26 January 2008

Toronto: "If Wishes Were Horses..."

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride, goes the old nursery saw. And, having made this city my home for my entire life, I would say that this sentiment characterizes the way planning is done in city hall here. And given that almost every case put before a council that seems to pride itself in its lack of collective grey matter is rife with wishful thinking, Toronto is awash in unintended - more correctly, un-thought-about - consequences.

The latest nonsense coming out of City Hall is courtesy of Geoff Rathbone, the city's head of solid waste management, and his Rath-bonehead plan for new garbage bins. According to an article in today's Star,
Geoff Rathbone, Toronto's director of solid waste management services, confirmed that all households are expected to start using the new [large and too heavy for a person to actually carry] bin from day one, and provided some good explanations why everyone needs to get with the program.

The city is shifting to fully automated collections, Rathbone said, in which the worker driving a garbage truck never leaves its cab. Each year, the city replaces about one-eighth of its garbage fleet, with the most recent trucks coming equipped with mechanical arms that reach out to bins waiting at curbside, he said. The arms will pick a ban up, flip it upside down and empty the contents into the back before returning it to the boulevard.

Some of the older trucks have been retrofitted with arms, which means automated collections will soon become the norm across a fairly wide area of the city, said Rathbone. But the arms can't deal with bags, he said, and the efficiencies figured into automated pickups don't allow time for drivers climbing out.
Brilliant. Plan for a fully automated garbage collection system that might work well in the suburbs. Cut back the budget so that all collection trucks have one operator/driver instead of two. Then go and try to collect trash, recyclables, and compostables in the old City of Toronto proper, with on-street parking. For half the year, cars park on one side of the street for two weeks each month, and on the other side for the other two weeks. No automated arm can negotiate around or over parked cars. And the new bins will be too large, heavy and unwieldy to be carried between parked cars, as are the current garbage receptacles. So much for time efficiencies and the theory that one driver/operator can run a garbage route.

To add insult to the inevitable injuries that will occur with these new monster bins, many homeowners in the city core simply don't have space for the extra large bins. Rathbone's solution? Use the same bin, but alternate the contents on alternate weeks - one week fill it with recyclables, and the other week fill it with trash. And what are we supposed to do with the garbage and recyclables on alternate weeks? Did someone actually try to hire Marie Antoinette for this position?

And for all areas of the city, but again, particularly affecting the narrower downtown streets, what happens when it snows? How will the average homeowner negotiate the large bins to the curb? How will the automated arms fare through plowed windrows? In the presentation given by Mr. Rathbone to council, the identified "similar programs in North America" are located in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Jose, and Vancouver. Not exactly places known for narrow streets and snowbanks. Did it occur to anyone to critically question why this sort of program only exists on the west coast, and nowhere else on the entire continent?

As with any good bureaucratic sell-job, the presentation is filled with all sorts of flawed reasoning, errors in logic, and good, old-fashioned sophistry. Perhaps the best is the "Feedback from Pilot Areas" slide, that euphemistically compares "Positive" feedback (including "easier to use," "fewer trips to the curb," and "tidier") with "Challenges" such as "difficult to navigate" and "cumbersome for seniors." Three positive points, and two "challenges" - I guess it's a go! As with all city surveys that I've seen, I expect that this one, too, was conducted under the ideal conditions to obtain the desired result, and had questions framed more like a push poll.

I stand by my earlier observations on the products of our education system.

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