Monday, November 26, 2012

Rob Ford Taken Down by Bad Law

2012 Photo of Rob Ford, by Alex Urosevic
 Back in September, I wrote that it would be sad if Rob Ford lost his job over his conflict of interest charges. Well, considering the coverage it's gotten around the world (let alone here in Toronto; there are no less than ten articles about it on as I write this), you've probably heard: it happened. Rob Ford - barring an appeal - will be removed from office in two weeks.

My view on the matter hasn't really changed since I wrote that article two months ago; the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act looked to be a poor response to Rob Ford's transgression then, and it still does now. Even the judge in the case, Justice Charles Hackland, acknowledges that he did so not because what Rob Ford did was serious enough to turf him from office (" I recognize that the circumstances of this case demonstrate that there was absolutely no issue of corruption or pecuniary gain on the respondent’s part."), but because Act didn't give him any latitude to assign a lesser punishment:

"...the City should make every endeavour to persuade the provincial government to either modernize the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act or confer on the City of Toronto authority to create its own conflict of interest regime in place of or supplementary to that Act. Aside from the fact that the existing Act places legal impediments in the way of the City extending the concept of conflict of interest beyond the formulation in that Act, it is simply Byzantine to have a regime under which the only way of dealing legally with conflict of interest in a municipal setting is by way of an elector making an application to a judge and where the principal and mandatory penalty (save in the case of inadvertence) is the sledgehammer of an order that the member’s office is vacated."
- Justice Hackland's Ruling, Paragraph 46
 Like most "mandatory minimum sentencing" laws (and how ironic that one would take down such a noted conservative!), they provide only one tool (in this case, the "sledgehammmer") to fix all problems, when the nuances of each case often call for a different solution. What Rob Ford did deserves to be punished, perhaps through garnishing his wages, suspending him from council for a length of time, a public admonishment from a judge, or a public apology (or some combination thereof). Hackland notes that these are all potential tools that have been suggested, none of which were available for him to use.

Regardless of whatever you think Rob Ford, today we witnessed a politician get thrown out of office... over what? The small amount of influence and image he gains from the $3,150 in lobbyist donations to an arms-length charity from a time before he was mayor? That's his biggest "crime" in this whole mess, and one that will continue to go unpunished.

The $3,150 is pocket change for his family; his stubbornness was about principle (misguided or not). His actions in council were ignorant, but he neither needed to speak to, or vote on the motion to "forgive" him from paying back this pocket change. Clayton Ruby is right that the only one that Rob Ford has to blame is "Rob Ford", but that shouldn't shield the law that kicked him out from criticism.

That he might be ignorant, lazy, or stupid is irrelevent; lacking any of those qualities does (and should not) bar you from holding office if you can find a plurality of people willing to elect you anyway. We need not have respect for the politician, but we should respect the democratic process. As I said in September, to remove an elected politician from office, the charge must be serious, so serious that the only suitable remedy is vacating their seat. That Ford's action could lead to his unseating speaks less about the mayor's actions (as deplorable as one might find them), and more about how terrible the law itself is.

So now what? Our council won't be any more functional in his absence, likely even less so. We'll probably spend several million dollars on a by-election, to have whoever wins (perhaps, even Ford himself) limp on for two more years, with 380,000 voters disgusted that the man they chose was thrown out not because he committed a crime, or acted in a corrupt manner, but because a poorly-written law (that the judge himself agrees is bad) left no room for an appropriate punishment.

I wanted a new mayor... but not like this.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Connecting ODSP and Ontario Works to a Free Ride

Photo of riders waiting to get on a TTC bus. Copyright 2012 the Toronto Star.

 The TTC has conducted their annual "bean counting" (if I might paraphrase Steve Munro) to look good in front of politicians at City Hall, once again showing how finicky the budgeting process can be. I thought I'd comment on one of the proposed reports by the commission. The TTC appears to be studying whether it's possible to subsidize recipients of ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) and Ontario Works. I think this is a great idea, but there are obviously some logistical details that would need to be solved.

When I lived in Halifax, there was a minor controversy between the city's Metro Transit and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). Allow me to set my story up first.

