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In this proposal, the existing buses are reallocated to expand the frequent transit network

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Jarrett Walker’s blog shows the existing frequent transit network in Auckland (www.humantransit.org)

Halifax Regional Municipality launched public consultation for its new Integrated Mobility Plan this year, with the last public meetings in September. The municipality is hoping to provide better sustainable and healthy alternatives to driving. The online survey for the IMP focused on broad open-ended questions about residents’ desired options, rather than asking detailed questions about origins, destinations, and mode choice.

Halifax had already made some improvements to its bus transit system, partly at the urging of local grassroots group It’s More Than Buses. Dalhousie School of Planning alumnus Sean Gillis has been a key voice for the group. Gillis and his colleagues have been advocating for a simpler frequent transit network that would deliver 10 or 15-minute service along key well-used routes in the city, with the ability to connect to other short routes easily at well-defined nodes. It’s an approach advocated by people like Jarret Walker (www.humantransit.org), a transit advocate who has made his career out of attempting to through the bureaucracy of transit planning. Real-world examples of this simplified type of transit network include Auckland, NZ (transit planner Darren Davis just visited Halifax to talk about the simplification of his city’s bus network) and Vancouver, BC where TransLink is now in the process of implementing their frequent transit network.

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Vancouver’s frequent transit network

HRM has also taken steps to improve information for transit users. They installed GPS on their vehicles in summer 2016, which means bus riders will soon have access real-time information on bus arrivals. Halifax Transit is planning to make the data available to third-party app developers like Mindsea, a local developer of an Android app for transit users, as well as bigger players such as Google Transit. It’s this kind of collaboration and data sharing among public and private organizations that is making many municipal and regional transit systems much easier to use.

 

As most of you know, I’ve just started a new position at the Dalhousie University School of Planning. I’ve often thought that one barrier to effective public consultation in planning is the lack of knowledge about urban planning issues, such as the relationship between density and public transit provision or how a municipal plan sets out land use guidelines. It’s great to find out that Dal students are on the same page.

A few years ago, two undergraduate students, Byung Jun Kang and Uytae Lee, started producing videos that aim to educate the public about a variety of planning issues. The videos are between three and six minutes in length, and they often use humour to illustrate thorny issues. In September 2015, they incorporated as a non-profit co-operative called PLANifax that includes Byung Jun and Uytae as executive directors, three board members (current students and alumni), and many volunteers. Students do all kinds of work such as GIS mapping, finding planning documents and getting permission to use them, filming, and conducting interviews with planning staff. For example, third-year student Juniper Littlefield has directed and narrated a number of videos and Uytae (now in his fourth year) has acted in many.

Some of the videos are general in nature, such as their “Planning Basics Episode 1: Planning Process” (2016) which gives a brief overview of how planning works in Canada, including the Planning Acts, regional and municipal plans, and the role of planners and councillors. This is the first in a series aims at people who know little about the planning process, so I’m really interested to see how it progresses.

Transportation is a major theme in the videos: an upcoming initiative will involve how we use transit maps for navigation and information. In “A Case for Protected Bike Lanes” (2014), students partnered with local paper The Coast and the Halifax Cycling Coalition to show the cycling environment on some of the city streets by showing how dangerous it would be for a pedestrian to use the narrow afterthought of space on the right side of the road. They peppered the video with statistics on cycling safety: in the city’s Active Transportation Plan, over 40% of Halifax residents expressed an interest in cycling if it were safer. Halifax’s transportation plan states that it wants to double the rate of cycling by 2026.

In “Cars vs Pedestrians” (2015) students discuss the proposed hike in Provincial fines for pedestrian crossing infractions to almost $700. They ask whether our crosswalks are set up to encourage or deter use, showing examples of intersections that are difficult to cross as pedestrians: long signal timing, deceptive curb cuts, very long blocks present real barriers.

“What you Need to Know about HRM’s Centre Plan” (2016) goes over the region’s newest planning initiative and interviews some of the planners at HRM, and lets people know how they can get involved in the process.

