Politics hijacks transit planning yet again
Having looked at Glasgow for a comparison on Compass, here’s another very instructive comparison, a bit closer to home. This op-ed piece appears in the Toronto Sun and is by R. Michael Warren who is a “former corporate director, Ontario deputy minister, Toronto Transit Commission chief general manager and Canada Post CEO”. He was present when the decision was made to buy “the province’s untested “Intermediate Capacity Transit System” (ICTS)” which we know as SkyTrain.
The parallels between us and them are obvious. The tussle between city and suburbs, the choice of technology – it’s all exactly the same
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been on the wrong side of this issue longer than anyone. “Stopping the war on cars” to him means putting rapid transit below ground or making it grade-separated. Out of the way of cars.
It seems to me that an endorsement by Rob Ford should be enough to deter anyone. But Vision Vancouver wants a subway under Broadway. And for very similar reasons. What is even more striking is the way that the link has been made in local planning for Grandview - where towers were suddenly added to the plan, much to the surprise and dismay of those who had been consulted. And one suggestion has been this is necessary to show that Vancouver is committed to increasing density (in the form of high rise towers) at subway stations. The quid pro quo being that if the City wants rapid transit then there has to be supporting denser land use. No repeat of what happened along the Expo Line – with no development happening at all at Broadway, Namaimo or 29th Avenue stations. By the way exactly the same effect was seen along the second subway in Toronto. The Bloor-Danforth line cannot be seen as clusters of towers around stations the way the Yonge line can be.
It is also worth re-iterating that the idea that a subway can be inserted underneath an existing street without interfering with it is foolish. Sure cut and cover subways and surface light rail create disturbance all along the street, but subway stations are significant objects at major intersections and have to have connections to the surface. And despite the nonsense that was peddled by the Canada Line constructors, entrances are needed at all street corners, not just one of them. If only to handle transfers to other transit effectively.
But also if you build very expensive subways, and you want fast services, there are going to be fewer stations – and most development is going to have to occur within a short walk of the station entrance. Do not think you can do that without upsetting the neighbours. Or you can have enough new development without increasing building heights significantly.
To make the headline a bit clearer, politics is always going to decide how public money is spent on major infrastructure projects. There is no way this can decided simply by technical considerations. These are not engineering decisions. They are planning decisions. They are about place making. We have already plenty of experience of what happens to places when decision making is based on engineering standards. It is absolutely right that both politicians and communities get involved. The important thing is that the final outcome is not decided on short term political advantage.
The Scarborough RT was supposed to have been extended north and then east from Scarborough Town Centre to serve a new area of affordable housing known as Malvern. But the route, protected from development, ran though a neighbourhood that got built before the line did. When the TTC got ready to start building the local politicians listened to the protests of the neighbours who did not want trains running past the end of their backyards. Malvern, by the way, is now one of the greatest concentrations of visible minorities in Toronto – and one of the poorer and most troublesome areas for crime and social problems. Which cannot be blamed on SkyTrain!
What the headline means is that politicians tend to make decisions based on what is best for their party, or will be most popular with current voters. Politicians who act with an eye to the long term future are much rarer. But the decision to build the Canada Line underground beneath Cambie was based on those kinds of calculation. Or rather, the decision to refuse to consider light rail – either along the existing CP right of way in the Arbutus corridor or along the “heritage boulevard” of Cambie Street – was all about placating the existing voters, not about accommodating the people who were going to move to the Vancouver region. Or looking at something like “the best benefit-for-cost solution”.