Halifax's transit is almost exclusively bus-driven (the exception being the ferry). Like TTC busses, you put your fare in a coin box, or you flash a transit pass to the driver. There are no fancy machines (like they have in Vancouver) that you can insert stuff into to obtain transfers and the like. Paying your fare therefore means dealing with a human being. For a long time, Halifax's transit service gave free passes to CNIB members. Like university students who got free transit passes (well, technically our tuition helped pay for them), they had to show some photo ID with them. I would show my "Dal Card", whereas a blind individual would show their CNIB card. This prevented people from handing the pass off the someone else to use.

What essentially happened (to my understanding) between Metro Transit and the CNIB is that other handicapable groups thought it was unfair that people with a particular disability got free access to transit, but other groups did not. Given the wide range of potential disabilities (not to mention trying to figure out who got a free transit pass, and who didn't), getting each group to create their own photo ID was impractical; it's one thing if a bus operator only need to understand a handful of cards. It's another if they're expected to remember and identify potentially dozens, each used by a fragment of the population. The decision for Metro Transit was therefore either to create a new identification card that all groups who qualified (whatever metric that fell under), or to cut the program out entirely.

Likely given the expense, consultation, and time the former would require (and there were rumours of a legal challenge had they continued to simply award passes to CNIB members), they chose the latter. But I want to be clear that more than the financial cost (handicapable people make up only a small portion of the population), it was really a lack of infrastructure that hindered the addition of new groups.

I bring this up not because of the obvious social justice issues around the decision (and it's not really about the competing interests, if you were handicapable but not blind, the decision still doesn't help you), but simply to identify that sometimes the best of intentions are stymied by the ability of meeting those intentions.

Getting back to the Toronto context, we see some obvious parallels. There is not a "card" that people on ODSP or Ontario Works get that would likely serve as an appropriate ID. This isn't necessarily a problem; the TTC already has the infrastructure to create photo ID (at Sherbourne Station) for students who wish to purchase student transit passes, so creating a new ID wouldn't be out of the realm of reality. But we also have to consider how low-income groups use transit.

The $104 to $126 dollars that a metropass costs on a monthly basis is too expensive for people on a fixed income (such as retired seniors and individuals on ODSP are likely to be). What you're more likely to find is that individuals with limited finances will instead make a small amount of trips. Perhaps they would take more with a reduced fare, but it's unlikely it would be enough to justify the cost of a monthly pass. The logistical issue then, is how do you do you get infrequent users to pay a lower fare?

It seems impractical to drag an individual out to Sherbourne Station to sit in line for an hour to get a photo ID so they can get a discount when they pay for transit they probably rarely use anyway. Asking people on ODSP to present forms at a grocery checkout or when getting on a bus to purchase discounted fare also sounds impractical (not to mention embarrassing). The city might have infrastructure to deliver a discount, but they don't likely have the infrastructure to determine who is/is not eligible for one. For the system to work, you need some sort of middleman, one that likely doesn't exist at the City of Toronto level.

Perhaps then, the middleman should be the ones already in charge of determining who does/does not get on ODSP or Ontario Works: the Ontario Government. While they may not have the infrastructure to give people on ODSP/Ontario Works photo ID, they know where the people who collect either live. With the two levels of government working together, this is is then figuring out who should pay for the subsidy.

I think the obvious choice is the Ontario Government, especially since greater access to transit could reduce the costs the Ontario Government incurs. Greater transit access can the opportunities for both ODSP and Ontario Works recipients to get access to social services and employment. The money saved could be used to help subsidize the TTC's ability to provide transit to these individuals. The Ontario Government saves money, and the City of Toronto doesn't lose money, and the people who need their help benefit. That sounds like a win for all parties.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Kids Know Their Schoolyard Best

2009 Image of Hollycrest MS. Over 12 acres of the property may be considered for sale. Copyright 2012, Google.

Edit: The School Board has decided today (Nov 22/2012) to not sever any land from schools.

A recent report from the Toronto Star indicated that the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is mulling over a decision to sell portions of about 367 acres of school parkland to pay for renovation and addition costs.The discussion that will follow this report will no doubt spark a flurry of angry parents looking to make sure that their kids don't lose their space to play. You can be certain that adults from the community, school board, and city will be wrestling with each other to figure out where and how much.

