schedule.

This is not to say there wasn’t a place for morning newspapers in the market. That’s why most towns had already one. But there was also a reason why the principal daily in most Canadian cities was the afternoon paper. The problem with all-morning publication, which should have been obvious, was that homeowners – whose business was the backbone of the classified and consumer ad sections – didn’t change their habits and start reading the newspaper in the morning. They left it at home and read it when they returned from work, just as they always had. As a result, instead of reading news that was a few hours old when they got home, they were reading news that was more than 24 hours out of date. Surprise! Surprise! Circulation started a decline from which it has never recovered.

What’s more, where most cities used to have one morning paper, now they had two, or three, or more, competing for exactly the same market segment. Indeed, if there’s a mass-market afternoon daily left in this country, I can’t remember which one it is.

The next wound newspapers inflicted on themselves grew out of their owners’ legitimate worries about competition from broadcasters.

When I started in the newspaper industry in 1972 as a summer reporter at the still-unhyphenated Victoria Daily Times, people were worrying about what radio and TV news would do to the newspaper business. But at least they had the right idea about how to respond. The conventional wisdom of the day was that most people would now get their news first from broadcasters, but they’d get in-depth coverage from the newspaper when they got home that afternoon.

If Canadian newspapers had stuck with that formula, they’d probably be doing OK today.

Alas, as noted above, newspaper owners had all switched to morning coverage to solve a completely different problem. This made the news very stale, and deadly dull, by the time the readers who counted got around to looking at their papers. It also meant the classifieds – a major reason for reading a daily newspaper, plus a big money maker – had passed their best-before date and were therefore of far less utility to most readers.

Newspaper owners – and those MBAs again – made the problem worse by hiring consultants and polling firms to find out what was going wrong, instead of trusting their instincts and news sense. I worked in major metropolitan daily newsrooms through the 1980s and 1990s, and most rank-and-file journalists knew exactly what the problem was. But our bosses, who trusted the “experts,” had concluded that circulation was declining because busy consumers didn’t have the time to read the newspaper any more.

Funny, I always thought, these same consumers had plenty of time to read fat consumer magazines and 1,000-page novels. Just not the newspaper. I think the real problem was that Canadians are too polite. When the surveyors called, they didn’t want to say, “Sorry, I cancelled my subscription because your product is crappy, the writing is juvenile, ungrammatical and packed full of errors, and the news is more than a full day out of date.” They wanted to be polite, so they said: “Uh, sorry…. I just don’t have time…” (And, indeed, they didn’t have time … to read junk!)

As a result – and I was there, I saw it happen – newspaper owners decided stories had to be shorter, so that busy consumers would have time to read them. The result of this was that now, when consumers got home in the evening to their stale morning newspapers, there was even less information in the stories than they’d heard on the radio on the way to work that morning.

Circulation declined further.

Meanwhile, at about the same time, another bad idea began to infect the minds of large numbers of daily newspaper owners and managers. To save money, they would eliminate their newspapers’ “morgues,” or libraries of clippings, cataloged by topic. This wouldn’t be a problem, they intoned, because the morgues would be replaced with electronic records.

Reality, however, meant that there was usually no seamless switch from paper to electronic records. Decades of filed and cross-referenced news stories that were just too expensive to transfer to electronic databases were dumped, or boxed up and stuffed in a back room. Institutional Alzheimer’s set in as decades of facts went down the memory hole.

Lacking institutional memory, more mistakes made it into the newspaper. More readers were alienated. Circulation slipped again.

Finally, the brain trust decided newspapers needed to go after readers who were not traditionally newspaper readers – youth, new Canadians and the like. Nothing wrong with this in principle, but far too much effort was squandered on an effort that was doomed from Day 1. First of all, newspaper readers are readers – newspapers are a literary medium. Coverage aimed at barely literate youth chased literate readers away without appealing to a group fundamentally ill disposed to reading in any circumstance – until they bought a house. After all, nothing begets an interest in the news like paying taxes. But newspapers also neglected civic coverage at the expense of efforts to woo these unlikely new readers. As for new Canadians, they presented a better opportunity. But many had sources of news in their own communities, and were slow to respond to this pitch by an already declining industry.

