April 22, 2014

How does urban planning affect city residents?

Something that makes me go ballistic about Canadian society today is our dependence on automobiles. If that wasn’t outlandish enough, this is coming from someone who has to drive to work. Driving is the unfortunate reality for 70% of Toronto commuters and for over 90% of commuters in certain parts of Canada.[1] This post will explore how we got into this situation from a personal and a societal perspective.

Personally, I did not own a car until shortly after I finished university and started working in 2008. Back at Bishop’s University and while growing up in Moncton, I had to resort to walking, cycling, and public transit in order to get around on my own. While having schools accessible by walking and cycling helped (the elementary school was almost across the street from my childhood home), getting around without driving gave me a sense of independence and sparked my curiosity for cycling long distances. There was no need to worry about gas prices, auto insurance, parking, maintenance, and repairs. This is why with the exception of commuting to work, I strive to this day to go almost everywhere by bike, with some walking and transit thrown in for good measure.

As for what lead me to get a car, I was living with family in a suburb east of Toronto when I started working, where public transit service was poor and the distances between key places made vehicles a perceived necessity. Even when I moved to the city core, the issue of insufficient transit near my work (still in the suburbs) remained, though I tried getting to work by transit once. As with most suburbs and smaller communities in Canada, there are other elements at play that lead to a near complete dependency on cars. Such communities will usually have the following features:
  • Large expanses of single family homes with a few townhomes in between.
  • Industrial parks on the outskirts for employment.
  • Wide arterial roads with high speed limits (60 – 80 km/h) and very little cycling infrastructure, though the latter item is slowly changing.
  • Mediocre public transit, in which buses can run more than 30 minutes apart in some communities.
  • While some suburbs may have a “downtown” area including office towers, shops, and apartment buildings; the bulk of commercial activity occurs at so-called “smart centres.” Those are giant parking lots with one or two big box stores (e.g. Walmart) and several other stores spread out, which makes walking between them undesirable.
  • Home prices are considerably lower in the suburbs than in city cores. Per Remax, a typical suburban home in the Greater Toronto Area could start at $250 000 - $300 000, which would get you a one (or two) bedroom condo in downtown Toronto. An equivalent home in Toronto is usually in excess of $500 000.
  • A perceived lack of family friendliness in city cores, in which condo towers are built to include mostly bachelor and one bedroom units without taking into account facilities such as schools. CBC’s “The Condo Game” documentary goes into this in greater detail.[2]

Given these observations, it is clear public policy can play a key role in determining where we live and how we get around. I will provide a few observations for each level of government.

Federal – Canada is the only G8 country without national strategies for housing and for transit. Affordable housing is needed in city cores to encourage residents to live closer to work. Consistent federal transit funding is needed to reduce traffic and political gridlock, both of which Toronto has been notoriously known for as of late.
Provincial – The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) has been known for overturning planning decisions by democratically elected governments in favour of developers. NDP MPP Rosario Marchese introduced Bill 20 (currently at committee stage) to free Toronto from the OMB, but Waterloo also had issues in which their recent plan to curb suburban sprawl was overturned.[3]
Municipal – One city official who has been calling for citizens to get more involved with the planning process is Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. She spearheaded the Feeling Congested transit consultations and advocated for mid-rise developments along major avenues. Mid-rise buildings can help intensify development and support transit without the controversy caused by taller buildings.

Let this post serve as a basis to further explore issues such as transit, housing, and planning. I will close it off with a clip about Feeling Congested, which recently unveiled its 3rd round of consultations.

Plan away!
Rob Z (e-mail)

[1] Statistics Canada. “2011 National Household Survey – Commuting to Work.” http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-012-x/99-012-x2011003_1-eng.pdf
[2] CBC. “The Condo Game – Doc Zone.” http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/episodes/the-condo-game
[3] Toronto Star. “OMB: Unelected and unaccountable fourth branch of government.” http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/09/16/omb_unelected_and_unaccountable_fourth_branch_of_government.html

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