But let's call a spade a spade: this land is not "community" land in the sense that a public park is. It's owned by the TDSB, and they have the right to do with it as they wish (within reason). Yes, it's meant for kids to play in, but they're not places to walk your dog in, or to go play a game of pick-up soccer with your friends (unless you and your friends are kids). If you want it to be an actual city park (i.e. public property), then residents can try and petition the city to take the land.There are parts of the city that are recognized as having a deficit of parkland, and it therefore might make sense to have the city purchase it (if they've got the money to do so), or to seek it as a section 37 benefit from developer.

But here's a good question: what do the kids think about selling some of their playground? I remember being a kid with ample space to run around in, and in my somewhat hazy memory, I also remember that we had more than enough space to run around and play soccer (or what things got really crazy, soccer-baseball) where I grew up in Nova Scotia.

And if I'm being honest, our schools often had too much space. Even as kids, you end up using your space in a very practical way. At one of our former elementary schools ("Colby", now demolished), there was a large field that was often unused because it was flat and slightly downhill from the rest of the field, leaving it a wet mess for most of the year. It's one real use was to see it converted into a skating rink for a short period of the year, which was fun but I'm not sure justified leaving it as a big wet empty field for 11 months of the year.

So I think if you were to ask the kids who go to these schools, you could probably get a pretty good idea of not only how much space they do use, but also what they use space for (which is an important thing to know!). They'd likely be able to paint a very clear picture of what is/is not needed, and from there you could really begin to figure out which parts are suitable to be sold to developers (likely for infill housing). If it's about the kids, then we should make sure to include them in the conversation.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Neighbourhood Personality

2011 photo of Sarko, local Yonge/Dundas Personality by Dan Cornin

One of the things I often love about certain places are the neighbourhood personalities. Be they buskers, preachers, homeless, or just plain personalities, they can make places interesting by virtue of being there.

The first one I can think of was the late "NSLC Pirate", Chris Doyle, a fixture in Halifax for as long as I lived there. He would stand out front of one of the liquor stores downtown and trade donations for cards educating people about being hearing-impaired. Despite his wild look (long grey hair, eye patch, and scraggly mumble), he always seemed to have a smile on his face that cut through you. I know Halifax is a little dimmer without him.

In my brief time here in Toronto, I've seen three other individuals that I feel have contributed to the atmosphere here in the Big Smoke. I only know the name of one of them - the next time I see the other two I should ask - but like Chris Doyle, they've made Toronto a more interesting place.

Sarko the Preacher: pretty much everyone who lives/works near Dundas Square knows this guy. If the name isn't familiar, his two common phrases ("Believe in the Lord!" "Jesus is the way to Holy God!") and propensity to scare the heck out of the unsuspecting might trigger your memory. Unlike some of the other religious-types around this area, Sarko doesn't rely on spewing dogma or fancy equipment to try and reach people. He has a simple technique that - after the initial shock - becomes quite charming.

Depending on who you ask, you might hear that he scares people on purpose, but the thing I most enjoy about him is how he subtly reveals who is "new" to the area. Much like those stories of the "newcomer" in a city (who is identified by another character because of some trait), Sarko helps divide the residents from the newcomers. Those who know him are completely prepared for his sudden cry can calmly walk on by. Tourists and suburbanites however, often react with first with a fright (following it up with a laugh as they take stock of what just happened).

I won't  regurgitate my issues with the Yonge/Dundas intersection, but I will note how effective he is in using his space. Most buskers/preachers/panhandlers can't use the sidewalk on the north side of the intersection effectively because it's simply too small. They instead gravitate towards the sidewalk adjacent to the Eaton Centre, or to the north side of Dundas near the subway entrance where there's more room. This means that Sarko has little to no competition, being able to stand near street infrastructure that people would have to walk around anyway.

The Tim Horton's Door Man: there's a rotation of individuals who open the door for customers in front of the Timmy's just north of Yonge and Bloor, but the guy I'm thinking of is tall, has a beard and ponytail, and is often wearing denim. He's part of a kind of unique group of panhandlers I've not seen in Halifax, those who try and provide a service (however small) in exchange for your change. I haven't been in the area much within the last year, but I hope he's still around (if he hasn't found something better).

