Monday, April 14, 2008

Metrolinx has tough road ahead

Toronto Star
Monday, April 14, 2008

Road Map to Recovery
Byline: Tess Kalinowski and Daniel Girard

Every day, Rob MacIsaac gets a unique perspective on the monumental task of weaning the Toronto region off its automobile addiction.

The Metrolinx chair's ninth-floor office at the foot of Bay Street overlooks an exit ramp of the Gardiner Expressway where a seemingly endless flow of traffic inches into the city long after the traditional morning rush has ended.

Fewer than 8 per cent of regional commuters outside Toronto and 23 per cent in the city use public transit, according to the 2006 Transportation Tomorrow survey of the Toronto area. Add that to a rapidly growing regional population and it is clear nothing less than a massive cultural shift can save us from choking on our own congestion.

Smog days are now the norm in summer. Last year was the second-worst on record, with 29, contributing to an alarming incidence of respiratory illness and childhood asthma. Obesity has become the scourge of our drive-through lifestyle. Economically, road congestion costs $2 billion a year in lost productivity in the Toronto region.

And, without swift action, it's only going to get worse.

Metrolinx is planning based on a projected growth of 2.5 million in the region, pushing the population to 8.6 million by 2031. Most of that growth will occur in the municipalities outside the city of Toronto.

The job of Metrolinx as the province's transportation planning agency for the region spanning Oshawa and York Region to Hamilton, is to help us clean up our act. Its blueprint for an integrated infrastructure, the roads and rails, buses and bicycles that could help effect that shift, is due out this spring.

"We need to change the culture in transportation," said MacIsaac. "The car is going to play a role for the foreseeable future, but we can introduce a lot of elements in combination with the car to have a much more effective system than we have today."

That's especially true in the regions outside the city, where the convenience of a car almost always trumps an incomplete and inconsistent public transit system.

But for MacIsaac and the regional politicians on the Metrolinx board, at least the timing for change seems right. An Ipsos-Reid survey of 1,000 residents of the GTA and Hamilton last fall found two-thirds believe the best way to improve the region's traffic situation is by increasing public transit, compared with one-third calling for more roads.

The public is also clamouring for action on global climate change. And, earlier this month, Statistics Canada figures showed that between 2001 and 2005, the number of people walking or using public transit to get to work in Toronto was up 7.2 per cent, with those cycling rising by one-third in the Census Metropolitan Area.

Meanwhile, all three levels of government have pledged big money for public transit. Queen's Park, through Metrolinx, is spending $11.5 billion for 52 regional projects to expand subway, streetcar, light rail and bus services by 2020. Some of that money will help expand the TTC's Spadina and Yonge subway lines into York Region and build a network of light rail stretching to the farthest corners of the city's suburbs. Ottawa, which is being asked to pony up $6 billion for the provincial plan, hasn't committed to the Metrolinx plans but has earmarked some cash for its own transportation priorities.

So where do we go next?

Today and for the next five days, the Toronto Star will look at key transportation challenges facing the region and how other cities have tackled them. Ideas include road tolls, HOV lanes, parking and financial incentives to get people to share rides, take transit, walk, cycle and work a compressed week. Planners are trying to create communities easily accessible by public transit and other modes but also destinations in themselves, attracting workers, residents, shoppers and recreation seekers.

The series also examines some customer-service ideas, the high-tech and common-sense enhancements that could transform public transit's image.

MacIsaac does more than talk about being a model commuter. He takes a GO train from Burlington to downtown daily and uses a car-sharing firm or the subway if he needs to get around during the day.

His task now is to come up with a road map that will persuade others to get on board.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The built environment of suburbia is extremely hostile to children's most basic needs
Child Friendly Cities
Despite airs of child-friendliness, the actual built environment of suburbia is extremely hostile to children's most basic needs.
By Ryan McGreal Apr. 14, 2005

Our society makes a show of being child friendly, from playgrounds at fast food restaurants and furniture warehouses to the vast array of child-protection devices available to consumers. At the same time, our actual built environment is extremely hostile to children's most basic needs.
Richard Gilbert and Catherine O'Brien, writing for the Centre for Sustainable Transportation, have surveyed a huge body of research on how our built environment affects children, coming up with a list of 27 guidelines for creating safer, healthier communities.

