Archive for the ‘toronto’ Category

I attended a meeting tonight called “Our Future King” at Innis Hall, presented by the Pembina Institute, the Pembina Foundation and the City of Toronto, and sponsored by the Metcalf Foundation. No, this wasn’t about Charles or William: rather, the future of King Street, our busy transit corridor through downtown and beyond.

These are my notes from the meeting, mostly done live so not much in the way of analysis or commentary, just capturing what I heard.

City councillor Gord Perks opened the evening with comments on how we need to think about our city services to make changes to make things better: both big things and small things. Cars are the least efficient way to move people around the downtown, and people in Toronto are choosing other methods, including transit, walking and cycling. Tonight, we’re here to talk about King Street, Toronto’s busiest surface transit corridor: it’s dysfunctional as it is (IMO), and needs some bold new thinking to make it work for all of Toronto.

We heard presentations from six people who have quite a few ideas about what can be done to transform King Street, starting with Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for city of Toronto, who asked how we can make the most of our streetcar system and the King Street corridor. Streetcars are a critical part of our character as a city, but also a clean, quiet and efficient way to move people around. It’s the largest streetcar network in North America in terms of ridership and track length, and moves almost as many people each day as the GO commuter train network. King Street, as the busiest of these transit lines with 65,000 passengers per day, cuts right through our largest concentration of jobs: the financial district, the entertainment district, Liberty Village and the Distillery District. In the last 10 years, the population around King Street from Liberty to Distillery has gone crazy due to condo building, to the point where there is a current consideration to split some city wards to better represent these ares. This is our opportunity to transform how to move along and interact with the 6km of King Street from Garrison Common to the Don River, and that’s the point of the King Street visioning study that is launching today. We can learn from other cities who have undertaking similar areas, such as Melbourne, but also from areas in Toronto that have undergone transformation such as Roncesvalles. The plan is to roll out pilots beginning in 2017 where designs can be tried out and studied, collecting community feedback through a variety of channels.

Andy Byford, CEO of the TTC, discussed the challenges of transit in Toronto when we haven’t had the budget or mandate for expanding the modes of transportation that we really need: streetcars in downtown, but in a car-free environment either on dedicated rights-of-way or on streets where cars have been completely removed. The idea of removing cars from King is a key thought running through this visioning exercise, and I suspect that we’ll be seeing a removal of at least some of the car traffic from King in the pilot next year. Byford talked about what they’re doing to improve transit service, from better scheduling, to more on-street supervisors to avoid bunching, to all-door boarding; however, they are reaching the limit of what can be done with what they have. There’s a new streetcar service going live this weekend, the 514 Cherry, which will overlay the King 504 route across the busy downtown area, from Dufferin to Cherry Street.

It strikes me that although his name has not been mentioned, everyone here is giving a giant middle finger to the ghost of Rob Ford, who set Toronto transit back by at least 5 years.

David Kuperman, from the city of Toronto’s Transportation Services, got into more of the details of past studies and what will happen in the upcoming pilot projects. Compared to other North American cities, commuter traffic in Toronto is about in the middle: we have a lower transit % than New York, but about the same or higher than other cities. We also have a healthy share of bicycle commuters. In a recent study (still underway) on the King Street streetcar operations, they found that boarding/disembarking time was the biggest cause of delay — which is now being helped by the all-doors boarding — followed by traffic control signal delay (streetcars bunched up at signals), then traffic congestion. They have made a number of other improvements, including extended turning and no parking peak hour restrictions, increased fines in no stopping times, and improved transit signals including priority signals at some intersections. The new streetcars will also make an impact because of higher capacity, whenever Bombardier decides to start delivering them instead of delaying them even further. We need to consider a number of factors with surface transformation, not just the vehicles and their passengers, but also how this works with pedestrians and cyclists on the same streets. There are a lot of different models for how to remake streets to share transit, some car traffic (or none), cyclists and pedestrians, plus the businesses along the street.

Janice Solomon, executive director of the Entertainment District BIA, spoke on behalf of the downtown business improvement areas. She talked about it from the point of view of businesses along King, and how they can benefit from restricted car traffic and more flexible street configurations, including complete closures for events such as the Toronto International Film Festival (a hugely controversial closure). There are a number of privately-owned, public spaces (POPS) along King, many of these in front of and around the office towers, and public spaces need to be maintained and expanded where possible to encourage pedestrian traffic and provide locations for public art.

These four presenters were joined by Nithya Vijayakumar of the Pembina Institute, and Dylan Reid of Spacing Magazine and Pedestrian Toronto (as well as my former neighbour — hi Dylan!). Vijayakumar gave a short introduction that included her opinions on how King needs to be restructured to better accommodate all modes of transportation, but especially to make transit service more consistent. Reid pointed out that King is not a “destination street” like Queen Street: whereas you can walk a long length of Queen and have interesting shops and things to look at, King has some pretty boring bits that don’t encourage you to walk there. That means that when that third overcrowded 504 streetcar passes you by and you start walking towards your destination, it’s not all that inviting. He also mentioned that we need more connections between King and the lanes, streets, parks and other areas just off King, to encourage people to explore the neighbourhoods and explore their businesses and attractions.

