<![CDATA[The Infrastructure Society - The Infrastructure Society Blog]]>Mon, 23 Nov 2015 13:50:26 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Gardiner East Ex Post]]>Thu, 16 Jul 2015 19:23:56 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/gardiner-east-ex-postI guess the reason that I am not a journalist is that I fail to react to the immediacy of current events and deadlines. The Gardiner vote at City Hall happened close to a month ago and Toronto’s citizenry and punditry has moved on, in some cases from their disappointment, onto other civic mis/happenings. I share the disappointment of those who hoped that Council would vote to tear it down. I am not surprised, however, about the outcome for two reasons. First, the deck was stacked against the teardown option from the beginning, which was the prerogative of the mayor. The second reason, and this one is more complicated and provocative in nature, is that I am not sure Toronto deserves to tear down its urban highways just yet.

As someone who has worked in government policy development, I know that how options are presented to decision makers has an enormous influence on the outcomes. In the case of the Gardiner providing two very similar options to essentially maintain the road as is, an elevated highway, and one to completely eliminate the elevated portion ensured that the latter would appear more radical and that the more nuanced “hybrid” option would be embraced by the undecided or indifferent. In the end, through multiple votes, this is exactly how it played out, as it well might have if we held a civic referendum with three such options even though polling showed city residents in favour of some form of teardown). It was not in Mayor Tory’s interest to have only two options (maintain or tear down) or even a true hybrid (for example tear down but adding flyovers). The genuine shock of the outcome by the teardown advocates surprised me.

The good news is that no decision on infrastructure is final, certainly not in Toronto, as anyone who has witness the comedy of errors that is transit planning in the city. The billion-dollar plan to shore up and tweak the eastern Gardiner is many years away from implementation and will almost certainly change in substantial ways. This may stem from further engineering work that will increase costs, or from a shift in political winds at Council, or even some sort of magnanimous gesture from one of our senior governments. It is my own view that further options should be developed. Maybe it all my binge watching of The Good Wife on Netflix, but I really think that some sort of option like Chicago's Lakeshore Drive could and should be looked at (and not just for the eastern section of the Gardiner). Lakeshore Drive in Chicago is basically a freeway along Lake Michigan but it is built at grade with somewhat graceful flyovers and lots of parkland around it (though this last aspect my not be possible in condo crammed Toronto). I’m not an engineer but I intuit that there must some kind of true "hybrid" option somewhere between a surface street with traffic lights and a full elevated highway.

My second point has to do with priorities in the context of this city's very poor record on planning and building transportation infrastructure in the last 40 years. The Gardiner issue has been forced by the broader affliction that has affected infrastructure in this city (and country): underfunding of both its renewal and expansion that has gone on now for two generations. In Toronto in this has assumed almost tragic proportions in that we were once a model of planning and building that balanced the needs of public transit and private vehicles. But in the 1970s after the battles over building new highways into the downtown were settled, we failed to take the opportunity then presented to make meaningful investments into transit, in ways that might have truly be transformative. Governments at all levels seem to simply lose interest in the urban mobility file even as the Toronto urban region continued to grow rapidly, more than doubling in size in the last 40 years.

The reasons why Toronto and many other North American cities failed to maintain their proactive investment in urban mobility in the post war decades are complex, and could form the basis of a substantial book. In its simplest form, political priorities shifted from building hard assets to soft services like better education, universal healthcare and a more substantial safety net, all of which competed (and usually won) for resources with infrastructure. Also, and harder to explain, an ambivalence set in both among the population, and political leadership, over the purpose of infrastructure. If the 1970s expressways wars taught us anything, it’s that building things affects behaviour (this is the basic argument of "induced demand" for roadways). While this argument should have been able to be flipped around in favour of building transit and other modes of transport, we never quite got there in the hermeutic machinations of public policy and investment debates. It was easier to do nothing, and nothing we did.

