Municipal authorities are not exactly known for being innovative in public transit provision. That’s what makes Innisfil, Ontario “revolutionary”, according to Ben Spurr’s article in the Toronto Star. But is its approach to serving low-density areas really that innovative?

Innisfil, population 36,000, recently partnered with Uber to deliver a service that combines the flexibility of ride-hailing with the public subsidies of municipal transit. The town subsidizes Uber for its residents, so they pay $2-$3 to travel to/from a list of common destinations like the Barrie South GO Station and the Innisfil Town Hall, or $5 to travel elsewhere in the town. They’re pooled with others using the UberPool service.

This is the first partnership of its kind in Canada, although Uber currently has 35 similar partnerships with public transit agencies around the world. It provides one solution to the pernicious problem of trying to provide viable transit service in low-density areas. Two bus routes would have cost the town $610,000 a year while the Uber partnership has cost the town $165,535 in its first eight months. The partnership provides a much more user-centered approach, like taxis and ride-hailing apps, than traditional transit where users have to adapt their travel patterns to fixed routes and infrastructure.

But is Innisfil’s Uber partnership really that innovative? There are lots of earlier models of public-private or public-cooperative partnerships: Montréal has been combining taxi services with public transit for many years, claiming they “deserve to be part of our transportation cocktail.” Société de transport de Montréal offers a shared taxibus option in low-density areas and integrates taxis for 88% of its paratransit trips. STM also gives transit card holders discounts with car sharing company Communauto and bike sharing organization Bixi. Dorina Pojani and Dominic Stead’s edited volume The Urban Transport Crisis in Emerging Economies (Springer, 2017) details many informal or private-sector transport services in places like Mexico (informal collectivos), Indonesia (Go-Jek), and Turkey (informal dolmus), some of which operated informally for many years before being adopted by the local transit authorities.

Critics warn that, like any public-private partnership, reliance on private companies to solve problems for public agencies can be problematic. Like other tech-centered approaches, there is the risk of municipalities becoming locked into a particular technology, product, or provider through contracts that specify them. Municipalities could be forced to pay ever-higher fees for a service, give up rights to any resulting data (e.g. on travel patterns), or continue with a partnership even if it ceases to yield benefits for them. And then there’s the more philosophical debate: does partnering with private sector companies allow transit authorities to pass the buck? Should they be essentially advertising the very same private sector transportation providers that many public authorities consider their competitors? Are private sector solutions “anathema”, as Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc (a TTC board member) would say? In Spurr’s article, Mihevc claims that “The ‘public’ in public transit is destroyed when public transit agencies start subsidizing private automobile use.” Indeed, a number of the authors in Pojani and Stead’s book seem to feel that any type of informal or private-sector transportation options are competing with public transit authorities for would-be public transit riders.

Integrating short-term pilot projects with contracts specifying the public benefits and evaluation methods before/after the pilot project ends could help. We’re in the era of the pilot project, with most municipalities unable to commit to long-term services without testing them first for economic viability and other factors like community acceptance. Studying existing partnerships STM’s long-term “transportation cocktail” will also provide useful insights for future partnerships aiming to serve areas or populations in a more user-centered way than they could before.

I’m live blogging today from the Dalhousie University SHIFT conference. This student-organized conference began Thursday March 1st and ends today.

On Thursday night, the conference opened with a talk from Tamika Butler on social justice and equity in planning. Ms. Butler, a lawyer with a background in civil rights, has worked to increase transportation options for low-income and minority communities. She spoke about ways in which we need to confront our own biases and address intersectionality (e.g. ways in which individuals’ gender, age, ethnic and other identities can mean they face multiple barriers) when planning services and addressing issues like gentrification. Friday’s keynote speakers were Vikas Mehta and Katrina Johnson-Zimmerman.

Today’s keynote speakers include Susan Holdsworth and Gerry Post, an advocate for accessibility and equity in Halifax. Mr. Post addressed the need for a shift in regional governance to address the rural-urban divide in the huge land area of the Halifax Regional Municipality; integrated regional service delivery (e.g. for transit, location of services like Access Nova Scotia); and simplifying density bonuses so that it’s a more fair, equitable, and transparent process. He also advocated for the ability of citizen/community groups to advise development, using the example of Planning Aid in England.

