Friday, March 07, 2014

Another step closer to making Ranked Ballots a reality in Toronto

Democracy in Toronto took another important step forward yesterday, as MPP Mitzie Hunter’s private member’s bill empowering Toronto to set up a ranked ballot system for municipal elections passed through second reading, and was sent to the Ontario legislature’s Standing Committee on Social Policy for further study.

LINK: Mitzie Hunter Statement re RaBIT (Ranked Ballot Initiative)

The bill still has a long way to go (see How an Ontario Bill becomes Law; and even then Toronto City Council will still have to vote to adopt such a system), but the volunteers behind the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto should take a day or two to celebrate this key milestone.

Pushing through any electoral reform is a daunting prospect filled with hurdles. I’m truly impressed by the progress that has been made so far by RaBIT to get it to this stage.

It requires a real persistence, focus, and sense of civic dedication to patiently manoeuvre a change like this through the different layers of government and community, over the course of several years. I would compare the process to walking a tightrope in slow motion. Each delicate step is vital, and at any point the whole thing could be derailed.

Keep at it, RaBIT! Follow the progress of Bill 166 here.

See previously:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Come to my PodCamp talk on Maps and Digital History!

This Sunday afternoon I’m giving a talk at PodCamp Toronto, a community-driven technology ‘unconference’.

Come to my talk at PodCamp Toronto! It’s free!

I’ll be discussing my Historical Maps of Toronto project as an informal case study. We’ll cover maps in general, digital history, and challenges overcome in the course of the project.

You’re cordially invited to come! My talk is this Sunday, February 23 at 2pm, in the Rogers Communications Centre - 80 Gould St.

The event is free to attend and is taking place at Ryerson University over the course of this weekend. Be sure to check out the full schedule of speakers and sessions—it promises to be a fun time. More about PodCamp Toronto here.

See you there!

Monday, February 17, 2014

You’ll Love Exploring Toronto From 1818 To 2012 With This Amazing Interactive Map. Check Out 1947!

Apologies for the Buzzfeed-style headline, but this is a project I want to share widely. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.

Toronto Historic Map viewer—an interactive online map

Click to launch the Toronto Historic Maps viewer by Chris Olsen.

Easily pan around (Google-maps style), zoom in and out, and best of all—switch between years to watch how the city evolves over time. For optimal results, use a decent computer with a modern browser and a fast internet connection. Requires Flash (sorry), and may take a few seconds to initially load.

Background context
Over the last couple of years, I put together several online projects relating to historical maps of Toronto. A key motivation was to aggregate maps from different institutional sources, as previously they were difficult to discover, navigate and browse. My hope was to provide a simple, easy-to-use entry point for researchers, students, and other Toronto history enthusiasts to access these important documents from our past. 

To my delight, another aficionado with a passion for maps recently leveraged that work to create something new and marvellous. This is what happens with shared historical information and open data—everyone benefits.

In my blog post about Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto—Online!, I challenged readers to “imagine a jazzed-up, interactive version, or a gigantic ‘all in one file’ image carefully stitched together”.

That line apparently resonated with Chris Olsen, an analyst at ESRI (the premier Geographical Information System technology vendor), and he nimbly took up my challenge.

Olsen had previously created well-received historical map viewers for Cleveland and Pittsburgh. He learned of my Goad and Historical Maps of Toronto projects, and decided to implement a map viewer instance for Toronto, seeing as the source images had conveniently been assembled in one spot by yours truly.

The amount of work he invested is prodigious. To create the site, Olsen georeferenced and then melded together map plates from the Goad fire insurance plans (1880, 1889, 1913 and 1924). He also incorporated maps from 1818, 1842, and aerial photographs from 1947. At my urging he added the 1858 Boulton Atlas of the City of Toronto (a predecessor map to the Goad plans). I’ve contacted the City of Toronto Archives to find out if we can obtain the source imagery for some of their post-1947 aerial photography series so they can be added to the project (No response yet, but we’ll see what happens).

photo: Old Fort York as seen by plane in 1947
Recognize this famous Toronto landmark?

[Note to techies: Yes, Olsen’s georeferenced files are public and free to use. Depending on the application, users can access them in ArcMap by connecting here, or if within a web application, here.]

I have often envisioned doing something like this, but was stymied by the technical and resource requirements to get it together. I’m incredibly happy that someone else felt the same way—and actually did something about it.

The value in this project is the ability to scrutinize how Toronto buildings, neighbourhoods and streetscapes change between years. Even in the gap between 1947 and 2012, the differences—as well as the things that stay the same—can be astonishing.

Mr. Olsen is to be thanked for gifting us with this engrossing and novel way of exploring old Toronto. It pleases me to have contributed (even if merely peripherally) to his endeavour. This sort of initiative is exactly why organizing the maps together was so important to me in the first place—it enables people to find, use, and build on the resources in new and exciting ways. History belongs to all of us!

Readers, let me know in the comments if you discover anything neat. I know you will.

See Also
Historical Maps of Toronto
Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto—Online!
Fort York and Garrison Common Maps

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Forcing Unicyclists Onto the Road is a Bad Idea

Open Letter

Attention: Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Chair), Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, Councillor Janet Davis, Councillor Mark Grimes, Councillor Mike Layton, & Councillor John Parker

To the esteemed members of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee:

Don’t force me
to ride on the road!
I am writing with respect to City of Toronto PWIC agenda item PW28.2, Electric Bikes - Proposed Policies and By-laws.

