Category Archives: Stop Signs

Free public transit one step towards better cities

Free public transit could combat both economic inequality and climate disturbances. And, if paid for by fees on automotive junkies, fare-less transit could be part of a serious challenge to private-car-centred transit/urban planning.

At Toronto’s first mayoral debate Saron Gebresellassi called for fare-free transit. By detailing a bold proposal the left-wing candidate steered  the other candidates to bemoan ballooning fare costs and suggest eliminating some of them.

Gebresellassi’s plan also garnered significant media attention. In “Making Toronto  transit free isn’t realistic now. But it’s a terrific idea” Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan offered an informative rundown of the argument. But, as is wont in the dominant media, Keenan (implicitly) downplays the climate crisis and importance of ditching the private automobile. Rather than a long-term objective, free public transit should be viewed as a short-to-medium term tool for shifting away from our dependence on ecologically, socially and health damaging cars. Of instant benefit to those with the least, free transit would immediately drive price-conscious individuals towards less environmentally and socially damaging buses and trains.

While Keenan downplays the need for urgent, bold action on countering the automotive/climate crisis, he correctly states that making the Toronto subway (and some streetcars) free would exacerbate the rush hour crush. Making it free outside rush hour, however, would spread the ridership crunch out until new subway and streetcar lines are built. For their part, buses can be added quickly and eliminating fares will speed them up. Expanding ridership should also grow support for giving buses the right of way.

Eliminating transit fares is not radical. During times of high pollution Paris and some other large European cities have removed fares. The mayor of the French capital, Anne Hidalgo, recently expressed interest  in making transit free permanently and she launched a study into its feasibility. The book Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators details dozens  of cities that have expanded transit ridership by eliminating fares.

While not radical, fare-less transit is not free. It would be an enormous failure if it only cost what the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) currently raises from fares ($1.2 billion  minus the not insignificant cost of gathering and enforcing fare payment). As the TTC expands to displace ever-greater numbers of private cars, free transit would certainly cost magnitudes more.

But there are many ways to finance it. Greenpeace Germany has suggested placing a levy on car manufacturers to pay  for eliminating transit fares. In France employers with 11 or more employees pay a small tax devoted to transit.

Some of the billions of dollars currently spent on roadways – $3.6 billion  for example on rebuilding a Gardiner Expressway that should be torn down and the land used for  co-op/social/rental housing – could be directed towards free transit. Toronto could also repurpose  some of the 27.4%  of the city presently devoted to free roadway to moneymaking ventures (another 13 per cent of Toronto is parks and open spaces — a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic filled roadway). A more straightforward way to incentivize public transit while deterring private car travel is to earmark congestion fees to the TTC.

A more novel option would be to replace requirements for businesses/public institutions/developers to offer parking with an equivalent contribution to a free transit fund. Toronto  currently prescribes a specific number of parking spaces for every new residence as well as for a “bowling alley”, “bus station”, “adult entertainment” site, etc. The cost of complying with these bylaws could fund significant mass transit.

Unlike education, healthcare, housing, etc., transit shouldn’t be promoted as a (at least broadly defined) social right. While less damaging than a private automobile ride, a 30 km oil powered bus journey emits substantial greenhouse gases and there are various social downsides to long commutes/sprawl. (Making Go Transit free, for instance, would encourage exurban dispersal and even daily commutes to Hamilton or Kitchener.) For environmental, health, safety, noise and cost reasons walking and cycling should be prioritized wherever possible.

But free transit should be promoted as an equality-based, short to medium-term solution for mitigating the climate crisis. Kudos to Gebresellassi for pushing the issue to the forefront.

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Bylaws that require parking drive up costs of housing

While climate disturbances wreak growing havoc across the planet, Canadian cities continue to mandate pro-car measures that drive-up housing costs and contribute to global warming. Even the most walkable, bike-able and mass transit oriented neighbourhoods still require parking spots to be built in new residences.Finally, last week downtown Montréal eliminated parking requirements for new residential projects. Going forward developers in the Ville-Marie borough will no longer be forced to build a certain number of parking spots per new unit.