This afternoon there will be a couple of workshops on redesigning streets, along with our monthly Planning Social at the end of the conference. If you’re in town, come and join us at the East of Grafton at 5pm!

Montréal is decidedly a different place after electing its first ever female mayor, Valérie Plante, on November 5th. Plante will take office during the city’s historic 375th year. Portraying herself as “l’homme de la situation”/the man for the job, Plante managed to unseat Denis Coderre (mayor since 2013 and elected six times as a federal MP) by focusing on everyday issues rather than ego-affirming projects like the $40 million Coderre spent to light up Jacques Cartier Bridge. Plante’s pedigree as a community organizer and activist is sure to change things up in the planning world, and someone described as “having no ego” is sure to excel in collaborating, forging partnerships, and facilitating action in areas like transportation planning and affordable housing.

Plante’s campaign promise for a new Metro line might take two terms to fulfil, but she’s already proposing that the Pink Line have stations named after women who have played roles in the city’s history. Whether the Pink Line will materialize will largely depend on available funding, considering the other mass transit priorities in the region. She’s also advocated for fare reductions for low-income residents and free transit for seniors and kids under 12. Improving safety for cyclists and increasing the number of dedicated bike lanes are also on the table.

Plante’s suggestion that businesses affected by construction be assisted with tax breaks from the city might resonate with Haligonians affected by the neverending Nova Centre construction and Argyle Street redesign. Inclusionary zoning, which would require builders to reserve 40% of their units for affordable and social housing, is also a priority for Plante as the traditionally affordable Montréal faces rising real estate prices.

Her win signals a desire for a change in leadership style. Projet Montréal, the municipal party Plante belongs to, also saw 11 borough mayors elected and have the majority with 65 seats on city council. With priorities on culture, sustainability, accessibility, democracy, and community, Projet Montréal was born out of community activism in 2004 and won 14 seats in the 2009 election and 28 seats in 2013.

It’s a bad week for chief planners. Following last Tuesday’s news that Halifax chief planner Bob Bjerke lost his job, Toronto’s chief planner announced yesterday that she’ll be stepping down. Jennifer Keesmaat has been chief planner and executive director of the city’s planning division since 2012 and will be vacating her position at the end of September.

In an interview with CBC, Keesmaat admitted that she always planned to review her career options after five years in the public service. Before working for the City in its highest-ranking planning job, she was a planning consultant. She is also very involved in the Canadian Institute of Planners, in recent years spearheading an effort to maintain the national organization rather than have just provincial/territorial licensing bodies. She is known for speaking her mind, even when that puts her at odds with Mayor John Tory. In particular, she championed a seven-stop LRT line to replace the aging Scarborough RT and advocated for the removal of the Gardiner East expressway. Many cite her as responsible for maintaining the agenda of sustainable planning in Toronto through the Ford and Tory regimes. Critics have said she’s too outspoken, too interested in stating her own opinion rather than giving more neutral advice, and takes to Twitter to engage in debates (we’ve seen a lot of this recently, but Keesmaat has been doing it since 2012).

Keesmaat certainly possesses many of the characteristics necessary for such a high-ranking position in Canada’s largest city: she’s media-savvy, determined, smart, engages the public in more transparent decision-making, and tackles issues that appeal to younger generations, such as sustainable transportation. She is the city’s first female chief planner and was just 42 years old when she got the job (it was a young administration–Mayor Rob Ford was only 43 at the time). Christopher Hume portrayed her as a novice in the Toronto Star, writing that she “quickly found out that the chief planner’s role is to advise not decide”, but I’d argue that she already knew exactly how planning worked at a municipality the day she was hired. The fact that she obtained the position of chief planner despite her inexperience as a civil servant, and kept it despite disagreements with those in power, demonstrates her political savviness. As we know from Halifax and Vancouver, it’s not unusual for chief planners to be ousted when their vision for the city conflicts with those of other powerful figures.

Many have expressed their support for Keesmaat should she run for public office, but she seems to excel at planning. Let’s hope she brings more of her expertise to Toronto’s critical infrastructure projects.