Like Chris Doyle, this guy always does his job with a smile on his face. He'll offer to watch your dogs while you go in to grab a coffee, and he understands that just because you didn't have any some loose coin on your this time (I'm horrible for taking a few dollars off my debit card for a medium regular and one of their orange-carrot muffins), there's always next time. Even just walking by him can put a small spring in my step; I'm one of those people who are all too eager to hold open doors for someone. It's a level of courtesy that is sometimes hard to find here in Toronto - even if the man's motives are financial in nature.

I've noted that this section of Yonge Street has a miserable sidewalk, but part of what makes this guy work here is his inherent mobility (you can't squat in a place to open a door). There's another guy who regularly sits nearby trying to sell Outreach newspapers, but the logistics of setting up a folding chair on a busy sidewalk sometimes makes it hard for him to be visible against the crowd (I occasionally see him near the Toronto Library to the north, which has more room, but less traffic). Like anything, the way we construct our cities can force people to be creative in order to be heard.

The Loblaws Busker: If you're familiar at all with the Loblaws on St. Clair West (it's on top of the subway station), you can often spy a man there either singing in a baritone voice, sometimes strumming along on a guitar. He's relatively new to the area (that I know of); he started out with just himself and a cup held in his hands, but has since upgraded his performance to include an instrument, and seemingly more "normal" hours (which is, if nothing, some measure of success).

He's honestly kind of a mixed-bag as far as songs go; I thought (given his voice) that he was singing mostly gospel music, but I notice more and more that he has instead taken to singing more crowd-favorite tunes. Of course you'll hear songs from bands like the Beatles, but his quirkiest "cover" has to be his rendition of the Crash Test Dummies "Superman Song". His voice isn't too far away from Brad Roberts, but he sings it with a level of optimism and joy that gives it a very different tone than the original.

The thing I like about this guy he helps animate was is otherwise a pretty miserable section of St Clair West. The Loblaws itself (while in a good practical location) is across the street from subway infrastructure (particularly for the streetcars going east/west into the subway station), and across from it is a park. Nothing against parks, but it causes attention to be drawn toward the large right-of-way. In other words, being on this sidewalk feels like being sandwiched between a large-scale grocery store and a giant road. Not the most pleasant of feelings. Buskers in this area therefore help take your mind off the crushing infrastructure. Given the length of the store, there's probably enough room to have a busker at both the entrance to the subway station and at the entrance to Loblaws, although knowing the city they'd just try and monetize it.

A few general observations:

  1. Just because someone is looking to part you from some of your loose change - scruffy looking or not - does not mean they can't add something to the neighbourhood. 
  2. The way we build our cities can either enable busking/preaching/panhandling in a healthy manner, or it can inhibit it to the point of crowding performers into a tight space, competing with each other instead of getting their message across.
  3. We should never doubt the creativity and ingenuity of people to make the best out of the space they've got. Remember: if the goal is to stop "panhandling" then one must tackle the root causes of poverty, not the outcomes.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Economics of City Building

Mid-rise building at 2 Alexandra Blvd in Toronto. Image from the City of Toronto website.
There was a piece in the Globe and Mail about why a corporation would pay a premium for an office downtown when cheaper places are available elsewhere. I won't regurgitate Tara Perkin's article, but I will say that it speaks to the difficulties of matching where you live to where you work. Glenn Miller -VP of Education of the Canadian Urban Institute - once told one of our classes (if I might paraphrase) that one of the biggest challenges was not with urban -> suburban travel (e.g. Toronto to Mississauga) but rather, suburban -> suburban travel (e.g. Mississauga to Markham).

But before we pat ourselves on the back for initiatives such as the Greenbelt Act, Places to Grow, sustainable living (and etc.) for driving this movement back to Toronto, I think it's important to recognize that the live/work/play lifestyle that eschews the car for citizens of Toronto (and of other larger cities, such as Montreal and Vancouver) can't happen from legislation alone. Economics was, and continues to be, one of the most important factors in driving change in our cities.

Companies are increasingly following LEED guidelines when constructing new buildings. There are savings involved by making a building more energy efficient, but LEED also gives you bragging rights that can attract talent. Saving the planet might rank a distant third. And certainly, some (not all, but some) of the demand for living downtown is being driven not only because it reduces the home/work commute. But were also seeing people choosing to live downtown because of factors such as the rising cost of oil which can make mundane tasks, such as grocery shopping, quite expensive.

