Transit City: the TTC’s plan to build a network of light rail, extending dedicated transit infrastructure to many of Toronto’s neighbourhoods that lack it, thereby increasing residents’ quality of life, reducing our collective environmental footprint, and redressing a major backlog of transit development. Transit Cities: the term applied at a symposium held last week to cities that don’t just have transit but integrate it properly into the urban landscape, making good on the promise that transit expansion seems to hold but on which it doesn’t always deliver. Designing Transit Cities was its name, and bringing planners, academics, advocates, and the public at large up to speed on the opportunities and pitfalls of transit expansion was its goal.
The day-and-a-half-long symposium, co-sponsored by the City of Toronto, the Canadian Urban Institute, the Cities Centre at the University of Toronto, the Toronto Society of Architects, and various transit agencies, brought in experts from around the world to outline the successes and failures they’d seen in other cities’ transit expansions, and extrapolate some lessons for Toronto. Panel discussions dealt with everything from intelligent planning to community advocacy, and the symposium managed to cover a lot more ground than such events often do. (Though, as local transit guru Steve Munro suggested on his blog, this ground was perhaps well-trod, a rediscovery of ideas that have been discussed for decades.)
Though the speakers came from a variety of backgrounds, some themes did emerge quite clearly, providing a consensus view on the relationship between transit planning and urban development.
- Transit helps everyone. It isn’t just those riding the rails, and the rockets, who stand to gain from transit development. Reducing the number of cars on the road improves our air quality and decreases congestion, benefits to all residents, whether they be walking, cycling, on transit, or yes, even driving.
- The single most important shift we can make in our planning priorities is away from trying to move numbers of vehicles, and towards moving numbers of people. Our aim, fundamentally, shouldn’t be to help cars get around, it should be to help people do so. The effect of making this switch is to level the playing field for all modes of transit as a starting point (rather than the current state of affairs, in which cars are granted a certain automatic priority), and then build infrastructure and develop plans that are most efficient at getting people where they need to go. Cars are very bad at doing this, as they take up a huge amount of space per person (both on the roads and in parking), and so the upshot of this would be to favour modes of transit which, simply put, are much better at the job, taken for the population as a whole. Before people start shouting war on the car!, let us reiterate: cars are convenient for the individual, but horridly inefficient for large groups. This isn’t about having a hate-on for the private automobile but wanting to keep the city as a whole sane.
- Transit doesn’t breed other kinds of development on its own: transit lines need to be planned, and planned well, if they are to spur growth and become integrated into the communities through which they run. This involves both functional considerations (like how far apart you space stations, and zoning the land around stations for mixed-use development which will make the surrounding areas worth visiting) and aesthetic ones (since nobody will linger and benefit from the developments that spring up if they aren’t pleasant to use). Transit-oriented development, in other words, isn’t just about increasing density and curbing sprawl, it is about creating vital, livable neighbourhoods.
- Transit is a socio-economic equalizer. People of limited means rely on it for their livelihood, accessing services, and participating in the life of the city. One of the great boons of transit is that it gives people with lower incomes the chance to access opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. One of the great dangers of transit development is gentrification, as property values in poorer neighbourhoods often shoot up as soon as new transit infrastructure goes in. The Transit City lines run through or near all of Toronto’s Priority Areas, with the intention, in part, of spurring their development. There need to be safeguards in place to ensure that current residents don’t simply get displaced in the process.
Toronto has a great deal of work ahead. With billions of dollars still needed for Transit City, not to mention an ongoing dearth of stable funding for the TTC’s operating budget, our ambitions are right now far outstripping our capacity. It will take many more conversations like the ones held at Designing Transit Cities, and concerted efforts by planners, politicians, architects, and engaged citizens, if any of them are to be realized.
We will give the last word to Paul Bedford, former City of Toronto chief planner, and a panellist on the opening night of the symposium. “It should be possible to build a city and a region where you can go your whole life without owning a car and not feel deprived.”
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.