Passengers line up for the bus at St. Catharines' Brock University

Passengers line up for the bus at St. Catharines’ Brock University

In this era of public spending scrutiny, transit construction cost overruns, pilot projects have become an ideal way for municipalities and regions around the world to experiment with a desirable planning alternative. In 2009, the City of Vancouver experimented with installing bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge, which became permanent a year later after one million cyclists had crossed the bridge. Toronto is currently experimenting with bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide Streets.

Just over an hour south of Toronto in wine country, Niagara Region initiated an intermunicipal transit pilot project back in 2011, granting $3.7 million to the municipalities of Welland, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls to connect to each other with new buses. The Region also provided additional funding to the program annually. The pilot program has been successful–though it was due to end this fall, the Region has extended it until September 2015. Last week, Niagara’s public works committee approved guiding principles for intermunicipal transit developed in consultation with the Region’s 12 cities and towns, and agreed to remove the words “pilot project” from any reference to an intermunicipal transit system linking the cities. Regional councillors also approved route improvements of $1.34 million in 2015–pending approval of the 2015 budget to support a system linking Welland, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Grimsby, Lincoln and West Lincoln.

Regional councillors say the project would also be key in convincing the province to extend daily GO Rail service to Niagara. A survey of 4,700 Niagara residents showed that 48% would be willing to support intermunicipal transit with higher taxes. Support was highest in St. Catharines at 60%.

Funding shortfalls are common among cities, as this year’s municipal elections have shown. While many governments are turning to public-private partnerships to fund expensive projects, they also work with community organizations, social enterprises, and non-profit groups to implement projects and run programs such as affordable housing for seniors and job placement services for youth. Crowdfunding could represent another aspect of cost-sharing that municipalities could use to help pay for services and projects that have strong support of municipal staff and the public. I’ve written before about participatory budgeting in Vancouver, Calgary, Guelph, and Toronto and posted last month about a crowdfunded bus proposal originating in Toronto’s Liberty Village.

RaiseanArm.org is a civic crowdfunding website created by Abdullah Mayo and the Hamilton Stewardship Council to give the public more of a say in public spending. Building on crowdsourced models common among start-ups and entrepreneurs which allow innovative ideas to find funding from many small donors online, the website aims to allow citizens to suggest ideas for the city. Spacehive in the UK, the world’s first civic crowdfunding site, currently has 359 projects such as recreation facilities, public art, and building restoration projects–50 are now fully funded. Citizeninvestor in the US features projects from $2,500 bike rack installations or tree planting all the way up to $200,000 public parks.

RaiseanArm has worked with the City of Hamilton to investigate the feasibility and legalities of crowdfunding in Ontario. RaiseanArm staff will bring ideas to the City to find out if the project is feasible or already being done in the Hamilton. If the idea were approved by the City, the project would be posted in the website and citizens would be able to pledge financial support or volunteer their services to get the project completed. While Mayo is excited to begin with local projects, he would like to gather support from across Canada and eventually expand to projects across the country.

For those of you confused by the plethora of candidates in Toronto’s upcoming election, Women in Toronto Politics has developed an easy to understand Position Primer. Simply type in your postal code and you’ll be able to instantly compare candidates’ positions in your ward on a number of key issues:

  • Childcare
  • Transportation
  • Employment
  • Affordable housing
  • Newcomers
  • Poverty
  • Public services
  • Taxation
  • Infrastructure
  • A key ward issue

 

The Position Primer is based on a survey that asked candidates for their positions on 10 issues in 350 characters or less. The unedited answers are yet another method for residents to learn about the key issues in their local areas before election day, October 27th.

 

A couple of enterprising folks are proposing a crowdfunded bus from Liberty Village to Union Station in Toronto, to provide an alternative to the overcrowded 504 King streetcar. The King line, the busiest streetcar line in Toronto, carries 60,000 commuters daily.

