Tag Archives: torontoist

Flying: Low Price, High Cost

Crossposted from Torontoist.

Reader Jonathan recently let us know about a trip he took to Ottawa and back via (cue dramatic music) Porter Airlines. That’s right, the airline of the infamous island airport.

It’s no secret that we have been less than enthusiastic about airport expansion, of which Porter Air’s operation has become the most prominent example. That being said, it’s worth noting that Jonathan’s review could not have been more glowing:

Wow! Flying is amazing! I think I might be spoiled forever…Just over two hours after I left my office, I was standing in Ottawa. To give that some context, I left work a little early and got to Ottawa before I normally get out of the office. Compare that with a train trip that takes over 4 hours for the trip alone! That two hours even includes 30 mins I had to kill in a nice lounge with free drinks and wifi.

Actually, we fully expect that his account is more or less typical, and we’ve heard similar stories from others. Not only that, but, as he points out, you would expect an experience so clearly superior to the train to cost way more, right? Not so! “The plane is just $41.70 more for a round-trip than the train,” Jonathan writes. “That’s less than $7 for every hour you save.”

So what’s the problem? If this is such a great service which is clearly filling a need (or, you know, at least the Western “I want it!” definition of need), how come so many people are getting so many bees in so many bonnets?

In fact, it comes down to that all-too-loaded word: cost. What we of course should have said is that Porter Air (and air travel in general) has a relatively low price. The cost, on the other hand, is both hidden and high.

These aren’t abstract, touchy-feely costs either. They’re real economic ones that we’ll all end up paying one way or another. The most blatant of these is the cost of climate change, which air travel contributes to much more than train travel, both because of the extra fuel/energy that’s needed to fly a plane, and also because of the high altitude at which those emissions are released. The Stern report (as everyone is hopefully tired of hearing about) pegged the real cost of not acting to reduce the severity of climate change (it’s already too late to stop it completely) at 3.68 trillion pounds. (Trillion! Pounds!) Stern, along with renowned author George Monbiot and the IPCC have also identified that, in order to avoid the worst of what climate change has to offer, we’ll need to make somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80% reductions in emissions below 1990 levels (that’s significant—always pay attention to the base year when people are talking about reductions) by the year 2050 at the latest (Monbiot suggests 2030).

Either we believe the science or we don’t. If we do, then we’ll quickly come to realize that there’s no room for flights of convenience in a world needing an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (Note also the related but slightly different health and economic costs tied to air quality in Toronto.)

Does that make Jonathan, or others who fly Porter, bad people? We don’t think so. They’re simply making decisions that make sense for them, based on the information they’re presented with. That’s reasonable—that’s what we all do. And the most significant piece of information they have, in this case, is the artificially low price of the plane ticket, which hides its true, high cost. That’s why the idea of using the tax system to send the right price signals to the market is gaining in popularity. In other words, flying, which has a high cost once the externalities are factored in, should be significantly more expensive than taking the train. (This can be done in concert with reductions on other kinds of taxes, so that it’s revenue neutral and more politically palatable.)

In that scenario, individuals will be able to make informed decisions about whether or not they think flying is really worth it. If they do, then fine, but fewer people will. A level of personal freedom will be preserved, and emissions will also be reduced. Unfortunately, of course, this is one of those things that would have to be implemented provincially or federally. Until then, we’ll have to focus on the things that can be done municipally.

My Mini-Controversy

Thought you might want to know about something that’s been keeping me busy and occupying more than its fair share of my mind space these past few days.

Last week, I made a post to Torontoist explaining the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly’s proposal to change how we vote in Ontario, and outlining their reasons for making that decision. As you know, I tend to agree with them, if for no other reason than the fact that now that we’ve conducted this lengthy, democratic, and open consultation process to find out what Ontarians want, it would be pretty unwise to ignore, well, what Ontarians said they want.

I was going to let you know about that post anyway, but what followed was a combination of frustrating and amusing, and seems worth sharing as well. You should check out the chain of comments to my post yourself, but in summary:

  1. I was accused of being in a conflict of interest, because, not only do I support MMP, I also belong to organizations that support MMP. (Scandal!)
  2. The editors explained that I’m not in violation of the site’s conflict of interest policy, since I disclosed my interests in the post. Also, the policy actually only deals directly with people writing about their “professional” lives, which is a bit of a stretch since I’ve never been paid so much as a dime by any Green Party or Fair Vote organization.
  3. Andrew Potter (an author and MacLean’s contributor who once described MMP as an “electoral system for losers”) argued that Torontoist was obligated to let a guest contributer represent the “no” side.
  4. Other commenters pointed out that not only does MacLean’s not follow that standard, Torontoist is a blog (a blog!) with a clearly stated editorial point of view policy. Also, any Torontoist contributers who want to write in support of the “no” side are free to do so, but none have expressed interest.
  5. Other commenters briefly attempt to actually discuss the merits of MMP itself (including people who oppose MMP), but have to fight for space with this other meta-discussion.
  6. I’m accused of spreading “green party talking points” (as is later pointed out by someone else, all I’ve actually done is communicated the thinking of the Citizens’ Assembly) and participating in “political interference.”
  7. I’m accused of “hijacking” Torontoist, and using it as a “puppet” to spread “propaganda.”
  8. The same commenter (who isn’t using his or her real name) complains that there is “no room for dissent,” marking their third post to a page which is now more full of “dissent” than my original post.
  9. The same commenter calls for Torontoist to “give this site back to the people!” A friend of mine following the discussion IMs me: “When did you stop being a person?”
  10. I’m accused of being an “operative,” whatever that means.
  11. I’m again accused of being a “parrot…in the employ of the Green Party.”
  12. Andrew Potter complains about the whole thing on his MacLean’s blog. Demonstrating a brilliant understanding of irony, he frets that we’re not allowing for divergent viewpoints while writing on his own blog which doesn’t allow comments.

The important lesson I take out of the whole thing is that when people don’t know how to argue about the actual issues, they attack the person instead. Also, for some reason, the lower the stakes (again, we’re talking about a blog), the nastier things get.

Tonight I’m off to Midland to represent Fair Vote Canada at a referendum choice meeting there. The more we all talk about this the better. As the Citizens’ Assembly process proves, a randomly selected group of Ontarians that understands the issues will always choose MMP over our current system by a wide margin.

Writing for Torontoist

I’ve been hired as a contributor to Torontoist, a Toronto community/info/news/blog site that gets around 100,000 unique visitors a month and is the largest website of its kind in the country. (Although they’re also in the largest city in the country, so that’s kinda cheating.)

My first post was today, regarding the end of BikeShare. All future posts by me should appear here. My contributions to Torontoist will be fundamentally municipal or local in nature, while I’ll continue to use this blog for topics that are more federal and/or partisan. (I won’t post here less than I have been, I’m just adding Torontoist to the pile.)

By the way, this seems like a good time to solicit feedback from y’all on what you want to get out of this blog. What sorts of posts have you liked? What haven’t you liked? And, come to think of it, who are you? Where are you? How did you find me? I’ve been getting over a thousand visits a month (increasing each month since I started), but I don’t have a good sense of who you all are. It’d be great to hear from you via comments to this post.