Byford took the first question on how much improvement can be done operationally versus requiring “changing things”, by which I assume the question-asker was referring to changing street configurations. He stated about 5% gains from working ahead with their current improvements, more still with the new streetcars, but much greater gains if they can move to a dedicated streetcar ROW. Kuperman also commented on the impact of signal changes: delayed greens for streetcars, for example, and more restrictions on cars turning and parking. Solomon pointed out the lack of bicycle parking in the downtown area, which she feels impacts businesses since cyclists may not choose to stop and shop if they don’t feel that their bike is safe. Vijayakumar — the researcher on the panel — feels that a pilot project is essential for seeing how potential changes are actually going to work, and the public feedback to them. She stated examples from other cities, but also our Richmond and Adelaide separated bike lanes, which have become hugely popular and benefited from a number of tweaks based on public feedback. Reid took on the topic of how to make King more walkable, including more obvious things such as wider sidewalks, but also improving the dark and uninviting train underpass just east of Liberty Village that cuts it off from the western downtown area, and addressing the planning for new buildings along the sidewalks to make sure that they have things of interest to pedestrians, such as public spaces, shops and restaurants. Keesmaat pushed the idea of the pilot as a way to try: there is a potential for failure, but also a potential for success. Although we can learn from other cities and other parts of our own city, it’s really tough to know exactly how something is going to work until we try it. Once there’s been a chance to study the effects, the pilot can either have more investment put in to make it a permanent change, or backed out if it doesn’t work.

There was a question from the audience on what is being done to improve safety of cyclists and pedestrians, given the high number of pedestrian deaths that we’ve seen this year. There’s a study going on now that is coming under some criticism since many feel that it doesn’t go far enough with the goal to reduce pedestrian and cyclist deaths by 20%; the ideal would be no deaths. However, many of the initiatives to make pedestrians and cyclists safer cost money, and the city doesn’t put a lot of money into that. Solomon pointed out that the concrete flower planters separating the bikes lanes from traffic along Richmond and Adelaide (only east of Spadina, unfortunately) have made cyclists feel much safer and likely led to higher cycling traffic in those lanes. Byford and Kuperman talked about the interaction between (car) congestion and transit-only lanes: although it seems that car traffic displaced from the streetcar ROWs would just cause gridlock elsewhere, the addition of the ROW would also result in the removal of curbside parking, leaving that (usually blocked) lane open for moving traffic. Keesmaat also mentioned the evaporation theory, where the reduction of car traffic lanes results in less cars since they also are correlated with better transit and cycling options. Solomon talked about how the improvement and maintenance of POPS and actual public spaces: she stated a case where their BIA spent their money to clean up a public park area, and received a letter from the city telling them not to trespass; obviously, the city and the BIAs need to be more in sync. Keesmaat said that POPS need to be seen as being publicly accessible, since some ambiguously appear to be private spaces. Kuperman addressed a question about restricting car traffic in downtown (such as congestion charges or tolls on DVP/Gardiner access highways) by stating that there are already a lot of restrictions caused by parking cost and availability, but that anything further would require more study. Pretty much a non-answer. Byford lived in London when congestion charges were introduced there, and said that it made a remarkable change at the beginning, although traffic crept up over time; all revenue from the London congestion charges go directly to public transit, which is definitely a great idea. Keesmaat said that parking in the downtown core needs to be rethought, and that autonomous vehicles will eliminate much of the need for it; Solomon stated that some of the restaurants in their BIA are upset at the thought of no parking in front of their restaurants, which seems terribly out-of-touch with the reality of so many of us who walk or transit to restaurants, and also isn’t an accurate representation if you consider that the average restaurant storefront would allow for about two cars parked: not exactly a full house of customers. Removal of street parking can actually improve business through more cycling and pedestrian traffic. Kuperman and Keesmaat addressed the related issue of delivery traffic in areas where car traffic is removed; this can be resolved with some special-use lanes for trucks delivering goods, or times of day (e.g., 1-6am) when trucks can make deliveries.

We finished up with Keesmaat talking about the TOcore, a broader downtown planning initiative, and heard from Adam Nicklin, the planner working on the larger initiative. There’s an open house for three days next week — June 20-22 — in the Metro Hall Rotunda if you want to learn more about TOcore, and a stakeholder workshop next Tuesday night. Lots of exciting things going on for the city!

Check out the very active Twitter stream during the event, both from people here at Innis Hall as well as those watching the live stream.

HoHoTO is a fundraiser event put on each year by Toronto’s digital community: a great party with dancing, raffles and a chance to catch up with your friends (at the top of your lungs to be heard over the dance tunes). Since its inception in 2008, HoHoTO has raised over $350,000 for the Daily Bread Food Bank – an awesome organization that helps to feed people in our community – but this year, HoHoTO has turned its eye to supporting “the next generation of founders, funders and tech professionals”. In particular, the focus will be on organizations that help to bring more women and minorities into technology and digital businesses. The event is on December 11 at the Mod Club, and early bird tickets are on sale here.

The primary focus is on the YWCA Toronto’s Girl’s Centre, with a 3-year goal to completely fund the Girls’ Centre and push for the opening of another one. This centre provides programs for girls from 9-18 to allow them to try activities and develop skills, including “Miss Media” for designing online media such as blogs and websites. It’s located in Scarborough, the easternmost 1/3 of Toronto, serving a community that has upwards of 65% visible minorities (and the best ethnic food in the world, according to one economist), meaning that it is a great match with HoHoTO’s focus on promoting women and minorities in business and technology from an early age. HoHoTO is also bringing together professional women as mentors, including me.

The HoHoTO event, run by unpaid volunteers, is raising money through tickets and sponsorships. If you or your organization recognizes the value of diversity in business, and wants to support the success of women and minorities in digital and technology fields, consider becoming a sponsor of the event. Details are here, and most of your contribution is eligible for a tax receipt. You’ll get recognition on HoHoTO’s site and at the event, other promotional opportunities throughout the year, a handful of event and drink tickets to bring your team out to enjoy the evening, and a nice warm feeling in your heart.

