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Steve Lafleur: Why conservatives should be all in on bike lanes

Commentary

I’ve got a friend who lives in my old neighourhood. Let’s call him Dave. Dave is an ordinary guy. He has a wife and two young kids. He owns a townhouse near downtown Toronto. He’s doing alright in life. He pays his mortgage and his property taxes (grudgingly). He owns a car. He commutes into the financial district, though less often than before COVID. Dave’s got one big problem, though: bike lanes. Specifically, the lack of them.

Dave lives in the kind of neighbourhood where driving is usually impractical. He walks his kids to daycare, picks up groceries at the neighbourhood supermarket. He owns a car, which he mostly uses to visit his in-laws outside the city. But he does need to get around the downtown core. You’d think that would be fairly easy. It’s a reasonably compact area, and we have subway, streetcar, and bus options. The trouble is that the subway is mainly oriented to funnel people in and out of the core (as opposed to around the core), and buses and streetcars get stuck in traffic (especially with the logistical nightmare unleashed by Ontario Line construction). For a lot of trips, this leaves biking or a very long walk. So when he needs to leave the neighbourhood, he bikes.

Some friends of mine often get together on the east side of town, where I live. Dave often joins us. He can’t really come out until the kids are asleep, and by that point the streetcars are hit and miss. So he bikes. 

Toronto has reasonably accessible bike-sharing options (i.e. rentals), so he can pick up a bike near his house and drop it off near his destination. If he has a few beers, he Ubers home. The round-trip bike ride takes him less time than it takes me to get to our usual spot by a combination of transit and walking (and I’m much closer). He follows the traffic laws and uses the available infrastructure, when available, and bikes in traffic otherwise. 

Despite being cautious and responsible, he usually arrives with a story about nearly getting hit by a car. Sometimes it’s because of a negligent driver, other times because of inadequate bike infrastructure. 

I’m not as brave (or foolhardy) as Dave, so I tend not to bike in the city. I’ve only done it a handful of times. But I decided that rather than just write about secondhand experiences, I’d take a ride myself a few weeks ago. 

I settled on one of my regular spots on the east side lately. I grabbed a bike from down the street and headed out for what Google informed me would be a 23-minute bike ride.

It was a mixed bag. 

I headed north on a residential road to Dundas, one of the main arteries in the neighbourhood. Traffic is slow, no big deal. Much of Dundas was also fine since there are stretches where the bike lane is separated from traffic. But the parts that aren’t separated were a bit white knuckle. All that separated me from cars whipping through is a bit of paint, and you need to be on the lookout for car doors opening in front of you. As I travelled east, the infrastructure got less safe and the drivers got faster. The last few stretches were, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. I made it in one piece, but I’m not sure I’d make that trip again. I’ll stick to quiet residential streets and protected bike lanes.

Now, you might say that we shouldn’t subsidize people’s lifestyle choices. That’s entirely fair. But let’s circle back to Dave for a second. He lives downtown. He pays property taxes on expensive downtown property values. And he doesn’t use much infrastructure. People like Dave help keep property taxes low. He is subsidizing the rest of us. A few million dollars here and there for bike lanes is peanuts compared to what we’re spending on, say, the Gardiner Expressway, or the Ontario Line (which I might add, will mainly benefit suburban commuters). You might even say that bike lanes are fiscally conservative.  

Moreover, not everyone can afford to drive. Your Uber Eats bike delivery guy sure can’t. Even relatively senior bank employees tend not to have parking spots (Dave doesn’t have one). Owning a car and paying $35 dollars a day to park it downtown isn’t a practical solution for a four-kilometre commute from my neighbourhood, for instance. Without adequate transit options, cycling is often the best option. But it isn’t always safe.

We should think of safe bike infrastructure as a public safety issue. If we don’t have reasonable infrastructure or traffic enforcement, people like Dave are less likely to get home in one piece. We should care just as much about bike safety as we care about the safety of drivers or transit riders. Everyone deserves to get home safely.

I’m not saying we should force everyone out of their cars. But we should give people more choices. We can spare a parking lane here and there to give people the choice to get around safely by bike. It’s probably better for everyone if people like Dave get home safely at night. Bike lanes are practical and, dare I say, conservative, infrastructure. 

Sam Routley: Alberta is now a two-party province

Commentary

It’s been a week since Alberta’s provincial election and so it’s a good time to step back from the immediacy of the results and assess what they might tell us about longer-term trends in Alberta politics.

While the election produced a majority government for the United Conservative Party and Premier Danielle Smith, it was a highly-competitive two-party race rooted in a conventional Left-Right divide. As a result, even with a UCP government, the NDP was still successful in so far as they won nearly half of the popular vote—44 percent—and elected the largest opposition in the province’s history. 