Some of the videos explore historical issues. In “Down with the Cogswell Interchange” (2014) students explore the historical and present-day plans to take down the interchange and replace the streets with a more traditional grid street pattern. The stretch of arterial overpasses is just 1 km long, and doesn’t do much to handle traffic anymore. Students do a good job of reviewing the critical planning decisions that changed history, such as Gordon Stephenson’s A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia (1957). It was based on this report that city council decided to build the interchange, among other ill-fated decisions like demolishing the existing African Canadian community Africville (which the students show as the proverbial “elephant in the room” at about the four-minute mark in the video). They really packed a lot of information into a six-minute video!

In a video profiling Halifax’s Viola Desmond (2014), a black businesswoman in the city with a hair salon on Gottingen Street, students touch on the history of racism in the city. Desmond’s car broke down on a business trip through New Glasgow in 1946, and while waiting for it to be repaired she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She was asked to leave because she was sitting in the whites-only main floor seating, refused to pay the one-cent difference in ticket prices to sit in the other section. She was eventually escorted out by police and spent the night in jail on a tax evasion charge. This occurred nine years before the famous Rosa Parks incident in the US. Desmond took action against the Province of Nova Scotia, who didn’t formally apologize and pardon Desmond until 2010. Her gravesite is in the Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax.

PLANifax shows a tremendous initiative by students, many of whom are undergraduates who moved to the city to study planning. Their “outsider view” on the city and region is critical, because this distance allows their work to be instructive for anyone who is just beginning to understand planning as a practice that shapes so much of our urban environment. Here’s hoping PLANifax can live up to its hope “to be to planning what Bill Nye was to science”!

 

Reversing former mayor Rob Ford’s decision to slash the municipal budget by decreasing transit service, Mayor John Tory and TTC Chair Josh Colle have announced service improvements on the city’s 33 busiest bus and streetcar routes starting this fall.

With a $95 million transit investment in this year’s City budget, increases to service will be in off-peak times where ridership growth is strongest. Colle estimates that 55 million passenger trips annually will benefit from the service increase, and 2 million additional trips could be generated. Tory linked better transit service to the city’s poverty reduction strategy, saying that people need transit to access jobs. Improvements to 61 bus routes on overnight and all day service were announced earlier this year.

Tory began taking action to reverse Ford’s cuts to transit immediately after winning the 2014 municipal election, approving of many of the TTC’s suggested service improvements released just before the election. Running on a platform of regional express rail, Tory seemed to view transit as at least part of the solution to Toronto’s wicked transportation problem. But recently he took a more conservative stand on the Gardiner Expressway proposal before council, favouring the hybrid alternative rather than removal of the eastern section of the expressway.

The_Population_BombIn this week’s New York Times Retro Report, Clyde Haberman explored the unrealized population explosion predicted by biologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb forecasted that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were that England would not exist in the year 2000. Like Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), Ehrlich’s compelling writing drew attention to pressing environmental issues of the 1960s in a way that had never been done before. Both books sold in the millions.

Drawing parallels between the human population and the natural world, suggesting that we were far outstripping the planet’s ability to support life, even led Ehrlich to promote Zero Population Growth. The rapidly growing group of young adults vowed to have no children, or at most two to replace themselves, in order to help stop population growth. In India, the government had already begun to promote family planning and they seized on the opportunity to forcibly sterilize millions of people–sometimes even withholding aid or food supplies until people complied. In the US, President Nixon advocated population control and spoke of the dystopian future in store in America.

Undoubtedly, people around the world became more aware of the impact of population on the environment because of Ehrlich’s book and frequent speaking engagements–much like Carson, whose bestselling book led to a nationwide ban on DDT and inspired a movement that led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. But improvements in farming contributing to higher yields, a worldwide decrease in the birth rate except for a few hot spots, and improved health standards in the developed world have mitigated the doomsday effect Ehrlich envisioned. So it turns out that “in the year 2525” man may still be alive…sorry Zager & Evans.