The street in front of my condo building does not permit parking during the day, but a few months ago, I noticed that the same few vehicles were parked there every day, arriving in the morning and departing in the afternoon. They all displayed Toronto Accessible Parking Permits (a.k.a. handicapped parking permits), which allow them to park in no parking areas and otherwise ignore most parking laws. I thought it was a bit odd that so many handicapped people would all of a sudden decide to park on our street each day during business hours, so started to watch for them arriving in the mornings.

What I saw (and still see) is a blatant misuse of accessible parking permits by people who appear to have no physical disability that would prevent them from parking in a nearby paid parking lot, or in paid street parking spots. Many of them appear to be working at the construction sites in our neighbourhood – of which there are many – although a relatively new one seems to be a local shop owner. They are mostly expensive vehicles – a Mercedes, a BMW, a Lexus and a couple of Ford F150s – which means that the owners can probably afford to pay for parking.

A call to Toronto Parking Authority, which would normally ticket and/or tow cars that are illegally parked, won’t touch anything with an accessible permit; they said that they would send someone to put a “notice” on the cars one day, but never showed.

Normally, I would just live and let live on this one, but there are a few problems with this: first and foremost, I have a friend in the building who uses a walker, and has the TTC WheelTrans service pick him up in front of the building several times each week. When the “fake” handicapped drivers have the entire front of the building blocked, he has to negotiate between the cars, or walk down to our driveway, in order to get to the WheelTrans vehicle. In today’s snow, I imagine that he won’t try to venture out at all, since there is no guarantee that the WheelTrans vehicle – which must be reserved several hours in advance – will be able to stop at the curb in front of the building to pick him up.

The other problem is with deliveries and garbage pickup: with the vehicles parked there, our garbage and recycling trucks often can’t get to the curb to pick up the bins, and trucks making deliveries have no place to stop in front of the building and may refuse to make deliveries.

Here’s a couple of examples. In the first pictures (taken earlier this week, without the snow), the driver parks in front of the building in the no-parking zone, gets out of his car, walks around to check that he is clear of the driveway, then puts the handicapped permit in his windscreen and walks away around the corner. This car has been parked there every day from early morning until evening for the past week or more. The later pictures (with the snow) show one of the worst offenders, who has parked in the no-parking zone several times per week for the past three months; today, there were other vehicles already parked in the no-parking zone so he went around the corner to the side street where parking is allowed but requires payment – except if you have an accessible parking permit. First, he parks his truck, then gets out and walks away across the park without purchasing a parking ticket from the machine. The last two shots show the accessible parking pass in his windscreen (I have taken close-up shots of this same truck and the parking permit on other days).

I am not a doctor, and do not claim to be able to diagnose any kind of physical condition, especially from afar, but every person who I have seen using an accessible parking permit on our block seems to exhibit the ability to walk several blocks to their place of work, then back again later in the day. Other residents in our building have made the same observations.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any recourse to curb this behaviour: calls to 311 just get the standard line that the city won’t ticket the cars because of the accessible parking passes, but they also won’t bother to investigate if the passes are being used improperly. I’ve put notes on the cars asking them not to park there on garbage pickup days, which works for a day or two before the same activity restarts, and I really don’t want a new job as a meter maid. I sent an email to Jack Lakey, a.k.a. The Fixer at the Toronto Star, who investigates problems with Toronto municipal services, but haven’t heard whether he will take this up. Other than that, we seem destined to wait out the heavy construction that brings out this sort of parking behaviour.

The new Toronto streetcars have been running on Spadina for more than a week now, and I confess to going out the first day and taking a ride just to try them out. A lot of other people were doing the same; I ran into a friend on the car and we rode together up to Spadina Station, where she departed to head home, and I stayed on to ride back down to my point of origin.

2014-08-31 18.05.56One thing that’s different is how you pay for your ride: you can board at any door of the streetcar and you don’t interact with the driver, so you need to show proof of payment (POP) if requested by an inspector. To get your POP, you can pay using the machines on the platforms or on the streetcars directly. Here’s how it works:

  • If you have cash (coins only, exact change required) or a token, use the machine to print a POP receipt by entering the cash/token and hitting the Print button.
  • If you have a student or senior ticket, validate it in the small machine on the left of the machine, and that validated ticket becomes your POP.
  • If you have a Metropass or a transfer from another line (subway, bus or streetcar), nothing for you to do: just get on the car and ride. Your Metropass or transfer is your POP.

This should speed up boarding considerably, since you can board at any of the four doors, and pay on the streetcar if you don’t have time before you board. The low floors make it easy to board – a nice change from the big step up on the old cars – and a ramp can be deployed at the second door using a pushbutton from the inside or outside.

They are still running old streetcars on the Spadina line as well as the two new ones (thanks to the Bombardier strike that stopped production after two of the new cars), and the old streetcars now also require POP onboard even though you board at the front: the driver will hand you a paper transfer even if you think you don’t need one. I’m not sure if they are actually going to use POP inspectors on the old cars; this would be good, since it would mean a switch to boarding at all doors even on the old cars.

All this will change in a few months when Presto is rolled out for payment; it wasn’t ready in time for the August 31 new streetcars, and apparently these machines are a temporary stopgap.

