Back in November, we talked with Principal Architect at DIALOG Design Antonio Gómez-Palacio, who shared with us his team's involvement in the groundbreaking Valley Line LRT project in Edmonton. The 27-kilometre-long transit route of low-floor vehicles will connect outlying communities in the suburbs with the downtown core. In many ways, the project is a microcosm of the transit plans being crafted on the desks of city halls across the country. Elected officials are finally beginning to champion what their retained urban planners have been saying for years: that public transit is the most efficient way to move people. While some will remain attached to their cars no matter how many alternatives there are — the independence that comes with driving offers a value that mass transit cannot replicate — there's a growing recognition among lawmakers that people would explore other options if they were available.
But developing a fast, reliable, and extensive transit network isn't easy, especially in Canada, where land-use patterns and low population densities give rise to car-centric environments. It's difficult to provide efficient public transit to low-density suburban communities, which are already often characterized by long commute times. The relatively small pool of potential users is spread across long distances, making successful and convenient transit practically unworkable. So how will Canada overcome the differences in its urban and suburban built forms to manufacture a transit network that works for everyone? Gómez-Palacio shares his thoughts on the role of public transit in Canada and what our mobility patterns may look like in the future.
Sadly, it's not unusual for evidence to take a back seat to political wrangling when it comes to transit planning. Toronto's transit direction has taken several twists and turns in recent years, with fully funded plans being scrapped and replaced with unfunded and wildly different visions, even as the Toronto Transit Commission consistently struggles to balance its operational books. With so little funding given by upper levels of government — Toronto has received the lowest government subsidy of any major transit system in North America — the political discourse is akin to hungry dogs fighting over a scrap of meat when any injection of money is made. Municipalities that have been granted the power to enact their own revenue tools — including road tolls, sales taxes, and vehicle registration fees — often face the wrath of apoplectic constituents. It's clear that municipalities cannot go it alone. As creatures of the province, they ought to be nurtured and supported when faced with major challenges.
The lack of a predictable and stable source of funding has long dogged transit progress in Canada. In the only G8 country without a national transit strategy, municipalities cannot rely on other levels of government for assistance. Gómez-Palacio makes his position clear: "Canada needs a national transit strategy. But I would even argue that it needs a national mobility strategy — where the federal government is active in shifting and reprioritizing and providing direction around active transportation, creating walkable communities and cycling networks, and making transit a priority — and then talking about goods movement in the broader sense. In the absence of that," he continued, "many municipalities are left scrambling to create their own initiatives."
Gómez-Palacio said that tiered transit agencies like Metrolinx, which coordinates transit development in the municipalities that comprise the Greater Toronto Area, would be greatly assisted by federal direction and resources. He noted that there's been a "vacuum of leadership" made worse by "pandering to the interests of a whole series of parallel wards," which he believes has sparked a series of "perverse consequences." He added: "We're building and investing incredibly on highways to remote locations. While there might be good reasons for that, when you counterbalance it with an urban agenda and mobility strategy, we may actually end up making different choices."
The federal government is also largely uninvolved in leading a national discussion about housing. Mimicking the government's lack of coordinated transit action, Canada is the only G8 country without a national housing strategy. Gómez-Palacio thinks the two are naturally intertwined, with both badly needed to meet the demands of a growing urban population. "We focus a lot on housing affordability and we completely ignore mobility affordability," he stated. "People might move to a house in Barrie because they can't afford a house downtown; but in reality what they can't afford is the car. If you provide opportunities for people to live without a car, their ability to reallocate money towards housing would allow a lot of people to have much more wiggle room in their housing choices."
Since Canada's population is so widely dispersed, the country lacks a robust intercity rail system. While Canadians will look at Europe's vast and seamless network with awe, and Asia's bullet trains with amazement, there's a profound sense that very little of that will ever be achievable here. The Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor is the bread and butter of Canada's existing VIA Rail system, featuring a reasonably frequent service justified by consumer demand. The rest of the country is marked by a hodgepodge of stations that glaringly omits some of its biggest players: Calgary, Canada's third-largest municipality, is not served by VIA Rail. With the cost and length of the journey among the prime factors influencing potential passengers, it's tough to compete with the speed of air travel and the affordability of automobile travel.
"VIA is expensive and if you're taking your family on vacation it's much easier to drive or rent a car," said Gómez-Palacio. Though high-speed rail has been proposed between Toronto and Montreal — in addition to putting Calgary on the rail map with a connection to Edmonton — Gómez-Palacio doesn't expect to see it anytime soon. "It's going to be a bit of a stretch to get rapid rail or a bullet train between cities until we can make the economics of regular rail work."
But despite Canada's geographical constraints working against effective intercity rail, Gómez-Palacio believes there's an opportunity to tap into developing technologies to address these prevalent service inadequacies. "The economics of car ownership are just going up and the interest in finding alternative modes is increasing. In the midst of the conversation is the autonomous vehicle component. You can easily now see a convoy of autonomous transportation linking Edmonton and Calgary just as much as anywhere else. If they offer a more economical option than rail, it would make rail harder, and it might start to fill in the gaps that exist."