How much fun would it be to do a Retro Report on a planning prophecy? Right now I can think of Vancouver’s postwar highway proposals. Those of you who are familiar with Gordon Price’s PriceTags might know this story–if not, check out the link to his newsletter here which includes a video clip on the Chinatown residents’ protests against the proposed highways. In short, the prediction was that unless a whole network of highways was put in place, nobody would be able to get in or out of Vancouver’s downtown. Teachers out there, a Retro Report might be a great assignment for a planning class!

You’ve spent several few hours of your time attending public meetings hosted by your municipality on the development of a new plan. You had to rearrange your child care and leave work early to attend. Wouldn’t you love to know how your comments on the proposed plan were used?

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A page from the 2013-2014 Implementation Update

You may have heard about the City of Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. Launched in 2010, the Action Plan planning process included a public engagement campaign that allowed residents to crowdsource ideas in an online forum. The Plan has ten goal areas, each with a specific 2020 target. The question asked in the forum was “How can we achieve reach our 2020 targets?” Guided by City staff, who moderated the forum, answered questions, and clarified levels of responsibility in implementation, participants suggested ways in which to meet the targets. Ideas were then reviewed and consolidated by staff, and participants were then able to vote on the ideas. As the status of an idea changed (under consideration, planned, started, completed, or declined), every person who voted on, commented on, or submitted the idea was notified by email. Since 2011, the City has published its progress on meeting the targets. The Greenest City 2020 Action Plan won the 2012 Sustainable communities Award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Five years after participating in the online forum, I still receive Greenest City Newsletters. They contain information about events in the city (e.g. Bike to Work Week, the BC Commuter Challenge, the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline) and ways that residents can help meet the goals, such as using a rain barrel for collecting water to be used for lawns and plans. At the bottom of each section, they site the relevant Greenest City goal: Green Transportation, Climate Leadership, Clean Water. And each newsletter has dozens of links to City initiatives and programs.

Just last week I received an update that the City was already meeting its Greenest City 2020 goal for transportation mode share: 50% of all trips in the City are now made by walking, cycling, or public transit. This is a major increase from 40% in 2008. There are almost 100,000 bike trips per day in the City. Vancouver has done a lot to mainstream cycling, including designated cycling routes with signals at bike height and installing protected bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge, Hornby Street, and Union. Many of these changes have been introduced through pilot projects, which were carefully evaluated before becoming permanent.

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A screen shot of the May 2015 newsletter

In the past few years I have visited many universities in Canada, the US and Europe, and I often get to speak to local planners and scholars in urban planning. Every one of them has been amazed at the Greenest City newsletters. Not only was the planning process itself innovative, but the way in which the City has kept in touch with participants on how the plan is being implemented is very unusual. Many municipal planning websites are difficult to navigate–it can take some sleuthing to find the official plan, by-law, or meeting information that you need. All of the information for the Greenest City is in one place, so it’s easy to see the progress that’s been made, like the establishment of the Greenest City Fund to implement the ideas in the Plan, strategies on climate change, a new program on recycling food scraps, and improvements to walking and cycling routes. The newsletters make it easy to understand all of the policies, programs, and initiatives that directly relate to the plan, and they’re written in non-specialist language and designed with compelling graphics.

Obviously, Vancouver is a large city and its planning department has more resources than a small or mid-sized planning department might have. However, partnerships with universities and colleges might make it easier to reach out to residents and keep them up to date on planning initiatives, particularly on the social media front. City councillors might also be willing partners in communicating progress on implementation, since many of them send regular newsletters to their constituents. Most cities haven’t caught up to online participation methods, and don’t have well-organized websites or regular email updates for their residents. Practicing planners regularly check out plans, policies, and programs in other municipalities to inspire their own work, so providing clear online information and regular updates might inspire policy transfer and innovation in other places.

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As a planner educated in British Columbia, there are number of things about Ontario’s system that make little sense to me, first and foremost the Ontario Municipal Board and its stranglehold on urban development. There are other oddities too, like the lack of coordination between provincial plans and lower-tier plans within the same upper-tier municipality, and the seemingly unending appeals that are allowed on virtually any planning decision–despite the requirement of the Planning Act to include public participation/consultation in planning processes.