The results were completely predictable. Circulation kept on falling. Newspaper owners couldn’t figure out what was going on. The smart ones started thinking about getting out of the business.

Let’s leave it there today. When I return to this topic, we’ll talk about how concentration of media ownership has made this bad situation even worse.

Public transit that works: Part II

Let’s do some blue-sky stuff: I was right, sort of, back at that all-candidates meeting in October 2007. The farther you ride on public transit, the less you should pay. And if the crowd wasn’t impressed then, well, so be it … they’ll come around eventually.

The logic of this is pretty obvious. If you use public transportation, you’re making a contribution to lower infrastructure costs, cleaner air and more livable cities. The farther you go, the more you’re helping. You should be (a) rewarded, and (b) encouraged to do it again.

But Canadian politicians can’t get past a business model for public transit that says the more you use, the more you should pay, and that letting riders travel for less than the full cost of the trip is a subsidy, and furthermore that subsidies from taxpayers’ pockets are bad.

These are often the same politicians, funnily enough, who turn around and heavily subsidize the roads and intersections used by drivers like me. (And if they use the so-called “P3” model, they also pay extra to subsidize the businesses that build the infrastructure, with absolutely no benefit to the taxpayers who provided the funds.)

Use tax dollars to subsidize a trolley rider’s fare in a streetcar in which 80 per cent of the seats are empty – BAD! Use taxes to subsidize a billion-dollar freeway for the driver of a car in which, er, 80 per cent of the seats are empty – GOOD! Would someone explain this to me, please?

Of course, in some European cities, politicians have opted for an approach that uses both a carrot and a stick, just like the farmer whose horses will soon be pulling that Hummer down the St. Albert Trail. They charge less for transit, true. But they also charge extra to drivers who take their cars into the congested hearts of their cities. Any takers here in suburbia for that idea? (If we’re not careful, it’ll come. It will be imposed on us by core city residents who resent suburbanites’ traditional opposition to subsidizing public transit, and their resistance to paying through their taxes for the inner-city infrastructure they use daily.)

Actually, I’d go farther today than I did during the election. Your fare shouldn’t be lower the farther you go, it should be free, no matter how far you go! It’s public transit, isn’t it? We pay for it with our taxes. Why should we have to pay twice?

I can hear a lot of taxpayers saying: Eeeeek! We can’t afford to do that! But, ask yourself, can we afford not to?

Remember, this is blue-sky stuff. We do need to get to a model where public transit is sustainable, and part of that story is low fares, or no fares. But we have to get there from here. And here is a place where we can’t even afford to finance Servus Place, let alone let bus riders go to Edmonton for free.

So how do we start a process in which truly sustainable and efficient public transit can be afforded by a community the size of St. Albert? I believe we should start from the premise that our community is simply too small to run an efficient public transit service into a major metropolitan area all on its own. Using our own resources, we will never have a public transit system that serves our citizens well.

As it stands, according to my family members who use the system, St. Albert Transit runs a passable commuter system for a few hours each morning and evening. But it can’t do it at a price as low as Edmonton Transit. And it can’t do it outside a few core hours. Worse, the bus system within our small city is very poor. If you want to get your kids to the store to spend their allowance, you’ll have to take them in your car.

The first step to a sustainable transit system is to admit the obvious fact that St. Albert is just too small to run its own system. Yes, I know, some oxen will be gored. But, you know what? We pay our politicians to make decisions. It’s time for St. Albert City Council to decide to negotiate a deal with Edmonton Transit that would result in lower fares and better service. (This should not mean eliminating jobs or benefits for people who work now for St. Albert Transit, by the way. Protecting our employees should be part of the negotiation process.)

As part of a metropolitan transit system capable of delivering better service at a lower cost, we could also start to experiment with ideas that might encourage transit ridership. OK, free fares aren’t going to fly just yet. But how about:

- Eliminating fares on key downtown commuter routes. Similar programs are in place in Calgary and Halifax.

