Social Planning and Equity

Regional governance model sorely needed in the Greater Toronto Area

Over the last few days, it has been a transit junkie’s feast. Last week David Quarmby from Transport for London (TfL) was at the Toronto Region Board of Trade touting a regional governance model to oversee transit.  An eye opener was Quarmby’s proposal of TTC being handed over to Metrolinx, which I will discuss later.  Along with the Neptis report criticizing the current Big Move, a new direction is needed for regional transportation planning.

Political Missteps

Yesterday, Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne was also at the Board of Trade to make an announcement regarding transit funding where an increased portion of the gas tax would fund much of the Big Move.  Yet in a media scrum, Robert Prichard, chair of the Metrolinx Board was quoted in a tweet from Steve Paikin:

Um, check Section 32 of the Metrolinx Act there, Richard.

Let’s backtrack to all the missteps that have occurred to get us to this point.

In 2009, Dalton McGuinty announced to that in order to fast track projects from the Big Move, politicians from the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area would be eliminated from the Metrolinx Board and replaced with those from the private sector.

Fast forward to May 2013.  The Investment Strategy was announced, albeit two years later, provided options to pay for future transportation infrastructure.  Councils from the GTHA were given choices to implement the revenue tools.  These ended up being an exercise in futility as the city council soundly rejected all but a few of the revenue tools.

A provincially appointed Transit Panel led by Anne Golden, the same person who led the Greater Toronto Task Force in 1996, came out with a watered down version of the Investment Strategy.  These were soundly rejected a few weeks ago from Kathleen Wynne.  Now we have reached this point.  Touting its record on transit which originally included less funding for the original Transit City Plan in 2009 (which Rob Ford killed altogether in 2011); flip flopping on transit expansion in Scarborough with Minister of Infrastructure Glen Murray making an announcement supporting a subway extension instead of light rail transit;  and, an about face on providing transit revenue tools for transportation infrastructure.

The Liberals announced (in preparation for a potential spring election) Moving Ontario Forward, with plans to build $29 billion of transportation infrastructure.  This includes 30,000 parking spaces and 15 minute two-way, all-day GO Transit service with electrification and calling it high speed rail.  I have a huge dilemma with these statements.  Metrolinx not only has built suburban parking structures at its GO stations, but it is free parking.  To build additional parking spaces while Metrolinx and its Transit Supportive Land Use Guidelines mention transit oriented development, goes to show they are talking out both sides of their mouths. Second, electrification is an outdated technology. This technology is similar to that of the ACELA line in the Northeastern United States. While California and other states are talking about building true steel wheel high speed rail options, and several European and Asian countries already have high speed rail in place, Metrolinx decided to enter the 20th century with electrification.  The hard negotiations occurs with the Federal Government and the freight rail operators to purchase rights of way for high speed rail.  It could have been part of the Windsor-Quebec City corridor while being developed in phases.

Options to consider

Returning the Metrolinx board to politicians is the right thing to do. But also the right thing to do is to have a stable regional governance structure in place where politicians are elected at large. Many Metropolitan Plannning Organizations in the United States appoint politicians to boards and committees beyond transportation.  Also there must be taxation powers similar to that of Metro Vancouver.

Quarmby’s idea of placing TTC in the hands of Metrolinx may not be a bad idea. Not necessarily putting it in the hands of the province, but to consider amalagamating many of the GTA transit systems into one regional network.  After all, transit passengers only care about getting to their destination in the quickest way possible.  They don’t care who delivers the service. Furthermore, new routes can be laid out reflecting current travel patterns. Metrolinx can hire local transit planners alongside regional planners to work on a new network, and not be as pessimistic as Steve Munro or politicians like Oakville Mayor Rob Burton who want to maintain their local political fiefdoms.

Cities and regions are the economic engines of the province and the country.  Innovation and creativity come from these metropolitan areas. In the book, The Metropolitan Revolution by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley  they cite several examples from various American cities such as Denver, Chicago and Los Angeles, where regional collaboration and the political will overcome the deficits caused by state and federal governments. I strongly suggest politicians, public administrators and urban planners should read this book and take lessons on defeating political gridlock.

Taking politics out of transit may be wishful thinking, as Karen Stintz once stated.  But if our elected officials have the creativity to get out of this political gridlock, then maybe there will be less politics and more results from our politicians.