Taylor Scollon and Brett Chang have founded Line Six, aiming to run a pilot project from October 6-10th. In less than a month, they have raised $1,450 of the $2,500 cost of bus insurance and rights. The TTC has exclusive rights to charge for transit in the city, so Line Six will not charge a fare and will operate as a chartered service would. This type of “bottom-up” service aimed at solving a pressing need that the transit authority cannot (or will not) address is common in other parts of the world. For example, in the Philippines, two-wheeled and three-wheeled vehicles, as well as larger jeepneys, are family-run businesses that run informal routes throughout metropolitan areas, even in rural and suburban settings. They offer an alternative to the extensive bus and train network in larger cities. New York City’s dollar vans were born during a 1980s transit strike. Many of the routes are set up to meet the needs of immigrant workers in the metropolitan area, operating in areas where gaps exist in existing transit–they are not permitted to pick up passengers on MTA’s bus routes. Journalist Zoe Rosenberg (Curbed) reported in July 2014 that the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has issued 481 licences to dollar vans since 1994, and many more operate without licences. When Hurricane Sandy forced the MTA to shut down operations, dollar vans kept running.

Such solutions can be legally difficult in Canada because of monopolies. Two years ago, students set up a cheap bus service for students to get from Toronto to Kingston during the holidays. They were forced to stop because Coach Canada has an exclusive contract for bus service between the two cities. When the students aimed to start a Toronto-London service they received a sternly-worded letter from Greyhound Canada, which holds the exclusive contract. Years before, a student-established bus service eventually resulted in a new Greyhound route to the University of Waterloo.

However, private solutions can work–residents in a group of condos on Queens Quay pay for shuttle bus service to various destinations within the city through their condo fees. The service has been around for 30 years. Employers in far-flung locales have also been known to pony up for shuttles if their employees all live far from the area–Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s headquarters on Montreal Road in Ottawa once offered this service to employees.

crosstownroutemapThe Province of Ontario will issue green bonds to help raise money for construction of the Eglington Crosstown LRT, making it apparently the first government in Canada to use such a funding tool to pay for infrastructure. Premier Kathleen Wynne mentioned green bonds as a possible funding mechanism in her spring campaign.

Green bonds were pioneered by the World Bank in 2008 and can be issued for a specific project, a combination of projects, or to contribute to a fund for interrelated green investments (e.g. water treatment facilities using green technologies). The Economist reported in July 2014 that over $3 billion in green bonds were sold in 2012, skyrocketing to almost $20 billion in the first half of 2014. Although this is still only a fraction of the bond market, The Economist noted that “compared with most streams of income for environmental purposes, it is huge” and that the green bond market “appeared out of nowhere”.

The Ontario green bond program will be used to fund a range of sustainable projects across the province:

  • public transit
  • clean energy
  • energy efficiency and conservation
  • forestry, agriculture and land management
  • climate adaptation

 

The Eglington Crosstown, part of Metrolinx’ 25-year, $50 billion strategic plan The Big Move, is expected to be finished in 2020 at a total cost of $5.3 million. About $500 million is expected to be raised through green bonds.

rob-fordMayor Rob Ford has dropped out of Toronto’s mayoral race following this week’s shocking news on his health. Following severe abdominal pain earlier this week, the mayor was hospitalized on Wednesday and underwent a biopsy of a large mass in his abdomen yesterday. Results won’t be known until next week, and Ford could have remained on the ballot if he so chose. However, he seems to be playing it safe and attending to his health–something he has historically avoided doing. During the past two years of drama over Ford’s addiction issues, he steadfastly refused help until this spring, when he spent some time at a rehabilitation facility addressing alcohol dependency.

The mayor’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, will run instead, but will may not have the same polling numbers as Rob. Doug had been a councillor representing Etobicoke North (Ward 2), but Rob will now replace him in that race. Rob Ford was the Ward 2 councillor from 2000-2010.

Today was the deadline for candidates to withdraw from the race–low-polling candidates David Soknacki and Sarah Thomson withdrew last week. Candidate John Tory, currently polling in the lead, will face off with Olivia Chow, who until today polled in third place after Ford.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA bike_lanes.jpg.size.xxlarge.promoThe City of Toronto officially opened separated bike lanes on Sherbourne Street in June 2013. Six months later, The Grid examined the success of the lanes and found that several barriers still existed for cyclists: the curb separating the lanes from traffic could be easily driven over, and cars and delivery trucks routinely blocked the lanes despite the threat of a $150 fine. Conflicts with pedestrians and right-hand turning cars were also an issue.

But today’s news yielded different views. The Toronto Star reported that since opening, the number of cyclists using Sherbourne Street has tripled to an average of 2827 daily, up from an average of 955 daily in 2011. Even after subtracting the 800 daily riders who may have switched from Jarvis Street since its lanes there were removed, that’s still double the riders on Sherbourne post-lane separation.

