Toronto Mayor John Tory on how to make a smarter city

Toronto’s CEO-turned mayor on how tech is transforming cities: “Why should the job of people in public life... be to try and stop change?”

Toronto Mayor John Tory

Toronto Mayor John Tory at his office in September 2015. (Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star/Getty)

I had the chance to sit down with Toronto Mayor John Tory a few weeks ago to talk about technology and how it can be used to make municipalities a better place.

In my first conversation with Tory five years ago, the roles were reversed—he interviewed me for his radio show about my book Sex, Bombs and Burgers.

I found him to be knowledgable about technology—not surprising, given that he had previously run Rogers Communications (which owns Canadian Business)—so I was looking forward to hearing about whether he has any progressive ideas for the city.

We had a longer chat this time around, in which Tory talked about topics ranging from Uber and cellphones on the subway to public wi-fi and the competitiveness of Toronto’s startup companies.

The short version of the interview can be found in the Toronto Star, but here’s part one of the full conversation. Part two follows tomorrow.

How tech savvy do you consider yourself to be?

Smart enough to know what I don’t know, which is most everything. It’s not because I’m any older or less smart than other people, it’s just that the pace of change is so fast. I have to rely on other people to keep me up to date.

I’m 61 and there’s a spectrum of people who are 61, some of whom have immersed themselves completely for a variety of reasons and then there are those who have never had a laptop or desktop and don’t carry a smartphone. I’m somewhere in between.

I’m smart enough to know that you have to listen to other people and involve the [Ryerson] DMZs and incubators to do a lot of the things we’re trying to do, both for me personally and the city as a whole. Even though I ran a big company, my information from that company is dramatically out of date. It was 15 years ago.

When you ran Rogers you were at times a disruptor. Now, you’re in a moderator position. How much weight should the old ways of doing things get versus new ideas?

You have to be sure that the rules that relate to the players are fair and that they’re modern. The problem with the [Uber] example is that the rules never contemplated the entry of a disruptive technology. That’s why in many circles it’s called a transportation technology company rather than a taxi company.

You have a number of alternatives. You can either throw the doors wide open and say, ‘Let’s just let the whole thing happen as it will and it’s a completely open market.’ I don’t think that’s realistic because you do want to have in the interest of public safety some requirements for insurance, the quality of vehicles and so on.

The notion of it’s every man for him or herself in ground transportation isn’t on, nor is the old way on because it doesn’t contemplate that there might be disruptive technology.

I sort of look at our rule as being exactly what you said, the moderator. We have to look at this say and say, ‘How do we make sure the public has the widest possible range of ground transportation options and technologies that are safe and affordable and convenient for them, and the rules between those options are fair and equitable?’

That’s what we’re trying to do and it’s not easy. Those people who have been in the historical business would like things to stay as they’ve been.

Sort of like people in the newspaper business, they’d like to go back to a day 20 or 25 years ago when the internet didn’t pose any threat. Or like people in the television business would like to go back to a day when there wasn’t a Netflix. Or the people in the DVD rental business, which I oversaw when I was CEO at Rogers.

We had all those stores and they were thriving. Or the people in the landline telephone business who had a protected monopoly. But life doesn’t work that way anymore, I’m not sure it ever did.

My job is to be an informed, balanced, objective moderator who says, “How do we put the people first and say they deserve the maximum benefit of technology that’s done in a way that’s fair for them and for the people that are competing?”

When you were in the private sector, did you consider yourself a disruptor?

Absolutely. We ran a series of ads one time for high-speed internet delivered over cable that sang the song “99 bottles of beer on the wall, 98 bottles of beer on the wall,” and it went on and on. The objective was [to remind you] that’s the amount of time it would take you to download something on a phone line.

We were saying, “Your twisted-pair telephone internet service is no long valid.” We were stealing the customers, frankly, from the old version of the technology, which was dial-up.

When I was selling video-on-demand, when I left Rogers it was deemed to be a revolutionary product that was going to change the way people watched, and guess what? It consumed one of our own businesses, pay-per-view. We had them both originally and one of them disappeared.

So why should the job of people in public life or for that matter in business be to try and stop change? Everybody has a self interest, some people have an interesting in stopping the advance of these disruptive technologies, but probably you’re going to be unsuccessful.

Stopping it only buys you time, it doesn’t save whatever it is that you’re doing that’s out of date or on an old business model.

Have you had to change your thinking since becoming mayor, away from that disruption mindset? Or do the companies you deal with better understand your position better because of that?

Let me answer that question in two ways because one is about the reality dealing with people and the other is what’s good for the city in the long term.

Dealing with people, I fully understand that you have to be sympathetic and take into account, say when it comes to taxis and Uber, that cab drivers are hurting. They’re real people who are trying to make a living in an industry that has historically been protected and that is being dramatically changed by technology.

At the same, if you said to me, ‘What’s in the best interests of the city?’ It’s to have as much as valuable, disruptive technology coming in here as possible because that’s what pushes you to be on the leading edge.

I was very proud of the fact that our waterfront corporation has installed what is by most objective measures a world-leading broadband capacity. I’m encouraged by the fact that Bell has made the investment they’ve made in pushing fibre way into the system.

Yet, when I had a bunch of VCs in here last week from the United States and I was talking to them about various things, I was asking how our wireless and broadband are here because we’re told in Canadian terms that we have superior networks.

They said, ‘Maybe a five out of 10,’ and I said I’ve always been told as mayor or when I was in the industry that we have the tops in North America. They said, ‘That’s the problem.’ We probably do. But compare us to Korea or Japan and we’ll end up with a different rating.

