Despite living in a world where digital technology has created a global network of interconnections that permeate into most cultures across the globe, our societies and cultures often operate in a disconnected landscape structured on the ideas that sculpted the societies and cultures of our recent past. In short, while globalization in its various forms has brought many positive advances to benefit the human condition (along with many negative ones), some cultures and societies have been better at adapting to (and managing) change than others. In places where the transition to new ways of living has been successful, a common theme is an appreciation by governments, planners, and the general public as to why change is needed, how it benefits the population, and what the outcomes will be.
While Canada has in the past been seen as a world leader in many respects, more recently our global credit for innovative approaches to common challenges (such as peacekeeping, environmental leadership, and democratic ideals) has been falling fast. From the inside looking out, those who are engaged in the cultural dialogues taking place across our country would agree that many of our political leaders (at all levels) are not doing much in the way of leading. Not to paint with too broad a brush, there are many exceptions to the rule (Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi for one), but more often than not, our political leaders have failed to live up to their end of the democratic bargain. In this respect, transportation planning is no different. Granted, we are fortunate enough to live in a geographically vast country with a relatively small population, and as such, our metropolitan regions have had no reason in the past to consider the incredible importance of functioning transportation systems in densely populated regions. More recently though, as population growth and urban sprawl have seen our cities expand horizontally rather than vertically, some Canadian cities—Vancouver, Calgary, and most recently Waterloo—have actually taken this issue quite seriously. Realizing that challenges such as gridlock and healthy urban living are tightly tied to the overall health of their region, leaders in these cities have engaged directly with the public to build systems that work to improve the quality of life for their citizens while also creating an environment where business, culture, and nature can all benefit. Incredibly inspiring, the choices made in these cities can serve as excellent examples for regions facing similar challenges.
Urban planners in Canada (and around the world) often cite Vancouver as one of the most progressive North American cities in embracing a systems approach to transportation, including separated two-way cycling lanes.
While Toronto and the GTHA are still far behind our BC counterparts, this cycling lane on Roncesvalles Ave. in Toronto provides an example of how the city has in some ways embraced integrated transit systems.
Stuck in Neutral
Despite these shining examples of strategic systems change, the result of a lack of leadership and innovation in the past has caught up with the most populous region in the country, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). In recent decades, urban sprawl has brought an influx of people to the area, with cities throughout the GTHA bursting at the seams towards the Ontario Greenbelt, a protected natural buffer meant to curb urban sprawl (at over 1.8 million acres, it is the largest permanently protected greenbelt in the world). In an era when car was king (and still is for the most part), gas was cheap (not anymore), and climate change was a blip on the radar (ready for another hot muggy summer Ontario?), urban sprawl as an approach to planning made sense. Ask anyone who drives into Toronto about his or her commute time (averaging 82 minutes in 2013 and on target to average 109 minutes by 2033), and what used to make sense now seems completely senseless.
Suburban sprawl throughout the GTHA has been built on a auto-centric model based on a cheap energy economy that no longer exists.
Though cars will remain a central aspect of any future regional transit strategy, integrated transit must also incorporate suburban routes that feed quickly into the regional system. Over time this could reduce traffic congestion on major highways while contributing to healthier air and quality of life.
Now we can’t turn back time, and playing the blame game with decisions made years ago (or chastising our fellow GTHA’ers who live in the suburbs) will get us nowhere, but we can actually be bold and innovative (like many others around the world have) and try to implement incremental changes that over time will be integrated into a functional regional transit system. Daunting I know, but given the alternative, our leaders owe it to us (just as we owe it to ourselves) to work towards some positive change that will improve quality of life for our current and future generations.
For those who live in the region (I myself live in Hamilton), the realities of the disconnected landscape in which we now live are all too obvious. Yes, there is an express transit GO bus from Hamilton to downtown Toronto, and we’re promised a full-day service GO train line in the coming years, but there is still a complete lack of appreciation for the need to create a fully functional system to connect all of the region’s major urban and suburban centres, taking into consideration all modes of transit.
Communicating a Systems-Level Approach
A sign at a Metrolinx “Big Move” public engagement event underlines the type of change needed to create a better transportation future for the GTHA region.
Listening recently to presentations by Hamilton’s city planners, and sitting in on a public stakeholder dialogue hosted by Metrolinx (the Ontario Government agency in charge of implementing the GTHA’s “Big Move” transportation strategy), it’s encouraging to know that our transportation planners are actively promoting the forward-thinking regional transportation system that is needed. The problem, however, is one of understanding, or lack thereof.
Though many of our political leaders appreciate the need for change, too many of them (though not all – Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion has recently admitted that poor planning is to blame) don’t understand that we can’t take a piecemeal approach to our regional transportation strategy. Similarly, though there is a realization amongst the general public that change is needed, if we can’t communicate the fact that the transportation change being pushed for is not a war against drivers, but a movement for health and lifestyle improvement for all, we’ll continue to throw money at stopgap solutions that will continue to fail us, feeding the argument against further change.
Creating a public will to support transit system change is the central challenge facing planners and politicians. Focusing the dialogue on the increasing economic costs of our current system (especially given our present economic situation) is one way to frame the issue in a way that hits home with everyone’s bottom line–their pocketbook.
One of the Waterloo Region’s proposed visions for a future transportation system shows a “complete street” that provides space for all modes of transit–driving, cycling, walking, and public transit. More images of Waterloo’s plan are available via the Region of Waterloo Rapid Transit website.
If we are to move forward on transit change that will bring health, economic, social, and environmental benefits to our region for decades to come, we must find a way to communicate more broadly the fact that a transit system is just that, a system. As such, each part of the system needs to be functional and healthy for the overall system to thrive and succeed. As Metrolinx takes the lead in pushing for a regional strategy that is based on this approach, municipalities and communities must also pull their weight and not only acknowledge that we are all part of a larger system, but also communicate this reality (and the associated costs and benefits) to the public. If we can’t find a way to get this message across to the people who use the system on a daily basis, we’ll remain stuck in gridlock for decades to come.
This is the first in a series of posts that will focus on the GTHA’s current transit dilemma, approached through the lens of Systems Thinking. Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting on this topic, providing an explanation of systems thinking as it can be applied to our current situation, and offering some thoughts as to how better communication on the need for a systems approach might help us move forward together. I’m always happy to hear feedback of all kinds, as open dialogue on this topic and others that are important to us all is central to our success as a democratic society. Please feel free to leave any comments and/or contact me with your thoughts and ideas.
Author: Dave Heidebrecht