A point of new streetcar etiquette: if you’re on a streetcar and see someone get on and not purchase a fare onboard, don’t openly accuse them of being a fare cheat, since they may have purchased the fare on the platform before the car arrived, or have a transfer or Metropass. I had to wave my Metropass to appease some random passenger last week when he accused me of that, although maybe it was me calling him a dickhead that shut him up.

My car2go VIP weekendWhen the car2go car-sharing service appeared in Toronto, I signed up immediately. I’m already a Zipcar member, and will continue with my Zipcar membership (for now) since it’s useful for larger vehicles, but I really like the idea of a car that I can pick up in one location, drop in another, and just pay by the minute without having to predetermine the length of time that I am going to have the car. Where Zipcar is a better replacement for a regular rental car (I almost never use Budget or Avis any more), car2go replaces taxi and transit rides in a zone from Eglinton to the lake, and the South Kingsway/Jane to Victoria Park. You can take the cars outside the home area, but you can’t leave them there; within the zone, you can end your reservation and leave the car at any Green P (City of Toronto) parking lot plus a few of the Target Park lots. It costs $0.35/minute to drive, which sounds like a lot except when you consider that it’s cheaper than a taxi, and it maxes out at $12.99/hour and $65.99/day which makes it competitive with Zipcar’s weekend prices.

car2go is owned and run by Daimler, who make Smart cars, and their fleet comprises identical 2-seater Smart cars with a built-in onboard system for interacting with the car2go system as well as providing GPS capabilities. The GPS shows all of the valid parking locations, too, so when you get close to your destination you can see exactly where you can park and end your reservation. They’re also fun to drive, especially if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool standard transmission driver and tip it over to the semi-automatic mode where you can shift gears yourself (no clutch required). As a bit of a technology geek, I like how they can update the interface in the cars remotely: for example, they recently started prompting for your PIN when you got back in the car after a stopover, instead of just at the beginning of the rental, as an extra security feature. That means that they’re either pushing software updates out to each car, or the cars are constantly online and the onboard displays are purely presentation layer. I suspect it’s a bit of both, although would love to find out more about the technology that (ahem) drives a car2go.

I signed up using the promo code TDOT, which waives the $35 signup fee (valid until September 2nd); with no annual fee, there is no reason not to sign up if you currently use taxis, transit or even rental cars in the central Toronto area. If you are signing up and want to give me a bit of credit for referring, just append my name to the promo code on the form (i.e., use the promo code “TDOT sandy kemsley”) and I’ll get 15 minutes of driving credit. Thanks!

After a few weeks of driving around in car2go, tweeting about it, and getting my friends to sign up, I was invited to a VIP event last week. As part of that, I was given a block of three consecutive days of unlimited use of a car2go, which I took this past Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Since I wasn’t on the clock, I probably used it more than I would have under normal circumstances, but definitely went to some places where I would go again. Here’s the journal of my three days as a car2go VIP.

Saturday morning

My car2go VIP weekendMy car2go VIP weekendI’ve wanted to go to Wychwood Barns for the farmers market on Saturday mornings, but could never bother to TTC it up to Christie and St. Clair. In fact, it’s fitting that I would go there as my first car2go VIP drive since it was Suzanne Long, a big supporter of Wychwood, who turned me on to car2go in the first place and encouraged me to go there.  I picked up my car in a lot a block from home, put my grocery buggy into the bag of the surprisingly large space behind the seats, and headed off. Getting close to where I thought it was, I saw several Green P lots appear on the GPS screen, guiding me in to a free parking spot. If I had been on a usual car2go by-the-minute trip, I could have ended my rental in any of those lots, although I would have risked having someone else grab the car before I got back to it. When I did park, I found another car2go and an AutoShare car there, so obviously others had the same idea about the Saturday market. I selected “Make a stopover” on the screen to indicate that I was keeping the car for now, took the keys with me, and headed to the market.

Great market! I made a number of purchases, from organic meat to fresh vegetables to some awesome chanterelle mushrooms. A lot of vendors there, and definitely worth the trip.

My car2go VIP weekend  My car2go VIP weekend

I dropped the car back at the same lot where I picked it up, and ended the rental.

Saturday afternoon

In the afternoon, I enticed my other half into the car2go with the offer of a trip to Home Depot, plus a side trip to PetSmart for the “best” cat litter. We picked up a different car2go from the same lot (it’s a very popular car2go parking spot) and zipped off to Laird and Eglinton. At 6’2” and quite leggy, he found the passenger seat very roomy: there was at least a handsbreadth of space between his head and the roof, and with the seat all the way back, his knees had plenty of space.  He declared it “cool”, both the rental process and the cars, and is now a car2go member too.

 

My car2go VIP weekend My car2go VIP weekend My car2go VIP weekend

Plenty of room in the back for bags of cat litter, cat toys and a few electrical supplies. I pulled up in front of our condo to drop him off with the load, then I took the car back to the lot and ended the rental.

Sunday

My car2go VIP weekendMy car2go VIP weekendI figured that Sunday was a good day for an excursion, and we packed a beach bag in the back of our new car2go and headed for Bluffer’s Park in Scarborough. Out of downtown on the Gardiner and Lakeshore, I cruised out Kingston Road with very little traffic to compete.

I have only been to Bluffer’s Park once or twice (we west-enders tend to stay went of the DVP, if not west of Yonge), it’s a beautiful park and beach to wander around. The weather was hot and sunny, and although we didn’t end up swimming, we did have a great walk around a few of the park areas. The bluffs are quite dramatic looking, and there is an interesting set of settling ponds for the storm runoff, with some informational signs to let you know what’s happening there. Good spot for bird-watching as well as people-watching.