But let's consider how economics can have a larger effect on city-building. The City of Toronto has designated several major roads as "Avenues". The intent (coupled with their Avenues and Mid-Rise Building Guidelines) is to entice developers to create new 5 to 10 storey buildings along these major arterial roads, such as the Danforth, Queen, and College by creating new "as-of-right" zoning. Despite its introduction, there has been relatively little up-take from the development community.

Two of my former classmates (and planners extraordinaire) Robyn Brown and Arlene Beaumont did their masters research papers on this topic, and found that one of the barriers to mid-rise development had to do with something completely out of the City of Toronto's control: the Ontario Building Code. Buildings above four stories have to be reinforced with steel, rather than just wood. This dramatically increases the cost of construction, making it hard for a developer to justify building mid-rise.

Understanding these links is an often over-looked part in planning. This is not to say that "all efforts are in vain against the mighty hammer of capitalism", but rather, we need to seek ways to get the private sector on board when trying to create healthy, liveable cities. Let's just be sure we use them for something they're good at doing, instead of something they're not.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Planning Expert-ise

I've been thinking lately about the interaction between politics and land-use planning, and one of the questions that keeps nagging me is thus: the divide between "experts" and "non-experts".

The problem - in planning, as it is in other fields - is often that non-experts* (e.g. residents like Jane Jacobs, media figures like Karl Rove) and the experts (e.g. architects such as Le Corbusier, neuroscience experts like Sam Wang) don't see eye to eye. The non-experts will claim (sometimes correctly) that the experts have bad models, that they are over-emphasizing particular "data points" and ignoring others. The experts (sometimes correctly) point out that the non-experts are letting emotion/politics/self-interest get in the way of their judgement.

(* It might seem baseless to refer to Jane Jacobs as a "non-expert", but I mean in a purely educational/practical way. Certainly, she's been highly influential on the planning practice.)

Of course (as both sides sometimes smugly point out) the other side isn't always "right". Sometimes the reasons they "get it wrong" are due to ignorance or even "acts of God" (Hurricane Sandy may or may not have handed Obama his second term, but it certainly didn't hurt his chances). Hence the challenge: we know that non-experts are sometimes wrong, and that experts are also sometimes wrong (how often they are I leave up to the reader), but if we can imagine that there is some hypothetical "right" answer, our task is therefore to bring both sides together in agreement.

Maybe that involves teaching the non-experts why your architectural plan will have a minimum impact on the surrounding neighbourhood. Maybe that involves the experts getting out of their jargon and models and trying to see if there isn't something they're missing. How that happens can be difficult. "How do you do that?" can therefore be a really good question! Let me give a real planning example.

There was a development proposal in the east end of Toronto, regarding some in-fill development (the summer I worked at the City of Toronto, there were a number of schools up for redevelopment). It was a fairly old neighbourhood and therefore sported quite a bit of Victorian-style housing. The developers had already done some pre-consultation with the neighbourhood, but this was their first official public meeting with an actual proposal in hand. The neighbours were concerned about many of the typical issues, such as traffic, who would be moving into the neighbourhood, and whether the units would be good for families.

One of the bigger issues that came up during a public meeting however, was the style of the proposed units. Certainly, not everybody liked the proposed design, but the biggest concern wasn't that the houses were ugly, but rather, that they weren't Victorian. During the initial pre-consultation, the developer's mock-ups had used Victorian-style models to illustrate the impact of the development on the neighbourhood in terms of size and density. But their proposal was something much more modern. Many residents (and the councillor!) felt there had been a kind of "bait-and-switch", to (what I believe was) the amazement/befuddlement of the developer. How does planning/the experts address this?

Certainly, they could design some "fake" Victorian architecture, but who would they be fooling? Clearly, there was a room full of people who were disappointed. The initial reaction from the developer, which amounted to basically, "uh, you know we don't need anyone's permission to design them the way we want them to look", went over about as well as you can imagine with a crowd whose feelings for the proposal was, at best, tepid.

Even the architect was flustered as to how to respond. He ended up trying to justify his design by orally recounting his CV. Which, well, might be impressive, but why should your education and experience shield you from criticism? I think this speaks to one of the problems that experts have, in that they can sometimes end up defending their qualifications rather than their project.