According to Child- and Youth-Friendly Land-Use and Transport Planning Guidelines, children need fresh air, exercise, time to run and play, and a chance to move through neighbourhoods and interact with others. Instead, they are strapped into car seats and shuttled from destination to destination, missing exercise, breathing poisonous exhaust, and isolated from their communities. The low density development of "family friendly" subdivisions all but guarantees that parents must drive their children anywhere they need or want to go.

Children who do try to walk face automotive exhaust and the gauntlet of speeding cars if they want to get anywhere. The constant noise of traffic increases children's stress levels and the presence of cars forces children inside, where their opportunities to play and exercise are severely limited.

The results of sprawl development are clear: overweight children at higher lifetime risk of diabetes and heart disease, a significant increase in respiratory illness, even measurable effects on emotional development, concentration, and school performance.

These factors affect everyone's health, but children are especially susceptible, because their bodies are still developing and their lifestyle habits are still forming. Children also eat, drink, and breathe more by body weight than adults, increasing their rate of exposure to toxins.
Cars make low density development possible, and low density development requires cars. When buildings are spread out, distances between destinations are too far to walk and public transit systems can't operate efficiently. Further, the preponderance of cars on the road creates an unpleasant and unsafe environment for those people who do try to walk, further reinforcing car use.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Earth Hour 2008

photos: Woodbridge lantern walk

Hats off to Earth Hour

by Chris Winter Executive Director The Conservation Council of Ontario

It's fascinating reading all the griping and sniping about Earth Hour,mostly around whether or not it has any significant impact and why it didn'tchallenge us all to go deeper.

But hey, we just witnessed (and likely participated in) the biggestenvironmental event the world has ever seen. The initial estimates run up to100 million people worldwide. Yes, it was the eco equivalent of the world'slargest human wave, but by comparison the Live Earth concerts pegged only amere 1 million people as concert-goers. Both events were equally successfulin garnering media attention and raising public awareness around the globe,but Earth Hour just blew away all previous records for mass participation inan environmental event.

As one whose focus is on movement-based social marketing and eco campaigns,I truly have to say I am in awe of what Earth Hour accomplished.That said, let me offer my perception of the design weakness of Earth Hour:it is unconnected, save to the World Wildlife Fund.

To be effective, "simple action campaigns" must not only achieve widespreadparticipation, they must also support the development of deeper action,either through policy action or by building capacity.

Our Doors Closed <> campaign wasdesigned to promote a simple action - close your door when running an airconditioner. It also supported three retail conservation programs that couldhelp stores and restaurants make an even deeper commitment to conservation.

And it provided municipalities, retail associations and community groupswith material they could incorporate into their own activities. Awareness,simple action, deeper commitment and capacity building all rolled into asingle positive social marketing campaign.We have far too many simplistic public awareness campaigns at a time whenpublic awareness has never been greater.

If Earth Hour is to happen again next year, and I for one think it should,there are a few fine-tuning tweaks that would make it an even bettercampaign:

1. 9:00 o'clock, not 8:00 when the sun is still setting.

2. On or around April 22nd to link Earth Hour with Earth Day.

3. emphasize the symbolic celebration of our commitment to the planet(as opposed to the actual one-hour savings)

4. link the symbolic commitment to deeper commitments. This applies topolicy inititiatives as well as to voluntary measures by businesses,municipalities, and individuals.

5. Make it shareware, in particular to encourage donations to localgroups involved in promoting or delivering climate change solutionsEarth Hour was the right event at the right time this year.

It clearly struck a chord with governments, businesses and people the world over. Butlisten to the voices of the critics. and just about everyone I've talked tohad something critical to say (we are hard to please aren't we).My advice is simple, and yet difficult to heed: Think like a movement.