Fast forward 40 years and we are faced with what to do with the crumbling legacy of post war urban highway planning. Yet we possess nothing like the certainty that Toronto's leadership of the time we built the Gardiner. The first Chairman of Metro Toronto, Frederick Gardiner, built this highway, but he also built the University and Bloor Danforth subways: he wasn't anti-road or transit, he was pro building and pro mobility. This is worth noting because the recent Gardiner debate boiled down to the usual suspects debating the usual zero sum partisan positions: essentially cars versus transit. But this isn’t the real issue of our current urban transportation conundrum: it is building on a scale and with deliberate purpose to change the ways we travel versus doing effectively nothing.  We have chosen the latter since that promising time 40 years ago when the expressway builder’s wrecking balls were stopped. Virtually no new transit capacity has been added into the core since the 1970s.  So it’s an open question? Do we deserve to tear down our inner city highways? With so much opportunity squandered, it is unclear.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this debate is the public’s ongoing ambivalence. The recent referendum in Vancouver on a major transit investment plan showed that the majority appear to prefer to sit in their cars in gridlock rather than pay even the most modest additional amount in taxes. Other pundits may analyze this result in different ways, but my takeaway is that we need to bring back the kind of leadership and certainty of those who built Toronto’s postwar infrastructure. The public is deeply confused, and only has the often terrible current experience of transit as a reference point. Similar order of magnitude investments would be as transformative for transit and active transportation (cycling, walking) as the massive road building schemes were in getting us all to buy cars. But until that time, we may have to live with our legacy eyesores like the Gardiner Expressway. It is a powerful reminder of our need to act.
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<![CDATA[Gardiner East]]>Wed, 27 May 2015 15:22:57 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/gardiner-east
Well I haven't blogged on here in a long time (as evidenced by the fact that I just wrote a post and then deleted it by accident...fun and games!). Anyway I'm back because there are lots of exciting thing happening  in Toronto infrastructure these days and I would like to add my two cents where possible. One such example is the Gardiner East debate, which in keeping with the purpose of this blog, to me seems to miss both the historical context and the way in which built infrastructure reflects our social and economic values (even in ways that we are not fully comfortable with). So here goes!

I'll state my position up front: I have a certain affection for the old Gardiner with its its brash function over form ethos and clean if slightly crumbling lines. But that said, I think that the best solution would be to take down the eastern portion because quite simply, such a big road isn't necessary here; it is expensive to maintain, and its removal would have both a symbolic and highly practical value for Toronto in its effort to develop more sustainable and people-oriented spaces. It might help change some peoples thinking about roads and driving, and as I hope you'll read further on, this is important.

First the history: to understand why the Gardiner is unnecessary east of downtown we have to go back to the transportation planning of 1960s Toronto. At that time, in addition to building a good subway system, Metro Toronto planned to build an extensive network of urban expressways. This was seem as a balanced approach, as few cities in North America were investing in public transit at all. The plan included 4 expressways into the downtown core. Two of the these, the western leg of the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway (DVP) had largely been built by the early sixties and the other two, the Scarborough and Spadina Expressways, respectively from the east and Northwest, were moving through the planning stages, awaiting the funding that would become available once the Bloor-Danforth Subway was finished. The Gardiner was built in stages moving further east  across the waterfront to accommodate this plan. Because the Gardiner east of downtown would have to eventually carry traffic from both the DVP and Scarborough Expwy., it was built eight lanes wide with a large interchange at the DVP that could be upgraded to accommodate both west and eastbound ramps. Obviously the Scarborough Expwy. was never built. Following the cancellation of the Spadina Expwy in 1971, the province was out of the urban highway funding business, and without provincial support, Metro Toronto could not meet its ambitious highway building goals. The Eastern Gardiner therefore has always been something of a white elephant. There was never enough traffic from the DVP or Lakeshore Blvd. to fill its lanes. Its been something nice to have for downtown-bound drivers from the east but strictly speaking an urban boulevard, as proposed in the replace option could do the job.

