Toronto Talks Mobility Infrastructure
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Toronto Talks Mobility Infrastructure

A jam-packed forum points toward economical thinking about transportation.

Photo by {a href=””}PDPhotography{/a} from the {a href=””}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

“Do I agree with mobility management? How can you disagree with sliced bread!”

Mobility management is simply a term for figuring out how to use transportation more efficiently—moving more people with fewer resources. (Hint: this generally involves getting people out of their cars, which are the least efficient mode of transportation across a population.) And the above is what Hazel McCallion thinks about mobility management. The 90-year-old Mississauga mayor “Hurricane” Hazel McCallion was responding to points raised by transit planners George Hazel and Robert Stanley, and Barrie mayor Jeff Lehman, at Wednesday night’s Toronto Talks Mobility forum on transportation infrastructure. Moderated by Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume, the event saw City Hall council chamber packed to capacity, with some in overflow seats in the rotunda. The goal: straight talk about how to improve transit in Toronto.

Transportation consultant Robert Stanley spoke first. His theme: public transit is a customer service, and it needs to be run like one. The experience of the customer, said Stanley—and not traditional concerns about competition with other providers, turf wars about different modes of transit, political brinksmanship, and so on—must be primary.

Unfortunately, this is very difficult to implement well.

“The concept of mobility management contains an implicit threat: the suggestion that we need to change or reconsider or circumvent or redefine traditional political and institutional and modal and programatic boundaries,” said Stanley, who has directed research efforts through the Transit Cooperative Research Program and National Cooperative Highway Research Program in the United States. “I think there’s a great deal of peril in attempting to do that.”

Stanley drew on examples from drastic changes in freight shipping in the ’80s to illustrate the benefits of the idea, however. This “logistics revolution” in intermodal freight reshaped an industry that had once been driven by a focus on internal operating efficiency, cost, and competitive interests, but eventually shifted to a focus on getting packages to clients as quickly as possible—even in ways that were once unthinkable. (For instance, FedEx will now subcontract some stages of delivery to UPS if it’s the best way to get a package to a customer.)

Said Stanley: “What you see is a change in mission shift: from simply being a capacity provider to being a mobility manager with the interest of the customer driving the business. You see also an attempt to measure the quality of the customer’s experience more effectively and introduce those measures and those observations into business decisions. You also find collaboration.” With collaboration comes compromise, but the benefits are worth it.

Photo by {a href=”[email protected]/3149688136”}DGriebling{/a} from the {a href=””}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Dr. George Hazel, an Edinburgh-based transport and urban development consultant, spoke next. “Cities aren’t about buildings,” he said. “Cities are about people. Cities are the marketplace, and it’s people that make cities work.”

Hazel’s key point was that cities both are, and require, exchange space—that is, places of personal and economic interaction. Exchange spaces are where people meet, shop, sit in restaurants, interact, and conduct transactions which generate wealth in a city. According to Hazel, these two tenets of exchange, the personal and the commercial, are inextricable, and spaces in which they take place must be maximized and protected at all costs—they are what keep cities vital and growing.

Cities also contain mobility spaces: we need room to get around all these exchange spaces. And the point of transportation, he continued is to move people (not vehicles) in as small a space as possible, because increasing mobility space (say, building more roads) can only come at the expense of losing exchange space. In sum: “Transport isn’t about moving vehicles, it’s about moving people and goods. You’ve got to move them to get to the exchange space.”

(Sidenote: many cities, including Toronto, measure road capacity by the number of vehicles they carry rather than the number of people who use them. This has huge implications for transit planning in terms of what counts, in our current approach, as an efficient and effective use of road space.)

In order to best deliver this efficiency, Hazel’s driving message echoed Stanley’s: transportation must be approached from a customer service perspective, with a retailer’s mindset. It’s essential to convincing people to actually get out of their cars that the alternatives be appealing.

“Mobility systems in the future are going to have to be user-focused, seamless, and valued by the user,” he explained. “That may not seem like much, but it will revolutionize our transport system. It’s a system that can balance supply and demand through choice, incentive and nudging behaviour rather than coercion, and that’s politically deliverable.”

Photo by {a href=””}allanparke{/a} from the {a href=””}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Once the transit experts were done, Lehman and McCallion were on hand to give the on-the-ground politico response. They both agreed that we need to place a greater emphasis on comprehensive mobility planning in order to make the GTA (which, arguably, includes Barrie as well) economically stronger. “In the Greater Toronto Area municipal boundaries have got to disappear for us to have integrated transit,” said McCallion—tough words in a region that’s been fighting turf wars over transit planning for decades. Lehman concurred, and both also emphasized that the federal government needs to step in and start playing a role. “It has to become an issue for the national government, and it has to be a national vision that helps us emerge from it,” said the Barrie mayor. “It is fundamentally a productivity issue.”

Though it may seem occasionally crass to consider mobility overhaul through such an explicitly economic lens, rather than the social and environmental benefits we often hear about, the take-away of Wednesday’s discussion was that, ultimately, this may be the approach that actually gets things done. To paraphrase a sentiment oft-repeated by Mayor McCallion throughout the course of the evening: we must not give up hope, and we must keep working at it.

A complete video of last night’s discussion is available online.