Jargon Watch: "Radical Incrementalism"

Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy tosses out a very interesting soundbite after a debate about Toronto's King Street.

There has been massive development in the City of Toronto in what was known as the “Two Kings” -- the industrial lands to the east and the west of downtown Toronto that were rezoned to permit residential or other uses about twenty years ago under Mayor Barbara Hall. Trying to run between all this development is the King streetcar which now carries 65,000 people per day from their apartments to downtown. However, there are also 20,000 cars competing for space on King and they make it impossible for the streetcars to move efficiently. They are described by Ben Spurr of the Star as being “slow, unreliable, and erratic,” and walking is often faster.

One would think that, given the massive disparity between the number of people on streetcars compared to the people in cars, it would be a no-brainer to try and reduce the number of cars on the street. And that’s exactly what Toronto planners have been trying to do with its pilot project to limit through traffic for cars. Through a system of traffic control, cars would be limited to local access only, and then have to turn off the street. According to the planners:

King StreetCity of Toronto/Public Domain

The fundamental premise of the proposed pilot is that streetcar performance can be improved by reducing vehicular traffic activity on the street. Simply put, more traffic results in worse streetcar performance, less traffic results in better streetcar performance. It is proposed that transit be prioritized by discouraging non-local vehicle traffic on King Street, limiting the number of private vehicles competing for limited road space with streetcars. When given priority, transit along King Street will be able to operate with improved reliability, speed, and capacity.


Again, it seems like a no-brainer. But this is Toronto, where city council is dominated by car-driving suburbanites who might never have been on King Street in their lives but have an opinion on anything that might take anything away from the freedom to drive anywhere. As Tara Goddard noted in her thesis about drivers’ attitudes toward cyclists but that equally applies to their attitudes to transit:

Roadways are highly congested (and thus contested), publicly funded space, and both space and funding are a finite and limited resource. This results in the perception and reality of roadway competition as a zero-sum game between roadway users. It may be that this “realistic” competition is a stand-in for social competition; that is, the roadway is a battle ground for social domination, rather than just access to physical space.


When it came to the vote at City Council, Mayor John Tory proposed a modification to the plan that would give taxi drivers the right to ignore the rules at night, between 10 PM and 5 AM. The planners were against this as it will cause all kinds of confusion and will probably be ignored by everyone. The head of the transit commission said, “Don’t water this down. Let’s keep the pressure on, because the streetcars still struggle to get through even late at night.” But it passed.


Many are upset about this, but the local councillor, Joe Cressy was more sanguine, saying, “It’s radical incrementalism, as we do it in Toronto.”

What is Radical Incrementalism?

I thought that was a very interesting turn of phrase and immediately turned to Google. It in fact has a real history, going back to the suffragette and then civil rights movements. It is all about having a long term plan while taking digestible steps towards it in the face of strong and powerful established interests. One definition by Jennifer Gottesfeld explains:

Practicing radical incrementalism is a helpful way to navigate and strive for your idea of what should be, while also being rooted in reality. Radical incrementalism is exactly what it sounds like, making radical, strategically mapped out micro-shifts that don’t completely disrupt the existing paradigm at once, but slowly and methodically over time. Instead of taking the revolutionary approach of wanting to tear everything down and start over, employing a tactic of radical incrementalism may get you much closer to the just and equitable world that you want to see.

There is even a Canadian planner discussing it, with Simon O'Byrne of Stantec writing about Chelsea, Quebec’s economic strategy to compete with bigger, richer cities:

Most small towns or cities don’t have the money to pursue an ambitious vision in the short term. But every community, no matter the size, can adopt an attitude of “radical incrementalism.” That is, once you’ve formed a plan based on your authentic strengths, relentlessly implement it every year. When you have money, you progress quickly. When you don’t, you go a little slower. But you never lose track of the long game.

Sanford F. Schram, on his book The Return Of Ordinary Capitalism writes

By radical incrementalism I mean a process in which people push for change recognizing it might not be as large as they like but also in which small changes can do more than fine-tune the existing system. Radical incrementalism is not about tweaking what is already in place to help perpetuate the status quo and the existing structure of power. It rejects changes that in all likelihood are going to lead to the continuation of the very problems that people are trying to address. Instead, the small changes of radical incrementalism lay the groundwork for further changes that over time can help build to a transformation of the existing structure of power, the source of the problems being attacked.


City observer CitySlikr is not impressed, but King Street is still a victory. In his little tweetable soundbite, Joe Cressy has displayed some serious insight and strategy: Remember the long game, recognize the strength of the established interests, but chip away relentlessly. It is something all the incrementalists in the green movement have forgotten.

It is the smartest thing I have heard come out of the mouth of a Toronto politician in a very long time.

Tags: Cities | Toronto | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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