So on this level the debate seems simple. Remove an overbuilt elevated urban highway that is both a blight and nearing the end of its design life without major rehabilitation. But, as with many debates centred around the notion of old car-based thinking and new vs. more progressive urban planning and design ideas such as place-making and sustainable transportation, I feel that there is a major piece of the context that is missing. Put simply, our economic and social values really haven't changed all that much since this highway was built 50 years ago. As a society, we prize individual consumption and mobility that favours a primarily private car based transportation system. We may acknowledge that there are spatial and aesthetic problems with cars and highways in dense urban areas, but in terms of collective behaviour, our preference for the speed and comfort of driving remains much today as it was when this section of the Gardiner opened in 1964. In fact, one might argue that we value private consumption more highly today, enhanced as it is by much higher levels of affluence and growing income inequality that inhibits how we value shared public spaces and functions such as transit. This is reflected in public policy; since the tide turned against urban road building 40+ years ago, there has been no corresponding effort to curtail car ownership, driving, or provide alternatives in the form of major investments in urban transit. In a democratic society, this has not been an accident: we may not want a freeway in a our backyard, but we'd still rather drive, even if it means sitting in traffic much of the time (it is still typically faster than our underfunded transit system). It is not a surprise to me that our current mayor, and many others, prize these relics of urban transportation such as the Gardiner, and feel they are necessary. For a society that is still based almost entirely on private car based mobility, and that socially and economically encourages it, they are not relics at all.

I have made my position clear; I favour removing the the eastern Gardiner (also as a resident and condo owner in the Distillery District I have a vested interest in this). From a pure cost-benefit perspective, this solution makes far more sense that maintaining a massively overbuilt roadway indefinitely.  I am also a driver, and I admit I love my car. I drive it because it is often the fastest and most comfortable way to get around, even downtown. Transit is often a slow and frustrating experience in this city mainly because it has not been a priority of any level of government for many decades. So I respect those for whom the urban expressway still holds a certain allure, even if it is largely unworkable in practical reality. Changes in thinking and behaviour are slow to come and over years after we stopped building new Gardiner Expressways, we still haven't quite figured out what we want.
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<![CDATA[Mon, Jul 7, 2014]]>Mon, 07 Jul 2014 17:44:44 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/mon-jul-7-2014

Well a lot has happened in the last year. The job went well. I can say I was part of a winning big to build a new light rail system in Canada. Indeed, a unique one: Waterloo's LRT will be a first for a small city in Canada (the service area has a population of about 350,000). This is a perfect example of infratructure as a catalyst. The Region of Waterloo is looking to higher order transit to drive its goals of becoming a more dense, urban place. Already in downtown Kitchener, new residential development are popping up all over, and tech companies continue to move in, taking over and renovating the stock of hundred year old commercial and industrial spaces.

With the bid phase over I am taking a pause for myself this summer. I am looking forward to getting back to Social Infrastructure, and posting my commentary and images on the ever popular these days infrastructure file. I am doing some traveling this summer so I hope to include some international content as well. Stay tuned!

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<![CDATA[Is Driving Social? Why are Americans Driving So Much Less?]]>Mon, 22 Apr 2013 16:19:33 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/is-driving-social-why-are-americans-driving-so-much-less
Interesting stats about levels of driving in the US.  Overall it's down 8.75% since 2005.  Pretty amazing given that the population has grown significantly since then.  This Washington Post article surmises that the causes of this may be as much social/cultural as economic.  Sure gas is more expensive, and employment has been growing only modestly, especially for young people, but still this doesn't account for all the change.  Some of it may be the desire to live differently, away from suburban sprawl, and in large older urban centres that offer, among many social amenities, transportation options other than driving.  Some of this may be the closer proximity and higher densities that obviate the need for extensive travel, in addition to transit and cycling options.

Car ownership and and levels of driving have always been significantly lower in Canada than the US.  This may be surprising in a country with so much geography but the reality is that Canada is a heavily urbanized country, with almost half of us living on the three largest metropolitan regions, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.  All three cities have made strides to reduce car dependence, from halting expressway projects in the 70s to today's planning that emphasizes density, transit and walking/cycling.  People seem to like places that don't require car ownership, especially young people, who might rather put their pennies towards owning a condo or loft in a live/work oriented neighbourhood.  We are voting with our feet, and infrastructure needs to follow the lead, more than it is.  
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<![CDATA[New Challenges!]]>Thu, 04 Apr 2013 19:18:42 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/new-challengesPicture
Well I got the job that I had mentioned a while back!  I don't want to give too many details on here but the role is managing the proposal process for a company bidding on a major transit project.  It's a new role for me; I have been mainly involved on the public sector side of infrastructure and this role will have much more of a business focus, advocating for the interests of a company that could be operating a transit system for many years as part of a public-private partnership (P3). I am excited to take on the challenges therein, partly because such P3 arrangements in transit are fairly new in Canada, and also because I believe that there is a wide scope to improve transit services through innovation.  This doesn't always have to be done through the private sector, however, the public sector monopoly model that prevails today in Canada does not seem to create much appetite for it.  I also think this project has the chance to demonstrate the potential of rail-based transit in smaller cities, and to catalyze other efforts in planning, such as intensification, place-making, and a balancing of transportation modes.  My old employer, the City of Calgary has had great success with light rail, which it continues to expand; Toronto is moving forward with its  largely light rail based transit expansion, so my sense is that its future is bright, hopefully leading to a bright career future for me! :)

