Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Way We Move

People in Southern Ontario are changing the way they move around. It’s no secret that the suburbs of a great many cities are automobile dependent. The argument has gone that these places are too low-density to support public transportation. The dense cores of our major metropolises such as Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto are the ones that can support “real” public transit. Transit has been typically the domain of the socially disadvantaged.

Here’s what we know about public transit. It’s for the poor. It’s for the inner city. It’s expensive. It eats huge subsidies. It doesn’t work in the suburbs. Or so people have believed.

The Ontario Government has introduced a program called Metrolinx to revitalize public transit in the Greater Toronto Area. But why?

Google the phrase “congestion in Toronto costs” and the first page worth of hits should give anyone pause. In January 2011 the Toronto Board of Trade issued a study that estimated the cost of congestion (or traffic) to the city of Toronto to be $6 billion per year. Toronto is also ranked with the longest commute in the world. On average Toronto’s commuter class spends 80 minutes a day sitting behind the wheel trying to get home or work. We’re worse than other severely congested cities, such as Los Angeles. If that doesn’t put things in perspective, I don’t know what will.

So, what can we do? More freeways are not the solution. Freeway construction is slow, and has only marginal benefits in reducing congestion. In addition, the people of Toronto, and elsewhere are not interested in having their neighbourhoods demolished so that people from further away can shave 10 minutes off their commute.

That’s where Metrolinx comes in. Metrolinx is in not charge, it just helps coordinate the efforts between municipalities and the province. It appears to be paying off dividends. Bus Rapid Transit programs in Brampton, Mississauga and York Region are proving to be quite successful. Brampton has seen a nearly 18% increase in public transit ridership. Transit systems in York, Durham and Halton have all seen increases around 10%, which is quite dramatic in one year.

Brampton, my hometown, has seen dramatic growth, and this is in part due to the Züm initiative I’ve discussed in previous blog postings, a rapid transit link that connects Brampton to Toronto.

Brampton is an excellent test case. As a city it is wealthy, middle-class and automobile-centric, and definitely, definitely suburban. However, it is difficult to get out of the city. Aside from Mississauga Transit, and GO it is not possible to get out of the city, really, without a car.

An automobile culture is becoming increasingly difficult to perpetuate. Rising gas prices, increasing costs of borrowing, insurance premiums, and environmental considerations are inclining people to abandon their vehicles for alternatives, but the alternatives have to be there. Brampton was a transit-poor city, there is no doubt of that, but once it was built people have flooded to use it.

The traditional stigma of transit is waning, or so I hope. It is not strictly the “loser cruiser” and only for the young, the elderly and the underclass. Ontario universities offer transit passes in their tuition encouraging a growing number of young adults to become more familiar with the positive aspects of transit. In Toronto, and other major cities, using transit is for everyone, and I believe increasingly in the Greater Golden Horseshoe transit will become a normal part of life. I feel I should add transit is be far a less stressful way to travel, you’re not personally responsible, and you can sit back and enjoy the paper, or talk on the phone, or play games on your personal device.

Transit shouldn’t become a bigger part of life in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, it needs to become a bigger part. If you did that Google search I mentioned above you’ll see that the estimated cost of congestion keeps going up over time. How long before businesses decided Toronto isn’t the place to do business. If we reduce 2011’s congestion by 10% we’ll save $600 million. Imagine what we could do with that?

A holistic solution is the only way forward. We need to improve how we move on a local level, on a citywide level, on a regional level and out-of-region (airports, and rail out of Southern Ontario). The better we get at this the better off we and our cities will be.

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