Across the country zoning laws require residential and commercial buildings to secure a certain number of spots based upon the number of dwellings or square feet of space. The city website explains that “Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw requires new developments, including homes, schools, offices and stores, to provide a minimum number of off-street parking spaces.”

Toronto’s website has a detailed list of parking requirements based upon various criteria. Per residential unit, Toronto usually requires between 1 and 1.4 parking spots while it’s between 1.15 and 1.95 spaces in Mississauga.

Unlike most zoning ordinances that simply prohibit something, parking requirements are coercive: They tell developers exactly what to do.Cities don’t ban the construction of apartments with one bedroom or bathroom but some ban the construction of apartments with only one parking spot.

Converting buildings to different uses can be difficult in places with substantial parking requirements. Sometimes a new business simply cannot move into a building that formerly housed an operation with lower parking requirements without adding more spaces (or obtaining a variance).

Extensive parking requirements have reduced many architects to designing buildings around parking laws. “Form follows parking requirements,” laments Donald Shoup author of The High Cost of Free Parking. A 2017 Corporate Knights article notes, “Ottawa’s Hintonburg and the Glebe or Toronto’s Kensington Market and Yorkville would never be built today. These special places were developed before current parking standards came into effect.”

Since all units, irrespective of size, are generally required to have a parking spot, apartments have become larger and more expensive.No matter the size, Mississauga requires 1.15 spaces per (human) housing unit downtown, which acts “as a disincentive to build smaller, affordable units.”The financial and logistical burden created by parking requirements has restricted the rooming supply. “Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people,” writes Shoup. “By increasing the cost of housing, parking requirements make the real homelessness problem even worse.”(It generally costs $40,000 to $60,000to build an underground parking space in downtown Toronto while a surface spot in a low-density area can be built for as little as $2,000 to $8,000.)

Most significantly parking requirements spur private car travel.Parking and car travel are mutually reinforcing; more parking means more car travel and more car travel means increased demand for yet more parking.

Sometimes zoning requirements mandate commercial and office spaces provide a certain amount of free parking.Even when zoning laws don’t mandate free parking, the saturated “market” creates an expectation that parking will be free. Would there be any need for parking requirements if people were willing to pay? Wouldn’t profit-oriented businesses sell as much parking as they could charge for?

The right to affordable housing must be prioritized over the “need” for parking.  Progressives currently running for positions in city governments across the country – Saron Gebresellassi, Derrick O’Keefe, Jeremy Loveday, etc. – should take up an issue that drives up housing costs while increasing private auto use. Let’s build cheaper housing, more liveable cities and a healthier environment by ending parking requirements in city bylaws! That should be a slogan all sensible people can rally around.

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Time to junk the cars and use public land for housing

Who could possibly be against doing something that would be both good for the environment and improve housing affordability in our biggest cities?

By turning public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles into social/co-op/rental housing it is possible to put a dent into runaway climate change while improving housing affordability and urbanity.

Radio Canada recently reported on a 14-storey co-op set to be built just behind the Bell Centre on the southern edge of downtown Montréal. The Coopérative Montagne Verte will have 136 units, which will make it the largest housing co-op in a single building in Montreal. Having received a piece of city land, the co-op will be financed in equal measure with public funds and a long-term mortgage. If all goes according to plan, hundreds will gain access to affordable housing in an area with easy access to employment and services by foot, bike and mass transit.

In discussing the barrier to building more co-ops Radio Canada claimed, “the scarcity of land in Montreal is also an important issue.”  This is absurd. In fact, one of the city’s principal problems is the abundance of public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis (40 per cent of Montréal’s greenhouse gas emissions are from transport.)

Near where the Coopérative Montagne Verte will be located, for instance, is a highway that has gobbled up a large swath of the city centre. Thousands could be housed on the public roadway and adjacent areas destroyed by it.

