I was in New York City over the weekend, and it was painfully evident how The Big Apple has taken the opposite approach to Canada’s transit planning.
The opposite approach also just happens to be the right one.
According to U.S. census data, about 90 per cent of Americans drive to work. But New York City is the only metro area in the U.S. where more than half of the households don’t even own a car. That figure is around 75 per cent in Manhattan. Mass transit is the primary mode of transportation.
It didn’t happen overnight, or by happenstance.
A kickstart from private enterprise
The first NYC subway line opened in 1904. City hall and the private sector got into the transit business as soon as electric traction motors were available to make underground transit acceptable.
The NYC subway is a tale of private enterprise, urban planning and public policy coming together over a period of decades to create what is today the largest system of its kind in the world. It is a combination of elevated and underground track designed to move as many people as possible, as efficiently as possible, from all points of the compass.
By 1931, the annual ridership was already equal to the population of the planet.
According to the NYC Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, this makes the city the most energy-efficient in America. While it comprises 2.7 per cent of the nation’s population, it contributes only one per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. (Separately, it’s also been rated “America’s Dirtiest City,” but that’s a subject for another time.)
Without the advent of NYC’s transit systems early in the previous century, the overcrowding in residential areas would not have been alleviated.
Don’t try to reroute a charging herd
What we have in Canadian cities is not an overcrowding of population, but a greater overcrowding of vehicles for what has become an ineffective road system.
Rather than give people transit options before the roads are choked with automobiles, we wait until traffic congestion and gridlock have reached epidemic proportions.
When city hall doesn’t take the lead on transit, neighbourhoods and traffic patterns develop around the only alternative – the all-powerful automobile. Traffic builds to a point where there is a massive problem, as there is in Toronto. Curing the problem is very expensive once development is in place, and changing people’s habits is like trying to reroute a herd of charging buffalo.
Ottawa is feverishly working to complete a host of transit improvements in time for Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017, the chief being the first phase of a new light rail transit system that includes a downtown tunnel. The focus is on moving people, and easing road traffic, on the city’s congested east-west axis.
Now, I don’t presume to suggest this is not a useful and necessary endeavour, but it is again an example of an overdue investment that came, after many false starts, long after the current traffic and urban/suburban development patterns were set.
We had a chance to get it right
Now, let’s open up an old can of worms.
A decade ago, under the leadership of then-Ottawa mayor Bob Chiarelli, the plan was to first build a north-south line that would have begun in the south-western suburb of Barrhaven, and he described a broad arc to the east through largely undeveloped land before turning north and heading downtown.
Ground was almost broken on this project (which was far cheaper than the current project), but it met with substantial controversy and ultimately died in 2006 with a change in leadership at city hall.
One of the biggest points of contention was the fact that the north-south line did not address Ottawa’s east-west traffic crunch. On the other hand, it stands as a reasonable example of city hall taking the lead to drive and manage future development – instead of having sprawling ‘burbs continue to sprout up east and west and add to the highway headaches, create an incentive for future development to shift south, adjacent to the new LRT line.
New revenue for city coffers
That argument, however, ultimately failed to win sufficient support.
The conspiracy theorists raise a red flag that routing any public transit project through as yet undeveloped land must mean city hall is in collusion with developers and land speculators eager to cash in on the inevitable lift in value. But this can easily be addressed by creating a formula for development charges that takes into account any lift in value resulting from new public infrastructure and from which the city benefits.
When it comes to transit planning in Canada’s major urban centres, we cannot continue to be reactive. It’s like waiting to see if the toilet clogs before checking whether we have a sewer pipe.
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