London,_Ontario,_Canada-_The_Forest_City_from_above

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.

 

In July 2010, the decision to scrap the long-form Census was made quickly and with very little time to mount collective action. The long-form Census was distributed to every fifth household, giving researchers, policy makers, banks, non-profit organizations, and community groups access to a 20% sample of the population for questions such as commute mode, housing type, and ethnocultural background. This may not interest you–but it does impact your daily life.

Municipalities used the long-form Census to help plan future schools, community centres, and water and sewer services; non-profits used the data to determine the number of low-income or target populations used their services; and researchers used the data to conduct studies that aimed to expose patterns such as income disparity among immigrants, transportation patterns among young people compared to older groups, and access to affordable housing. My own Ph.D. work relied heavily upon the long-form Census, because I wanted to study how Filipino immigrants’ housing and transportation choices had changed over time. I was able to use Census data from 1986-2006, because the variables on the long-form Census had changed very little during that time period. In the absence of a national transportation study–which Canada also does not have–the Census is a treasure-trove of information for researchers looking at sustainable transportation.

By the way, Canada is the only developed country that does not collect such data–and countries such as the Netherlands, with a much smaller population, collect much more detailed information on issues such as transportation mode, commute distance, and employment characteristics. Every time I present my work at a conference, researchers from other countries are astounded that Canadians don’t have access to detailed statistical data on such important issues–so we just can’t conduct the research we want to, like comparing transportation trends across cities, or among ethnocultural groups.

The National Household Survey, a voluntary survey aimed at replacing the long-term Census, has been judged to be inaccurate and invalid by many statistical experts; the head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, resigned over the issue in 2010. Many economic organizations, such as TD Bank, have mourned the loss of the long-form Census. The public sector, including municipalities and provincial ministries, had long relied on the data to predict population and employment growth. The new NHS is just not statistically accurate–many groups such as Aboriginals, immigrants, and youth are underrepresented–and cannot be compared to earlier data, making it difficult for anyone to understand long-term trends. And this is what needs to happen if policymakers, non-profit organizations, and community groups want to change those trends and improve living and working conditions for everyone. The Canadian Institute of Planners has spoken out on the issue and urged its members to support reinstatement of the Census.

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Recently, MP Ted Hsu (Kingston and the Islands) introduced a private member’s bill, Bill C-626, to reintroduce the mandatory long-form Census. As many of you know, a private member’s bill is precarious at best–this was particularly the case when we had minority governments. You can track the progress of the bill on Legisinfo here. If you can, please take one or more of the following actions:

  1. Write or speak to your MP to encourage them to support the bill and reinstate the mandatory long-form Census.
  2. Write a letter or op-ed for your local paper explaining the value of the Census and the need to pass Bill C-626.
  3. Share this information with your friends, family, and colleagues.
  4. If you want to contact Ted Hsu, email him at: ted.hsu@parl.gc.ca.

Thank you for all that you do.

Yesterday urban planners Asher Mercer (Urban ID Consulting) and Edward Nixon (EN Consulting Group) hosted a walk along Queen Street as part of their project, The People’s Queen Street, which is attempting to reimagine the major east-west corridor as a public space prioritizing people. Partnering with the Toronto Community Foundation, Evergreen Foundation, the Centre for Social Innovation, and 100 in One Day Toronto, Urban ID Consulting and ED Consulting Group are organizing several events from summer 2014 until spring 2015 to help people experience the street in new ways and think about ways in which it could be redesigned as a better space for pedestrians.

Yesterday’s walk began at Neville Park, where the 501 Queen streetcar begins (Neville Loop) and continued all the way to Queen and Roncesvalles. Joined by intrepid walkers from Toronto Trails and Ontario Walks, a group of about 35 walkers crossed the city, stopping to think about development opportunities at Queen and Broadview, view historic Ashbridge House and Campbell House, and finish the day at Beaty Boulevard Parkette. The walk is about 17km in total, but I focus here on the first 5.7 km east of Broadview.

Neville Loop is a small unimposing turnaround for the streetcar (albeit with quite a long history as the City of Toronto’s easternmost streetcar loop) across from the Art Deco-styled R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, which writer Derek Flack characterized as “one of Toronto’s most beautiful and mysterious buildings.” For our purposes, the westernmost corner of Neville Park provided a natural meeting place and amphitheater for Asher and Edward to introduce the purpose of the walk today and invite participants to submit their comments, tweets, and photos to the project website.