In what would be a more straightforward cars-for-shelter exchange, Boulevard René-Lévesque is wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. Thousands of family sized social/co-op/rental units could be built and it would improve the city for its inhabitants and the planet. While it may seem radical, this move would simply be a return to before buildings were demolished to widen the street in the 1940s and 50s.

Other car spaces in the city centre could easily be turned into affordable housing. The three blocks of McGill College between Cathcart and Sherbrooke and a number of other non-through streets between Sherbrooke and Saint Catherine on the western edge of downtown could be reclaimed for multi-story dwellings. To the east, avenue du Parc Lafontaine between Sherbrooke and Rachel is wide enough to build a row of smaller units with a narrow street on each side.

With housing affordability an even bigger issue in Toronto and Vancouver there would be much to gain by turning public roadway into co-op/rental/social housing there. The land destroyed by the centrally located Gardiner Expressway could house thousands. Rather than spending $3.6billion to fix the monstrosity, Toronto could subsidize co-op/social housing on this prime piece of public real estate.

Proof that cars-for-housing exchange is not pie in the sky, Vancouver’s city council voted to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts at the eastern edge of downtown. Their plan to build thousands of housing units (30%“social housing”) is better than the status quo, but not ambitious enough. The city should eliminate the boulevard that is part of the current plan and turn it all into a car free social/co-op/rental housing oasis. Ideally located for getting around by foot, bike and Skytrain, the area reclaimed for housing should also be extended along Georgia Street into downtown.

A whopping 27.4% of Toronto is roadway (another 13 per cent is parks and open spaces — a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic filled streets). I was unable to find the exact proportion of Vancouver and Montréal devoted to roadway, but a significant share of those cities is also devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles.

We need to build an environmentalist/urbanist/housing rights coalition that would push to turn swaths of this land into social/co-op/rental housing.

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Media war against limits to cars continues in Montreal

Do you support humanity and livability? Or the “right” of people to use private cars?

This question is aimed particularly at the left end of the political spectrum, to that part of the public who should know better.

It’s been dispiriting to see progressives echo a right wing municipal party/dominant media campaign against curtailing car traffic through Montreal’s Parc Mont-Royal. Anyone concerned with humanity’s fate should avoid amplifying the reactionary backlash to a move that would mitigate Québec and Canada blowing past unambitious carbon targets for 2020 and probably 2030.

Recently, Montreal’s new city government announced a five-month pilot project that will block through traffic on a road over Mount Royal — a dominant geographic feature and the city’s namesake. Private cars would still have access to parking lots at the top of the park, but there will be cul-de-sacs to deter drivers from using Camilien Houde street to cross the mountain.

Project Montreal’s rationale for curtailing through traffic is that a cyclist was killed by an SUV on the roadway five months ago, while city reports dating back many years have suggested curbing traffic to improve the park.

Unfortunately, numerous leftists have joined the all too predictable reaction to this modest challenge to auto hegemony. While the particulars of each meltdown differ, almost every challenge to car dominance elicits a media storm. There have been howls of outrage since Toronto reduced parking spots and car traffic on 2.5 kilometres of King Street to facilitate streetcars, which move 65,000 riders through downtown every weekday. With auto manufacturers and dealers their biggest advertisers, the media gave King Street business owners ample space to drone on about lost sales. Yet four months into the year-long pilot project, credit card and Interac data show that business activity was actually up (in line with seasonal patterns.)

(To get a sense of why the Montreal Gazette is on the warpath against curtailing car traffic over the mountain, car ads covered the bottom of page one, two thirds of page four, one third of page five, all of page siz and seven, two thirds of page nine, two thirds of page 11 and the entire back of the 12 page front section on March 12. Additionally, nearly half of an eight page “Driving” section was car ads.)