2009 image of 22 Grange Ave, "Patcher Hall", copyright 2012 Google. Note: not the area I'm referring to below.

But, after thinking on the sidelines for a bit (while the deluge of complaints continued), the architect said something that I think helped communicate his design to the residents that gave the proposal's design a "bigger picture". He said that sometimes the best way to highlight the features of an area (such as Victorian architecture), is to perversely build something completely different. A uniquely designed building can have the benefit of both being interesting (in the context of a fairly uniform neighbourhood), as well as highlighting the surrounding buildings by standing out of the crowd.

Certainly, it's not as easy an equation as different = better, but rather that done properly, everyone (potentially) can walk away a winner; the architect can design (what he feels) is a high quality building that will sell well, and the neighbors can walk away knowing that the house they live in will in fact gain in character/value. And in a weird way, this made the proposal more agreeable while changing absolutely nothing about it. I think planning often can feel byzantine to the public (because the framework is well, byzantine), so figuring out ways to cross the divide between expert and non-expert is crucial, and doing so sometimes requires being creative in how you address concerns.

(Of course, how the darn units looked would have zero impact on the traffic, so there was still some negotiation to do.)

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Politics and their Outcomes

Cartoon by J.J. McCullough at You should be reading it!

 This post is largely about the upcoming Presidential Election, but I'm going to tie it back to local politics and urban planning. I swear!

Depending on where you've been reading about U.S. Politics (particularly on TV or newspapers), you might believe that Barack Obama stands a really good chance of losing to Mitt Romney on November 6th. After all, we've got articles such as this one give the impression that Obama's job was in deep trouble.

And of course, if you read Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog regularly, you probably are scratching your head over the idea that Romney could have ever been described as a "favorite". Even at his best (the period after the first debate), Romney has never held the advantage over Obama, according to Nate Silver's numbers. To date, Silver predicts that Obama has approximately an 83% chance of winning the election; it may be premature to call his victory a "sure thing" (Silver does believe he has almost a 20% chance of losing after all!), but clearly the narrative his data is pushing differs from much of the media coverage. One therefore, must have it wrong. Figuring out how this can "happen" requires a deeper analysis.

In any election, there's really only a handful of "swing states" that really matter. One of the quirks of the Presidential Election in the United States is the idea of the Electoral College. "Winning" involves getting a majority of the 538 electoral college votes up for grabs (i.e. getting at least 270), that are roughly distributed to states based on their population. Winning a state's electoral vote comes down to getting a plurality of votes in the state. As some states are so liberal leaning that Romney has no chance (e.g. California) and some states are so conservative leaning that Obama has no chance (e.g. Texas), this means that each candidate will have a "foundation" of electoral college votes that are pretty much a sure thing.

Image from

As an example, Obama is pretty much guaranteed to get 154 electoral votes, and Romney is pretty much guaranteed to get 127. Other states may not be as close to 100% as you'll get, but they lean significantly enough that you can pretty much count them for a candidate. For Obama, this means he likely can count on another 47 electoral college (putting him to 201/270 votes needed) and another 64 for Romney (giving him 191/270 votes needed). The remaining states (noted in grey above) are the ones that will therefore decide the election.

From this perspective, the election certainly does look like a horse-race. If the national polls are close (and they are), then potentially either candidate could win the election. These eleven states therefore are the real "battleground" for the U.S. election.

But that's the interesting quirk about the Presidential election; it's not really about getting a plurality of the votes overall. Where you get those votes is much more important under an electoral college system. If a candidate gets a plurality of votes in New York, they get all 29 votes. You don't get a number based on how much of the vote you recieve.

(I should note that there are two states - Maine and Nebraska - that do not do an "all-or-nothing" approach to the electoral college, but the 9 notes*** between the two do not generally have an impact on an individual election.)

Imagine if the electoral college was tied (i.e. about 222 votes for each candidate) and only two states were in play: California (55 votes), and Texas (38). If all your concerned about is winning, then the only thing that matters is getting a plurality of votes in California. Texas (in this scenario) doesn't matter. You can win 100% of the vote in Texas, but if you don't get 50%+1 of the vote in California you lose.