We had lunch at the Dogfish Pub at marina right on the water: food is okay, and the view is spectacularly peaceful. There was a lovely breeze off the lake, and we sat for quite a while enjoying watching the boats and the birds.

Our Smart car handled the steep grade down and back from the park with ease, and was great on the city streets. We had it up to speed on the Gardiner Expressway: it’s quiet and stable at highway speeds, as I had discovered a few weeks ago when I took one on a trip to Brampton.

Since we were coming in from a different direction and the traffic was heavy on Spadina, I decided to drop the car and end the rental at a different lot from where we picked it up, one that didn’t require crossing over Spadina. Although it is a small surface lot, there was another car2go already there, and the next day I noticed that the cars had moved around so they are obviously getting a lot of use.

My car2go VIP weekend My car2go VIP weekend My car2go VIP weekend

Monday

My car2go VIP weekendI wasn’t expecting to use the car on my third free day because it was a bit rainy and I didn’t have any particular use for it that day, but made a last-minute decision to head to T&T Supermarket, which I rarely visit because it really requires a car: both for the distance and for the amount of interesting things that I tend to buy. I picked up Pat Anderson on my way since she lives near there, is car-less, and works from home so has a pretty flexible schedule (like me). Since I was heading east, I picked up a car on a lot across Spadina between rain showers.

Pat also declared it “cool” – she liked the design elements of the car, as well as the compact size for zipping around the city. T&T was fairly empty on a rainy Monday during the day, so we wandered the aisles, checking out the fish balls, the borscht in Chinese packaging and the huge variety of Asian foods that they carry. There was plenty of room in the back of the car for my wheeled cart and four bags of groceries. In fact, probably the only regular shopping trip that this wouldn’t work for would be a Costco run where I tend to get carried away and come home with 100-roll packages of toilet paper and the like, although maybe it would be a good lesson in restraint for me to go there in a Smart car!

My car2go VIP weekend My car2go VIP weekend My car2go VIP weekend

I dropped the car at a different lot than where I picked it up, since it was more convenient to get to and closer to home. Again, I appreciated the flexibility to do that.

Summing it up

I used the cars a lot during the three days because I had unlimited use, but it’s helped to refine my actual use cases for them:

  • Taxi replacement for one-way trips. I used car2go to drive to a client meeting near Yonge and Bloor a few weeks back: I ended up just doing it one-way since I was in a hurry, and took transit home. It was about half the cost of what a taxi would have been, although to be fair, I did have to walk a few minutes at either end of the journey. My other half, who works at Yonge & Eglinton (which is at the edge of the car2go home area) occasionally needs to go to work before the subway opens, so he’ll probably use it then instead of a much more expensive taxi.
  • Trips where I’m not sure of the duration. A big down side of Zipcar (and AutoShare) is that you have to pre-specify how long you will have the car. If you’re over, you are penalized, since someone else may be waiting for that specific car at that spot. If you’re under, you still pay for the entire time. If I’m not sure of how long I’ll be, then car2go makes more sense and can end up being less expensive than Zipcar since I pay only for the time I use.
  • Weekend running around, since the day rate is the same (or cheaper) than Zipcar’s and I get free parking at any Green P lot in the home area.

In addition to the website for locating cars, there are a few iPhone apps for finding cars and parking spots. Unfortunately, the car2go app is not very good, but since they’ve opened their data/API, there are a few 3rd party apps that work fine. My current fave is car2go App Lite (free) from rrooaarr interactive solutions, which shows both cars and parking lots. I find that it has a bit of trouble when you have multiple cars close to you, sometimes it only identifies the closest one, but that’s usually not an issue.

One things that’s missing, which Zipcar (and I assume some of the others) have: a damage waiver to reduce my liability in the event of damage to the car. At Zipcar, I can pay $75 for a year or some smaller amount for an individual rental to reduce my deductible to $0; that would be nice for peace of mind if I end up using car2go a lot.

As I mentioned previously, the $35 signup fee is waived until September 2nd, so sign up before then with the promo code TDOT. Use “TDOT sandy kemsley” as the promo code to get the deal and give me 15 minutes of free driving!

My long-time friend Pat Anderson is performing in a local production of Agnes of God over the next two weeks: August 14, 15, 21 and 22 at No One Writes to the Colonel, a bar/cafe at College and Bathurst. Pat recited a few of her lines as Mother Superior to me at dinner last weekend, and I’m really looking forward to this.

Agnes Of God

You can find all the details here, including how to reserve tickets. At $20 per ticket, it’s a deal if you’re in the mood for a bit of culture. Also, it’s a great neighbourhood to dine on Portuguese churrasqueira and Italian gelato before or after the show.

Tonight at 8:30pm we’ll celebrate Earth Hour, when we all turn out the lights for an hour. Although mostly symbolic, this should actually translate to reduced power consumption; in Ontario, you can track this on the IESO Earth Hour site which will show a graph of actual consumption against that of a typical Saturday night.

Being green is a trendy thing to do, but some people have been doing it long before it became fashionable: the members of Tower Power Toronto, for example, who focus on energy savings for multi-unit buildings such as condos and co-ops. I attended a meeting of the Tower Power group earlier this year to hear all about solar photovoltaic (that is, solar panels that make electricity directly rather than heating water) and some of the recent government initiatives to make this a reality for small condo buildings like mine. We met at the Windward Co-op, where they have already undertaken a number of green initiatives such as thermal solar (solar hot water heating as a pre-heat for domestic hot water) that has reduced their hot water costs by 40%.