However, if other services begin to enter the market, will they cannibalize public transit use? And if so, what impact will that have on routes with lower ridership? Gómez-Palacio believes that the two could complement each other. "There's a real opportunity for transit to retool themselves. The two big expenditures for any transit agency is the drivers and running transit in low-density environments," he explained. "That proverbial bus that is running empty in the suburbs — if the bus is packed and people are paying their fare then there's not a cost to it, it's generating revenue. The ones that are running empty come to a cost. What happens when you take the need for drivers out of the equation? And when all of a sudden you have a whole series of options filling in the gaps for low-density environments, Uber being one. It means that transit agencies can reallocate much of their operating budget into the capital budget."
It would also allow transit agencies to reallocate funds from uneconomical low-density service areas to lucrative high-density areas. "Uber is never going to be a great option right in the financial district, you have the subway," explained Gómez-Palacio. "So transit agencies can focus on the mass transit component — light rail transit, subways, bus rapid transit — and to a certain extent allow these other technologies and services to fill in the gap in the last mile of low-density environments. They can piggyback on each other. The real opportunity Uber presents is not to just provide another service, the ripple effect that it has reduces vehicle ownership. A decade ago the only choice was to own a vehicle," he added. "Today there's a lot of grey in between because I can be a member of a carsharing program and I can rent vehicles — I have access to vehicles without needing to own one. My wife and I sold our vehicle 19 years ago and I haven't had a car since because we have other options. I haven't had to change oil in a car or pay for a mechanic in 19 years."
Emerging technologies coupled with the global trend towards a shared economy is creating the kind of opportunities that are shaping mobility in cities. Car-free lifestyles are already the norm in the densely packed urban areas of Europe. And with governments looking to combat greenhouse gas emissions, ambitious plans are being proposed to make vehicle ownership obsolete. The Finnish capital of Helsinki has set out on a mission to eliminate the need to have a car by 2025. Through their mobile devices, residents would be able to take advantage of an interlinked system of public and private transportation services that facilitates on-demand mobility. A few taps of a smartphone will hail a rideshare, an automated car, or a conventional transit vehicle. "They're looking at mobility in a comprehensive way and they're really embedding all the different technologies and services as part of a comprehensive package, which the more savvy travellers already do," said Gómez-Palacio.
Urban cycling is a huge piece of the future of mobility. But one of the vocal arguments against increasing investment in bicycle infrastructure — especially in the form of dedicated cycle tracks — is the insistence that Canada, as a winter country, lacks a climate conducive to two-wheeled commutes. Even in the warmer cities like Toronto, it's not out of the ordinary to hear municipal politicians deride dedicated bicycle lanes as a waste of space during the winter. Yet cycling champions like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where below-freezing temperatures are common, have adapted to the weather that all seasons bring. Consistently ranked the most cycling-friendly city in the world, Copenhagen's cycling modal share sits high at about 35 percent — more than one-third of the populace commutes to work or school by bike. And this wasn't by accident. A sustained and systematic effort by the City following the Second World War produced a safer environment for all road users. Maximizing pedestrian areas, reducing parking spots, and hosting car-free days were urban exercises that penetrated the mindset of residents. The previous indifference shown towards cycling transformed into a widespread passion.
"Ironically for some reason we think that it's okay for them to do it and we can't," said Gómez-Palacio. "But in fact we absolutely can. There's no reason why and you're starting to see it — this is the exciting part. You're seeing a lot of Canadian cities really own this opportunity and start to make decisions accordingly, sometimes out of desperation. Cities like Toronto can no longer deal with congestion and they know that you can't build your way out of it. You actually have to fix the way people move."
While leading the 'Feeling Congested?' consultation process for Toronto — a city-wide dialogue that explored transit options and funding — one of Gómez-Palacio's takeaways was that we can't afford not to do something. Most people agree with that statement, but the question of how to pay for everything is always a stumbling block. More investment from upper levels of government and higher taxes and user fees are always part of the equation. Yet Gómez-Palacio thinks a restructuring of government budgets could go a long way in filling the funding void. "It's not that we don't have the money to do these things, it's that we haven't yet prioritized transit within our budget. And the moment it becomes a priority we actually do have the money."
As rampant congestion continues to cost the Canadian economy billions every year in lost productivity, Gómez-Palacio believes reshaping the mobility matrix is a time-sensitive conversation to have. "We have a risk in all of this. The risk is if we don't focus on it and we don't seize on this opportunity — and the opportunity requires tenacity and vigilance — then in fact there's a dystopia at the other end. You can end up with cities that have greater congestion and where the quality of life drops and the economy is affected as a result."
Does Canada need a national transit strategy? How can Canadian municipalities amass funds to meet their transit objectives? Have your say and leave a comment in the field provided below.