No other province has an independent administrative board that hears as many appeals on municipal planning disputes as the OMB: in 2011, the City of Toronto had 121 cases at the OMB involving 240 days of hearings. The system favours the party who can pay more for legal advice, usually developers, while community associations hold fundraisers to build up hundreds of thousands of dollars in anticipated fees. And most disturbing of all, it isn’t just cases of individual buildings or lot disputes that make it to the OMB–it is currently permissible to appeal an entire municipal official plan. Even though a municipality is required to update its official plan every five years, the plan has often not made it through the OMB by the time a new one is required (go online and download your municipality’s OP and you’re likely to see an entire section at the front listing all the policies that are still at the OMB due to “site specific issues”). This “death by a thousand swords” is diluting any sustainable, innovative planning approaches that municipalities dare to produce and slowing planning to a standstill. And it’s completely unnecessary: no other province has an adjudicative tribunal with the scope and power of the OMB.

Surprisingly, all of this might be changing in the near future. When Kathleen Wynne won the provincial election last summer, she set out mandates for the provincial ministries. The priorities for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing included:

  • Moving Forward on Social and Affordable Housing
  • Improving Land Use Planning
  • Reviewing Provincial Growth and Greenbelt Plans
  • Reviewing Municipal Governance
  • Strengthening Partnerships with Municipalities
  • Amending the Building Code
  • Reviewing Disaster Response
  • Developing a Community Hubs Policy

MMAH is making steady progress on these goals, including the coordinated review of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Greenbelt Plan, Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and Niagara Escarpment Plan, which is now at the stage of public consultation.

A couple of weeks ago, MMAH announced that it is proposing sweeping changes to the way land use planning is done in the province, in fulfilment of its mandate which recommended a review of the scope and effectiveness of the Ontario Municipal Board, amending the Planning Act and Development Charges Act to improve planning and develop more sustainable communities, requiring citizen input during the planning process and reducing the number of applications to the OMB. The proposed Bill 73, Smart Growth for Our Communities Act, aims to introduce the following changes to the Planning Act:

  • Two-year moratoriums on development applications–no official plan may be amended within two years of its adoption. This also applies to zoning by-law amendments.
  • Limitations on applications to the OMB, including put an end to global official plan appeal, ending appeals to lower-tier plans not in conformity with upper-tier plans, and ending appeals to any part of an official plan implementing provincial policy related to the Greenbelt Act, Clean Water Act, Growth Plan forecasts, or settlement area boundaries
  • Additional emphasis on public participation–requiring Official Plans to include a description of public participation to be undertaken during OP amendments, zoning by-law amendments, minor variances, consents, and plans of subdivision and requiring Councils to actually explain how public comments affected their decision on development applications
  • An extension of the 180-day period for decisions on Official Plans and Official Plan Amendments–currently anyone may appeal an authority’s failure to make a decision in respect to an OP or OPA if a notice of decision hasn’t been made within 180 days. It is proposed that this be extended by another 90 days
  • New criteria, designated by the Minister, for minor variances that would be over and above those set out in subsection 45(1) of the Planning Act
  • Extending the review cycle of the Provincial Planning Statement and Official Plans to ten years, rather than the current five year cycle
  • Requiring park plans and reducing cash-in-lieu of parkland for residential subdivisions
  • Introducing additional transparency and accounting requirements for Section 37 (Community Benefits), which allows municipalities to collect money to be used for community benefits such as affordable housing and public amenities
  • Introducing mandatory planning and advisory committees for upper- and single-tier municipalities in the province
  • Allowing the Minister and upper-tier municipalities to require a Development Permit System for prescribed circumstance

Proposed changes to the Development Act include:

  • Improved capital recovery for transit through development charges–currently capital costs for services are reduced by 10% when calculating development charges unless the service is included in a list of services for which no such reduction is required. Bill 73 proposes to add transit to this list
  • The requirement for background studies supporting development would be expanded to include an asset management plan, showing the financial sustainability of all assets through their life-cycle
  • Additional reporting requirements on the use of funds