I believe it’s part of my job to sort of say we shouldn’t sit around comparing ourselves to North America, even though that’s where we are. It’s going to be disruptive technology and investors that come in and say, ‘That fibre you’ve got down on the waterfront is great, but there’s something they have in Seoul or Tokyo that’s even better.’

I want someone to come in and bring that here, not because I want to hurt Bell or Beanfield, but because I want Toronto to be at the forefront.

It’s the same with traffic management technology. We had the first traffic management computer in North America—the first one. I’ve jokingly said it was a Commodore 64 and it’s still in place over there. We somehow let our competitive edge diminish over time by congratulating ourselves.

I went and toured the place before I was even thinking of running [for mayor] and they now have two computers over there because the number of traffic signals have expanded dramatically. They have a bunch of signals on the old computer and a bunch on the new computer and the two don’t necessarily relate to each other. So no wonder people don’t think the traffic lights are synchronized in many cases because they’re not.

We have talked a good game about installing new software and applications, some of which are even developed in our own city, and using those to provide for more advanced traffic management but we’ve done very little.

Even if you look at some of our own propaganda, you’ll see we say we did great things for the Pan Am Games, but what are those? Well, we put in 42 new traffic cameras. That’s terrific because I guess it means someone can sit in a room and watch the traffic jams?

That’s a small step in the right direction, but it’s hardly the best use of the technology that is available in other cities, going all the way up to experiments with driverless cars, which we’re not even legally able to carry out in this province. I think we will be soon [this is changing next year].

In between, there’s a whole spectrum of things and we’re starting to talk about it now. I’ve committed myself to speed up the pace of that change.

We’re doing this TrafficJam hackathon in a few weeks. We’re going to get the smartest people in here, have them spend the day and come up with a couple applications that could take advantage of our open data.

There have been things developed out of our open data that allow people to know when our transit is coming, but nowhere near enough. We fell behind because we were so busy patting ourselves on the back.

How open is the data that these entrepreneurs can access? How much can they do with it?

I’ve been the mayor for 10 months and haven’t spent a lot of time focused in on this area, where I’ve been able to burrow in on this question with a wide range of people, so this won’t be the best answer to the question.

But I will say that when I’ve been out talking to people about this at the DMZ … they haven’t complained to me about it. Whether the data is open enough or not, we’ve given them enough that they can make a meal of it.

People aren’t coming to me to say it’s impossible to develop anything because you haven’t given us enough data.

You’ve been pretty neutral on the Uber issue…

The taxi industry would disagree with that. They say that by being the moderator and by being open to Uber even existing that I’m not being neutral. I think that’s exactly what neutrality is about, to say that the technology is here to stay. They fundamentally disagree every time I say that.

What do you think will happen if city council bans UberX? The public still has a desire for cheaper transportation.

It’s going to create an enforcement impossibility. To say there’s going to be no Uber-type service, it’s not practical. If we’re banning it, we have two choices. You can enforce the law or you can hope they go away because somebody says, ‘This is the law and we order you to go away.’

Uber vehicles are not marked vehicles and the transaction takes place over what I’d say is a private basis on somebody’s smartphone. You either have to be looking over their shoulder to see what they’re doing with their smartphone, or you have to be able to peer in the car window and see what’s going on.

There’s the third, more realistic action, which is you have to get some sort of production order of the data at Uber as evidence in a court case. The authorities have all told me the notion of doing that for what could be thousands and thousands of cases if you really want to hurt them… it’s just not practical.

So to get back to the question, look at our initial response as a means of some immediate relief. I also look at it as a gesture of good faith where you have to regulate Uber and bring down the level of regulations on taxis so you have them much more equitable.

What was one of the first things we said we would do? You take down the drop, which is the initial fare you get charged when you get in a taxi, from $4.25 to $3.25.

The public opinion research shows us why people take Uber, their number one reason was affordability. They also said they’d be 50 per cent more likely to take a cab if the fare started to come down.

If you’re standing on a street corner and you see a cab and you put your hand up, it takes two seconds to get the cab. If you go on Uber, as fast as people say it is, it’ll take three or four minutes. If it’s raining or snowing or it’s cold, you’ll take the cab.

You’re disinclined to take it if it’s really expensive, whereas if the price comes down even by a dollar… we asked people about a dollar and they said that would make a difference.

The great thing about that disruptive technology and how it opens the market up is that it usually does push prices down. People have to adapt to that and they have in many other businesses.

Where did the idea for the traffic hackathon come from and what are you hoping to achieve with it?

It came from a combination of the city and the Ryerson people. Last year, the city saw quite a bit of political debate over it. All of us candidates went and visited the Centre for Advanced Traffic Management at UofT and we are all were presented with technologies that were being developed there that were being adopted or tried by cities outside of Toronto. Nobody here was really paying much attention.

When you hear [Toronto general manager of transportation services] Steve Buckley set out his vision of where we’re going to be in 10 years, he says there’s going to be a series of robo-cabs sharing the roads possibly with some driverless cars and transit vehicles. He has a sense of that that is better than the sense I would have.

I think he saw it – the political pressure that really resulted from public pressure, or people saying things as simple as, ‘I drive around the city and I can see with my own eyes that the lights are not synchronized.’

I can still see it today. I come to work really early in the morning. I take transit most days, but on the days when I take the car, you’ll sit at University and Elm Street and there’s absolutely no cars going anywhere and you’re sitting at this red light going, ‘Why is that?’

It’s because there’s no hardware or software in place that can let the signals know there’s no traffic so it can keep you moving.

Steve Buckley figured that out and thought the best way to make some progress on this, and I think he’s right, wasn’t to go out and hire a consultant as we often would have done, but rather get some of these people in from the DMZ and so on who are spending their lives developing these things that will hopefully be a big score for them one day.

Hopefully it’s something that becomes a big score, but in the short term helps us with our traffic.