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EDITORIAL: A social contract is a precious thing (March 2018)

March 22nd, 2018 · No Comments

In South Africa, Cape Town is about to run out of fresh water. Authorities predict that Day Zero — the last time water will flow from a domestic tap — will hit on July 9, 2018. Three years of drought resulting from climate change has brought a city of 4 million to the brink of crisis.

After Day Zero, water will be rationed from 200 collection stations set up across Cape Town, and residents will be permitted to collect only 25 litres of water a day, barely enough for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and flushing the toilet. As a comparison, the average American uses 300 litres day.

It’s worth noting how Capetonians have acted so far to mitigate the crisis. People have reduced their consumption to 50 litres a day, effectively delaying Day Zero — originally set at April 24 — by 11 weeks. Indeed, if the rains return in May, the reservoirs will return to normal and the city will have dodged the bullet, albeit temporarily.

But this is a deeply unequal city that is home to mansions and shantytowns alike. The impact of dwindling water supplies will depend on each individual’s resources. Already, people with means are drilling wells in their backyards to access ground water. Of course, the aquifers are not bottomless, and every litre of water taken privately arguably reduces the pool for shared use.

The biggest fear in Cape Town is that the water shortage could cause a breakdown of public order and a rise in socio-economic tensions. This is a reality in a city where the health and welfare interests of the whole are pitted against those who have grown accustomed to their sense of entitlement.

In Canada, half a world away, the City of Toronto recently tried an experiment for relieving congestion along its busiest transit route, King Street West. The pilot project limits cars and gives overflowing streetcars an express path from Jarvis to Bathurst streets. Although no reasonable person would equate this to a drought, in each case a social contract is at stake where one party feels their interests fundamentally trump that of the whole. Depending on who you ask, the King Street pilot project has either been a smashing success or the end of the world.

Al Carbone, who owns the Kit Kat Italian Bar and Grill on King Street West, definitely falls on the latter side of that camp. He sees the city’s restriction on cars as a personal affront, characterizing it as part of a “war on the car”.

Carbone has so little regard for the plan that he paid to erect a middle finger ice sculpture that’s aimed at commuters that ride the King Street streetcar, and provided identical sculptures to at least two other businesses along the strip. He sees the gesture as his own little act of road rage, something he references in interviews with a dubious sense of pride. But while some business owners have vehemently disagreed with the pilot project, most commuters have rejoiced. Travel times are down and ridership is up by 25 per cent.

In a move that echoes how it installed bike lanes on Bloor Street, the city did its own study to measure economic impact. Every retailer uses either Moneris or Paymentech to process credit or debit card transactions, and Moneris, the largest of the two, specializes in providing data about sales on specific streets.

As it turns out, the King Street businesses (in aggregate terms) have not actually been harmed by the pilot project. (Similarly, data showed that Bloor Street businesses actually benefitted from bike lanes.)

Numbers don’t lie, people do.

Don’t let the bluster — typically from people who care only for themselves — take over the debate. It’s easy to claim a right to a public resource like road space or water, but much harder to share that resource equally. At some point, though, the self-entitlement becomes self-defeating. Let’s hope it evaporates sooner rather than later.



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EDITORIAL: Pandering to religious intolerance (October 2017)

EDITORIAL: Bike lanes, good for business (Fall 2017)

EDITORIAL: Don’t sacrifice safety for political gain (August 2017)

EDITORIAL: Thank you Mr. Asti (July 2017)

EDITORIAL: A watershed moment (June 2017)

EDITORIAL: Revoke U of T’s unchecked “licence to build” (May 2017)

EDITORIAL: Westbank’s positive precedent (April 2017)

EDITORIAL: Foreign buyers tax a necessary cliff jump (March 2017)

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