The proposal before the Committee revises the municipal definition of “bicycle” to include unicycles. An unintentional side effect of this change will be to force unicyclists to ride on the road with other vehicles. This is problematic. I strongly recommend that the Public Works Committee remove unicycles from the updated bicycle definition.

Forcing unicycles onto the road is a bad idea

There are two major issues with the proposed revision: 
  1. Unicycles have just one wheel. Bicycles, by any reasonable etymological examination of the term, have two.

    Imprecision and terminological inexactitude are key factors affecting bylaw enforcement, which led to the e-bike policy review in the first place. A self-contradictory definition impedes the goal of bylaw clarity.

  2. More seriously, the relative speed differential between unicycles and regular bicycles is significant—forcing unicycles to operate under the same conventions as bicycles is inconsistent with the policy’s stated aim of promoting safety.

    The average speed of a standard 20 inch unicycle is approximately 7-8km/h (if the rider is in shape) — not much faster than brisk walking speed. By contrast, nearly 90% of bicycle commuters have an average speed of 18-25km/h or greater (per the cyclist speed profile provided in this agenda item’s background file). This represents a material gap in average speeds between the two vehicle types. The speed gap between unicycles and motor vehicles is even larger.

    Speed differentials between e-bikes and regular bicycles were cited as a key factor in shaping the proposed policy changes—why create another instance of the very problem we are trying to solve?

One wheel.

Two wheels. See the difference?

Context and background information

Up to this point, unicycles have mostly existed in an ambiguous discretionary area not particularly subject to strict statutory regulation—with respect to roadways and sidewalks in the City of Toronto. However, the proposed policy revision before the Committee arbitrarily includes unicycles as part of a harmonized definition of “bicycle”:
The General Manager, Transportation Services recommends that: 
City Council amend the City of Toronto Municipal Code Chapter 608, Parks; Municipal Code Chapter 886, Footpaths, Pedestrian Ways, Bicycle Paths, Bicycle Lanes and Cycle Tracks; and Municipal Code Chapter 950, Traffic and Parking to delete the existing definitions of bicycles, as described in Appendix A attached to this report, and replace them with the following harmonized definition of bicycle:
BICYCLE – Includes a bicycle, tricycle, unicycle, and a power-assisted bicycle which weighs less than 40 kg and requires pedalling for propulsion (“pedelec”), or other similar vehicle, but does not include any vehicle or bicycle capable of being propelled or driven solely by any power other than muscular power.
(Recommendation #1, from PW28.2)

The inclusion of unicycles may seem innocuous, but it would have a damaging spillover impact in the context of Municipal Code § 950-201: Regulations for bicycles and mopeds, subsection C(2), where the recommended textual change is that:
No person age 14 and older shall ride a bicycle on a sidewalk of any highway, except for those locations designated in § 886-6, of Municipal Code Chapter 886, Footpaths, Pedestrian Ways, Bicycle Paths, Bicycle Lanes and Cycle Tracks
(Recommendation #5 & Appendix C, from PW28.2)

In other words, according to the proposed changes, persons (age 14 and older) would be prohibited from legally riding unicycles on the sidewalk—if unicycles are included in the definition of bicycle.

Rather than force unicyclists onto the roadways or bike lanes, where potentially dangerous speed differentials and vehicular behavioural expectations are at play, I recommend that unicyclists should continue to be given the leeway to exercise responsible judgment as to where they should ride most safely and appropriately with respect to others, whether that be on the road or the sidewalk.

Importantly, note that unicyclists riding on the sidewalk are already subject to Ch.950, Article III, Subsection 950-300, which states:
No person shall ride upon or operate a bicycle [with a tire size less than or equal to 61.0 centimetres (24 inches)—this provision to be deleted per PW28.2 Rec. #5, Appendix C], skateboard, in-line skates or roller-skates, coaster, scooter, toy vehicle, toboggan, sleigh, or any similar device on a sidewalk recklessly or negligently or at a speed or in a manner dangerous to the public, having regard to circumstances.
To reiterate, unicyclists will continue to be subject to municipal bylaw enforcement if they are riding recklessly or negligently. Further regulation is not required at this time. 


  1. The harmonized municipal definition of ‘bicycle’ should not include unicycles.
  2. Forcing unicyclists to ride on the road is likely to create the very speed differential issues which the proposed revisions are in principle trying to solve.
  3. Unicyclists on the sidewalk are already subject to bylaw enforcement prohibiting reckless or negligent riding, and do not require further regulation.
  4. Number of GTA unicycle-related traffic accidents and infractions in 2013: Zero. Let’s keep it that way.
The unicycle community in Toronto—while diverse and eclectic—is generally well behaved with respect to observance of bylaws and traffic conventions. It would be quite unfortunate for this policy change to unwittingly create scofflaws out of this playful and carefree group of environmentally-friendly citizens. It would be even more unfortunate if the safety of this group and others were to be compromised by careless inclusion in the bylaw.

Thank you for your attention to this serious matter. I look forward to your considered response,

Nathan Ng
Toronto One-Wheel Exhibition League

File images of unicycle and bicycle courtesy of Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license [link].