We began at a brisk pace on Queen, taking in some of the built form that spoke of an earlier main street. On the way, we passed a number of historic buildings, like Black’s Veterinary Hospital (founded in 1911) and the Ashbridge Estate, which are well known: Toronto’s Ashbridge’s Bay was named for Sarah Ashbridge, in recognition of her position in one of the city’s founding families. Other lesser-known marvels included the tiny Fox Theatre (opened in 1914) and the Beaches Library (whose original structure was a Carnegie library). Queen Street East has that intrinsically interesting pedestrian atmosphere of the early 1900s, with the recurring main street urban form of a two-storey brick structure with apartments over the shops, punctuated by unfortunate modernist intrusions, as I’ve shown in the photos below. You can tell the street was gradually widened, giving even the most charming main street areas very narrow sidewalks.

It’s also impossible to ignore the hipster influence on the street, as the traditional dry cleaners and butchers of The Beach give way to coffee shops and restaurants in the popular neighbourhoods of Corktown, Riverside, and Leslieville. The urban redevelopment of the New Broadview Hotel and the Riverside Square project (check out streetcar.ca for more details) will continue this character shift towards upscale urban living. Displacement of the current residents is seen as a necessity: Streetcar Developments has been working with the City of Toronto and Woodgreen Community Services to assist transition of the existing residents to other community housing. Aaron Knight from Streetcar met us to explain some of the changes that will happen near this historic intersection, particularly the south side of the street meeting Munro, which will be reinvisioned as a pedestrian and urban space open to the public.

From Queen and Broadview, the group continued west on to Campbell House, and finished up at Queen and Roncesvalles. If you have any thoughts on Queen Street, and how to improve its public realm and pedestrian amenities, share them with Asher and Edward at peoplesqueenstreet.org/queenstsurvey, on their Facebook group, or on twitter.

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The Fox theatre (opened in 1914 as “the theatre without a name”)

 

The pedestrian amenities are minimal east of Woodbine

The pedestrian amenities are minimal east of Woodbine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beaches Library

Beaches Library featuring a one-ton sculpture of an owl (Philip H. Carter, Ludzer Vandermolen), was one of Toronto’s original Carnegie libraries

Bike parking and seating in front of the Beaches Library

Bike parking and seating in front of the Beaches Library and Kew Gardens, offers a much better pedestrian realm

 

Bam! Breakfast and Bistro displays one of many colourful murals along Queen Street East

Bam! Breakfast and Bistro displays one of many colourful murals along Queen Street East–but note the narrow sidewalk

 

Much more space for pedestrians, but no amenities

Much more space for pedestrians, but no amenities at Queen and Northern Dancer Blvd. (named for the horse, as the Greenwood Racetrack was here until 1994, before it was demolished and replaced by Greenwood Park). I’m guessing the owner of this building would be able to attract tenants with some seating, bike racks, and public art

 

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Squeezed for space at Eastern Ave.–it’s difficult to get around the bus shelter. Why not just ask building owners to construct an overhang?

 

Another pedestrian desert at the Alliance Theatre (Beaches) just west of Eastern Ave.

Another pedestrian desert at the Alliance Theatre (Beach) just west of Eastern Ave. that could easily be improved with some seating–who doesn’t need somewhere to wait when meeting friends for a movie?

 

Velotique making an imprint on the urban fabric at Queen and Rhodes

Velotique making an imprint on the urban fabric at Queen and Rhodes

 

Playground and chain link fence protecting the private realm at Queen and Craven

Playground and chain link fence protecting the private realm at Queen and Craven (see below for the north side view) makes the street uninviting for pedestrians

 

The northern side of the street at Queen and Craven shows a very different view--the old main street shops

The northern side of the street at Queen and Craven shows a very different view–the old main street shops. Again, note how little space there is for pedestrians, especially when signage and street trees are added.

 

Ashbridge Estate, the remains of Sarah Ashbridge's plot of farmland that stretched south to the lake

Ashbridge Estate, the remains of Sarah Ashbridge’s plot of farmland that stretched south to the lake. Ashbridge’s Bay and Ashland were named after her.

 

The street in front of the Ashbridge Estate feels like a country road with its white picket fence

The street in front of the Ashbridge Estate feels like a country road with its white picket fence

 

East End Garden and Hardware Centre spilled out onto the south side of the street with its Halloween display

East End Garden and Hardware Centre spills out onto the south side of the street with its Halloween display, taking advantage of its private space.

 

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Black's Toronto Veterinary Hospital, just west of Carlaw, (opened in 1911) gives a glimpse of the old main street

Black’s Toronto Veterinary Hospital (opened in 1911), just west of Carlaw, gives us a glimpse of how buildings used to meet up with the old main street: with a sidewalk, lawn, and garden.

