Modern Vision of an Urban Future at odds with our Local Politics

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Ford Motor Company CEO Jim Hackett talked about the manufacturer’s goal to transform from a firm that just makes cars into one that provides mobility, Shawn Micallef writes.

By toronto star Wheels.ca

Jan 31, 2018 6 min. read

Article was updated 5 years ago

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“Roads that were built for cars replaced streets that were intended for living.”

In Toronto, this quote might be considered hippy-dippy, bike riding, “pinko” talk. Perhaps something a militant pedestrian activist would say. Yet, it was the CEO of the Ford Motor Company who said these words.

Jim Hackett was giving the keynote opening address at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas recently to talk about Ford’s “new civic freedom” philosophy. That sets their goal to transform from a company that just makes cars into one that provides mobility.

As I sat in the audience and listened, I couldn’t help but think how his remarks would sound out of context in Toronto or any number of Canadian cities where this kind of talk might be dismissed as “radical urbanism” or fuel for the “war on the car.” The title of Hackett’s blog post to go along with his speech was even, “Together, let’s take back the streets. ”

I had to keep reminding myself this was the CEO of a multibillion dollar auto company that employs more than 200,000 people worldwide.

Hackett began his speech by recalling the change the U.S. Interstate system had on his small Ohio hometown of London. It brought good things like industry, access to health care and economic growth, but there was a price for this freedom.

“Over time, as our towns and cities were designed around the automobile, parking lots overtook the community centres, and town squares were converted into intersections,” he said. “Fast-food chains that advertised the benefits of driving through on Interstate 70 crushed the family diners and restaurants. Farms were pushed away from the city centre.”

Hackett and a few other Ford executives went on to describe Ford’s vision of a “living street” which appeared on the screens behind them, all to a soundtrack of chirping birds and ringing bicycle bells. It looked like a utopic, Sesame Street vision of the city. Ford also had a large booth at CES with a life-size version of their living street, complete with bike lanes, street performers and benches in what would otherwise be parking spaces. “Roads are for cars. Streets are for living,” read one Ford display.

Jim Hackett Modern Vision

Following Hackett on stage, Ford’s President of Mobility Marcy Klevorn even said, “It’s pedestrians that are the predominant customers for ground floor retail stores.”

It’s all radical stuff for a Big Three automaker to say, especially on a platform as prominent as this one: CES is one of the biggest annual shows of its kind in the world, and hundreds of thousands of people attend. Just about every car company is there, too, showing off their electric cars and autonomous vehicle ideas. (Full disclosure: I was on a media trip to CES paid for by Ford).

All of this was part of Ford’s autonomous vehicle program and what they’re calling their “Transportation Mobility Cloud,” an open software platform that would allow vehicles, streets and cities to talk to each other and plan the most efficient routes for people. During her portion of the presentation, Klevorn described a scenario in which cloud technology directs a couple to use a combination of an autonomously driven taxi (built by Ford) and bicycles to get to their destination. In the future, Ford customers may not be car drivers at all.

To be sure, Ford has come around to this kind of thinking not out of urban altruism but because they see where cities are headed. And they aren’t getting out of the automobile business anytime soon, either. Right now at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford is showcasing their range of traditional cars and trucks it wants to keep selling. And recently on CBC Metro Morning, Mark Buzzell, president of Ford Canada, was more interested in saying he was “bullish” on Ford’s SUVs than talk up living streets or bike lanes.

I asked Jessica Robinson, director of Ford’s City Solutions team that engages with mayors and cities on mobility issues, if people might be cynical about all this urbanism when Ford is still pumping out SUVs. She said, “We’ll still be making cars for a long time to come. But there has to be a recognition we have to change. We’re still a for-profit company, and we’re doing this for its economic viability. It’s the future.” She thinks the power of Ford’s brand can help lead cities to a more urban future.

Jim Hackett Modern Vision

Back in Toronto, there are two political battles that seem utterly retrograde after attending CES. The King St. pilot project that gives priority to public transit is conservative in comparison to the Ford vision. Yet, it’s often framed as anti-business because a relative handful of restaurateurs, who have a long history of complaining, have complained about it. To be sure, local business is important, and between free parking initiatives and the proposed two-hour transfer on King that would allow people to jump on and off the streetcar and frequent businesses, the city is responding.

Yet, the productivity, economic output and quality of life of the more than 65,000 people a day who ride the King car gets little attention in comparison by those who frame the pilot project as anti-business. Perhaps it’s time for the big banks and other companies such as Deloitte and their 4,000 employees housed in their new tower in the financial district — who all benefit from the King pilot when their employees are on time and happy — to speak up for and take the lead on urban mobility the way Ford has.

The other current Toronto battle is in North York where both city staff and the local councillor John Filion are in favour of the Transform Yonge proposal to turn what is a six-lane highway running through downtown North York from Sheppard Ave. to just north of Finch Ave., into an urban street with separated bike lanes, improved pedestrian crossings, landscaping and wider sidewalks. It’s an image of North York that looks a lot like Ford’s Living Street, yet Mayor John Tory opposes it.

“Henry Ford got a lot right,” said Ford CEO Hackett in his CES speech. “He was right about freedom of movement, that’s why the company has lasted so long. But if he was here today, he’d want to avoid making the mistakes of the industrial age when freedom of movement came at the expense of community and our connection to each other.”

Big business has an eye on the future by necessity while local politics looks backward by popular demand. But politicians in Toronto and other Canadian cities will no longer be able to say people-first urban mobility policy is somehow anti-business. It’s the future, and car companies are investing millions of dollars in it.

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Shawn Micallef writes every Saturday in the Star about where and how we live in the GTA. Wander the streets with him on Twitter @shawnmicallef

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