NB: This article was originally posted and archived on Global News in 2014 but removed my name as author.

Social Planning and Equity

Getting to yes means departing from Jacobsian activism

Originally posted on Global News on January 31, 2014.

Jane Jacobs was a community activist in the 1960’s during a time of urban renewal.  Slums were being razed for highway projects. Downtowns and urban areas were crime-ridden. Activists were deafened. Jane Jacobs railed against planners and engineers of the day because urban renewal was the response to social upheaval. Suburban living was the in thing.  

Jane Jacobs was also an advocate for community planning: having eyes on the street which made for safer communities and also being familiar with jewels in the community. This is the part of Jane Jacobs that remains strong, especially with the Jane’s Walk organization where locals lead neighbourhood walks.

But it is the latter that residents tend to abuse. Many cities and regions are moving away from suburban living. As driven by policies such as the Places to Grow Act in Ontario, many cities are being proactive or learning from past mistakes in order to densify. It is that choice of creating walkable and livable communities where residents are using transit more, less reliance on cars – including car sharing, more active transportation options. Sprawling suburbs aren’t the in thing anymore. But with a more dense environment comes the need for more mid-rise apartments and condominiums.

Residents have been up in arms over recent proposals such as the a “Kensington” Walmart or Loblaws, Humbertown, mid-rise in the Beaches, The OZ .  I would even include the Mirvish+Gehry Towers, transit in Scarborough and the Billy Bishop Airport expansion. Some politicians will hide behind the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to fuel the fire of residents and blame it on bad development.  There is a disturbing trend happening in the City of Toronto alone.

Developers are urban planners who work within the constraints of several city and provincial planning, environmental and transportation policies. But also developers have a vision. I, too, was guilty of blaming developers and the OMB for trumping over community interests (ask Councillor Peter Milczyn circa 2008). Community input is critical but residents also need to have an open mind. Always saying NO to projects is regressive and flies in the face of what community and city building is all about. Throwing Jane Jacobs’ name in vain would make her roll in her grave.

Getting to yes means means citizens need to depart from what I call the Jacobsian activism. We need to turn these people from NIMBYs into YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard). Times are changing.  The planning profession has progressed. Neighbourhoods and cities are being reshaped. Residents also need to be cognizant that economic development plays a role in planning too. The need for larger grocery stores are not meant to shut down community markets but to add to the competition and provide choice. The need for a slightly larger airport not only benefits the downtown residents and business community, but also serves as a regional option for passengers too.  

Citizens, do your homework but let the planners plan. We have the best interest of the community in mind. This is what Jane Jacobs would have wanted.

Social Planning and Equity

Craft beer urbanism – putting the hop back into cities

Originally posted for Global News on January 6, 2014

A glass of beer is displayed on the bar at Brooklyn Brewery on October 23, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. . Mario Tama/Getty Images

What is craft beer urbanism you ask? If urbanism is about bringing people together through culture and placemaking, then craft beer urbanism creates that interaction through its location decisions and ability to congregate local residents as well as tourists.  As with urban planning trends and movements, the craft beer movement has been picking up steam for several years. Craft beer isn’t a buzzword or trend that some say should be eliminated in 2014. This form of urbanism should be embraced.

As cities are the economic engines of the country, craft breweries are the one of the pistons within the economic engine. The craft beer industry contributes to communities through jobs as they employ 650 people in direct brewery jobs, according to the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism (2013). Craft breweries are part of the creative economy where they become magnets and attract business to the area, like a Bellwoods Brewery in Ossington Village.

Craft breweries help define placemaking opportunities as well as local identity. Many of them represent the communities or regions they are part of.  Some examples have been Yellowhead Brewing in downtown Edmonton, Kichessippi Beer Company in the Carlingwood neighbourhood in Ottawa; and Junction Brewing and Kensington Brewing Company all in Toronto. Cassandra Campbell from Liberty Village Beer states that they use an incubator approach where they rent time from other microbreweries to brew their beer and sell it through establishments within Liberty Village. A small start-up approach to craft brewing, which is a component of a creative economy.