 

Queen and Coxwell has vestiges of the past, but the pedestrian realm is barren here

Queen and Coxwell has vestiges of the past in the Woodgreen Pharmacy, but the pedestrian realm is barren here. Note the brick only faces Queen Street, obviously the higher impact was needed on this street over Coxwell.

 

Slices of Canadiana--Canada Dry, immigration/citizenship, and the streetcar

Slices of Canadiana–Canada Dry, immigration/citizenship, and the streetcar. In the Leslieville area now, the sidewalk is far too narrow for the amount of foot traffic the newer shops and services attract.

 

Queen and Broadview, until recently home to Jilly's adult entertainment. The New Broadview Hotel is currently undergoing a major redevelopment through Streetcar Development

Queen and Broadview, until recently home to Jilly’s adult entertainment and a residential hotel with long-time residents. The New Broadview Hotel, which dates back to 1893, is currently undergoing a major redevelopment through Streetcar Developments. It’s the kind of project that could change the character of this intersection for decades in the future.

 

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“Time is Money. Money is Time.” street art at Queen and Broadview

 

Aaron Knight of Streetcar Developments tells us about the redevelopment opportunities for the space currently devoted to a car dealership (south side of Queen at Munro). Redevelopment will see the space as an extension of the public realm.

Aaron Knight of Streetcar Developments tells us about the redevelopment opportunities for the space currently devoted to a car dealership (south side of Queen at Munro). The redevelopment project Riverside Square will see the space as an extension of the public realm.

 

 

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Screen shot from the video series

A series of new videos developed by David Crowley, local transportation consultant and the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Toronto shows very clearly how Toronto’s transit problems began–and how we can get ourselves out of this mess. The research, relying on data from the Transportation Tomorrow Survey, has been peer reviewed for accuracy and would make an excellent starting point for discussions in urban planning or geography classes, high school civics classes, among community groups seeking to understand the issues in this region, and for political representatives and public sector employees. Click on the links below to watch the videos–each is under four minutes in length.

Understand Transit History (How we Got Into This Mess) outlines how the transit process has become overly politicized, with politicians proposing solutions that aren’t logical, just to get short-term votes. On the other hand, systems like GO regional rail were planned to serve the greatest number of riders, long before traffic was choking our city, and has consistently expanded to accommodate new suburban growth. As a result, 2 in 5 downtown workers commutes in from the outer suburbs and over 75% of them take transit.

The Biggest Problem (Overcrowding on the Subway System) shows the rapid increase in commuters from York Region, almost half of whom use the TTC–the number of riders from York Region to downtown almost doubled from 1986-2006. York Region Go Train usage, on the other hand, is 25% lower than Peel, Halton or Durham Regions for the downtown commute.

Too Many Rapid Transit Proposals (But Few Solutions) have been designed to win short-term voter support, e.g. the Sheppard subway extension and proposed Scarborough subway. Neither addressed serious overcrowding issues on the existing system or inadequate bus service. All-day service on all the GO Train lines are not competitive financially, but increasing service on the lines running through York Region could help address overcrowding on the TTC and serve Scarborough. Integration of fares between GO and the TTC is also needed.

Take the Politics out of Transit Planning shows the economic strength of Toronto’s downtown as a direct result of the GO Train and TTC systems and outlines the problems that would occur if that was not the case. The main point here is that transportation planning decisions should be designed by transportation experts and approved by politicians–not the other way around.

Talk about timing. A few weeks ago, in time for provincial elections in Ontario, Manitoba, PEI, and Newfoundland and Labrador, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities released a report urging the federal government to support public transit and affordable housing in cities. This in itself is nothing new: FCM has long advocated stable funding for public transit and affordable housing in municipalities, who have been struggling to pay for new infrastructure and operating costs. The twist: FCM maintains that better transit and affordable housing can actually help immigrants integrate, and that municipalities should offer them along with services such as English language training (download their report: Starting on Solid Ground: The Municipal Role in Immigrant Integration). This echoes the findings of my Ph.D. dissertation, which found that flexible approaches to housing and transportation increased community resiliency.