Cycle Toronto, which advocates safe cycling as an essential part of a sustainable transportation network, would like all the mayoral candidates to commit to building 100 km of separated bike lanes on larger streets (like Eglington, Richmond, and Adelaide) and 100 km of designated lanes on smaller residential roads. They would like to see Toronto’s cycling mode share increase from 1.7% to 5% by 2016.

Municipal elections are still over a month away, so voters have plenty of time for a little light reading. I thought it important to highlight a few key resources for Torontonians caught up in the Ford-Tory-Chow- race for mayor. This past month has yielded a wealth of information that should inform your political choices for the largest city in the country.

  1. The City of Toronto is very financially healthy. To quote a report released a couple of weeks ago from the University of Toronto Institute for Municipal Finance and Governance, “Toronto does not have a spending problem.” For those who don’t remember, in his bid to “stop the gravy train” Mayor Ford commissioned independent audits of the city’s services. Internationally recognized firm KPMG found that most city services were mandatory or essential, and there were few opportunities to cut costs without cutting services. The rhetoric that we must constantly cut costs and avoid spending on essential services or projects has had a damaging effect: it has caused us to delay spending on important infrastructure, services, and projects necessary to the city’s functioning. All voters should check out IMPG’s report, Is Toronto Fiscally Healthy? A Check-up on the City’s Finances, an excellent primer on municipal governance and finance, answering questions like “How much influence do politicians have on the economy?” (Answer: Not much).
  2. Toronto Star comparison of the candidates' transit plans

    Toronto Star comparison of the candidates’ transit plans

    Public transit has emerged as the leading issue in this mayoral race. Every newspaper has spelled out, in mind-numbing detail, the plans of each candidate: here’s a summary from the Toronto Star. The Toronto Sun went so far as to break down each of Rob Ford’s campaign promises in “10 problems with Rob Ford’s transit plan.” Yeah, that’s right–the Sun, people. Voters need to be informed on what are realistic plans versus empty promises. Do your homework and don’t be distracted by the beautiful technology.

  3. What this city needs is a long-term vision. If you want to see what a transportation vision might look like, check out TTC’s August 19th report Opportunities to Improve Transit Service in Toronto, which outlines their futuristic vision for Toronto. Read about The Big Move at Metrolinx. Think about your own needs, and those of your family members, ten or twenty years in the future. Check out the Toronto Board of Trade’s discussion paper, Build Regional Transportation Now, to get some ideas of how municipalities could work together to achieve common goals. Among the more revolutionary of their suggestions are: reviewing governance options for improved coordination and integration of transportation related planning, management and operational functions; integrating transit route planning and creating one regional network, fare system, schedule and public transportation brand; depoliticizing transportation decision-making; applying dedicated revenue tools to manage transportation demand; and including fairness and equity in the application of revenue tools. In terms of a housing vision, most candidates haven’t gone into much detail: Toronto Life examined Olivia Chow’s affordable housing plan in “Would Olivia Chow’s affordable housing plan work as advertised?”, particularly the concept of inclusionary zoning.
  4. Don’t read too much into opinion polls: they are often inaccurate. Polls did not accurately predict Kathleen Wynne’s majority win in June, as the media often portrayed the difference between Wynne and Tim Hudak as merely in the single digits (the result: Wynne won 48 seats, Hudak 28). The same thing happened in Alberta two years ago, when the race between Conservative Alison Redford and Wildrose Party’s Danielle Smith was considered too close to call (the result: Redford won a majority with 62 seats compared to Smith’s 17 seats). Vote for the candidate who has the best chance of fulfilling your vision for Toronto.
  5. Look for overlapping goals. Canada doesn’t have an Obama, a leader whose 2008 election strategy focused on pointing out shared ideas and beliefs, and suggested “yes we can”. Increasingly, Canadian politics are divisive, pitting owners against renters, old against young, the native-born against immigrants. Voters have to look for common goals themselves, e.g. the fact that even Rob Ford, a poster-boy for conservativism, is spending his final weeks before the election coming up with plans for public transit tells you something about this city. The fact that the city has needs far greater than it can address with its own paltry revenue streams (e.g. infrastructure, housing) says something about the division of powers between municipalities, provinces, and the federal government. Voters need to be reminded that we do have common struggles, ideals, and aspirations: politicians are extremely skilled in wiping these commonalities from our memories as they try to define themselves and their platforms.

 

I urge all who are able to vote to register or just bring identification with your local address on voting day, October 27th. Students, you can vote in the city where you live as a student, or in your hometown.