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<![CDATA[London's "Conservative" Bike Plan]]>Tue, 26 Mar 2013 16:28:22 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/londons-conservative-bike-planBesides, he says, a century ago four in 10 Londoners travelled by bike and “like any good Conservative, I want to turn the clock back.”
-- Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, quoted in Globe and Mail, 3/25/13

I love the tongue in cheek nature of this quotation in a Globe article of London Mayor Boris Johnson on his $1.4 billion plan to build an extensive cycling network through London.  It shows that even conservatives in the UK and Europe understand the necessity of building infrastructure to change ingrained behaviours, in this case ones that were undone by the last century's propensity to focus on big, fast things, of which the car featured prominently.  His plan which includes a 24 km bicycle "highway" running partly on an elevated highway through London, is ambitious, but in terms of relative cost, is tiny compared to the cost of major transit projects, or certainly what any new urban roads would cost.  I cannot imagine Toronto devoting a lane of the Gardiner to bikes; we seem hard pressed to devote much space at all to bicycles despite the advantageous cost-benefit, preferring instead to focus on megaprojects.  Necessary though that major transit projects may be in this city after decades of under-investment, they are not a complete solution.

The article notes the contrast to the very modest plans to create spaces for cycling in Toronto over the same time period.  Readers may remember the recent acrimony that accompanied the establishment, then removal of bike lanes on Jarvis Street.  I believe that debacles such as the Jarvis Street are really red herrings, that obviate the need for a broader discussion around small-scale, yet effective infrastructure such as that for cycling.  I would include this type of infrastructure under the category of "microprojects" because their relative cost and disruptiveness to adjacent areas is low, while potential to influence behaviour is potential very high.  
I've posted a couple of pics above from my forays around the city in recent days.  One is of an alleyway near Yonge and Wellesley, and the other of a road built in the 1980s near where I'm living in Willowdale.  Both show under-utilized space that could be easily and cheaply adapted for cycling.  Alleyways could offer the an opportunity to locate parts of cycling paths in urban areas that are truly separated from other vehicle traffic. Combined with changes in zoning to allow alley housing and businesses, this could create a renascence in these often unseen utilitarian spaces.  Over-built suburban roads such as Doris Ave in Willowdale, ironically added to serve high density condo buildings, could be streetscaped to add bike lanes, wider sidewalks and urban scaled space generally.  Recently the city lowered the speed limit on this road to 40 km/h but cars still race down it all day, and why wouldn't they?  The way the road is built says the car is king, so go fast!  I've almost never seen a bicycle on it.
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<![CDATA[Toronto's Architectural Hodgepodge]]>Mon, 25 Mar 2013 19:53:25 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/torontos-architectural-hodgepodgeI've been out and about in the city with a new point and shoot camera I bought recently (the Canon S110 - which I highly recommend).  Looking around at Toronto, I am often brought face to face with the utter hodgepodge of Toronto's urban form and architecture. I used to think this was a bad thing but I've come around on this - a city's built form should tell its story, and in this sense Toronto's hodgepodge is its story.  None of the clean lines of Haussmann's Parisian boulevards here, Toronto is a city marked by chaotic waves of growth and immigration, from a frontier Upper Canadian fort, to one of the most international places on earth.  This could not have happened cleanly in roughly only 200 years, and has created it own odd beauty. In some of these pictures you can see the interposing new city on the old, a transformation in progress.  Now we just need to get our infrastructure 
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<![CDATA[2013 Federal Budget: Infrastructure]]>Fri, 22 Mar 2013 15:31:38 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/2013-federal-budget-infrastructure"That is why, today, we are taking another major step to strengthen our communities.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to announce the creation of the new Building Canada plan, the largest long-term federal commitment to Canadian infrastructure in our nation’s history.

