It's a novel idea - public services serving the public. At least that's what I take from the brightly coloured posters put up by the Humanize Toronto (HTO) campaign for free public transit on smog days. It makes so much sense it almost hurts, but that could just be me inhaling. The proposal's not unheard of. Windsor has implemented it as a pilot project funded by Environment Canada. Opinion is divided, though, on how easily such a plan could be transplanted to a metropolis like the Big (and getting Bigger) Smoke.
Keith Stewart of the Toronto Environmental Alliance says his organization takes a somewhat different tack. They encourage people to take the TTC on smog days, reducing the amount of pollution, but also to pay for it, thus helping out an eternally cash-strapped sustainable alternative.
"Unless the feds or the province want to put the money in [for free rides]," he says, "it'd be a huge loss of revenue."
Roberto Verdecchia of HTO admits it won't be a snap. "The campaign's not the solution, but it's a start. We think city council should vote on this and then send the bill to the province." Thereby they'll put pressure on those dragging their heels and mufflers on both issues, lethal smog and terminally underfunded transit.
Played right, the scheme could also get the attention of the bottom-line types running things. If they can be convinced to start looking at budgets based on real costs, they might find that while transit costs go up, others go down. Air pollution in Toronto has a price tag of at least $280 million a year for health care costs and lost productivity alone.
Then there are the 1,000 or so who die every year from smog-related complications. But when you're talking to the premier, just keep flashing the dollar signs. Tories are poster children for the privatization craze that's sweeping the globe; the idea of the public actually getting something for their tax money seems to creep ole Ernie out.
On my way out of the bike shop last week, I noticed it had some of those apocalypse-chic air filter masks in stock. Praise the spandex-shorted gods, Mountain Equipment Co-op ran out of them a while ago. But I stopped short when the implications hit me. Never mind the cost, the idea of paying to breathe made me feel dirty - though I expect my lungs could teach me a lesson about dirt, and I doubt righteous indignation makes much of a carbon shield.
Like it or not, we're already paying for air. Smog, loosely defined, is when bad air gets so bad that even the government has to admit it. Technically, it's a chemical reaction in which one of the crucial factors is heat. So a way to avoid it is air conditioning - if you can afford a car or a place with central air. The irony is, the fuel that needs to be burned to power all the air conditioners adds to the problem, leaving the rest of us to cough up some dough or cough up bits of our lungs.
And for the dystopian-future-today inclined, look no further than the pay-per-breath oxygen booths in smog-ridden Japan or oxygen bars in Mexico City, and even right here in Toronto.
Privatization on a cartoonish scale? Enter the anti-globalizers. Yes, they're still here, and soon to be hounding their favourite three-letter four-letter word, the WTO, at its mini-ministerial in Montreal, starting July 28. The Toronto Anti-WTO Brigade will be there.
No other single body has advanced the cause of poor airborne toxins more than the World Trade Organization. In 1996 it ruled against the U.S. Clean Air Act because the law would have cut into the profits of oil companies, especially those in complainant countries Venezuela and Brazil, which have fewer restrictions on gasoline additives. It also slapped down a ban the Canadian government had imposed on the neurotoxic gasoline additive MMT, and Canadian company Methanex is in the process of a similar suit against California.
But most breathtaking is the possibility of any large increases to public funding for the TTC being quashed. The WTO is not fond of government subsidies, since they go against the rules of "fair" capitalist competition. It's true that no private outfits are competing with the TTC right now, but there was a time when private ambulances were a pretty silly idea - and the idea of having to wear masks to go outside was as fantastical as fully funded transit seems to be today.
This is one of many reasons people are still hounding the WTO, and if its good friend tear gas makes an appearance as it has at similar chant-ins, activists may see it as more than a challenge. In light of all the junta's hot air, it could be an eerily appropriate metaphor.