On Facebook, progressive auto enthusiasts have presented two specious arguments to oppose the pilot project to ban through traffic across Mount Royal. They’ve cited the needs of older and differently abled folks, which is bizarre since private cars will still, unfortunately, have access to the mountain. More fundamentally, do people actually believe that a city structured around the private car is better for the blind and differently abled? Or older people who no longer have a license? And how about those under driving age?

People without licenses and with physical mobility issues generally benefit from dense living spaces that have goods and services nearby.

The most commonly expressed argument for opposing the mountain pilot project and — other efforts to reduce car pathways — is that it’s wrong to punish driving until new transport services are in place.

It is no doubt imperative to expand mass transit as part of inducing individuals to ditch their cars. In a small step in that direction, the city council recently purchased 965 buses. Yes, the provincial and federal governments should be pressed to fund the large new Metro line Project Montreal proposed during the recent election, but every mass transit supporter — instead of opposing a pilot project to curtail traffic on the mountain — should challenge Project Montreal for dropping their previous proposal to build light rail along a number of major streets.

While our ecocidal political culture may view a new Metro line as ambitious, a post-private car Montreal requires the new Metro line, new buses, multiple light rail lines and more. (Montreal’s per capita share of the federal government’s $60+ billion warship program would cover the cost of the Metro line or multiple light rail lines.)

The “we cannot encumber the private auto until there’s greater public transit” is effectively an argument to continue the steady expansion of Montreal’s car stock, which increased by 200,000 vehicles between 2011 and 2016. It ignores the depths of our unfolding urban planning and climate disasters, whereby billions of dollars in public and private funds continue to be plowed into far-flung areas designed to maximize driving. These facts partly explain why transport now represents 40 per cent of Montreal’s greenhouse gas emissions and Arctic temperatures have been 30 degrees above normal this winter.

More concretely, the don’t “encumber private autos until all alternatives transport modes are in place” argument ignores the fact that the dearth of political pressure for better mass transit is tied to the convenience of getting everywhere by car; the billions of dollars plowed into roadway every year could go to public transit; when roadway and parking are largely free, and injury, policing and pollution costs externalized, people cross town for what is often available closer at hand (and certainly would be if folks weren’t driving multiple kilometers for groceries), and more.

Or, to look at it from a broader perspective, the “we can’t encumber the auto” argument is akin to saying “don’t oppose pipelines, encourage alternatives to oil dependence,” or “don’t restrict donations to political parties, offer more public financing,” or “don’t cut military spending, encourage peace.” In fact, it makes even less sense than these examples, since urban space is finite. There will either be a road, light rail, bike path, or sidewalk on a piece of land — ideally large swaths of public land currently devoted to roadway would be turned into social/co-op/rental housing. Camilien Houde street, for instance, replaced a trolley line through the park.

To a large extent, urban planning is an either-or proposition. Either we make decisions to enable private car travel or enable walking, biking, and mass transit. Highlighting one impact of the either-or dynamic, University of Waterloo Urban Planning professor Brian Doucet recently noted, “there’s no sugar-coating it: we can only make our streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists when road space is taken away from cars.”

By feeding the backlash to Project Montreal’s modest pilot project curtailing car travel through a public park, leftists are increasing the likelihood it will be reversed. More troublingly, they are putting a brake on larger scale efforts to reorient the urban landscape away from the most dangerous, loud, classist and polluting form of transport.

The sooner private cars drive off into the sunset, though not over the mountain, the better off our cities and planet will be.

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Toronto has too much ‘public’ space, not too little

Does Toronto have too little or too much public space?

Depends on what the “public” space is used for.

This seems such an obvious answer but one of Toronto’s best urban affairs writers can’t seem to separate the private cars from the public space they destroy.

In an otherwise excellent defence of the square where younger, poorer and darker fans enjoy Raptors and Maple Leaf games outside the arena, Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume concludes that “the lack of public space in Toronto is a perennial problem.” Huh! How could a commentator, who has promoted sensible urban planning as much as to be expected in a newspaper that relies on auto ads for much of its revenue, express such confusion?