And it's once you start drilling down into the state-to-state polling numbers that you begin to understand why Nate Silver believes Obama is the favorite to win: his polling in the swing states (particularly Ohio) is simply better than Romney's. Consider the following polling numbers that come from RealClearPolitics. Each number represents how far ahead they are (percentage wise) based on recent polls against their opponent. Surveys often give a confidence interval of about 3.5 to 5%, which means that the actual vote could be 5% in either direction:

Virginia (13): Romney +0.3
Florida (29): Romney +1.4
North Carolina (15): Romney +3.8
Total: 57 votes

Colorado (9): Obama +1
New Hampshire (4): Obama +1.8
Iowa (6): Obama +2
Ohio (18): Obama +2.5
Nevada (6): Obama +2.7
Michigan (16): Obama +3.5
Pennsylvania (20): Obama +4.6
Wisconsin (10): Obama +5.4                   
Total: 89 votes

Now consider that Obama has a lock on 201 electoral college votes, and Romney has a lock on 191. If you need 270 to win, this means that Romney needs to win more than Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina (total: 248 votes). He would also need to win in states where Obama is the favorite (if perhaps, only slightly so). Obama could lose in his three weakest states (Colorado, New Hampshire, and Iowa) and still win the election.

Incidentally, this is why Ohio is considered to be such a crucial state in this election. Romney's path to "victory" practically requires it, and without Ohio, Obama's chances of reelection drop dramatically, forcing him to "win" most of the other states he is favoured in.

But let me try and tie this back to Toronto (and to a lesser degree, Canada).

As you may have guessed (or already knew), the effect of the electoral college distorts how politicans "approach" winning an election. If you're Romney and you've got cash to spend, you'll get the most value for your money spending it in states like Ohio rather than states such as California or Texas. Certainly, there might be some long-term strategy for "flipping a state" to your side, but in the short-term of an election, you're going to want to "impress" the undecided voters in the states that you can potentially win in. This means putting resources (ads, appearances, promises) in that you normally wouldn't in the more "solid" states.

Similar things happen here in Canada, where the electoral "strength" of provinces such as Ontario and Quebec (which elect more representatives to the House of Commons than provinces such as Alberta and Nova Scotia) are often thought to be "pandered to". Like the Electoral Map above, a prospective party leader could win every seat outside of Ontario and Quebec (that's 112 seats) but you still won't get a majority without finding 30 more seats between Ontario and Quebec. It is little wonder why (from an electoral perspective) that "the west" has a difficult time competing for political interests.

But let's talk about Toronto. Municipal government in Canada doesn't typically have a "party affiliation" (at least not in the strictest sense; there are obviously left and right-wing city councillors). Even here we see the effect on the electoral system on politics (and by extensino, land-use planning). Any particular councillor is elected from a bounded geographic area (a "ward"). Hence, if you want to "win" an election, you need to appeal to the voters within your ward. One of the big complaints about the ward system is that it encourages politicians to think hyper-locally.

For example, it's often said that politicians will "pander" to the residents in their ward, and reject sound planning applications, passing them off to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to take the heat rather that face a backlash from their residents. The result is that planning in Toronto can end up costing developers, residents, and the city itself both time and money fighting cases. One can imagine that if politicans in Toronto were instead elected "at large" that there would be a smaller incentive to bend to pressure from "NIMBY" residents, as losing their vote wouldn't significantly hinder their chances for reelection. It's also contributed to hindering transit in Toronto, as councillors outside of the downtown core fight for modes of transit (ie. subways) that are financially infeasible.

(Amusingly, one of the barriers to OMB reform is that it's hard to enact pressure on the Ontario government to change the legislative framework, given that planning reform must compete with schools, services, and taxes that provincial governments are more associated with.)

But of course, it's not like the "ward" system has nothing but downsides. It;s certainly great to have someone to direct inquiries to when you have a problem (in fact, it's probably one of the biggest reasons why Rob Ford - who was known for trying to deal with problems outside his ward - was elected). The solution is often therefore to find ways of addressing the shortcomings of any system. As an example, a larger emphasis on per-consultation and education about the planning process (and how the public can help) might reduce some of the reactionary revulsion that neighbourhoods often have to "change".

Politics might hinder city-building, but it need not prevent it!