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May 23, 2014

Canada's Urban Transportation Mess

The Canadian Charger

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The recent topic of discussion on Parliament Hill was the future of urban transportation. The program was sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Leading off, Dr. Jeff Casello, University of Waterloo professor of civil and environmental engineering, traced North America’s love affair with the car back to the post-World War II era.  The old approach to congestion, he said, was “Widen the highway.”  But how do you pay for that?  The focus on the automobile and road infrastructure to cater to it mean that suburban living is underpriced.

“Transportation is essential for our economy,” said Dr. Zachary Patterson, a Concordia professor of planning and the environment.  However there are costs that may not be immediately apparent—congestion and pollution.  How, he asked, can we encourage people to make the desirable changes, building and using bike paths and mass transit?

Paying for alternatives to the car can be a challenge. 

In the U.S., there are federal grants.  Toronto needs good transportation in order to function, and it produces, according to Casello, 35 to 40% of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product.  Considering its centrality in the economic life of the country, the federal government has, he argued, a role to play in supporting public transit to keep the city functioning.

Moderating the discussion was John Geddes, Macleans Ottawa Bureau Chief.  He tossed into the discussion the London example of fees for cars entering the centre of the city. 

While Casello believes that ways need to be established to make car users pay for the infrastructure they use, he believes that the London model hits the poor.  It is unclear how this could be the case in the presence of good mass transit, however.  While we are wedded to the car, since our system was designed and built for it, we can move toward a saner transportation system by small changes.  Casello commented that the 16-lane highway into Toronto can only be described as “a failure.”

Patterson called for fuller integration of land use planning and transportation planning.  Such planning should encourage home construction near mass transit infrastructure. 

Business can also be encouraged to locate in proximity to transit.  The idea is to create nodes of housing, jobs, and businesses that provide alternatives to the urban centre, limiting the need for automobile traffic.  However, that kind of planning can boomerang.  Take the example of Kanata, which saw the collapse of Nortel as the key employer.

As part of the movement away from the automobile, Casello spoke of the demolition of Boston’s elevated highway.  He favors the same treatment for Toronto’s Gardner Expressway.  Expansion of public transit is the alternative. 

Other topics touched on during the presentations were the role of park-and-ride, bike lanes, and the urban sprawl in North America versus more centralized cities in Europe and Asia.  Casello argued that park-and-ride is not always desirable.  It needs to be put into a larger land use plan.  Will there be high density development near the park-and-ride?  And should the park-and-ride entail fees? 

As for dedicated bike lanes, the problem arises where bikes are invisible to drivers.  At intersections, the bikes need to be more visible.  As well, the lanes need a dedicated maintenance plan.  And we lack research about the extent of bike use. 

Tory Member of Parliament Chungsen Leung raised the matter of the difference between the North American urban automobile centred situation and the situation in Europe and Asia, where densities are greater.  As an engineer, he has been involved in transportation planning in those places.  The response was that Old World cities grew up prior to the automobile and therefore they have greater densities.  As well, in North America the federal government cannot impose a land use plan on local government.

Finally, there is the fact that people find satisfaction with their cars.  They will use them less as gasoline prices rise, and alternative modes of transportation will attract some, but the car will remain a major mode of transportation. 

How can we convince people who drive the car to work to support paying for mass transit?  The argument is straightforward: if we can get enough cars off the road, automobile congestion for those who continue to drive will decrease. 

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