It is the exact opposite. To build a healthier, safer, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable city Toronto needs to jettison a significant share of its current “public space”.

Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that even one of Toronto’s most enlightened urban affairs writers can’t see it: Most public land is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis. What’s more, the city pays to pave, repair, police and clean land that generates little or no tax revenue.

Roadways take up 27.4 percent of the area of Toronto while parks and open spaces cover 13 per cent. Many beautiful, walkable, old cities have less than half as much as Toronto’s 40 percent “public” land. On the Old Urbanist blog Charlie Gardner writes, “the traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen per cent [public space] perfectly adequate.”

Last year I had the opportunity to visit a handful of wonderful, old Italian cities. Homes, shops, restaurants, public buildings etc. cover the bulk of the cityscape with narrow, mostly walking oriented, streets facilitating travel. In these areas even small squares and parks are attractive since there are few (or no) noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles destroying the ambiance or taking up space. The famed Piazza del Campo in Siena is a tenth the size of Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square but feels as big and is considerably more impressive. Ten different streets, alleys and staircases funnel pedestrians into the remarkable square.

Paradoxically, Toronto’s dominant form of public land ruins large swaths of its park space and public areas. Few people want to relax in a square or park next to multiple lanes of traffic.

The ongoing effort to turn 1.75-kilometers of wasteland under the western section of the Gardiner Expressway into an appealing place to walk, bike and hang out will test this dynamic. About $25 million is being invested to reclaim an area that currently acts as a barrier between downtown and Lake Ontario. Hopefully the “Under Gardiner” project will work, but the surefire way to improve this prime piece of the city is to remove the expressway.

Probably the largest swath of public space ruined by the dominant form of public land is the area along the Don Valley Parkway. It is barely used partly because of the highway running through it.

While Toronto needs more publicly owned housing, daycares and businesses, it doesn’t need more public land or park space. It needs less area devoted to private cars.

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We have an addiction problem — cars

I often read troubling reports about the world’s unfolding climate catastrophe while working at McGill, but, ironically, steps from the university library I am reminded of Montréal’s unwillingness to make the changes required to avoid civilizational collapse.

During recent construction on Sherbrooke Street police have been stationed on corners near the university to direct traffic. Since three of the streets don’t continue north most of what the police do is hold up pedestrians seeking to cross Sherbrooke while cars roll slowly by. Why not close the street to vehicle traffic? It would save on police costs while speeding construction and pedestrian travel. But of course, closing part of Sherbrooke to cars during construction would further inconvenience the drivers of private automobiles, who seem to believe they have a “right” to travel around the city spewing greenhouse gases, damn the planetary consequences.

The reality is our municipal, provincial and federal governments remain enthralled to private automobility regardless of the climate consequences.

The evidence, large and small, is so ubiquitous we no longer notice:

  • Across from Complexe Guy-Favreau a metal barrier was recently installed over two blocks on René Lévesque. The presumed objective of this “highway-ization” of downtown is to stop pesky pedestrians from crossing halfway down the street.
  • In 2014 the various levels of government coughed up over 150 million dollars to host 10 years of Grand Prix car celebrations.
  • A recent directive from the Health Ministry substantially expands free parking at Quebec hospitals.
  • Last month Premier Philippe Couillard announced plans to extend Highway 19 north of the city and to widen Highway 50 from Gatineau to Montreal.
  • Last month’s provincial budget included $5 billion over two years in road repairs.
  • The provincial government is also ploughing over $3 billion into the Turcot Interchange.

Last year the Trudeau government axed the planned toll on the Champlain Bridge, which the federal government is rebuilding at a projected cost of over $4 billion. According to a government supposedly concerned about climate change, people have a “God-given right” to take their 3,000 pounds of metal 10, 30, 50, or 100 km a day (often solo) into the city without paying any direct road costs.

As climate science warns us of impending disaster, the Montréal region gained 200,000 new cars over the past five years. With 3.4 million people of driving age, greater Montreal’s car stock is on pace to reach 3 million next year.