A couple of months ago, I reported that vehicle licensing rates among youth and young adults in British Columbia had decreased. Now Alberta is reporting a similar trend (“Driver’s licenses not a priority, say young Albertans,” CBC News, August 5, 2014). Alberta Transportation reports that the rate of licensed drivers aged 15 to 24 has decreased by 20% in the past 20 years, from 90% to 75%. While this isn’t as great a decrease as that seen in BC (ICBC reported a 70% decrease among 20-24-year-olds from 2004-2013), it’s pretty big news in Canada’s oil-producing province.

As in other younger populations, Alberta researchers have cited the prevalence of social media for interacting with friends and the higher cost of living that today’s young people must incur in rent and tuition. But access to transit is also mentioned, aligning with the results of several high-profile studies in the US, Great Britain, Japan, Sweden, and North Korea. Rather than just suggesting that car ownership is merely delayed a few years while millenials establish themselves, Dr. Alex de Barros from the University of Calgary suggests that young people may opt for more sustainable transportation options now and in the long run.

CanU WP1 Suburban Nation 2006-2011 Text and Atlas comp.pdf - Adobe Acrobat ProA new report by David Gordon and Isaac Shirokoff at Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning has found that the majority of population growth in recent years has been in suburban neighbourhoods–even in our largest cities where condo starts greatly outnumber those for detached houses. This research implies major challenges for environmental sustainability, public health, and infrastructure investments.

In Suburban Nation? Population Growth in Canadian Suburbs, 2006-2011, released as a Council for Canadian Urbanism Working Paper, the authors use Census data from 2006 and 2011 and suburban classifications “active core”, “transit suburb”, “auto suburb” and “exurban”:

  • Exurbs were defined as very low density rural areas (<150 people/sq km) where more than half the workers commute to the central core and commuters live in low-density estate subdivisions or houses scattered along rural roads
  • Auto suburbs were defined as the “classic suburban neighbourhoods” where almost everyone commutes by car (density >150 people/sq km)
  • Transit suburbs were defined as neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people commute by transit (>150% of the metro average for the journey to work and >50% of the national average for transit use, <150% of the metro average for active transit )
  • Active cores were neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people use active transportation to get to work (>150% of the metro average for the journey to work and greater than 50% of the national average for active transit)

The classifications were developed by testing scores for different suburb definitions using Google Earth and Street Views, and a structured sample of Census Agglomerations.

Overall, 90% of population growth in Canada’s 33 Census Metropolitan Areas from 2006-2011 was in auto suburbs (80.1%) and exurbs (9.5%), with only 10% of growth in active cores (5.6%) and transit suburbs (4.3%). In 2011, 8% lived in exurbs, 69% lived in auto suburbs, 11% lived in transit suburbs, and 12% lived in active cores. About half of the metro areas had slight declines in their inner city populations as the new apartment construction failed to keep up with declining household sizes in central cities. Overall, 67% of the Canadian population in the 33 CMAs lives in suburban areas.

The authors suggest a “multi-pronged planning approach” to the problem including economic incentives that discourage sprawl and encourage compact development, better intensification in existing urban areas (e.g. secondary suites, laneway housing), redevelopment of formal industrial areas and brownfields on the edges of inner cities, waterfront redevelopment, military base and inner city airport redevelopment, TOD, street corridor redevelopment plans, retrofitting exiting suburbs, greyfield redevelopment of suburban shopping centres, and better design of new suburban development. The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and built on an earlier examination of 1996 and 2006 data.

This trend, and the aging population in many suburban areas of the country with transit services ranging from none to 30-minute frequency, makes me wonder whether we need a massive rethink of the types of transit that can work in suburban environments. At least in exurban and auto suburbs, where the densities are often too low to support traditional bus service at a 30-minute frequency. New York City’s “dollar vans”, informal services that often fill in gaps in the municipal provision of transit, are an example of this. Many immigrant workers find the services travel to parts of the city where they work, or operate during off-peak hours when municipal services stop running early. In countries such as the Philippines, jeepneys (informal vans or jeeps) and tricyles (small vehicles holding two passengers plus the driver) run even in suburban and exurban communities, are often operated by neighbourhood residents. In both cases, the services run so frequently that planning trips is unnecessary, and operators often speak local languages.

It’s clear that most Canadians are still choosing suburban lifestyles, including commuting by car, but there is still the 10%–and that is often enough to catalyze change.