My other half is an electrical engineer, and when I told him that I was attending a meeting about solar PV, he pooh-poohed it as inefficient and expensive, costing more per kWh than we could save. He’s right about that: the high cost (and relative inefficiency) of solar PV panels makes it infeasible for generating power for our building directly. Furthermore, even if we felt that it was a good thing to do, the condo reserve fund cannot be used for solar PV projects, meaning that we would have to create a special assessment such that the owners would pay the costs directly. In a building like ours, where the resale timeframe is fairly short, that just wouldn’t fly.

This is where the government incentives come in: the provincial government would really like us to start greening up, in part to reduce the load on current electricity infrastructure, increase the resiliency of the power grid, help phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2014, and reduce the cost of having to buy electricity from other provinces or states during time of peak loads. If you take a look at the ISEO website, which shows Ontario electricity demand and the price paid for external electricity during peaks, you’ll see that prices for buying electricity from outside the province can be as high as $1.50/kWh. This also has a social value as well as an economic value by promoting micro-generation and green thinking.

To that effect, the Ontario Power Authority started the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program whereby you can sell up to 10kW of electricity that you generate (e.g., using solar PV) back to your local power authority (in our case, Toronto Hydro) for $0.802 per kWh on a 20-year contract. Given the current cost of installing solar PV, and the fact that the panels are expected to have nearly zero maintenance costs during the 20-year period, the panels pay for themselves in about 13 years: in other words, that provides seven years of electricity revenue free and clear after the panels are paid off. Current domestic electricity costs in Ontario are around $0.012 per kWh, so OPA is willing to pay you over six times the current price of electricity in order to subsidize your solar PV installation, since they will eventually save the cost of having to build new power generating facilities.

As mentioned previously, condo reserve funds can’t be used to fund solar PV installations, so there needs to be some other form of financing. Alternatives include:

  • Work on getting the condo laws changed so that reserve funds can be used for projects like this. Our local MPP, Rosario Marchese, is working on this, but this could take some time and may never occur.
  • Sell debentures to raise the money for the initial costs, then use the electricity revenue to pay off the debenture with interest. Residents of the building may choose to buy debentures, or anyone who is looking for an investment with a decent interest rate. The risk is that electricity revenues are not sufficient to cover the debenture costs, or that unexpected maintenance costs reduce revenues.
  • Use PV venture, venture firms that specialize in solar PV installations. They effectively own the solar PV system, installing the panels and taking the electricity, then pay a percentage of the monthly revenue to the building on which the panels are placed.
  • Non-profit organizations (including co-ops, but not condos) can take advantage of 0% loans available from the city of Toronto’s Sustainable Energy Funds including the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which I heard about at a green energy panel that Olivia Chow hosted last year.
  • Live Green Toronto (another city initiative) has some limited grant funding for education and feasibility studies; condos are not eligible but could partner with a not-for-profit.

For buildings within the city of Toronto, you’d be selling power to Toronto Hydro, but the contract would be with the Ontario Power Authority, who are backing the FIT and microFIT programs. OurPower, part of the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative can perform assessments on a building to estimate the feasibility and costs: there needs to be a place with good sun exposure (usually the roof) to mount the panels, a method for connecting the panels to the electrical room, an inverter to convert the DC electricity generated by the panels to AC, and a metered connection from the inverter to the power grid. That means that you’d have two meters: one for inbound electricity at the usual market rate (e.g., $0.013/kWh), and one for the outbound electricity that you generate at $0.802/kWh. Ideally, installation would be coordinated with the building roof replacement schedule; otherwise, you’d have to remove and remount the panels during any roof repairs. In addition to the panels, costs include cabling to the electrical room, any modifications required to the roof membrane, insurance, and maintenance (considering a 20-year replacement cycle for the panels, but more frequently for the inverter). Solar PV panels are usually stationary; although panels that move to track the sun generate more electricity, they also have higher maintenance costs due to the moving parts. In order to qualify for the FIT/microFIT program, 50% of the equipment must be manufactured in Ontario, but that can include the framing, inverters and labour costs in addition to the panels. There are some local solar PV manufacturers, including Photowatt and SolGate, making it possible to put together a solution that pumps some money back into the local economy as well as providing green benefits.

How much energy could we really generate with this? Well, our building probably has 200-300 square metres of roof space that could be used; using the estimate of 1 square metre generating 150W in peak sun for a total of about 1kWh/day, that means 200-300 kWh/day, or $160-240/day in electricity revenue. I’m not sure if that 1kWh/day/square metre is an average over the year, or the value for a sunny summer day; assuming that that amount could be generated 1/3 of the time, that’s still $19.5k-29k per year in electricity revenue. As for costs, using a provided estimate of $10k/kW; I’m taking a leap in logic and assuming that’s equivalent to 1000/150 = 6.7 square metres of solar panel, which would be a cost of $300k-450k for the initial installation. That gives an ROI of just over 15 years; assume that my estimate of electricity generated is conservative, I can see how this works out to an average 13-year ROI.

At the end of the 20-year contract to deliver electricity to Toronto Hydro, you’d be in a position to renegotiate a contract with them to continue to provide power, or switch to providing power directly to your own building if then-current price of electricity makes that a better deal.