The truth is automobiles are a major source of Canada’s extremely high per capita carbon emissions. Transport represents 40 percent of Montréal’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions and it is growing while emissions from other sectors decline. Between 1990 and 2013 GHG’s from the city’s road network increased 16-per-cent while emissions from homes dropped 45 per cent.

Our city is a microcosm of the continent and increasingly much of the world. Last year North American gasoline consumption reached its highest level ever and countries around the world are adopting North-American-style auto infrastructure.

Montréal’s unwillingness to save money, while speeding construction and pedestrian travel near McGill may be a relatively insignificant matter, but it reflects the continued dominance of automobility. In the current political culture many find it easier to imagine the collapse of civilization than the replacement of a transportation and urban planning system based on private cars.

What will our children and grandchildren think of us?

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Justin Trudeau is no friend of the environment

Today the lives of over 10 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk due to a drought at least partly caused by climate change. A study by Britain’s Met Office concluded that human-induced climate disturbances sparked a famine in Somalia in 2011 in which over 50,000 died. For its part, the Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimated in 2012 that climate change was responsible for some 400,000 deaths per year, a number expected to hit one million by 2030.

To mitigate this downward spiral radical action is needed. Instead, here is what Justin Trudeau told oil company executives gathered in Houston earlier this month: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.”

But, that’s precisely what should happen to Canada’s tar sands as Trudeau alluded to when campaigning for the votes of those concerned about climate change. Most of the world’s fossil fuels need to be left untouched to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change and Canadian oil ought to be front of the ‘keep it in the ground’ line for a combination of ecological and equity reasons.

It takes significantly more energy to extract tar sands oil than conventional crude. The tremendous amount of energy required to bring the oily sand to the surface and separate out a useful product emits a great deal of carbon dioxide.

The narrow ecological argument for phasing out tar sands production is powerful. It’s bolstered by international equity considerations. Canada’s large current and accumulated carbon footprint is another reason to keep this country’s oil in the soil.

Per capita emissions in many African countries amount to barely one per centof Canada’s rate. In Uganda, Congo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda and Mozambique, per capita emissions comprise less than 1/150th of Canada’s average. In Tanzania, Madagascar, Comoros, The Gambia, Liberia and Zambia per capita emissions are less than 1/80th Canada’s average.

Even more startling is the historical imbalance among nations in global greenhouse gas emissions. According to a September 2009 Guardian comparison, Canada released 23,669 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 1900 and 2004 while Afghanistan released 77 million metric tons, Chad 7 million metric tons, Morocco 812 million metric tons and Egypt 3,079 million metric tons.

Canada’s contribution to global warming over this period was more than the combined total of every sub-Saharan African country. While the historical data is troubling, forward-looking comparisons are equally stark. If plans to nearly double tar sands production proceed, by 2030 Alberta’s project will emit as much carbon as most sub-Saharan African countries combined.

A sense of ‘carbon equity’ requires that Canadian oil remain untouched. So does economic justice.

Canada is a wealthy country that had a functioning healthcare, pension and education system prior to significant tar sands extraction, which began at the turn-of-the-century. In fact, Canada had one of the highest living standards in the world before beginning to extract sizable quantities of tar sands.

The wealthiest countries should be the first to leave fossil fuel wealth in the ground. Only a sociopath would suggest the Congo, Haiti or Bangladesh stop extracting fossil fuels before Canada.

Found in a wealthy, heavy emitting country, the tar sands are a ‘carbon bomb’ that needs to be defused. Extracting Canada’s “173 billion barrels” will drive ever-greater numbers of the planet’s most vulnerable over the edge.

With his words to oil executives Trudeau made it clear that his government has chosen business (and profits) as usual over human survival. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise anyone with a basic understanding of the Liberals who only ‘govern from the left’ if there is a movement challenging capitalism.

To seriously reduce Canada’s emissions will require hundreds of thousands in the streets pushing a political party to challenge an economic system that demands endless growth.

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