After running for mayor on a promise to tackle congestion, John Tory took to the skies over Toronto on Monday in a bid to show how far he is willing to go to take ownership of an issue that dominates the public mood.
Since taking office, Mr. Tory has trumpeted improvements for transit riders and drivers, some of which had already been in the works. And as police used existing laws on Monday morning to tow 29 vehicles – shifting the focus of traffic enforcement from generating revenue to clearing roads – he talked up the latest change in a flurry of media events.
"It's time to put law-abiding people and businesses first in the city of Toronto," Mr. Tory said shortly after getting a birds-eye view of the situation from a media helicopter.
"It's time to say, 'No matter how important your business may be, it cannot be carried on in a way that is contrary to the law and in a way that inconveniences thousands of other people.'"
Polls showed that transit and congestion were the top issues of the mayoral campaign. And the candidates were eager to offer solutions. Mr. Tory promised drivers who were tired of being stuck in traffic that he would "solve that problem quickly."
As mayor, he softened his rhetoric, while keeping up a steady drumbeat of announcements and policy changes.
Throwing the weight of his office at traffic problems has given the issue a new prominence. On the flip side, congestion is the hallmark of successful major cities. It is unlikely to disappear in Toronto. And identifying himself so personally with the issue could put Mr. Tory at risk of political fallout if people do not perceive enough improvement.
"I think, actually, Tory's been getting credit for talking about it," said Nelson Wiseman, head of the Canadian studies program in the department of political science at the University of Toronto. "He looks good doing this, because it looks like he's doing something. And he's not waiting around for council."
Encouraged by the mayor, police began this week what was billed as zero-tolerance enforcement of no-stopping laws on arterial roads.
Twenty-nine vehicles were towed during the morning rush hour, police said in a news release. Total fees for a personal vehicle are about $400, including a day of storage, while the cost for commercial vehicles exceeds $1,000. Another 70 vehicles were ticketed.
"This is the new normal," Constable Clint Stibbe, of the Toronto Police Service's traffic services division, said in a phone interview. According to the constable, police had not aggressively enforced the law before because of different parking enforcement policies at city hall.
"The previous administration focused more on revenue generation. This administration is focusing more on clearing the rush-hour routes," he said.
The crackdown starting on Monday involved only a handful of police and parking enforcement officers – the downtown core alone has at least 60 kilometres of arterial roads – and scofflaws continued to abound. But the hope is that the threat of punishment will reduce the sort of lane-blocking that backs up traffic.
David Turnbull, president of the Canadian Courier and Logistics Association, warned a city committee on Monday the ticketing blitz will hurt businesses that rely on the services provided by the firms he represents. "We've been there all of the time at umpteen meetings, ready and willing to work together with them," he said after the meeting. "But there must be a recognition that you need just-in-time delivery."
From the vantage point of the helicopter, Mr. Tory told reporters, traffic seemed to be flowing better on Monday than usual. He acknowledged it was too soon to assess if the impact would be meaningful.
"I'd like to believe it's going to make a measurable difference," the mayor said.
"These things are measured. It will take time to see, you know, whether people have changed their behaviour permanently and what the difference is. But it's going to make a difference and I can tell you this much, the status quo is not satisfactory … so I would say that any improvement is going to be an improvement that will be welcomed by the people of Toronto."