This is a remarkably bold set of amendments which will likely do a lot to streamline planning within the province. Putting an end to several of the most controversial practices (appealing an entire official plan, amending an OP days immediately its adoption, and appealing policies that aim at implementing provincial policies or plans) is likely to find favour among planners and public administrators in the province and contribute to a less complicated system overall. Extending the deadline for issuing a decision on an OP or OPA also makes sense–it’s often difficult for smaller municipalities, or overworked larger ones, to respond within the current timeline. The City of Toronto, like other municipalities in the province, has been working towards a Development Permit System. Many of the other proposed amendments deal with clarity and legitimacy–wouldn’t you like to know how your comments were used in a development application decision, or how your municipality used the funds they collected to be used for public amenities? Clarity and legitimacy were addressed in the debates on Bill 73 in the Legislative Assembly as well. Overall, it’s like a breath of fresh air is finally making it past the stodgy gatekeepers of Ontario Planningland.

The First Reading of Bill 73 was on March 5th and by April 21st it was in the debates preceding the Second Reading. You can monitor the progress of Bill 73 here.

Mid-rise development on Kingston Road in Scarborough

Mid-rise development on Kingston Road in Scarborough, from the City of Toronto website

With the Eglington Crosstown LRT scheduled for completion by 2020, developers are eyeing sites along its 19km length. Eglington is designated as one of the City of Toronto’s Avenues, major streets with the potential for higher densities, redevelopment, and transit services, and is and slated for mid-rise development of six to eight stories. But developers want to capitalize on the established high-rise trend at Yonge and Eglington.

The City isn’t so sure. So far, as Toronto Star’s Maria Vanta reported, six requests for rezoning lots to mixed-use development near Don Mills Road have been denied because they don’t line up with the City’s planning objectives (“Crosstown LRT brings new development, and controversy, to Eglinton“, Friday Jan 9, 2015). A total of 40 similar rezoning requests have been made since construction of the LRT was announced–about half are in appeals at the Ontario Municipal Board. Although the height of many of these proposals may have been an issue, another argument against the rezonings is that protecting office space and other employment land uses will ensure the LRT’s success. The City’s Official Plan protects existing office space; Lorna Day, manager of the Eglington Connects Planning Study at the City, says that jobs make better use of transit than residences. The City doesn’t want to make the mistake of losing office space, something that is speculated to happen at high-demand areas such as Yonge and Eglington, because when employment is located far from transit, most people opt to drive. Yet Day expects new workplaces to eventually come along with the residential developments–just not quite yet.

The Avenues and Mid-Rise Guidelines, which were approved by the City of Toronto in 2010 and are now used to guide the development application process, represent an attempt to achieve higher densities while keeping to the scale and character of development that many residents want. Many don’t want to live in a high-rise condo, but would not mind a third storey apartment. Since 2010, the City has been monitoring the Performance Standards for Mid-Rise Buildings as the first step toward setting the Performance Standards in guidelines, policies, and as-of-right zoning. This may be the real reason that all those applications have been denied–the existing zoning does not yet reflect the City’s mid-rise ambitions, including mixed-use zoning on the Avenues. But it will soon–the City’s monitoring period was over at the end of 2014. The City’s Project Manager on the Mid-Rise Buildings Study was none other than Lorna Day.

An argument could be made for high density nodes within a 500m radius of the major road intersections offering transit service, with mid-rise in-between. This is the TTC’s established pattern for subway lines. The LRT will link to 54 bus routes, 3 subway stations and a number of regional GO Transit lines, so there are many opportunities for high-density nodes. Zoning mixed use development along the corridor would also seem critical to a future jobs-housing mix. Recent changes to the Ontario Building Code, in effect January 1st, 2015, permit wood-frame construction for buildings up to six feet in height, which has finally made mid-rise profitable for many developers. This may result in developers scaling back on height as they no longer need it to obtain profits–witness mid-rise construction in British Columbia since 2009. Perhaps a more livable, community-oriented density is more desirable than another canyon of high-rises.

Election maps are hot, but this one shows what happened in a lot more detail. Web developer and designer Pete Smaluck and policy analyst Tom Weatherburn have developed a map that disaggregates ward results in Toronto down to the neighbourhood level. The map allows the user to scan subdivisions based on three key characteristics at a time (from education, income, occupation, transportation to work, religion, immigration, and visible minorities) to see the percentage of votes John Tory, Doug Ford, and Olivia Chow got in last month’s election. The map shows a much more nuanced picture than the “divided Toronto” we’re always hearing about.