Noteworthy is the urban form of these local breweries. While some old mainstream brewery locations close down like Molson’s in Edmonton  and controversially been rezoned into commercial and residential space, craft breweries move into urban areas. Breweries are increasingly located in old warehouses or industrial units in the form of adaptive reuse.  Adaptive reuse is a process where buildings are re-purposed for new uses.  

Where do we go from here? Some craft breweries have been able to expand regionally and nationally. Others sell their rights to the mainstream breweries such as Anheuser-Busch and Molson-Coors, particularly for national distribution purposes. Those that do the latter don’t have the ability to stick to their base. Richard Florida from the Martin Prosperity Institute believes that import restrictions should be lifted and let other craft breweries come in to increase the competition. This is occurring in the United States where Lagunitas Brewing Company from California is opening an expansion location in Chicago. Chris Dillion, Managing Director at Vermilion Developments in Chicago states that cities should leverage breweries and brewpubs as anchors as it would offer a regional draw and retail experience.

It is always good to have debates on urban planning theories, principles and trends because you know it is worth talking about. Craft beer urbanism is here to stay and is putting the hop back into cities.

Social Planning and Equity

Transit leadership is about making difficult choices, not the status quo

Originally posted on Global News on December 20, 2013.

Leadership is about making the tough decisions.  Colin Powell said “Being responsible means pissing people off.”

Leadership is not about repackaging the status quo.

Last week, the Transit Investment Strategy Panel did just that. On the one hand, Anne Golden, with the release of the panel’s recommendations, mentioned that we all have to make tough choices. On the other hand, it was once again, playing politics by minimally changing the status quo. Yes, Councillor Karen Stintz was right – you can’t take the politics out of transit planning. That statement annoyed the heck out of Toronto Region Board of Trade Chair Carol Wilding. Based on Wilding’s comments on a local radio talk show, the Transit Panel’s recommendations did not go far enough.

The Transit Panel looked at two revenue options:

A- 3 cent increase in the gas tax capping out to ten cents, 0.5 cent rise in the corporate tax, redirection of HST on gas taxes to fund transit.

B – Capping additional gas tax to 5 cents per litre and 1/2 per cent increase in HST.

They do raise funds for transit but with the seniors cohort driving less in the next few years, younger generations choosing to use transit much more, and fluctuations in gas prices, this would eventually be a wash. The increase in the HST could be viewed as a province-wide version of a local/regional sales tax. So there is some merit. The corporate tax is a modest step in the right direction, but doesn’t sit well with the Board of Trade and the private sector.

The panel also suggested that road tolls should not be given any consideration because it would take too long to implement. In other words, it is too sensitive politically.

Currently Los Angeles is conducting a pilot project called Metro ExpressLanes where they are converting the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes on the I-10 and I-110 freeways.  This can be implemented on portions of the QEW, Highways 401 and 403 and the Don Valley Parkway where HOV lanes currently exist. In addition to this, use the two outer express lanes on Highway 401 and convert them to HOT lanes. Then direct those funds towards transit projects.

Citizens have made choices to “vote with their feet” and “drive until they can afford.”  Urban sprawl has led us down this path. In addition, 905 regions are paying the price for inefficient land use decisions. A perfect example is York Region where in 2012, the region was $1 billion in debt. York Region Transit has one of the highest subsidies in Ontario with about 60 per cent, which means they only receive 40 per cent in farebox revenue. Another result from urban sprawl. Other than changing land use policies, vehicle kilometres travelled is another option to raise revenue to fund transit. VKT is measured with the potential to change travel behaviour. But politicians are reluctant to make the effort to educate the public fearing the backlash they might receive.

Metrolinx should be charging for parking.  It is a wrong-headed approach to have subsidized parking, let alone the construction of the parking garages. The real cost of parking spots cost roughly $20,000. Metrolinx has claimed the costs are embedded in the fares, which I find hard to believe.  TTC decided to charge for parking at its lots. In 2011, Calgary Transit decided to reverse its paid parking charge and run a similar policy to that of GO Transit. Parking revenue could definitely feed into the coffers of transit operations.

Funds can go into a public infrastructure bank like the one set up in Chicago, or a government account that the panel had suggested, where it would be protected from being raided.

Politicians must stop looking at short term solutions and easy decisions for political electability.  Transit expansion should have occurred yesterday. The hard decisions must happen now. That is leadership.