This week, FCM and the Canadian Urban Transit Association met with members of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to discuss the idea of a National Public Transit Strategy. They argued that fast and efficient transportation connections through public transit are crucial to strengthening the economy. MP Olivia Chow, NDP critic for transport and infrastructure, introduced a private member’s bill on September 30th (Bill C-615, An Act to Create a National Public Transit Strategy) calling for the federal government to work with municipalities in the creation of a national transit strategy and create a stable source of funding for municipalities. She noted the economic benefits and the disadvantages of long commute times: Canada’s big city mayors have been pushing for a national strategy since 2007. In the CBC’s unofficial poll on this topic, 88% of readers agreed that Canada needs a national transit strategy. I needn’t go into this issue here in Vancouver: this week, an Angus Reid poll of 504 Vancouver residents showed that 85% want improvements to transit service and 75% felt those improvements should be funded by the provincial government. As I wrote in my last post, the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation votes today on the adoption of the Moving Forward strategic plan, which includes a 2% hike in property taxes and the beginnings of a new provincial-municipal funding agreement to help pay for transit improvements.

It looks like public transit is becoming a hot issue among cities of all sizes. The Regional Municipal of Waterloo is in the process of constructing an LRT line (currently in the planning process) funded by the provincial and federal governments. A strong motivation for the Region, which includes the municipalities of Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo, was increased immigration to the area, a point they raised at this year’s Metropolis Conference on Immigration and Migration in Vancouver. It’s very humbling to see the recommendations I made in my Ph.D. dissertation being echoed at the municipal, regional and federal levels. Considering the numbers of immigrants settling in Canadian cities every year (approximately 250,000 Permanent Residents and 200,000 Temporary Workers), governments need to do a better job of helping them integrate, and that includes more housing and transportation options. Maybe after decades of research and policy innovation in municipalities, we’re finally reaching the tipping point: let’s keep a close watch on Bill C-615 and Bill C-400, the bill creating a national affordable housing strategy (Bill C-304, the former private member’s bill of the same title and wording, was scrapped after the May 2011 election).

The City of Vancouver Housing and Homelessness Strategy, approved Thursday July 28th, is a bold move in the context of Canada’s increasingly unaffordable housing markets. The comprehensive, ten-year plan calls for the creation of 38,900 affordable homes in the city: 7,900 supportive and social housing units, 11,000 rental units, and 20,000 condos and “ownership” units. To help finance construction, the city intends to offer $42 million in land and capital grants to developers. 3650 of the supportive and social housing units will be built in the next three years. 1,700 of these were previously announced, but 1,950 are new developments which the city will build and run with BC Housing and non-profit associations, a model that has worked for decades in Vancouver. BC Housing will contribute 276 of the units, developers will build 205 (mostly due to density bonusing) and the city will seek funding for the remaining 319.

Until now, the city has remained in limbo in terms of building affordable housing, despite millions of dollars in contributions to its Affordable Housing Fund through density bonusing and a 20% social housing requirement for major rezonings of lands to multiunit residential use. Leaving construction of affordable homes to private developers hasn’t worked, so the city will partner with developers by providing grants and land in exchange for social and supportive units. The city will also lever its land resources and capital projects against funding from provincial and federal governments. The plan also calls for the city to approve more laneway housing and secondary suites. New affordable rental units have been achieved recently through the City’s Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) initiative.

Like many municipalities tired of playing chicken with upper levels of government, Vancouver now has its foot firmly on the accelerator. The housing affordability crisis in Canada has reached ridiculous proportions, but we’re still working on the national affordable housing strategy (Bill-C-400), which replaced Bill C-304 from the previous session. Industry warnings of a housing market collapse have been circulated. And yet, the price of renting has increased much slower than the price of ownership over the past twenty years, as Canadian Business illustrated recently (“Rental Complex”, July 14, 2011). This article, the latest in a series of pieces in the popular press exploring the follies of ownership in today’s market, exposes the increasingly doomed love affair Canadians seem to have with homeownership:

“With widespread warnings that we’re approaching the peak of the housing boom, with Canadians more indebted than ever…why aren’t more of us re-examining the math? The reasons are cultural and emotional, backed by ill-conceived public policy. This Canadian Dream is an expensive delusion. There’s never been a better time to rent.” Joanna Pachner, Canadian Business

Along with increased acceptance of renting, the fallout from the US mortgage crisis includes recognition that the suburban, single-family home is no longer in huge demand: households without kids will increase by 90% from 2010 to 2020, according to Arthur Nelson, professor of planning at the University of Utah. This means far fewer buyers than sellers for single-family housing and an increased demand for multi-family and rental housing. As demographics and attitudes towards housing shift, the City of Vancouver is once again on the leading edge of policy innovation, though the plan is not without its critics. Hopefully elements of the plan will be evaluated throughout implementation, and discussed in other municipalities, which could help accelerate Bill C-400–the absence of a national affordable housing strategy has been holding up programs and funding between all three levels of government.