$53.5 billion over the next 10 years for provincial, territorial and municipal infrastructure."

- Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty from 2013 Budget speech
While the 2013 federal budget appears to be overall a bit of a yawn, there is significant action on the infrastructure file, which is good news for cities.  The Feds have renewed their commitment to be a major funding partner of public infrastructure at the national, provincial, and especially municipal level.  The federal government will also continue its role in encouraging innovative financing partnerships for infrastructure.  The new infrastructure plan is over 10 years with a total value of over $53 billion.  Not chump change by any stretch, and the longer term time horizon with provide more certainty to provincial and local governments in planning out projects.  The extension of the gas taxing funding through the Community Improvement Fund, with indexing, should allow Toronto/the GTA to continue to expand transit, though will fall far short of what is needed to fully realize the plans in the $50 billion Metrolinx Big Move plan.  It doesn't obviate the need for additional local revenue tools. The overall focus on municipal infrastructure, $32 billion of the total, is important, because it recognizes that by far the greatest responsibility for everyday infrastructure, social infrastructure used by people, is with municipal government, which currently has few tools to build on the scale required.

Another significant announcement in the budget with the renewal of the P3 Canada Fund with an additional $1.25 billion (doubling the original allocation from 2006 or 2007).  This indicates that the federal government wants to continue to encourage the pursuit of innovative public-private partnerships to build municipal infrastructure using the carrot of more money.  This will help continue to develop Canada'a already fairly robust P3 sector, and with specific funding to help municipal governments develop expertise in procuring these types of projects.  While P3s do not in themselves solve the funding issue (they are really more about risk transfer and allowing governments to pay over time), over the medium term I believe they will help stretch infrastructure funding dollars, and get projects built more quickly, so this is good news.
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<![CDATA[Business Group Advocates New Taxes to Address Gridlock]]>Mon, 18 Mar 2013 21:06:54 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/business-group-advocates-new-taxes-to-address-gridlockPicture
The Toronto Board of Trade released a discussion paper and website today on revenue tools to build transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton region today. I haven't had a chance to read the whole thing yet but a couple things stand out to me. One, that a group that represents business calling for major new taxes shows just how bad things have become.  It's no secret that the GTA has the longest commute times in North America today, and the business community appears to recognize that this is a significant competitive disadvantage for Toronto for business, not to mention its  impact on quality of life for everyone.  Two, the proposals are bold: a sales tax, gas tax, parking fee and road tolls.  The report acknowledges the political difficulties of such proposals but also the fact that, to build on the scale we need to, and to compensate for the dearth of action in recent decades, we will need significant revenues.  This isn't target date 2040 stuff, it's fire up an army of bulldozers and tunnelling machines now.  Finally, I find it interesting that today, even the business community is not calling for the construction of more roads, seeming to intuit the futility of such an exercise to meaningfully alleviate congestion in a region like Toronto.

It will be interesting to see if the contents of this report portend what the Province, through Metrolinx, will ultimately recommend come June.  Premier Wynne, from her statements, seems to be somewhat open to new revenue tools.  This, of course, will be subject to the usual political machinations, as we run up to a potential election later this year. I can't imagine, however, that the opposition have any other ideas of how to build transit in the GTA, and understand the long-term opportunity costs of a "no new taxes" mantra in such a debate.  We have only to look back over the last few decades to see that.

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<![CDATA[Fiscal Federalism and Transportation  ]]>Mon, 11 Mar 2013 23:59:34 GMThttp://www.socialinfrastructure.ca/the-infrastructure-society-blog/fiscal-federalism-and-transportationGreat article from the Atlantic on transportation funding governance with some kudos for how we do things here in Canada.  I support the idea that taxation and funding should be biased more towards local governments and regional bodies such as Metrolinx and TransLink. The federalized model in the US has given that country some great national infrastructure like the interstates but also results in a lot of bureaucracy and sometimes white elephants.  In the context of a National Transit Strategy discussion, it might be more effective for Ottawa to just transfer more pennies of the gas tax directly to local governments/bodies, while maintaining a role in improving national scope infrastructure such as the Trans-Canada Highway system.]]>