Here’s what the map and analytics look like if you choose mode of transportation taken to work, immigration, and visible minorities–hover over the riding to see the trends broken down by neighbourhood.

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Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) are one of the contributions developers are required to make in Vancouver to support affordable housing, community resources such as schools and libraries, and parks. Developers, in return, are often allowed to build at higher densities. Vancouver’s unique legislation, the Vancouver Charter, gives it the ability to levy a negotiable tax such as the CACs. In the rest of the province, municipalities can only charge Development Cost Charges (DCCs), non-negotiable fees based solely on the number of units or square feet of the development. Similarly, Ontario municipalities may use Section 37 of the Planning Act to obtain community benefits in exchange for higher densities.

Penny Gurstein, Director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC, leads a project on housing justice in BC. She has just released an analysis of the use of CACs between 2010 and 2012, which produced just 170 affordable housing units. By contrast, BC Housing’s waitlist for affordable units averaged 3,425 over this period.

Developers also have the option of making cash contributions in lieu of building units—a total of $61.07 million was raised just from 2010-2012. This is the preferred option, as most developers want to build luxury condos to maximize their profits and get their investment back immediately–rather than invest in market-rate rental or mix in affordable units with their fancy condo owners. Unfortunately, cash contributions just go into a reserve fund, and the City is not very open about how much of it goes towards the housing budget or how it’s used. But it says it has approved over 1,000 affordable units since 2010. Gurstein’s analysis was based on staff reports, which are unclear on the use of cash contributions for affordable units. Read the article in the Vancouver Sun here.

Rental housing is also an issue in many Canadian cities, since incentives to build them (at least at the federal and provincial levels) disappeared long ago and changes to the Income Tax Act have made rental housing much less profitable to develop since the 1970s. Some analysts believe that a shortage of market rate rental units and the loss of units to condo conversion have contributed to very low vacancy rates across the country, pushing people into homeownership before they may be financially ready. Since 2010, Vancouver has also run the STIR (Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing) program and Secure Market Housing Policy, which have added 3,000 rental units at market rates.

 

imagesJohn Tory hasn’t been sworn in as mayor yet, but he’s already trying to undo some of the damage Rob Ford did to the transit system in the past four years. War on the car? Let’s talk about a war on transit.

Don Peat of the Toronto Sun and Oliver Moore of the Globe and Mail reported today on the cuts Ford imposed to bus service in 2011 and 2012, which saved the TTC around $18 million but resulted in significant service reductions on 41 bus routes and a further reduction along 63 other routes. Loading standards were also rolled back to 2004 levels, which is no surprise to anyone taking transit in Toronto today–the level of overcrowding is almost unbearable on many routes. Today’s TTC service is bursting at the seams with increased ridership, yet they have boasted budget surpluses in recent years reflecting their decreased spending on services. Does this make sense?

Tory has already asked TTC CEO Andy Byford to look at ways to restore these services and source the necessary vehicles, in order to have an immediate impact on the city’s transit problems. Funny–I think I remember someone else campaigning on a promise of increasing bus service because it would have the most impact on users for the lowest cost. Oh right–it was Olivia Chow. Interesting how nobody took her seriously on this except the TTC, which proposed 10-minute service on a network of bus routes in its extensive service improvement report, quietly released just before the election. The TTC also proposed solutions like time-based transfers and all-door boarding, two user-oriented options that other cities have been using for years.

Tory has also asked Byford to investigate whether it’s possible to move more quickly on the new signalling system that will allow subway trains to run more frequently (every 90 seconds), now scheduled for completion in 2020. Improvements to the system, as well as track upgrades, currently cause frequent daily delays on the subway. Tory has asked for a cost breakdown of the TTC’s proposed service improvements, and advice on which ones could be implemented quickly.

Quick wins will be necessary for Tory to prove that he is serious about improving transit, his key election promise.