When you talk about residential solar power, many people think of thermal solar, but there are some fundamental differences:

Solar Photovoltaic

Thermal Solar

Photovoltaic panels generate electricity directly from sunlight Water in pipes warmed by sun used as a pre-heat for domestic hot water (hot tap water or central building heat)
Generates revenue by creating electricity to sell back to Toronto Hydro Generates savings by reducing gas consumption for domestic hot water system
Panels connected by cabling to building electrical system Panels connected by (water) piping to building hot water system
All electricity sold to grid, hence no wasted capacity Hot water used only by building and can’t be shared
Peak capacity during summer when demands on power grid are at maximum Peak capacity during summer may be wasted if more hot water is generated than building requires
ROI can be calculated before project start ROI is based on actual gas costs over life of project

It used to be the case that thermal solar was the only economically feasible alternative for residential buildings; however, the FIT/microFIT program brings the cost-benefit calculations for thermal versus PV much closer together.

If you’re in Toronto and interested in learning more, come out to a Tower Power Toronto meeting. OurPower hosts a wiki page for Tower Power Toronto; it’s sadly out of date, since it shows the next meeting as the January meeting, but it contains contact information and I may take it on myself to update the page when I receive notice of the next meeting.

I’ll leave you with a video of Rob Hopkins from last year’s TED conference, on transitioning to a world without oil:

I was on Cloud 9 on Saturday night…or rather, I was *at* Cloud 9 (A Comedy of Multiple Organisms), Caryl Churchill’s 1978 two-act play dealing with preconceptions of gender and sexuality. Act I and II are 25 years apart based on the characters’ ages, but in a wonderful twist, the first act is set in colonial Africa as an allegory of the repressive attitudes of the 1950s, and the second act is set in the late 1970s, which was current day at the time that the play was written (although the dialog was pretty timeless, and could be today). Furthermore, the same seven actors play different characters in each of the two acts, regardless of gender or race: the character of Betty, for example, is played by Evan Buliung in the first act (he was magnificent in the white dress and garters) and by Ann-Marie MacDonald in the second act. Add to this that two of the actors – Megan Follows and Ann-Marie MacDonald – are well known even to me, a cultural cretin who has to be invited to events like this by my more artsy friends.

The interesting thing about this Toronto production of Cloud 9 is how they’ve made the production transparent through the use of social media. CBC’s Spark podcast had a clip on this (starting at around 40 minutes into the January 24th/26th podcast) featuring the director, Alisa Palmer, discussing how they put information about the play, casting, characters, staging, rehearsals and behind-the-scenes comments online before the play ever opened: something rare in the somewhat secretive world of pre-opening-night theatre. Rose Plotek, the assistant director, wrote many of the blogs posts on the main site (cross-posted to their Facebook page), but there are also very candid contributions from actors Blair Williams and Ann-Marie MacDonald, as well as video clips of rehearsals and interviews:

Cloud 9 is playing at the Panasonic Theatre until February 21st. Great script, excellent actors and fabulous costumes make for a fun night out.

I spent this afternoon at the initial planning meeting of CrisisCampTO, the Toronto manifestation of Crisis Commons. Although this is happening here and now in response to the earthquake disaster in Haiti 12 days ago, Crisis Commons has a broader mandate:

We are an international volunteer network of professionals drawn together by a call to service. We create technological tools and resources for responders to use in mitigating disasters and crises around the world

We’re here today to work on anything that can be done to help, in collaboration with other Crisis Commons teams all over the world, on the various projects that have been defined by Crisis Commons based on requests from NGOs to fill a need that they have. The bulk of the projects fall under the category of software development, but there are also teams for social media, logistics and more general duties.

Our first goal today is to find a development project for the bulk of the Toronto team to get involved with, and learn how to plug into other Crisis Commons groups around the world. There is quite a bit of infrastructure already in place to connect up, including IRC channels (retro, I will definitely need a refresher course) and voice conference lines, plus a rapidly growing wiki.

I have a pretty broad range of skills to apply here: although I don’t really write code any more – unless I’m really inspired – I can do all the other stuff around development (requirements, testing, documentation). I also do a lot of social media stuff, and have attended more unconferences than you can shake a stick at, so can help with the local social media efforts such as wiki gardening, Facebook and Twitter updates, and more.

The main goal of today is to get ready for next Saturday’s CrisisCampTO (time and venue to be announced shortly), by getting some basic team structure in place and selecting one or more projects to which we will be contributing. That way, when newbies show up next week, they can start contributing immediately.

One of the things that we learned about today is Sahana, an open source disaster management system that was created in response to the Sri Lanka tsunami in 2004. There’s a Sahana instance set up just for Haiti, although it still needs a lot of content added, and possibly some development to add specific requested functionality. We also saw OpenMRS, an open source medical records system, and Ushahidi, an SMS-to-web service that accepts requests for assistance sent by text message to a specific shortcode, and makes them available to aid agencies. If you check the feed from Haiti, you can see requests for food, water and medical assistance that have been received, translated if required, and logged for followup. In summary, there are a ton of free, open source projects that can be applied to the Haiti disaster; some of them as is, others requiring some customization. This is were we all come in.

This is cross-posted from my business blog, since I couldn’t decide where it belonged.

After spending the summer and part of the fall as a volunteer at the local St. Andrew’s farmer’s market, I thought that I’d seen the last of that great group of people – the farmers, the Farmers’ Market Ontario team and the other volunteers – until next year, but I didn’t count on the year-end review, celebration and luncheon hosted by FMO to bring us all together one last time in 2009. The purpose of the day is to review the progress of each of the markets this year, and bring together some ideas of what worked and didn’t work at the markets. Oh yeah, and we got to start the day with Angela Russo’s fresh-baked fruit muffins!

