Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Unpopular Urbanism

Urban issues are one of my passions. Over the last few years my bookshelves have become even more cluttered with books about public transit, land-use policies and urban development. What can I say? I’m a nerd. Things like this detach me from the everyday person on the street and sometimes I worry it disconnects me from the concerns of everyday people. I know traffic and congestion are issues that people care about, but probably much less than I do.

Like many urbanists I believe that public transit is the solution to traffic congestion. From the experts I have read, investments in public transit are the only way to reduce congestion. This immediately conflicts with public consensus. Most people assume, at least based on my own anecdotal evidence, that only by increasing road capacity (more highways, wider lanes) can traffic move better. Transportation experts will tell you increasing the number of lanes does nothing to alleviate traffic, cars merely fill the space. In addition it is generally bad policy. The eight lanes built for rush hour remain mostly unused for the rest of the day. A massive investment in capital and maintenance is only used at peak hours.

The idea that I am off-side with a great deal of the public on these issues has become quite apparent recently. First, I recently attended the public consultations for the Hurontario-Main LRT project. Admittedly this is a small subset of the general population, but those in attendance expressed great concern for the changes in Main Street and Hurontario for cars. In particular the creators of the plan suggested one option for Downtown Brampton was to close Main Street from Queen to Nelson to car traffic and allow only the LRT and pedestrians in the space. I thought it was a magnificent idea, and similar plans had seen incredible transformations elsewhere in the world. Pedestrian zones often become the hotbed of public life. It would make events like the farmer’s market and the events downtown even more public space. Businesses in that stretch could open larger patios and caf├ęs, cyclists would be safer to move and that stretch of Main Street could be rejuvenated with spin-off benefits accruing to the rest of the downtown.

While I saw these positives many of the other people in the room asked one questions, “What about cars? What about parking?” I wasn’t concerned about that. I trusted that the planners would be able to divert traffic, but many others were quite sceptical. In addition there are many large public parking lots in the area already.

The Hurontario-Main LRT will be built in the next wave of projects proposed by Metrolinx and paid for, hopefully, by new dedicated taxes. The urbanist press and advocates for transit investment all line up and are supportive of the new taxes. As I expressed when I first read them, these are not my favourite taxes, but I’m willing to accept them to beat gridlock and get the GTHA on the move. It appears that position is a pretty lonely one.

The prospect of paying more taxes does not sit well with most, unsurprisingly. The opposition parties, the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP, are already speaking out against the funding proposal. It is estimated that the average GTHA family will pay $477 a year in additional taxes. In my opinion, I would gladly write the cheque to support the project today, but I am already convinced so Metrolinx and the Ontario government need not win me over.

Voters will ultimately decide. This will take a while to implement and will require a vote in the Ontario Legislature. I have a feeling that this might be the issue that brings down the Wynne government and triggers the next election, and it will be central to the political battle to be fought.

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