Indeed, the results reflect a secular change in Alberta politics. The province has gone from a long-standing tendency towards a one-party politics to a more conventional and competitive two-party politics that reflects the standard Left-Right division that characterizes the shape of political contestation in most other provinces. Alberta exceptionalism, in short, appears to be over.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this emergent pattern contrasts with the conventional dynamics of Albertan provincial politics. Alberta has, until now, been characterized as a “one-party dominant” or even “quasi-party” system in which, rather than reflective of a back-and-forth competitive process between two or more parties, governments resemble successive dynasties. This includes, for example, the United Farmers (1921-1935), Social Credit (1935–1971), and Progressive Conservative (1971–2015) tenures in office that saw a transfer of power between parties only four times in nearly 100 years. 

This was, to some extent, a creation of the electoral system: the dominant party did not necessarily win a large portion of the popular vote as much as it competed against a very divided and unstable opposition. One academic, for example, found that up to 80 percent of the vote against the incumbent party would drift between parties over the course of multiple elections; that, while an incumbent was able to establish a solid and long-term diffuse basis of support, opposing segments frequently failed to find common cause.

 The opposition benches at the Alberta legislature were therefore always weak, as the government exploited divisions to win a disproportionate number of seats. Up until 2015, it was common for upwards of 90 percent of the benches to be occupied by government MLAs. 

While most dominant parties could be characterized as centre-right, many of the province’s most successful premiers, like Ernest Manning and Peter Lougheed, eschewed political ideology in favour of more moderate, technocratic administration that featured both incredibly high state expenditures and natural resource development. Ideological contestation, for where it was found, was not characterized by Right versus Left, as much as it was about a cyclical anti-establishmentarian dynamic. 

In this unique political context, the premier and his Cabinet tended to be worn down by incumbency and internal pushback from some upstart or neglected faction within his own political constituency rather a rival opposition party. This was most notably seen through the rise of Ralph Klein who, in defeating rival (and future Liberal leader) Nancy MacBeth for the premiership, immediately undid much of the policy legacy of his own party. 

This dominant party structure, in retrospect, appears to have started its decline following the departure of Ralph Klein when, following a string of unsuccessful successors in Ed Stelmach and Allision Redford, the PC’s lost their pre-eminence to an insurgent Wildrose and stable NDP. And, while the UCP’s unification and 2019 victory appeared to promise a return, the party and its leaders have been unable to accomplish the same support among the public as their predecessors. 

From one perspective, this trend towards stable two-party competition was to be expected. The conventional scholarly wisdom is that majoritarian electoral systems incentivize consolidation among the Left and the Right, meaning that both an established governing party and a fragmented opposition is not supposed to happen. 

Thus, most attempts to explain Alberta’s exceptionalism have focused on what makes the province unique. C.B. Macpherson, for example, famously argued in 1953 that Albertan’s predominant economic function and class consciousness as a “quasi-colonial” source of extractive resources for Central Canadian capital did not produce the need for political parties. 

Macpherson was criticized for overemphasizing the homogeneity of the province’s population, but his approach survived through the notion of the “Alberta consensus”: that, on the provincial level, Alberta’s reliance on natural resources and disaffection from the federal government formed a common interest or basis of identity that allowed residents to put their personal differences or interest aside. 

Historically, for example, Albertans were always among the Canadians most likely to identify with their province or local community above Canada. Their rates of volunteerism and grassroots civic participation are high above the average, indicating a general community cohesion. And, both popular and scholarly accounts have further sought to explain the success of right-wing governments by exploring the extent to which the province is structured by a loose populist conservative ethos. Nelson Wiseman and Jared Wesley, for example, have both analyzed public discourse to argue that the province’s debates are oriented around freedom, personality responsibility, and anti-socialism. 

However, recent public opinion data shows that a number of these elements are declining. Not only are Albertan residents becoming more likely to identify with Canada, but they are actually not that conservative; rather, they support relatively high spending on health care, poverty alleviation, the environment, and anti-discrimination initiatives. The same applies to the same issues themselves, in so far as—instead of caring about Alberta’s overall well-being in the Canadian federation—residents appear to care more about immediate issues around health care, the economy, and affordability. 

This year’s election results point to a gradual change that Alberta has undergone for quite some time: it is becoming more like the rest of Canada and even losing its distinctiveness. Rather than between the province and the rest of the country, Alberta’s importance differences are now internal. Calgary and Edmonton now resemble Toronto, attracting both high numbers of young urban professionals and immigrants born outside of the province. They have become among the most diverse, cosmopolitan, progressive—but also increasingly unaffordable—cities in North America. Rural areas, in contrast, retain their old conditions and rely on natural resource developments for their economic success; residents continue to be predominately older, of European descent, and more religious. 

This has not only produced a more competitive party system, but it will provide the foundation for one into the future. It will mean that immediate elections will be close: the UCP will control rural areas, NDP will control the urban, and the suburbs will decide the winner of the election. It may also entail that, while surviving among some conservative voters, appeals to Western alienation may continue to become less successful at mobilizing support among more centrist or undecided voters.

And it could continue the pathway, as with the rest of Canada, towards further polarization among partisan and geographical lines. Alberta’s mythology as the “last best west” has been replaced by an ever-growing city.