I especially like that they had assigned seats that mixed up the market volunteers, farmers and others so that we didn’t just clump together in our cliques: I was seated with two farmers and a volunteer from another market, none of whom I had met previously, and had great discussions with them.

There are five MyMarkets, each of which is certified by FMO to include only vendors who grow their own produce: East Lynn Park, Sick Kids Hospital, Bloor • Borden, Liberty Village, and Historic St. Andrew’s. The volunteers and/or market manager for each market gave a short presentation:

  • East Lynn Park, taking place on Thursdays from 3-7pm: they’re a big-ish market with 15 vendors, drawing 18,000 shoppers over the entire season, which is roughly the same as last year. They were impacted by the city workers’ strike since some people were under the impression that the market was cancelled during that time; the lack of city-run facilities such as the wading pool meant that less people came out to the park and ended up as accidental shoppers. Since they block off the street during the market, they have issues with moving and setting up barricades; since they’re in a lower-density residential area, they also have more issues with parking for shoppers. They had some good ideas for next years, such as improving the MyMarket website to link to the individual market websites and other social media sites (I’m obviously in big agreement with that); since they don’t have any local restaurants giving cooking demos such as happens at other markets, they’d like to get that started as well. They also see the need for prepared food at the market to make it more of a destination for people. They have great community support, and involve local children’s groups and artists as well as providing community service opportunities for youths to do setup and teardown at the market each week. They also had a partnership with a local food bank, where food that would have probably been thrown out by the farmers at the end of the day went to the food bank. They had a number of green initiatives, such as Not Far From The Tree, handing out information. They also had a lot of child and family-oriented events such as face painting; obviously, this doesn’t work in all locations (such as ours) where the demographics are radically different, but lots of good ideas at work here.
  • Sick Kids Hospital, taking place on Tuesdays 9am-2pm: this was the first hospital in Canada that allowed a farmers’ market to be held on its grounds, driven by their director of nutrition and food services. They just finished their second year; in 2008, they had 10,300 customers over the season, increasing to 12,000 in 2009. They obviously had a lot of traffic from the hospital staff, not just of Sick Kids but of the two other hospitals and many other businesses along University Avenue in the same area. They obviously have some different logistics issues than the rest of the markets, and have to be very cognizant of the fact that they’re set up in front of a very busy, fully functioning hospital, situated on a busy thoroughfare. They have a difficult time hosting events because of the location and the low numbers of volunteers.
  • Bloor • Borden, taking place on Wednesdays 3-7pm. They see this a key community event that takes place in their neighbourhood, where the locals can come out and see their neighbours participating as volunteers, driven by three fairly active neighbourhood associations and supported by two of the local business associations. Just finished their second year, they had spent a lot of money in their first year on print, but found that word of mouth was most effective, as well as the cards that were mailed to homes or placed in local businesses. They combined this with on-the-street volunteers handing out fruit samples and the market cards to remind people that the market is back at the beginning of the season. They had a great idea for their weekly draws: MyMarket market bucks“market bucks”, where the winner of the draw received four $5 vouchers to be spent at any vendor in the market. They also reorganized their layout to have a central social area with a coffee/tea stand run by a not-for-profit organization. They had several product feature days, some of them combined with cooking demos by local chefs, but some as simple as corn roasts or apples and honey. They had 12-13,000 customers throughout the 2009 season.They also took the food leftovers to a local charity, an idea that we should all be thinking about.
  • Liberty Village, taking place on Sundays 9am-2pm. In its 3rd year, this is the probably the largest of the markets with 18 vendors including meat and cheese, as well as several local businesses and restaurants who did demonstrations or otherwise participated, although their attendance is lower than some others at about 9.500 for the year. However, they have less neighbourhood involvement since the residential area in Liberty Village is still growing and likely a very young (and single) demographic that are unlikely to be involved in volunteer activities. The area, however, is growing rapidly which is likely to ensure continued success for the market.
  • Historic St. Andrew’s (that’s us!), taking place on Saturdays 9am-1pm. Colin Mooers, who was instrumental in getting the market starting and current heads up our volunteer committee, gave a presentation with me about our market:

To wrap up the morning, we had a session on what worked and didn’t work at the markets this year. Here’s some of the ideas that came up from everyone:

What worked Areas for improvement
Live music Direct contact with local chefs to get them shopping at the market
Volunteers chatting with the shoppers to create a sense of community Hire local students to assist farmers and organizers at market
“Market bucks” as weekly draw prize and available for purchase by local businesses (e.g., real estate agents) to give to patrons Weekly updates from the farmers of what’s coming to this week’s market for pre-market distribution
Sandwich boards on market day to draw in pedestrian traffic Program to allow local businesses to buy produce from farmers for direct donation to food banks
Cooking demos by local chefs Reduce carbon footprint through farmers collaborating on distribution to markets
Encouraging viral distribution of market information via email Music levels too loud for farmers to have discussions with patrons
Uniform MyMarket branding Competitive price point
Mini markets at places such as Queens Park Greater variety, including cheese, meat, eggs, mushrooms and flowers, to allow for one-stop shopping
Great support from FMO and MyMarket organization Promote understanding of why prices are higher for quality of produce
Profile a farmer each week tied in with weekly product features Too many vendors selling the same product
  “Official” start times restricting vendors from selling to early customers
  Educate shoppers on preserving fresh food (e.g., freezing) for later consumption

We stayed for a delicious lunch, including Angela Russo’s incomparable apple pie, but skipped out on the afternoon session on “innovative marketing made easy” featuring Lori Colborne.

All in all, a great day that generated a lot of great ideas.