- Eliminating fares on particularly crowded commuter routes, say, downtown Edmonton via St. Albert Trail. We could never do this on our own – a regional system could afford to try it.

- Free fares on smoggy days, to help decrease air pollution. It works in Windsor, and helps smoky old Detroit next door too.

Longer term, a metropolitan Edmonton transit system could be part of the push by Capital Region residents for a modern, rail-mounted transit system that works – which only the province can afford to finance.

Alberta has the money. Alberta’s urban citizens have the need. We’re stuck with a national constitution that gives very little power to municipalities. It’s pretty obvious how this is going to have to come about!

Together, we might have the clout to make it happen. On our own, we will get nowhere.

With a provincial election in the offing, maybe we should start right now by asking our provincial politicians where they stand on a light-rapid-rail line from St. Albert to Edmonton. It would cost a lot. Maybe even a helluva lot! But Alberta can afford it, thanks to that same energy crisis that is going to make it increasingly expensive to commute to and from suburban communities like St. Albert.

Public transit that works: Part I

Let me start by declaring my conflicted sentiments. I love cars. I love what quaintly used to be known as motoring. When I was the auto industry reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, I was in heaven every time I got to sit inside a new model or go through an auto assembly plant.

But driving to work has become a nasty chore, the antithesis of what I love about motoring. In fact, with the Middle East in flames and the world unquestionably running short of petroleum, I recognize that motoring culture is in big trouble. It’s a problem we’re not going to solve without public transit – clean, efficient, safe, affordable public transit.

So I just sighed and turned the page when I noticed in the Gazette that St. Albert Transit customers will, as usual, have to pay more in 2008. No need to recount the sorry details here. The way we run public transit in this city, this province and this country seems designed to guarantee that it will fail. St. Albert Transit’s latest fee increase is just another example of this mentality at work.

It is axiomatic that public transit offers huge environmental, social and infrastructure-cost benefits to society. But for these benefits to be realized, the public has to use public transport.

It’s also axiomatic that you’ll never force me or anyone else out of our cars, even at the point of a Taser. People will use public transit and make our cities safer, more civilized, less congested and less costly to maintain. But they will only do it if public transit is safe, efficient and affordable. Also, it has to run late into the evenings, and on weekends. (Example: the Toronto Transit Commission. Cheap, efficient transit. Part of why Toronto is a great city, fun to live in, easy to get around. Completely unlike, say, Edmonton, Alberta. In Toronto, even die-hard drivers like me use the TTC with a smile on their faces. Also, people who own houses along subway lines there see their property values increase dramatically.)

But if you do as we do here in Alberta and build a crappy system, and then raise the price every time you lose another dozen riders, you can be certain that it won’t be used by anyone except by the most marginalized people in society. The whole thing will spiral down from there, which is exactly what’s happening in the Edmonton area, optimistic rider surveys notwithstanding.

This is because municipal and provincial politicians with no imagination can be counted on to respond to falling ridership by raising fares and cutting service. “What else can we do?” they ask us. “The system isn’t paying for itself.” And so, here in Alberta, we’re reliving in slo-mo the Great American Streetcar Scandal – wherein a group of automobile and petroleum companies bought up the streetcar lines in numerous cities and tore up all the tracks.

In their hearts, I reckon, our politicians know that paying now for good public transit is an investment in the environment, in society, in our cities and in the future. But you can’t really blame them for not going out on a limb for good public transit – after all, their car-bound constituents are hardly screaming for it.

Indeed, I remember how during the 2007 election campaign I suggested at an all-candidates meeting that the farther you ride on public transit, the lower your fare should be. I thought this was the most original idea of the night. Maybe it was, but there were no gasps of astonishment and support. The silence in the room was eloquent.

Of course, by 2010, with gasoline prices hovering around $5 a litre and used Hummers selling for $50 to farmers with a good team of draught horses, it may be a different story. But good public transit takes time to build – especially if it runs on rails as the best systems always do. It seems to me that now, when we still have some wiggle room, would be the time to start working on a solution, not when we’re in the midst of a full-blown crisis.

Next time I raise this topic, I’ll talk about some public transit ideas we ought to consider. …